Friday 22 April 2011

Hot Docs 2011

"...and perhaps best of all, they remind us that there is an audience interested in intelligent conversation."

Coming in just shy of cracking the 200 film mark, the stuffed lineup of this year's Hot Docs Film Festival was released a few weeks ago. The quote above is from festival Executive Director Chris MacDonald as he kicked off the Press Conference which announced the headliners, special events, retrospectives and other highlights among the many shorts and features to be screened between April 28th and May 8th in Toronto. The photo above is Cap'n Video engaging in some of that thoughtful debate...

Here's a short preview of this year's festival:

Some of the Main Events

  • Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold - Morgan Spurlock's latest film appears to be trying to have things both ways - while purporting to be a close look at product placement in our culture and the seeping influence of advertising, Spurlock actually financed the entire film via the placement of ads within the film. His pitch to advertisers is that the film is about his pitch to advertisers - including them. I expect that it may show some interesting board room discussions and give numerous examples of insidious marketing, but it's going to be an awful tricky line for him to walk. The film is the opening night gala for the festival.

  • Project Nim - Seriously, isn't Nim Chimpsky the best name ever for an animal? Particularly when it's a chimpanzee (wouldn't be quite as great if it applied to a kitty now would it?). James Marsh's newest film (and first documentary since "Man On Wire" after sneaking in one of the Red Riding trilogy films) documents the life of Nim as part of an experiment to see if one of our closest relatives on the evolutionary scale could be raised as a human, take on our characteristics and relate to us. From everything I've read, it sounds fascinating.

  • Conan O'Brien Won't Quit - While O'Brien was in between gigs (and prohibited from appearing on TV), he staged a whirlwind tour to vent his frustrations and his comedy to adoring fans (is Team Coco still a relevant term these days?). The doc promises not only some of the best footage of those live shows, but behind the scenes and reflective interviews.

  • Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey - OK, I'll say it here: Elmo kinda bugs the crap out of me. Don't get me wrong - I love Sesame Street (I watched its first season when I was in Kindergarten) and consider Jim Henson a personal hero, but the bright red, grating-voiced little guy never appealed to me. However, the clip showed at the press conference fits the film's title - it's more a behind the scenes look at puppeteering and a story of the man who controls Elmo. In fact, the 2 minutes were so engaging, that the film is right near the top of my to see list.

  • Magic Trip - Of little interest to me - at this stage anyway - is Alex Gibney's latest venture (with partner Alison Ellwood) which is described as a recreation of Ken Kesey's acid-induced 1964 journey across the U.S. with the Merry Pranksters. It's not that I have no interest in the history or the story, but I can't get overly excited about recreated footage mixed with old audio recordings. Maybe Gibney can pull something interesting out of the idea.

My Picks

  • Abendland - The film's title translates to "The West" and is apparently a visual essay of Europe at night with scenes from crematoriums, TV studios and a variety of different locations. Focusing on the industrialized sections of Europe, I expect gorgeous visuals and odd details meshing together to paint a picture of the good and bad of a modern wealthy culture.

  • The Battle For Barking - As much as I love political documentaries and the chance to see what happens behind those closed doors, this could be a difficult watch as it shows a particularly vicious British campaign from the 2010 federal election in the London borough of Barking. I can barely stomach the North American approach to campaigns ("Fear! Fear!"), but this seems to amp it all up by really playing to racial divides. And yet I'm still drawn to it - the human need to break down complex issues so that they can blame one particular reason (or preferably, one particular group of people) fascinates me.

  • Beauty Day - Jay Cheel's feature length directorial debut focuses on the star of a 90s local cable access show called Cap'n Video and his attempt to put together a 20th anniversary show. It's easy to call Cap'n Video an early version of "Jackass" (he'll do anything for his camera), but there's far more charm to his one man show. I've seen a screener of the film already (so I hope to get a longer review out soon), but I may not see a better film at Hot Docs this year. I was truly sad to have to say goodbye to these people at the end of the film.

  • Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo - The film with the best title of the festival takes a look at why Japan, more than any other country, has a fascination with insects. While the rest of us typically have a desire to remain as detached from bugs as possible, the Japanese put plastic ones in their Happy Meals. The film works its way backwards through history to trace the roots of this long lasting love affair.

  • The Bully Project - Director Lee Hirsch spends a year in the American education system to paint a picture of bullying in high schools. My guess? It's not a pretty sight.

  • The Future Is Now! - Gary Burns and Jim Brown return with another docu-drama (after their terrific look at the suburbs in 2006's "Radiant City") that follows the Everyman through interviews with different leaders in fields of arts and science to show not only the possibilities of tomorrow, but those of today. The trailer might seem a bit off-putting, but I trust Burns and Brown to weave their themes around the ideas of really interesting people.

  • Gnarr - Comedian Jon Gnarr created The Best Party as a jab at the left and right sides of the political system in Iceland, but he somehow managed to tap into a segment of the population that were tired of only hearing the ends of the political "spectrum". Apparently, a pretty large segment, since Gnarr becomes an actual viable candidate for mayor of Reykjavik.

  • Hot Coffee - Remember that crazy lady who sued MacDonalds over their coffee being too scalding hot? Ha! What a fool, right? Not so fast there bub - there's more to the story and much more to its aftershock effects. The case was essentially tried in the court of public opinion and so many details never made it out. The film submits that a better case of Corporations using the media to distort legal issues against them will likely not be found.

  • Incident By A Bank - A single take 12 minute short recreating a failed bank robbery in Stockholm, this film focuses specifically on the reactions of the bystanders and sounds like it could be a fascinating exercise.

  • Lovable - One of the films being shown in the retrospective series focusing on director Allan Zweig, "Lovable" is his rumination on being single in a culture that implies there's something wrong with you if you are. In order to dig deeper, he interviews many single women to get their own views.

  • The National Parks Project - 52 filmmakers and musicians celebrate Canada Parks centennial year by putting together a composite of this country's gorgeous landscape and the richness of our National Parks. A big screen viewing is a must.

  • A Simple Rhythm - This 52 minute "visually immersive meditation on the beat that binds us draws on music, science, medicine and the cosmos to better understand nature’s irrepressible forces." Sold.

  • Superheroes - After several fictional films about regular everyday people trying to be superheroes, there's now a documentary about them. Scattered across the U.S. and Canada, the vast array of characters and their alter-egos (e.g. Mr. Xtreme) tell us why they take to the streets at night to fight, as best they can, whatever crime they come across. Costume making tips are also handed out liberally.

Special Programs & Events

  • Alan Zweig Retrospective - This year's "Focus On" series will look at the work of Toronto filmmaker Allan Zweig. The only film of his I've seen (and possibly his most famous) is "Vinyl" - a great look at those who obsessively collect and search out specific records (Zweig knows a thing or two himself about this compulsion). His films tend to be personal and include his own thoughts on the subjects at hand, but never (from what I've seen and heard) in any overly self-involved way. Looking forward to finally seeing "Lovable".

  • Made In Italy - Each year the festival chooses a specific country to spotlight and this year Italy gets the nod with a series of 8 new films. My pick is "The Castle" which is a cinema verite look at the behind the scenes work of border security guards at Milan's airport.

  • Workers Of The World - Another series is focused on documentaries looking at the working class from all over the world - their struggles on and off the job and the variety of work humans end up doing - from a Czech Hyundai plant in a small farming community to the closure of a large shipyard in Germany to Panamanian maids and their rich employers to life in Cambodian villages. Even Santa pays a visit.

It all starts on Thursday April 28th. Get your viewing goggles on...


simoncolumb said...

Its great to read this overviews as they highlight films that will eventually trickle into the Cinema ... the one you mentioned I like the sound of is THE BULLY PROJECT... as a teacher I am very interested ...

Anonymous said...

Blurgh. I wish I wasn't in LA right now. Nonetheless I'll cover the fest as a plebe.

Bob Turnbull said...

Apologies to you both...I missed a whole whack of comments for awhile.

Simon, I'd love to hear a teacher's perspective on bullying - I expect there are limits to the amount of intervention you can provide and it must be frustrating. I spoke to a fellow blogger about the film (which neither of us had seen) and he said that as a parent himself (his son is just a few months older than mine) it was the one film he did NOT want to see - simply because it would be too hard. I totally agree and understand, but I also feel like I need to see it. My son's in Grade 5 and I know that the bullying will only get worse from here on out (he's been relatively unscathed himself so far, but has told us of some kids who aren't as lucky).

okinawaassault, somtimes being a plebe at a festival is the way to go...B-) No pressure to review anything you don't feel passionate about.