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.


Linda said...

Awwww... too bad the Maysles talent skipped a generation. Heck, Celia's still young, and the project was highly personal. Perhaps she'll improve?

Matt said...

I used to work with a team of software developers who would conference their office speakerphones together while all playing some networked game. Walking down the hall, the effect was very weird. It sounded like a battlefield, but looked pretty much the same as always: guys pounding at keyboards while staring intently at large screens.