Monday, April 28, 2008

HotDocs 2008 #10: Yup, It’s Over!

Well, I didn’t wind up seeing any films on Sunday, the final day of HotDocs 2008. With the transit system out of commission, I decided to just call it a fest and go out with a whimper instead of a bang. It was an excellent week of film-going, I must say, with fantastic weather, mostly great films and more than a few Myrocia Watamaniuk-run Q&A sessions. What I lurve so much about HotDocs – and I said this last year – is its accessibility to the public. Daytime screenings are FREE for students and seniors, and tickets are a very affordable $10 a pop (cheaper if you buy a pass). Filmmakers are almost always in attendance to chat with audiences, and the program book – which is of the exact same quality and almost the same size (page-count wise) as the TIFF program book – is a measly $2! TWO DOLLARS. Flat. For a giant, perfect-bound reference book printed on thick paper stock. How much does TIFF charge for almost the identical product (which, btw, is packed to the hilt with advertising that no doubt covers its entire cost and then some)? More than $30 when you factor in taxes! Proof, once again, that TIFF loves to gouge its audiences whenever and wherever possible. But that’s a rant for September.

For now, and to conclude this year’s coverage, HotDocs has announced its winners for 2008, and they are as follows:


Top 10 Films as Voted by Audiences:

2. PLANET B-BOY (D: Benson Lee; USA)
4. THE ENGLISH SURGEON (D: Geoffrey Smith; UK)
6. ANVIL! THE STORY OF ANVIL (D: Sacha Gervasi; USA)
7. THE BEETLE (D: Yishai Orian; Israel)
8. DADDY TRAN: A LIFE IN 3-D (D: Siu Ta; Canada)
10. ALL TOGETHER NOW (D: Adrian Wills; Canada)

Best International Feature Documentary: THE ENGLISH SURGEON

Special Jury Prize for International Feature Documentary: TO SEE IF I’M SMILING (D&P: Tamar Yarom; Israel)

HBO Documentary Films Emerging Artist Award: Boris Despodov for CORRIDOR #8 (P: Martichka Bozhilova; Bulgaria)

Best Canadian Feature Documentary: JUNIOR (D: Isabelle Lavigne, Stéphane Thibault; P: Johanne Bergeron, Yves Bisaillon (NFB))

Special Jury Prize for Canadian Feature Documentary: FLICKER (D: Nik Sheehan; P: Maureen Judge, Anita Lee (NFB))

Best Short Documentary: THE APOLOGY LINE (D&P: James Lees; UK)

Best Mid-Length Documentary: IT’S ALWAYS LATE FOR FREEDOM (D&P: Mehrdad Oskouei; Iran)

And that’s a wrap! See you at the Worldwide Short Film Fest in June...

Saturday, April 26, 2008

HotDocs 2008 #9: Are We Over?

Methinks the TTC strike is going to cost me my final day of movie-going tomorrow. The logistics of getting to and from the screenings is too much of a headache. That, combined with my growing fatigue is, at this point, making me think that today was probably my last day at HotDocs 2008...which kind of sucks because one of my few must-see films -- Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go -- is showing tomorrow afternoon. I might sleep on it.

If not, then I’m afraid the last two films I saw will have me leaving HotDocs 2008 on a meh note.

It was a boy-movie double bill: the short The Pull (3/8), and the feature-length Suddenly, Last Winter (5/8).

The Pull gets three slices because, in reality, it wasn’t a documentary at all. It was a narrative story about the contracted romantic relationship between the director and his (now ex-) boyfriend. They had agreed to be in a relationship for a finite period of time, with a predetermined “end date,” as a way of perhaps enriching the (limited) time they did have together. But my beef (aside from the meh-ness of the story and its execution) is that the film, essentially a dramatic short made up of reenactments, wasn’t a documentary.

Following that was Suddenly, Last Winter, a cute but curiously lop-sided look at co-directors Gustav Hofer and Luca Ragazzi – a wonderfully funny and adorable Italian gay couple, together for eight years – who document the aftermath in Rome when the government proposes legislation that acknowledges same-sex couples. Narrated like a children’s educational special, the film tracks the increasingly vocal homophobic portion of the population as its protests (sometimes loudly and en masse) against the legislation increase. But, after a while, the proceedings felt very repetitive – almost the entire film is made up of interviews with, commentary from, and footage of people opposed to the bill. I started to wonder if Gustav and Luca were the only two gay men in the city. Where was the other half of the argument? What were other members of the gay community feeling? Were there pro-bill rallies? Anything? I didn’t think the religious right and their political counterparts really needed another platform to express their views without opposition, and kind of wished we’d heard from the other side.

Both Gustav and Luca were in attendance for the screening, and gave a pleasant enough Q&A. Oh, and I promised my movie-going pal today that I would print a correction to my beef with the Scotiabank Scene Card ads – seems, thanks to my limited attention span, the two ads are actually for two different Scene cards. One is for the Scene points card, and the other is for the Scene Visa card. I stand corrected.

But I remained annoyed.

Friday, April 25, 2008

HotDocs 2008 #8: We interrupt this documentary to bring you a transit strike...

Uh oh.

Very late tonight, it was announced that the Toronto transit system would be shut down at midnight as all its union members would be walking off the job and striking. Immediately. This does not bode well for attendance at HotDocs, which will no doubt drop, but also for me...since it limits my access to screenings. I may wind up movie-less on Sunday. For now, though, a recap of today’s films:

My first film of the day was The Black List (7/8), a fantastically simple and simultaneously complex documentary made up of a series of interviews with prominent black Americans reflecting on race as it applies to their own experiences. Culling subjects from the world of politics, the arts, sports, literature and music, director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders and interviewer/producer Elvis Mitchell, create what feels like an amazing, insightful, poignant and funny lecture series condensed into about 90 minutes. What I loved most about the doc was its clean, basic execution: each subject sits, facing the camera, against the same slate background...just talking. Occasionally, archival photos are inserted, but otherwise it’s just a one-sided conversation (Mitchell is never seen or heard on camera) without needless bells or whistles. The weight of words is more than enough in this case, and I was thrilled that the filmmakers wisely decided on this creative uniformity.

An interesting footnote: I met Elvis Mitchell at TIFF several years ago, chatting before a screening. At the time, I had no idea who he was – I just thought he was a really friendly, funny guy with a cool name. Turns out (I discovered later), he’s actually a well-known film writer and media personality in the U.S. So, when I saw him around the fest earlier this week, I figured he was here covering the fest. Instead, he was here to present his own film and, in what can only be described as blissful HotDoc serendipity, the moderator for his Q&A was the equally delightful Myrocia Watamaniuk. It was a great, spirited, relaxed post-film session as a result...with him being goofy and self-deprecating and gracious, and her moderating as only she can. Hooray! That’s the kind of Q&A I love.

Up next was An Island Calling (6/8), the story of the murder of a prominent gay couple in Fiji in 2001. Directed by Annie Goldson and based on the book Deep Beyond the Reef by Owen Scott (brother of murder victim John Scott), the film presents a brief history of colonialism in Fiji alongside the political unrest there in recent decades, as well as the personal history of the Scott family, and John’s life up until his untimely demise at the hands of a young Fijian man who was later found guilty by reason of insanity. The film was not unlike an extended segment on Dateline NBC, where a high-profile case gets the investigative-report treatment, but Goldson (in my opinion) makes the smart choice not to feature any interview with the killer. However, for me, there was a tiny bit too much time devoted to the Scott family’s more distant past – less about the patriarch’s infidelity and perhaps more about homophobia amid the police investigation would have been my preference. But it’s not my film, so that’s just a personal choice.

Unfortunately for me, my film-going day ended with the double bill of The Apology Line (5/8) and the ironically titled Anatomy of Failure (2/8). In the case of Apology... -- which features actual voice messages left on an anonymous phone-in line where people can apologize for misdeeds, big and small – a good idea was marred by technical shortcomings. (You can actually watch the film here.) A number of the messages were so garbled that I couldn’t make out what the person was saying, save for the odd word, which made watching the film a little frustrating. Subtitles would have been a HUGE help.

But my issues with that film pale in comparison to those I had with Anatomy of Failure, which was (in my opinion) a giant, self-indulgent, pointless waste of time. Filmmaker Minou Norouzi came onstage beforehand and told the audience that, if we’re unable to find what we’re looking for in the film, she hopes we discover something else. (Read: “If you think my film sucks, try to find something in it you like anyway.”) Sadly, I found nothing I liked, save for a couple of moments of neat cinematography. What was touted in the program book as a film about the disappearance of five women who’d been involved with writer Carlo Castaneda was, instead, some kind of freaky, directionless, experimental film devoid of structure, narrative or explanation. Had I not read the program notes, I would have had no clue whatsoever what this movie was intended to be about. I wasn’t familiar with Castaneda’s work (if that makes me a philistine, so be it) or the case of the missing women or anything, and this film does absolutely nothing to inform me about any of it. No one interviewed on camera is ever identified – who ARE these people??? Castaneda’s relatives? Friends? Disciples? Locations are not identified. The case is never outlined. Nothing. It felt like the longest, most confusing 53 minutes (thankfully, it was only a mid-length doc!) of my life.

Cut to the post-film Q&A. My film-going pal (who was just as disappointed as I was) and I decided to stay just to hear what Norouzi could possibly say about her film, and what the audience would ask. Imagine our surprise (not) when she revealed that she wasn’t really interested at all in Castaneda or the case, but that the film was meant to mirror what was going on in her own life at the time of the filmmaking. Yeah, NO KIDDING. She made a joke about possibly making a follow-up film if new information ever surfaces about the missing women, but I guarantee you I will not be getting a ticket. I wanted to raise my hand and ask a question: “ Hi. Um, who at HotDocs loved this film enough to program it, and who wrote the wildly misleading program notes?” (I also wanted to take Norouzi to a pay phone and make her call the Apology Line.) My friend said she sat in the theatre waiting to see the movie that she was promised based on its description. I concur.

And then I got home to the news of the TTC strike. This doesn’t impact my films tomorrow so much as it seriously messes up my screening plans for Sunday. I wonder if Saturday will be my last day of HotDoc-ing...?

Thursday, April 24, 2008

HotDocs 2008 #7: Asses and Art

I’m not sure if it’s because we’re on day seven of a ten-day festival and people are just getting tired and cranky but, man, are some folks getting a little asshatty. Rude. Obnoxious. There have been a few random moments of self-indulgent, rather discourteous behavior – like the guy sitting one seat over who refused to turn off his cell phone and thus had its tiny, b*r*i*g*h*t glowing blue screen shining like a beacon in the dark while he text messaged – but in the past couple of days this sort of thing seems to have multiplied. And it’s almost always at the Cumberland!

The other day, two rather burly men wanted to get into the row I was in. I was sitting at the end of the row and, because my brain is now wired to shoot me out of my seat to let people pass the instant it seems like someone wants in, I immediately got up and let them pass. A few seats over sat an older fellow who wasn’t quite as speedy. Rather than wait for him to move his feet or get up (for those unfamiliar with the Cumberland, there’s zero leg room and no way for someone to pass without seat occupants standing), the first of the two burly guys just shoved right through, literally climbing over the seated man and banging his knees in the process. The seated man was noticably peeved and told the “climber” to just hang on for a second, but no. Climber kept climbing. Seated man was very angry. Second burly guy, thank goodness, waited for room before he moved. “Your friend is a jerk!” said seated man as burly guy #2 passed.

Then today, there was a huge asshat of an older woman – with a loud, nasal voice and a serious case of entitlement. There are a pair of seats in the Cumberland’s HotDocs theatre that are reserved for people with mobility issues and their companions. They’re great seats, but the point is that they’re positioned so that someone with mobility issues has room for his/her wheelchair or crutches or what have you...and can still sit beside his/her friends. I got to the theatre fairly early for the screening, so it was almost empty. I noticed a man sitting in one of these special seats and, next to him on the floor (and in front of the second seat), lay his adorable golden-retriever service dog. Sleeping. The man had a hearing aid and the dog had one of those seeing-eye-dog harnesses, so it was clearly not his “pet.” (If it was, they wouldn’t have let it inside in the first place.) I sat down in the row in front of him.

So, the theatre starts to fill up. A lot. Seats are at a premium. All of a sudden, the loud, nasal voice of the asshat woman pierces through the din, annoyed.

“Is your dog gonna sit there?”

No reply.

More annoyed, “EXCUUUUSE ME? Is your dog gonna take up this seat or can you move it??”

At this point I turned around to see who was being such an asshat. The woman began making her way into the seat, not waiting for a reply and not waiting for the dog to move. The man, who was clearly willing to accommodate her if she had just waited a second or two, began to pull his canine companion out of her way. As he did so, and much to my delight, he said “PLEASE?” as a way of reminding her that perhaps a tiny bit of manners might be in order. She didn’t get it. She sat down with a big sigh and a harumph as if this was the most she’d ever been inconvenienced at a movie EVER.

Then, less than a minute later, she stood up, walked away and grumbled, “Your dog can have the seat because I can’t see from here.” (Or something to that effect, I can’t remember her exact words.) WTF? How clueless ARE some people??? Asshat.

Anyway, the film – my only screening for today – was The Art Star and the Sudanese Twins (6/8), a portrait of Italian installation artist Vanessa Beecroft and her involvement with a small Sudanese community as she attempts to adopt twin babies after bonding with them during a visit. But what starts as a seemingly altruistic gesture slowly morphs into a strangely ill-advised mission whereby Beecroft, who’s at times infuriatingly single-minded to those around her, forges ahead despite an array of red flags and obstacles and the fact that the two babies she wishes to “save” actually have a father and extended family in their village. Director Pietra Brettkelly said her initial intent was to make a documentary about the business (i.e., $$$) of international adoptions but that this profile of a fiercely, perhaps foolishly, determined artist emerged in the process. Apparently, Beecroft (who’s portrayed as a control freak) isn’t entirely thrilled with the finished product, but respects Brettkelly enough to understand that it’s her film...which was labeled “controversial” by the programmer giving the intro, but which didn’t feel as provocative as I thought it would be.

HotDocs 2008 Bonus: Trailers!

Look what I just found!

HotDocs has its own YouTube page where you can view a whole whack of trailers for some of the films being featured this year!

To save you a little time, and to keep things relevant, here are the direct links to some of the films I’ve discussed over the past few days:

* 20 Seconds of Joy

* Second Skin

* Beautiful Losers

* Kids + Money

* The English Surgeon

...and the documentary causing all the fuss...

*Beyond Our Ken

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

HotDocs 2008 #6: Unexpected Delights and Duds

A funny thing can happen when you go to a lot of film festivals, especially if you do so over many years: you sometimes get to “discover” new filmmakers and then watch their work progress from project to project.

My first film of the day was a short called Beginning Filmmaking (7/8), an adorable year-in-the-life look at four-year-old Ella Rosenblatt, whose father, Jay (a documentary filmmaker), buys her a camcorder for her fourth birthday with the goal of introducing her to his passion. He teaches her the basics – “Ella? What is composition?” – and then she’s free to record...whatever. The result is hilarious, sweet and also surprisingly insightful. The scene where she describes an idea for a film, where she’s watching people on TV watching TV and so on to infinity, is particularly neat.

But here’s the thing: the whole time I was watching I thought, “I know I know this guy.” He’d said in his introduction before the screening that this was his fourth short starring Ella, and I thought for sure I’d seen him (and her) before. But I couldn’t place the where or when. Turns out, I saw his first film with his daughter -- I Used to Be a Filmmaker -- at the Worldwide Short Film Festival in 2003 (!), and saw Rosenblatt’s Ella-free Anita Bryant doc, I Just Wanted to Be Somebody at HOtDocs last year. Who knew?!

Hopefully, progress as a filmmaker will happen for the young director of the day’s second film. Celia Maysles, daughter of David Maysles and niece of Albert Maysles (the renowned co-directors of films such as The Salesman and Grey Gardens), has decided to adopt the family trade, but unfortunately her work wasn’t that impressive. Wild Blue Yonder (4/8) follows Celia as she attempts to learn about her late father (who died in 1987 when she was only seven years old) and his life. But, while the idea is a great one, the execution was disappointing. I didn’t know any more about her dad at the end than I did at the beginning. At the start of the film, Celia is given access to a storage room filled with her father’s things, and she opens an old cardboard box containing a random collection of notes, audio tapes and whatnot...and that’s sort of the structure her film takes. A sloppy mish-mash of images and interviews and archival footage, edited together without rhyme or reason or any clear narrative/direction. There’s also the issue of rights to her late father’s final project – called “Blue Yonder” – for which she goes toe-to-toe with her estranged Uncle Albert. He doesn’t come off well in the film, seeming to be overly entitled and more than a little curmudgeonly as he refuses to give her footage...but, after seeing the resulting film, I have to say I think he made the right call.

Up next was Second Skin (7/8), a look at hardcore gamers obsessed with MMORPGs. What is an MMORPG, you ask? A Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game, like EverQuest or World of Warcraft. Profiling a number of gamers – who spend upwards of ten hours a day online playing their game of choice – over the course of a year, the documentary reveals the real-life faces behind the heroic characters these folks adopt in the game realm. While it doesn’t do much to dispel the stereotypical image of a video game addict, and certainly reinforces the theory that too much of anything is a bad idea, Second Skin does a nice job of illustrating the sense of kinship, community and love that keeps these gamers hooked. It’s a funny film, and a very telling one, as well.

I was going to call it a day after that, but wound up sticking around the Bader for one more movie...and I’m so glad I did. I didn’t really have any interest in seeing The English Surgeon (7/8), but wow. It was excellent. On paper, it sounded dry and potentially depressing: a British neurosurgeon goes to the Ukraine to perform surgery under less-than-ideal conditions and reflects on the lives he’s lost on the operating table. But onscreen, it was a captivating and extremely moving (yes, I cried, sue me!) story of a dedicated physician going above and beyond the call of duty in a bid to do whatever he can, however seemingly “insignificant” in the grand scheme of the archaic Ukranian medical system, to help people in need. Wearing Harry Potter specs and looking a lot like actor Ian Holm, Dr. Henry Marsh waives his fees and treats all manner of poor patients. Heartbreaking – witness the number of times he’s forced to tell people their brain tumors are inoperable – and heartwarming (just try not to fall in love with epileptic patient Marian), I adored this movie from start to finish. Be warned, though: there’s some rather graphic brain-surgery footage, so if you’re, look away.

As a footnote, while we’re on the subject of brains: how much is everyone hating the lame-ass Scotiabank Scene Card ads running before each film? I mean, one commercial for a sponsor is fine, but must we have TWO different (but equally awful) commercials for the SAME sponsor...especially when the Scotiabank Scene Card branding is EVERYWHERE at the fest??? We get it. They’re a sponsor. Enough, already.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

HotDocs 2008 #5: BASE-heads and Race in Bed

Well, traffic at this blog has certainly picked up considerably in the past 24 hours.

It looks like yesterday’s account of the weirdness at Beyond Our Ken has attracted some attention. And we at the ‘Pie welcome input, so feel free to leave your comments when you visit.

Unfortunately, today’s proceedings were decidedly low-key and uneventful.

Both screenings this afternoon were double bills. First up was the short doc 52 Percent (6/8), which was a sort of quiet portrait of an 11-year-old ballerina trying to get into a prestigious ballet academy in St. Petersburg, Russia. The title refers to the ideal ratio of leg length to body length...and the subject of the film is, sadly, 0.4% short of this number. It was a nicely melodic little movie...but the biggest laughs in the whole thing come from the girl’s inquisitive cat, who stalks the camera and peers directly into the lens, obscuring an entire shot. Adorable.

That film was paired with a comparatively wild and wonderful mid-length sports documentary called 20 Seconds of Joy (7/8), which profiles 30-year-old BASE jumper Karina Hollekin over several years as she chases the rush in what is easily one of the world’s most dangerous sports. [For those not in the know, BASE (Building, Antenna, Span, Earth) jumping involves climbing to a very, very high place (a mountain, a bridge, a skyscraper) and then jumping off, armed with nothing more than a small parachute in a knapsack.] As a (seemingly hyper-caffeinated) American jumper explains in the film, the life expectancy of a BASE jumper is about six years...because they either get scared and stop, get injured and are forced to stop, or die. This same fellow, who was hugely entertaining and passionate, also explains that if you’re not prepared to die AND watch your friends die, this ain’t your bag. (No kidding. Yikes.) Stunning cinematography, perfect pacing and a compelling subject made this a terrific afternoon thrill ride. One tragically ironic footnote: the film is dedicated to the memory of its cameraman, a BASE jumper who died BASE jumping after the film’s completion.

But what made this screening even better was the Q&A afterwards. Director Jens Hoffmann (who I’ve seen almost every day at various screenings) was in attendance with one of his producers, and they took a couple of questions from the audience. Then, at some random moment, he said something like, “We should let Karina answer for herself...” and then he INTRODUCED HER. She was there! Talk about burying the lead! I wasn’t sure why she hadn’t been mentioned before the screening or before the Q&A, because I’m sure a number of the people who left as soon as the credits rolled likely would have stayed had they known she was in attendance. Alas. But I was there, and I stayed, and so I got to hear what she had to say about her passions and the accident (featured in the film) that could have killed her.

The day’s second double bill got underway with Conversation (6/8), an inventive little gem that features a split screen, with one person on camera (in a tight, head shot) on each side. Then, one by one, several dozen people each comment on their first impressions of the people on the other side of the split screen, based solely on what they look like. Presumably, this process involved each subject viewing a photo of another and having their comments filmed. It’s difficult to describe the structure clearly, but suffice it to say it was an interesting experiment in first impressions. Can you, for example, tell that someone is nice or trustworthy or a teacher or a criminal based on one look?

The latter half of the double bill was...I dunno...kind of disappointing, yet I can’t quite pinpoint why. My gut tells me it had to do with the filmmaker himself, who kind of came off as obnoxious. The doc was The Glow of White Women (4/8) by Yunus Vally, an Indian South African who sort of recounts his life, apartheid, his heritage and his relationships as they all relate to the ideal of white women in that country at those times. More specifically, how a good deal of it related to his own sexual exploits. I was never really sure what the point of his film was – was it a political film? a historical one? an autobiography? all of the above? none of the above? – and that clouded my impressions, I think. There were some neat graphic-design elements in the film, and the archival footage from the 1970s and earlier was fascinating, but ultimately it left me feeling underwhelmed and kind of annoyed.

And that was it for today. I was pooped and opted to come home to a proper dinner and bedtime before 1:30am. *yawn*

Monday, April 21, 2008

HotDocs 2008 #4: The Cult


Today was, by far, my most fascinating day at a film festival EVER. There was...An Incident. More on that later...

First on the docket today was Head Wind (6/8), a mid-length (65 minutes) but good film about illegal satellite dishes in Iran, and the country’s censorship of all manner of entertainment the government deems inappropriate. From remote rural regions to more urban locales like Tehran, satellite dishes – and the programming they import – are everywhere...until the police move in to confiscate them. The doc features numerous individuals trafficking in these illegal dishes and/or other prohibited media (e.g., pirated DVDs of Western films), as well as the lengths to which they must go to keep everything on the down-low (e.g., only putting their dishes out at night, and taking them back inside during the day). There’s a beautiful sequence where two men, using archaic machinery, mold a dish out of a giant disk of metal, but the most interesting character was a dwarf who’s like a one-man Blockbuster Video. He’s not interesting for his size or occupation, though, but because he had six fingers on each hand!!!! It’s not actually mentioned in the film, but each time he was on camera I counted: six fingers per hand!

Speaking of weird anomalies...

My second film of the day was Beyond Our Ken (7/8), a remarkable film which goes inside Kenja, an Australian cult accused of, among other things, sexual and emotional abuse of its members. With unprecedented access to Kenja’s founders – charismatic 80something Ken Dyers and his much younger wife, Jan – and members of the organization, filmmakers Melissa MacLean and Luke Walker expose a seemingly benign group (founded in 1982) who, on the surface, seem to be nothing more than a self-improvement movement. But, faster than you can say “Xenu made me do it!”, the darker machinations of Kenja’s operations bubble to the surface. I was completely engrossed in this movie, and its ending (plus its final 10 minutes or so) literally made my jaw drop open. The whole thing was riveting.

But this is also where The Incident occurred.

It started before the screening even began. While waiting outside, I noticed a couple of women working the ticketholders line and very cheerfully handing out these thick, glossy booklets that, in their chipper words, "give the other side of the story." Read: they were Kenja members distributing Kenja propaganda. (They actually flew to Toronto from Australia just to follow the filmmakers from screening to screening. That, in and of itself, seemed to prove the film’s thesis.) People will take anything that's handed towards them, so the women unloaded literature to just about everybody. I declined because they totally weirded me out.

While they continued working, I chatted with the woman standing beside me in line. We talked about cults, and how unusual it was to have these women here, and I said, "I wonder if they'll also have people `planted' in the audience..."

I theorized that, if Kenja was that invested in having their opinions on the film heard at HotDocs, it would be very likely that they’d have members purchase tickets to the screenings and then somehow disrupt the proceedings.

And they did!

After the film (which was at the Bader), both directors made their way onstage for the Q&A, and I noticed a couple of very large men (obviously security) materialize at the rear of the theatre. This has never happened at any movie I have ever seen at this venue at any festival, ever. They were visibly scanning the crowd, and the assorted headset-wearing staffers seemed to be scurrying about, consulting with these big guys and pointing up at the balcony. I knew something was up, but I didn’t know what.

The always adept Myrocia Watamaniuk was moderating the Q&A and opened the floor to questions. A woman right in the front row, right in the middle of the row, stood up (red flag!), turned halfway towards the audience (red flag! red flag!), said (in her Australian accent) "I am a member of Kenja..." and launched into this rather impassioned monologue/question about footage she felt was purposely left out. The filmmakers, who clearly anticipated the group's presence, tried to answer, but she just kept going...and going...and going. She started accusing them of “interrogating” Ken, and not being honest about what they shot, and all sorts of things. Security started to move towards the front, very slowly. I started to get a little antsy in my seat. What was going to happen? Would this escalate? How many more Kenja members might be in the crowd??

Then someone in the balcony, also with an Australian accent and a member of Kenja, started shouting something, supporting the woman up front. This exchange went on for a good five minutes while the filmmakers tried to rein in the Q&A. People in the audience started to get restless, and *I* started to worry about the safety of the folks onstage. I mean, the filmmakers expose quite a bit of Kenja's ugly underbelly, and there’s zero security screening when people come into a theatre, so I didn't know to what extent its members might want or be able to "silence" them. I hoped everyone was wearing Kevlar, just to be safe.

Thankfully, it all ended peacefully enough, with one of the directors actually telling security to let the members stay. He even gave the woman up front the mic so she could tell everybody about a lecture being given on Thursday (in Toronto) about their “organization.” A few other audience members (not affiliated with Kenja) managed to get in some questions, and then it was over.

The whole thing was super-creepy and freaky and unsettling. But holy crap, was it ever exciting! Thanks, Kenja members, for inadvertently reinforcing the entire premise of the film!

Last up was another double bill. First was the short doc The Unbearable Whiteness of Being (4/8), which was a promising but ultimately hollow look at a brother and sister peddling a skin-lightening cream to South Asians in England. All the film did was feature the pair at some sort of trade show, looking for a distributor, while a few random individuals discuss why lighter skin is viewed as more favorable in some South Asian cultures. That’s it. Nothing about the actual cream or its claims or the siblings or anything. I was disappointed.

That was followed with Be Like Others (6/8), which examines sex-change operations for gay men and women in Iran...a country where sex-change operations are actually sanctioned by the government, but where homosexuality is punishable by death. The logic is that same-sex love goes against Islam, but “correcting” a *physical* mistake is totally okay. It was a very strange thing to observe: general acceptance of transsexualism, but overt homophobia, all under one umbrella. Interviews with MTF transsexuals, pre- and post-op, along with the two key doctors performing hundreds of these surgeries, make up the bulk of the film (and some are quite sad), but the most memorable presence is Vida, the kick-assiest transsexual ever to grace a movie screen. She was amazing!

Sunday, April 20, 2008

HotDocs 2008 #3: Well, They Can't All Be Winners...

I only had two films today, but they were strangely similar. The first doc was itself not a winner, and the second one was about a couple who, by and large, aren’t winners.

Victoire Terminus (3/8) was being plugged as a film about female boxers in the Congo trying to put together a tournament while political unrest rages in their country. Ummmmm...I guess that’s what it was about? I really don’t know. I mean, yes, there were female boxers in the movie, and they boxed...and there was footage of rally after rally leading up to an election...but, honestly, had I not read the program notes beforehand I would have had no clue what the point of the film actually was. None of the women are ever interviewed directly, just observed. Instead, one of their (male) coaches gets face time. There were no title cards or any onscreen text to outline what was happening or who the women are, so I couldn’t identify any of them by name after watching them for nearly 90 very-long minutes. It didn’t help that one of the filmmakers stood onstage beforehand for a five-minute preamble explaining the background of what we were about to watch. Unless he plans on doing this for every single screening of this film, I suspect I won’t be the only one left scratching her head as the closing credits roll.

I was similarly unsure of the intent behind my second film of the day, Song Sung Blue (5/8), which profiles a Milwaukee couple – Lightning and Thunder (Mike and Claire Sardina) – who perform as a Neil Diamond/Patsy Cline tribute act. This was the film that my friend warned me about yesterday, and I have to say that I kind of reacted to it in the same way she had: it felt a little exploitative of a rather depressing situation. I actually felt bad for Mike and Claire, instead of inspired by their drive. This movie is sort of the anti-Anvil. Where that film celebrated the determination and pure passion of a group of middle-aged dreamers who never give up, this film seemed to showcase the (rather serious and unpleasant) downside of being blinded by your own dream-chasing. What sounds like it might be a campy romp is, instead, a rather sobering glimpse at a dysfunctional family, who barely make ends meet, compromise their health and endure one setback after another...all the while desperately pursuing one more minute in the ever-fading “spotlight.” In the Q&A after the film, director Greg Kohs said he made the movie to “help” the family. But, as I sat there watching it and hearing the audience laugh at situations onscreen that were probably not meant to be at all funny, I had to wonder if he succeeded or if Song Sung Blue will wind up eliciting pity for its subjects rather than praise.

In better news, there won’t be a transit strike (at least, not yet) in the city tomorrow, so I can continue to see films! On deck for tomorrow, cults and sex-change operations...

Saturday, April 19, 2008

HotDocs 2008 #2: Lovers & Losers

Before I begin today’s recap, a little leftover housekeeping from yesterday...

First, in my discussion of Anvil! The Story of Anvil, I completely forgot to mention that the entire band actually attended the screening – along with an audience packed with metalheads – and came onstage after the film to field questions from the crowd...who gave the guys a standing ovation. (It really is fascinating to watch the demographic of the audiences change from film to film.)

Secondly, I wanted to clarify that I am not saying I’m a big weeping mess when I say that some of these films make me cry. I realized last night that I should probably distinguish between what happens to me when I watch a moving or particularly beautiful movie/scene/moment in public (i.e., my eyes tear up a lot, sniffles kick in, maybe a stray tear drifts down my cheek) and what Oprah describes as the “ugly cry” (i.e., sobbing and heaving and gasping breaths). When I’m out at a movie, I prefer to stifle my emotions as much as the “crying” is done internally more than externally. Just so’s you know.

Oh, and one more thing: whyyy must people smoke in line? I think I’ve mentioned this in every fest-related diary I’ve ever written for the ‘Pie...but, seriously, why? Step out of line if you must have a cigarette. We’re all standing shoulder to shoulder, and the rest of us don’t need to smoke right along with you. Many thanks.

Okay, moving two!

Now, when I say the words “prison beauty pageant,” what sort of images spring to mind? I’d be willing to bet whatever you just conjured up in your imagination bears no resemblance to what was featured in my first film of the day, La Corona (The Crown) (6/8), which was the first half of a double-bill screening. Shot at a women’s prison in Colombia, the film showcases the annual beauty pageant that pits cellblock against cellblock. But lest you think the catwalk is packed with beefy butch women in crew cuts and muscle Ts, the inmates competing are stunningly beautiful. Yes, they’ve been convicted of murder or armed robbery or what have you, Directors Amanda Micheli and Isabel Vega do a nice job of profiling the key competitors, and the proceedings have a decidedly upbeat vibe, but it did feel like it went on about four scenes too long – that it didn’t end at its natural conclusion. Instead, a coda involving one woman’s release seems unnecessarily added on, especially since updates on the post-pageant status of her rivals is never addressed. Just a very minor sticking point for me, though.

Part two of the double bill was Searching for Sandeep (6/8), a kind of cross-continental lesbian love story about Poppy and Sandeep, two gay women who meet online, fall in love and try to overcome the physical and cultural differences that separate them. Poppy is an out, gay, white woman in Australia; Sandeep is a closeted, gay, Indian woman, who still lives with her parents and sisters in England. What follows is a tumultuous, and often frustrating, tale of a long-distance relationship peppered with tender moments, honest revelations and Sandeep’s wonderfully sharp and entertaining quartet of younger sisters, who seem like they fell right out of a Gurinder Chadha film.

I followed these two with Nursery University (7/8), which would make for an excellent companion film to yesterday’s Kids + Money...only this time it’s the parents with the money and a preschool system in Manhattan more than eager to take it off their hands. The ratio of children to available preschool slots in NYC is staggering, making it (seemingly) virtually impossible to get your kid into your preschool of choice. The rationale for this insanity – where a year’s “tuition” can run you around $20,000 – is explained by one parent, who outlines the “feeder school” system, where the right preschool gets you into the right kindergarten, which gets you into the right middle school, which gets you into the right high school, which gets you into an Ivy League college and the best. life. ever. The lengths the parents go to are simultaneously hilarious and shocking, and I hope co-directors Marc H. Simon and Matthew Makar are prepared to make a mint off the thousands of desperate New Yorkers who will no doubt snatch up every copy of the DVD of this film in the hopes of getting an inside edge.

Last up was Beautiful Losers (6/8), a film profiling a group of 10 young visual artists, who all came together in NYC in the early 1990s. United by their passion for making art, their do-it-yourself anywhere and with anything initiative, and their collective position on the fringes of the art world – having come from backgrounds of graffiti art, skateboarding and punk rock – they blazed a trail and influenced all manner of popular art thereafter, from advertising to filmmaking. Among those artists featured in the film (for anyone keeping score) are Mike Mills, Harmony Korine, Margaret Kilgallen and Jo Jackson. Their work is exactly the kind of stuff I love – wild, colorful, cartoonish (some) and BIG – and the doc was, as my film-going friend put it after the screening, a really interesting look at a largely unknown chapter in art history. (This same friend has warned me that one of my picks for tomorrow, Song Sung Blue, is I’m bringing Kleenex, just in case.)

Friday, April 18, 2008

HotDocs 2008 #1: The Fest Has Begun!

This year, I managed to sneak in a few pre-fest press screenings. So, before I get to my actual first day of film-going, some very quick reviews of:

The Last Continent (4/8) is a Canadian documentary about a research crew on a schooner in the Antarctic, who head down for more than a year – where they’ll be stuck once winter comes – to document the effects of climate change on the planet’s last area of unspoiled land. Unfortunately, director Jean Lemire (who also heads the research crew) doesn’t completely deliver on any of the three key things the film should feature: stuff about the crew (who are they? why have they agreed to take part?), stuff about life on a schooner (what’s it like? where do they sleep? where do they shower? what are the effects of such close quarters for so long?), and stuff about the research (what do they do? what kinds of info are they gathering?). There’s plenty of pretty cinematography, an overwhelming score that borders on over-the-top, and some self-indulgent voiceover storytelling...but not a whole lot of documentation of what sounds like it was probably an amazing experience.

The Forgotten Woman (7/8) is an incredibly powerful and hugely moving (read: Vickie cried for almost the entire film) look at the treatment of widows in India – specifically, their exile to a life of overt poverty in the temple city of Vrindavan, their loss of family and property, and the fact that even in present day, some 40 million widows appear to be living in the past. It is heartbreaking, to say the least. Directed by Dilip Mehta, brother of filmmaker Deepa, the film makes for an excellent companion piece to her similarly themed Water. It’s filled with compelling interviews and gut-wrenching imagery (one of the most memorable is a shot of a man on a run-down street, feeding a stack of what appears to be naan to some dogs, while a penniless grandmother sits – with all her possessions in bags – a couple of feet away, hiding her face) that sheds light on a part of modern history that appears to be going largely unnoticed.

Likely to be one of the hot-ticket films is Errol Morris’ latest Standard Operating Procedure (7/8), which trains its lens on the allegations of torture at the Abu Ghraib prison – specifically, those incidents captured on film and widely seen by millions and millions of people. Remember little Lynndie England? She’s interviewed here, along with a number of other military personnel who were either directly or tangentially involved in those notorious pictures. Simultaneously shocking and not really surprising, the exposé recreates events and uses video footage of what transpired to tell the soldiers’ stories...some of which are infuriating, and others (England’s in particular) kind of creepy. What was truly remarkable to me was that the women featured in the film seem to have aged decades apiece since the photos were taken...when, in reality, it’s only been four years.

Anyway...onwards to day one!

The weather outside is a tad on the warm side, and I was a tiny bit worried I’d be crispy by the time my first film of the day let in. Yes, I wore sunscreen, but standing in line with no ounce of shade in sight (still too early for the trees to have leaves) can make even an SPF 30 seem like baby oil.

Never in a million years did I ever expect that a documentary about a heavy metal band would be touching, sweet or so moving that it would make me cry...but Anvil! The Story of Anvil (7/8) was all those things. The film looks at the titular metal band, who hail from Toronto and who enjoyed a short-lived tour in the rock spotlight in the early 1980s, as they continue to seek another shot at glory. Together for some 30-odd years, the guys have gone from teenagers and twentysomething rock gods to middle-aged husbands, fathers and working Joes who still perform, albeit to much, much smaller crowds. Director Sacha Gervasi – a Brit who was a fan of, and roadie for, the band as a teenager – told the audience that the film was a labour of love for all involved, and it shows. Amid the blazing fret work, thundering drums, banshee vocals, infighting, disappointments, triumphs and strange encounters in Eastern European bars...this film is all heart, all the time. And more than a little bit inspirational.

I followed that with a double-bill of short(ish) docs: Kids + Money (6/8) and Emoticons (5/8). Kids... was sort of like watching an episode of MTV’s My Super Sweet 16, that grotesque show where horrifyingly wealthy teenagers behave like complete bratty asshats (brasshats?) as they indulge in ridiculous amounts of excess. Well, imagine those self-involved teens sitting down for interviews in which they expound on the importance of having the right clothes, the right “look” and why fat kids aren’t cool. That should give you some idea of what delights are to be found in this film. It was simultaneously fascinating and repellent. I wonder how these kids’ parents felt watching the wisdom that spilled forth from their offspring? By contrast, Emoticons profiles a number of somewhat socially cast-out teenage girls in the Netherlands, who have found solace and friendship online. Often moving, but slightly lacking in cohesiveness overall (i.e., I wasn’t sure what we, the audience, were meant to glean from the doc), director Heddy Honigmann captures some great moments of candid honesty from the girls and reminds viewers that bullying and online gaming isn’t just something common to awkward teenage boys. (Note: yeah, I got all teary at this film, too.)

So, my lofty goal of not crying too much at HotDocs 2008 has already evaporated – or, perhaps, precipitated – right before my eyes on day one. Oh, but good news: Myrocia Watamaniuk is back! She intro-ed the second set of films with her usual aplomb. Hooray!