Sunday, April 22, 2007

HotDocs #4: Audience Appreciation

I don’t know if it’s because my body simply isn’t accustomed to film festivalling in April, or because the weather’s been unseasonably warm lately, or because my last two films today were at the ROM...where the air conditioning wasn’t working and where those of us in the theater could actually feel ourselves melting into human puddles...but MAN, I’m wiped. And it’s only day four!

I managed to snag tickets to three screenings today, and downed the World’s Biggest Smoothie in between to keep myself fueled.

First up was Helvetica (5/8), a documentary about the font of the same name – its origins, its history and its ubiquity. It features interviews with type designers and graphic artists, alongside an endless stream of examples of Helvetica in everything from advertising to street signs. But, to me, it felt like it would have made a superb short film. As a feature, it ebbs and flows from one talking head to the next and started to lose my interest along with its momentum. It might have been the nature of the subject matter – how much can one really say about a font? – or it might have been that director Gary Hustwit set a curious, and somewhat off-putting, tone during his introduction.

Maybe it’s just me, but I’m of the mind that one probably shouldn’t mock or insult the audience right before starting one’s own movie. I’m totally certain he was just trying to be playful or funny, but his delivery tanked: Hustwit walked out onstage, kind of shook his head in disbelief at the packed (every spot filled in the 500-seat house) audience and said that he knew “the geeks” would come out in force for a movie about a font. Then he asked us why we were there on such a nice day, and told us we were in need of some kind of treatment. Again, I *know* he was kidding, but it felt a little self-congratulatory in a phony self-deprecating way...especially since almost every other filmmaker (here and at other fests) begins by thanking the audience for coming. He didn’t know us well enough to mock us, I thought.

I should have turned to the guy sitting next to me – doc director Aaron Woolf – and asked him if he planned to mock his audience when his film screened. I didn’t know it was Aaron Woolf sitting next to me at the time, mind you, and didn’t realize that his film (King Corn) is one that I totally would have seen had it not been screening at 11:30pm at the Bloor. We only chatted long enough for me to find out that my in-theater neighbor was a filmmaker with a movie called King Corn, so I looked him up when I got home. I mention him because he’s my only “celeb” sighting today (and because I regret not asking for a screener). Well, him and FashionTV host Jeanne Beker, who was trying to go incognito as she wove through the food court at Toronto General Hospital, where I had my smoothie.

My second film today was Billy the Kid (5/8), which I really wanted to like more than I did. It had good buzz but, as it stands, I’m struggling with the 5/8 rating because part of me wants to drop it to a 4. The film is about the titular 15-year-old, who’s got some “issues” (they repeat this several times) that clearly have to do with his social skills and some sort of ADD. He’s like the male version of Molly Shannon’s Mary-Catherine Gallagher schoolgirl character, right down to the obsessive referencing of movies, only real and not played for comedy and kind of sad. The movie was fine, but I couldn’t help feeling that we were being given a skewed sense of its central figure and that some of the other people in his world were behaving differently towards him (i.e., being nicer than they would have otherwise) because he had a crew following him around. Turns out the film was also shot in only eight days (five in summer and three in winter), which only added to the sense that it barely scratches the surface of who this complex, friendless, awkward but endearing boy is. I can’t put my finger on it, but I just didn’t feel satisfied as a viewer.

Billy the Kid was preceded by the short, The Truth About Tooth (6/8), a clever little Scottish gem about children’s belief in the Tooth Fairy.

Last up was Strawberry Fields (6/8), which examines the impact of the Disengagement in the West Bank on a group of strawberry farmers in Gaza – specifically, the exporting of their produce through Israeli-controlled ports. Admittedly, my knowledge of the politics of the region is cursory, so I can’t really speak to any geo-political issues it may or may not raise (though one audience member, a Palestinian, did stand up to accuse the film’s Israeli director of not painting a full picture of the situation). I looked at it as a human story about the farmers and their struggles, and to that end it was interesting and occasionally jarring.

The film was preceded by Shit & Chicks (7/8), a brilliant short about a Ghanian farmer and his ingenious way of sustaining his small flock of chickens. It’s told without dialogue (save for a few explanatory paragraphs of text onscreen at the end) and, considering it came from a director who claims he has no knowledge of filmmaking, is a great visual story.

Earlier in the HDD I commented that HotDocs is much more accessible, price-wise, than TIFF, and I completely forgot to mention one of the greatest reasons this is so: ALL daytime screenings are FREE for students and seniors! TOTALLY FREE! You can’t get more affordable than that. And, on a final “Gee, ain’t HotDocs grand?” note: I must point out the joy that leapt in my moviegoing heart today as I saw the maaaaaassive rush line (easily 100 people) waiting for the chance to see Helvetica...a movie about a font, and the similarly lengthy queue of folks waiting to find out if they might be able to see a film about strawberries in the Middle East. I mean, people desperate to see movies about letters and fruit! How great is that?!


Lou said...

These documentaries just amaze me because they are so personal, so important (in that butterfly in Brazil way), and so over-shadowed. I can't help but think that if we cared at least as much about the Ghanian farmer's chickens as we do about James Bond, Nicholson, or the latest version of SAW, we might make a better culture. Thanks for telling us about these films.

Vickie said...

{{{{{{{{*lou*}}}}}}}}} Thanks for being an excellent audience.

Linda said...

I totally would have been in line for a movie about a font. Too bad the director sounds like a font snob.

My favorite (and maybe only?) film font scene was from American Psycho (a movie that actually gave me a nightmare), where Christian Bale's yuppie character shows off his business card to his equally snobby co-horts. To his horror, it turns out that one of his rivals has an equally nice card, but with a better font, which he covets. :)

Lou said...

There you go. Serif or sans-serif could be the flap that sets off a psycho.