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...?

1 comment:

AR said...

I agree with your assessment of Anatomy of Failure. And I made an especially hard effort (TTC strike) to make it to the ROM for the viewing because of how it was written in the program notes.

Bad previewer at the HotDocs.