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!


Lou said...

Thank you for these!

Linda said...

For some reason, from pre-fest buzz, I was under the impression that Anvil! was Spinal-Tap-esque, aka, a FAKE band... but they're real? At least I assume so, since this is a DOCUMENTARY festival?!? :)

Too bad about Emoticons. Seemed like an intriguing subject.