Friday 30 April 2010

Love At The Twilight Motel - May 2nd Free Preview (in Canada) on CBC's documentary Channel

I suppose the title of the post has all the info you need...And yet, I'm going to expand on it anyway.

I may have mentioned the great Canadian documentary "Love At The Twilight Motel" once or twice before, but it bears repeating. Especially when it is going to be shown nation wide (the Canadian nation that is - the rest of you will have to wait) on CBC's documentary Channel during its free preview (April 30 - May 2nd). It will be telecast on Sunday evening May 2nd at 10:00PM.

It's a terrific film and I'm thrilled that it's getting a chance to reach a wider audience - one that can remain at home, flip on their TVs and meet some remarkable characters.

Hot Docs 2010 - Short Cuts #3

Leave Them Laughing (2010 - John Zaritsky) - Carla Zilbersmith has Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (better known as ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease) and is slowly, but ever so surely, breaking down. The motor neurons that control her muscle movement are shutting down and gradually her ability to walk and talk is being constricted. It's a horrible disease. So why does she laugh so much? It's part of the determination that she and her teenage son have to make the most of the life she has left and its a contagious feeling that spreads to those around her (the title of the film is a pretty accurate statement). The film bounces us between footage of Carla before she was diagnosed (as a performer, singer, comedian and story teller, there's plenty available) and through different stages of the progression of the disease. There's ups and downs - her final singing performance and her son's moments of depression late in the film are particularly heartbreaking - but her spirit shines through.

The Mirror (2010 - David Christensen) - In a valley in the Italian Alps lies the small village of Viganella. It's scenic, attracts a certain amount of tourists in the summer and has people who appreciate a quiet life. It's otherwise unremarkable - except that for about 2 months of the year it receives no direct sunlight because it sits in the shadow of the mountains. Of further note is the grand plan its mayor has to increase tourism: install a large mirror high on the hillside to bounce sunlight into the town during those dark months. The film moves at what I expect is the same pace as that of the town itself. It saunters through the gradual process of building and placing the mirror while we casually meet some of the denizens. Though we get some semblance of a slice of the life in a quiet mountain village, it doesn't amount to much more than simply being quite lovely at times.

Space Tourists (2010 - Christian Frei) - One of my favourites of the screeners I've watched so far, Frei's film is actually several different stories wrapped up into a whole that is greater than its individual pieces. The film centers around Anousheh Ansari who is an engineer, businesswoman and a space tourist. Her wealth has enabled her not only to sponsor the Ansari X-prize (for privately-funded space travel), but to pay $20 million to hitch a ride with a couple of Russian cosmonauts to the International Space Station. The footage from space is glorious, but the tale also touches on the run down status of the once mighty Russian space program, the farmers who make industrious use of the rockets that fall back to Earth and the preparations being made by the next tourist. In some ways it's just as slow paced as "The Mirror" (above), but each section is compelling and pulls you along for the ride. Even better is how they all tie together. Fun fact: the metal salvaged from fallen rockets and sold to China may currently be in use as aluminum foil wrapped around leftovers in your fridge. Now that's a global economy.

Hot Doc screenings of "Leave Them Laughing":

Thursday May 6th at 9:15PM - Isabel Bader Theatre
Saturday May 8th at 3:15PM - Bloor Cinema

Hot Doc screenings of "The Mirror":

Monday May 3rd at 7:30PM - Royal Cinema
Wednesday May 5th at 11:00AM - ROM

Hot Doc screenings of "Space Tourists":

Wednesday May 5th at 7:00PM - Isabel Bader Theatre
Thursday May 6th at 1:45PM - Cumberland 2

Hot Docs 2010 - "Eat The Kimono"

Hanayagi Genshu certainly is an interesting woman. She's a dancer, singer, storyteller, political activist, feminist and even a former inmate. She travels throughout Japan to perform her convention bending dances and make speeches to stir up those she feels have been wronged or held back. "The world will get a little bit better if the oppressed speak out. You musn't be silent". Throughout the hour long "Eat The Kimono" (another film in the Hot Docs 2010 retrospective series of Kim Longinotto's career), the controversial Genshu's voice is at the centre of every scene. Other people chime in occasionally, but the filmmakers focus exclusively on Genshu and what she has to say. The result allows her message to be heard unfiltered, but also allows the viewer to make up their own minds about Genshu herself.

She's not immediately likeable. Our introduction to her is through old news footage of her arrest (for stabbing a dance teacher). As she is being led off by police officers, she shows a strong disregard for what she has done by telling the camera that she will be alright and flashing a peace sign - an odd choice after committing a violent crime. She tends to dominate conversations and, even when dealing with her causes, usually brings the topic around to herself. She never hesitates to mention her struggles growing up as the child of travelling performers, how poor they were and how she was bullied and called names. This led to her current fights against prejudice, discrimination and the pyramid system (ie. class structures) and she uses these stories of her childhood in many of her songs and dances. It's also the reason why she served those 8 months in prison for knifing the dance teacher. Looking back on the incident, she relates that the instructor was talentless but held the position because of her level on the pyramid. She stabbed her because "We have suffered, I want you to know our pain". She also claims that the police made a much bigger deal over the situation than was warranted: "I just cut her neck a little bit".

Though possibly slightly delusional, Genshu still manages to get her message across very clearly. Her methods seem to be very effective with her audience as they listen with rapt attention and appear to be very moved by her words. She may generalize a lot, but it's easy to understand how a crowd can be swayed by her pronouncements that "Weak people are getting stronger" and "If it's done to you, do it back". Of course, not everyone is a fan. When she makes statements that Emperor Hirohito has killed more people than Hitler and yet the country still celebrates his birthday, you take her word for it that the far right wing have threatened her. She's also not shy about bringing up other dark corners of Japan's history. She talks about Japan's treatment of Koreans - how many were enslaved and brought to Japan, denied care after Hiroshima (preferential treatment was given to Japanese people) and now get deported back to Korea. She focuses on the patriarchal society of the country as well by stating that men can't commit to love and always look down on women. Instead of always making the sacrifices, she encourages women to break free:

"The kimono comes from Japan's feudal past. It traps women. My art is expressing freedom, even though I'm restricted...You musn't be eaten by the kimono...You must eat the kimono, gobble it up."

Genshu uses the kimono a great deal in her lovely dances which fortunately are showcased several times in the film. There's an economy of movement that seems to capture many of her repeated themes of being restricted, struggling against the system and then fighting back via any means necessary. Longinotto and her collaborator Claire Hunt have used a typical cinema verite approach to Gensu's story and managed a difficult feat - allowing a controversial person to clearly get across their message without it being obscured by the personality. Even with all her generalizations, self-serving speeches and questionable methods, the larger message about searching out enforced inequalities in society and helping to eradicate them is still conveyed. You don't have to like her to get her point.

Hot Doc screening of "Eat The Kimono" (with "Shinjuku Boys"):

Saturday May 1st at 11:30AM - The ROM Theatre

Wednesday 28 April 2010

Hot Docs 2010 - Short Cuts #2 (the NFB edition)

I love the NFB. Have I mentioned that before? Oh, wait, yes I have.

All 3 of the films below are NFB contributions to Hot Docs:

The "Socalled" Movie (2010 - Garry Beitel) - Funk, Rap and Klezmer. An obvious combination of musical styles right? No? Well, Josh Dolgin thought they were and so he began to experiment and create songs using these styles as touch points. In his younger days, he called himself "Heavy J" in order to fit in with the scene. It never really took hold, though, and people started to call him "The So-called Heavy J". After awhile, that last part dropped off and he became "Socalled". Through 18 or so short sections (some a few minutes, some closer to 10-15), we watch Josh create, perform and talk about his art. My favourite portion has to be his meeting and NY concert with Fred Wesley - former trombonist and leader of James Brown's band - where they bust out some serious funk. I get the feeling Dolgin is a spiritual kin to Glen Hansard (from the film "Once") who proclaimed "Make art! Make art!" at the Oscars a few years ago. That's just what Dolgin does on a daily basis.

Flawed (2010 - Andrea Dorfman) - Possibly the most charming film I've seen this year - and it's all of 12 minutes long. Comprised solely of a stationary camera positioned above a drawing table, director Dorfman relates a tale of meeting a man and their correspondence using homemade postcards. As the story progresses, we see examples of these watercoloured postcards being made (via timelapsed photos) while the narrator muses on self-esteem and being comfortable with yourself. The drawings are lovely, the message spot-on and the tone, well, charming...

Namrata (2010 - Shazia Javed) - Namrata looks at herself in a mirror while wearing, for the first time since her wedding day, a gorgeous red sari. Her emotions are mixed though. She talks about how optimistic things were at the time as she was presented an arranged marriage to a North American-raised Indian man and promised wide open possibilities. Unfortunately, that's not quite how it turned out. He soon turned out to be very restrictive, controlling and abusive (even recruiting his sister and mother to hold her down as he beat her). Namrata tells her tale very simply and, aside from the usage of the mirror to reflect her mixed feelings, the film is shot very simply too. Within its compact 9 minutes, it builds this horrific environment that Namrata was stuck in and then resolves it with a smile-inducing answer to the question of "so what did she do?". Simple, but effective (and also a bit depressing that men like this still exist in our society).

Hot Doc screenings of "The "Socalled" Movie":

Sunday May 2nd at 9:15PM - Bloor Cinema
Tuesday May 4th at 11:30AM - ROM Theatre

Hot Doc screenings of "Flawed" (precedes the feature "Small Wonders"):

Friday April 30th at 9:30PM - Cumberland 2
Sunday May 2nd at 5:00PM - Innis Town Hall

Hot Doc screenings of "Namrata" (precedes the feature "In The Name Of The Family"):

Saturday May 1st at 7:00PM - Royal Cinema
Sunday May 9th at 6:45PM - Isabel Bader Theatre

Tuesday 27 April 2010

Hot Docs 2010 - Podcasting Preview

The Mad Hatter over at The Dark Of The Matinee has threatened to invite me on one of his podcasts for a few months now. I thought they were just idle threats, but no...he went and did it.

So for 45 minutes or so, we preview Hot Docs 2010 and discuss documentary films in general. Well, it's actually about 35 minutes or so - the first 10 are Hatter's general opening questions to warm me up. So if you can make it through 10 minutes of my blathering, you'll get to the meat of the podcast. We discuss the films were most excited about seeing, the ones we've already seen and some general thoughts about the current state of documentary film. And, of course, you'll hear again of my love for Rush.

I kinda like the way it turned out. In other words, I don't sound completely uninformed. You can listen to it below, from my sidebar, listen or download from here or find any/all of Hatter's Matineecast previous episodes here or on iTunes. Just start with mine first...

Hot Docs 2010 - Short Cuts #1

This will be the first in a set of posts where I'll try to give some capsule reviews and previews for several of the films that will be showing at Hot Docs starting this Thursday. There's no way I'll be able to provide full reviews of all the screeners and theatrical films I'll be seeing, but given the high quality of the films I've caught so far, I felt I needed to talk about as many as I could beforehand.

Dish: Women, Waitressing & The Art Of Service (2010 - Maya Gallus) - Via interviews with several women working as waitresses in Toronto, Montreal, Paris and Tokyo, "Dish" provides a wide variety of views regarding the role a waitress plays in providing service as well as how, for some, it can also be a vocation. It's a physically demanding and mentally draining profession, but whether these women are working at truck stops, topless restaurants, Maid Cafes (you have to see these places to believe 'em) or top end French establishments, they all approach their work with a strong sense of humour and dedication. Where the film gets even more interesting is how it contrasts some of the different views of service in North America, Europe and Japan - it's generalizing of course, due to the small sample size, but still pretty revealing. Along with the interesting and likeable people Gallus has found as her subjects, it all makes for very entertaining viewing.

Disco And Atomic War (2010 - Jaak Kilmi) - J.R. Ewing was a busy guy. Along with his oil business, womanizing and constant scheming, he apparently had a big hand in toppling the former Soviet Union. At least that's the angle that Jaak Kilmi takes in his free-ranging and slightly scattershot look at growing up in Estonia - a region esconced within the USSR, but within reach of the television signals coming from Finland. These were signals that contained more and more American style content as time went on. Through old home movies, recreations, current-day interviews, stock footage and lots of episodes of "Dallas", we see how the eager denizens in Estonia soaked up these shows, spread the word (and videos) to other parts of the country and went to great lengths to acquire the TV signals (pharmacies would sellout of thermometers when plans for mercury antennas were circulated). It gets a bit jumbled at times, but is still a lot of fun and paints a picture of rebellion against overbearing control.

Freetime Machos (2010 - Mika Ronkainen) - Though Finland may have had a role in breaking apart the mighty Soviet Union, they have some weak spots too. Like, say, on the rugby field. Ronkainen's film purports to be about the third worst team in the world (as they are fourth in their six team league), but it's much more about what roles men take on in their lives as seen through the eyes of two friends on the team. One is single with a girlfriend away for months at a stretch while the other has 5 kids and another on the way. Their ups, downs, disagreements and filthy jokes are documented while we see them limp through their 8 game season with a British coach just trying to keep it all together.

Hot Doc screenings of "Dish: Women, Waitressing & The Art Of Service":

Friday April 30th at 9:15PM - Bloor Cinema
Saturday May 8th at 1:30PM - Royal Cinema
Sunday May 9th at 6:30PM - Bloor Cinema

Hot Doc screenings of "Disco And Atomic War":

Friday April 30th at 9:15PM - ROM Theatre
Saturday May 1st at 2:00PM - Cumberland 2

Hot Doc screenings of "Freetime Machos":

Wednesday May 5th at 6:30PM - Cumberland 3
Saturday May 8th at 6:45PM - Royal Cinema

Saturday 24 April 2010

Hot Docs 2010 - "Life With Murder"

In 1998 Leslie and Brian Jenkins lost their 18 year-old daughter to a gunman who put 5 bullets into her while she sat in her basement. It wasn't long afterwards that they also lost their 20 year-old son - though this time it was to life in prison for the murder of his younger sister. How do you possibly cope with a situation like that?

If you're Leslie and Brian, you hang on to the last shreds of your family. For most of a decade, Mason Jenkins stands firm behind his wild story of a gang-style slaying of his sibling even though there's not a single piece of evidence to support it. His parents, for their part, stand firm behind him. They continue to pay him regular visits and refuse to believe that he could have killed his loving sister. However, they admit that he had his troubles (scrapes with the law, fights, thefts) and was a completely different child than the widely-loved younger Jennifer. Indeed, he had just been released from prison on Christmas Eve of 1997 - a mere two weeks or so before the murder.

Through old news footage, police videotape, home movies and recent interviews with Leslie, Brian, Mason and various other people involved with the case, director John Kastner builds a unique portrait of the Jenkins family. Sometimes awkward and not always compelling, but definitely unique. While Leslie seems to be reasonably grounded and able to speak coherently about the past and the present, Mason jumbles numerous staccato fragments together and Brian comes across as a completely broken man. His police interviews days after the event are almost incomprehensible and bordering on pathetic. After a decade of supporting his son and desperately trying to pull together the frayed ends of the family, Mason's change of his story coincides with a rapid decline in Brian's health. He's now physically and mentally shattered and struggles to put simple sentences together.

If there's a problem with the film, though, it's with these central characters. The story is well constructed, the revelations properly timed and archival footage is used appropriately to impart information, but the Jenkins family just aren't able to express their situation or their emotional states in any sort of engaging way. They aren't natural storytellers nor do they seem very comfortable in their own shells. It doesn't make the events themselves any less fascinating, but certainly affects the telling of them.

Clip found here.

Hot Doc screenings of "Life With Murder":

Saturday May 1st at 9:45PM - Isabel Bader Theatre
Sunday May 9th at 3:45PM - Bloor Cinema

Photos ©2009 JSK Jasper Productions Ltd and the National Film Board of Canada.

Friday 23 April 2010

Hot Docs 2010 - "Shinjuku Boys"

"We're living honestly"

It's 7AM and as the streets of Tokyo start to come alive, a group of Onnabes leave the New Marilyn Club to head back home. After a long night of entertaining customers at the club and singing Karaoke, they're pretty tired, but their suits are still sharp as ever (if a little baggy) and their hair looks freshly coiffed. Apart from the fact it's early morning, they don't look much different than any other style conscious young man looking to make an impression - except for the fact that they are all women. After all, the term Onnabe refers to a woman who lives as a man and dates other women. "Shinjuku Boys", a documentary from 1995 by Kim Longinotto and Jano Williams, not only introduces us to three of them, but provides three very intimate portraits.

This year's Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival has, as one of its many programs, an Outstanding Achievement retrospective on filmmaker Longinotto. She's won numerous awards for a variety of documentaries (such as "Rough Aunties", "Divorce Iranian Style" and "Sisters In Law") and many of them focus on women in extraordinary circumstances and provide some understanding as to how they survive. Given that and a quick reading of the topic of "Shinjuku Boys", one might be led to think these women are reacting to a very patriarchal society and looking for their own roles within it. That's not the case. These women (or "boys" as they tend to be referred to - even by each other) have far more personal reasons for choosing to adopt these more masculine roles.

The film splices in scenes from within the club (where the Onnabes work as hosts to female clientele) with individual interviews and glimpses of their personal lives outside the club. Of the three, Gaish is the only one who seems to extend the contacts from within the club to outside. She seems to attract several clients who want to keep her to themselves and are very eager to have a monogamous relationship. Gaish also seems to relish being slightly cruel to these women - purposely ignoring their calls, hanging up on them and being a bit too brutally honest. Of course, it only pulls these women in deeper. Whatever it is they aren't getting from the men of Tokyo, Gaish seems to have it. Tatsu, on the other hand, lives with a lovely young 19 year old girl in what seems to be a very caring relationship. The hormone injections seem to be helping bring out further masculine traits in Tatsu (and more hair), but it won't help in ever allowing them to conceive a child together - something they seem to accept well enough, though there are certainly pangs of sadness in their words. Kazuki also seems to have found a partner outside the club. She lives with Kumi, a man who lives as a woman, and though their relationship is "sexless", there appears to be a strong, comfortable and completely loving rapport between them.

The film works so well because Longinotto and Williams have found some amazing subjects who are willing to share their lives and talk openly about them. And yet, Kazuki has not even told her own mother about being an Onnabe. One of the best scenes in the film actually shows Kazuki calling her Mom, delicately broaching the subject and finally telling her about how she really lives. She shares with the camera how terrified she is, but her chain-smoking through the call is enough to let us know that. The only issue I have with the film is that it's too short - at 53 minutes, we simply don't get to spend enough time with these three fascinating people who are so much more than just their chosen lifestyles. I wanted to hear more about Tatsu's plans for the future, Kazuki and Kumi's little spats and Gaish's underlying sadness. There's likely even an entire separate film to be made about the women who frequent the New Marilyn Club - are they truly disillusioned with the men they know or do they find something special in the Onnabes? There are many angles with which you could follow up and maybe that's why the film is so short - after hooking us with these intriguing characters, they expect us to do even more research on our own.

Hot Doc screenings of "Shinjuku Boys":

Saturday May 1st at 11:30AM - The ROM Theatre

Sunday 18 April 2010

Hot Docs 2010 - "Grace, Milly, Lucy...Child Soldiers"

It's beyond comprehension.

80% of the Lord's Resistance Army - a Ugandan rebel group - is made up of children. 30000 children (over the last 20 years) have been abducted from their homes and villages and forced into roles as front line soldiers fighting a battle they know and care nothing about. A full 30% of these children are girls - sometimes as young as 7 or 8 when they are stolen away - and they are additionally forced into marriage with the very men who kidnapped them. While sharing their "husbands" with other girls (one man had 29 wives), they are ordered to attack villages, kill the residents and burn the structures to the ground. If need be, they will do all this while carrying their youngest child on their backs.

Remarkably, some of these girls survive and make it back to their villages and families, but their hell is usually not over at this point. Typically, they are shunned upon their return. They were rebel soldiers, so how can they possibly be trusted now? The children of the "returnees" are often thought to have evil spirits within them and they too are isolated from what was once a caring and loving community. Some even consider returning to the LRA. It's truly unfathomable.

The National Film Board of Canada's "Grace, Milly, Lucy...Child Soldiers" gives us an opportunity to meet three women who have gone to hell and back, lived to tell about it and are fiercely determined to not only help those who have been through the same experience, but to also stop it from occurring at all. They belong to an organization called Empowering Hands that attempts to reintegrate former child soldiers back into their families and a social milieu. Grace spent 7 months as a soldier before escaping and now eloquently speaks for those who can't. She does it in a very soft-spoken way, but still manages to exude strength as she describes the sad realities of some:

"It’s very easy to create a killing machine. Just imagine. You’re seven years old and taken away from your family…your parents are killed in front of you or you’re forced to kill somebody. Through all that you’re beaten…then you’re given a gun and you’re told, 'This gun is your life.'"

Milly and Lucy were both taken away at the age of nine and then held in captivity for close to a decade. They were both married to the same man, but Lucy had been with the rebels a bit longer than Milly and had discovered the power structure - if she abused others, she would "move up the ranks" and suffer less. So it was that she often beat the lower echelon wife Milly - something that Milly reminds her about as they now sit next to each other as friends and co-workers in Empowering Hands. They try to convince these recently returned women that there is indeed hope ahead for them. One woman dispassionately tells them of her child that was killed during one of the many attacks in which she participated - shot while sitting on her own back. The life has been extinguished from her eyes as she stares blankly ahead while breast feeding one of her remaining children. The task of re-lighting that fire appears to be a long and arduous one for Milly and Lucy.

These terrible and frightening stories are told while occasionally intercutting some of the stunning landscape of Uganda. This is gorgeous countryside and it contrasts and even counters these sad stories - there must be hope in a place as beautiful as this. Another ray of light are the husbands of Milly and Lucy. After all the tales of inhumanity and degradation, these two men offer quiet and simple testimonies of love for their wives and their children. Now that I can understand.

Trailer found here.

Hot Doc screenings of "Grace, Milly, Lucy...Child Soldiers":

Wednesday May 5th at 7:30PM - Royal Cinema
Saturday May 8th at 4:00PM - Royal Cinema

Basking In The Cesspool Of Filth #13

Been awhile since I've thrown one of these up, but I just haven't been gobbling up the horror movies of late. Not for any specific reason, that's just the way the viewing habits go sometimes...

The House Of The Devil (2009 - Ti West) - Tremendous fun. I understand the complaints of those who didn't like the last section of the film or who thought everything leading up to it was too slow, but they're all wrong. This intentional throwback to 70s style tension-filled horror uses lighting, framing and camera movement to keep viewers constantly on edge and does it extremely well. The sequence of our heroine dancing through the house to The Fixx's "One Thing Leads To Another" was wonderfully constructed even though it doesn't actually resolve into anything. Of course, that's part of the fun of it. When things do reveal themselves, the film drops any pretense of subtle tension and goes for the opposite. Do I really care about the specifics of the devil worshippers at this point? Not really, but I don't think I'm supposed to - I'm supposed to be having fun and I really got into this section of the film too. Even the somewhat anticlimactic and downbeat ending fit perfectly with the vibe of the film.

House Of Whipcord (1974 - Pete Walker) - After enjoying the heck out of Pete Walker's "Frightmare" a few cesspools ago, I dove head first into a bit more of his oeuvre. Though never quite rising to the enjoyable standard of its follow-up film, Whipcord does manage to lay out a reasonably horrific idea and drop some surprises along the way. An old abandoned asylum is used by a small crew of disturbed individuals to imprison wanton females (or at least, those they believe to be). A beautiful young French lass gets nabbed and we get to see the inner workings of the "prison", the hardline "warden", the frail and no longer sane "judge" and the female "guards". There's also the handsome Mark E. Desade who essentially lures and procures these women for the prison. It's quite silly and bordering on over the top at times (Penny Irving's French accent is laughably bad as she plays an exceptionally dim bulb), but it also creates an oppressive atmosphere at times and also delights in skewering the morally uptight. Not quite as much pure entertainment as it could've been, but it certainly won't throw me off Walker's other films.

Tower Of Evil (1972 - Jim O'Connolly) - More British horror from the 70s. Though it doesn't quite reach the heights of its opening sequence again, it ends up being a grand old time. The mystery of who is responsible for the killings at a deserted old lighthouse isn't necessarily intriguing, but it does leave you unsure as to exactly who is going to "get it" next. Along with the current set of stranded guests, the film also flips back to the storyline of how the previous guests - those whose bodies were shown at the beginning of the film - met their own fates. And check out the attire on the ladies...

Alucarda (1978 - Juan Lopez Moctezuma) - Like his earlier "The Mansion Of Madness", Moctezuma can sure put together some arresting visuals and moments, but he just can't seem to create a story that moves at any sort of reasonable pace or that contains any character for which I might possibly care. Oh sure, there's nuns, witches and impressionable young ladies plus demonically possed vampires (or is that blood-sucking demons?), but it drags in too many spots and has - I think hands down - the largest amount of women screaming in a single film ever. And really bad, annoying screaming. I even fast forwarded through some of the scream scenes as they went on and on and on...Still, there's certainly an image or two that'll rattle around my brain for awhile.

Wednesday 14 April 2010

Hot Docs 2010 Preview

A couple of weeks ago I attended the kickoff press conference for the 2010 edition of the Hot Docs Film Festival. I love documentary films and was eager to see what was in store for us this year, but I have to say that I didn't quite expect I would almost squeal with delight during the rundown of films and special programs. My inner fanboy wasn't ready for the announcement of "Rush: Beyond The Lighted Stage", the documentary about the career of one of my long time favourite bands by the directors of "Metal: A Headbanger's Journey" and "Iron Maiden: Flight 666". Forgive me for briefly becoming 15 years old again.

That's what this festival can do though...Once again, programming director Sean Farnel and his staff have pulled together a lineup that may slightly overwhelm (166 movies from 41 countries in 11 days), but can also excite even after a quick perusal of the individual film titles and short synopses. It's an excitement that was also certainly present in the Hot Docs organizers themselves as they stepped us through the special programs, special presentations, retrospectives and some of their individual favourites.

This year during the festival, two filmmakers are receiving their own retrospectives: Kim Longinotto (10 films) and Canadian Tahani Rached (3 films). Another series looking backards is the Ripping Reality program which showcases 10 docs that made a strong impact in the last decade. The set includes titles such as "American Movie", "The Fog Of War", "Darwin's Nightmare" (one of the most depressing films I've ever seen) and one of my favourites from the decade (from any genre), "Spellbound". The latter is a film I feel may have had even more influence on the state of documentaries today than "Bowling For Columbine".

Other programs include the "Canadian Spectrum" (kiddingly referred to as being thematically centered on Death), "Next" (focusing on the performing and creative arts) and "Made In South America" (focusing on the vitality of filmmaking coming from that region). Hot Docs is also offering several outdoor rooftop screenings during the festival and will be hosting a street party in Yorkville. Quite the program for the festival as it enters its 17th year.

But what about some of the individual movies?

The first of the two opening night galas is "Babies" - a sure-fire crowd-pleasing look at the early lives of 4 young babies from different corners of the world (U.S., Japan, Namibia, Mongolia). Many people have probably already seen the trailer or the posters lining the walls of their local cineplex, so this is likely going to be one of the biggest and most popular docs of the year. One hopes that it also provides good stories, interesting people and insights into the different cultural aspects of raising children. Early indications are that it will.

The second opening gala event is Sam Dunn and Scott McFayden's "Rush: Beyond The Lighted Stage". It will be practically impossible for me to turn any kind of critical eye towards this - not only has the band been a fave of mine for, uh, roughly 30 years now, but they seem to be genuinely fine people and have great senses of humour (check their liner notes on pretty much any album). They were also big fans of the Montreal Expos back in the day, so they're aces in my book. More importantly though, directors Dunn and McFayden have a way of bringing their obvious love of hard rock and heavy metal to the screen without being fawning or annoying.

As Farnel went through some of the 166 titles (20 of them being World Premieres) hitting 10 different screens across the city, he presented many different stills and several clips. Unfortunately, everything sounded and looked terrific - with only 11 days to the festival, how can I catch it all?

Some titles that have my attention slightly fuller than others:

  • Wasteland - One of the largest garbage dumps in the world is located just outside of Rio de Janeiro and is one of the settings of this Sundance award-winning documentary (a screencap from it kicks off this post). It focuses not only on the famous Brazilian artist Vik Muniz and his latest art installation, but also on the "pluckers" who make their livings from recycled garbage and who help Muniz find the refuse he needs for his project. Trailer found here.

  • Casino Jack And The United States Of Money - Jack Abramoff's rise and fall is the subject of Oscar winning director Alex Gibney's ("Taxi To The Dark Side") latest. The many different capers that were run concurrently and centered on Abramoff apparently make the film equal parts intriguing, funny and frustrating as all get out.

  • And Everything Is Going Fine - Another Spalding Grey monologue directed by Steven Soderbergh? Yes and no...Gray does appear to be giving a feature length monologue, but this time it's pieced together from a variety of archived footage to make up a single last statement by the deceased playwright and screenwriter.

  • B1 - Antonio Tenorio da Silva prepares over 3 months for his attempt at a 4th gold medal in Judo at the Beijing Paralympics. The trailer below has no English subtitles, but it speaks volumes.

  • Life With Murder - A look back at a murder case from 12 years ago which, by all accounts, is open and shut. The guilty party, however, still claims innocence and his family backs him up completely. A story more about what's left in the wake of crime than anything else, the film shows that victims can be found on both sides of the courtroom.

  • The Story Of Furious Pete - How does someone go from being anorexic to being a champion competitive eater within the span of a few short years? Furious Pete is here to tell us how it all happened. It sounds like he isn't just all about the gastronomic feats as he also raises money for charitable foundations that help those with eating disorders. You have to wonder, though, if he's simply traded one disorder in for another.

  • A Drummer's Dream - Ontario's cottage country plays host to a gathering of 7 top-notch drummers (Nasyr Abdul Al-Khabyyr, Dennis Chambers, Kenwood Dennard, Horacio “El-Negro” Hernadez, Giovanni Hidalgo, Mike Mangini and Raul Rekow) as they jam through various genres and discuss their own approaches to rhythm and music. Apparently the closing monster session is a killer. The trailer is already pretty damn good...

  • The People vs George Lucas - The title says it all doesn't it? I'm not sure I want to subject myself to an hour and a half of fanboy rants against Lucas, but the film promises something a bit more - a wider discussion of the question "Who owns and controls a piece of art anyway?". There will still likely be instances of fan fiction and homemade lightsabers as the teaser below shows:

  • Complaints Choir - Everyday complaints from hundreds of people (e.g. "Why do Boy Bands never play any instruments?", "Why do trains always smell like pee?", etc.) are chosen and set to music. Choral music. The resulting creations are actually quite beautiful and they also manage to shine a bit of light on our different cultures and ways of life as the choirs are created in different spots around the globe.

  • Space Tourists - It's a documentary involving space travel. I'm already sold. What? It's by Christian Frei, the director of the fabulous "War Photographer"? Count me in for sure! And it has music by Jan Garbarek and Steve Reich? It's like they're designing the film with me in mind...Anousheh Ansari paid $20 million for a trip up to the International Space Station with some cosmonauts and Frei uses the trip to contrast the idea of space tourism with a crumbling Russian space program and rural Kazakhstan. Here's the trailer:

  • Disco And Atomic War - Do you really need to know more than the following? From the Hot Docs web site's description of the film: "...this witty, charming, and provocative film recounts how Estonian engineers fabricating makeshift TV antennas, and rural farm girls updating townspeople on the plot developments on "Dallas", led to the demise of the Soviet Union.". I'll even throw in this screen capture:

  • Kings Of Pastry - The Meilleur Ouvrier (ie. "Best Craftsman") is France's top honour for chefs and is awarded only once every four years after a 3-day competition involving all manner of recipes and personal creativity. Not to mention grueling circumstances. D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus are back again with a behind the scenes look at these 16 pastry chefs vying for the top prize. Visit the film's website for a clip.

  • Thieves By Law - Ever wonder how the Russian mafia became known as one of the most terrifying and brutal crime organizations around? Alexander Gentelev's film purports to trace the history of the creation and rise of the mafia from Stalin through its growth during the fall of the Soviet Union to its current expansion around the globe. Three former members of the mafia (each with different backgrounds and specialties) provide their personal experiences in what appears to be a darkly humourous and very frightening film that shows a world that's likely ten times worse than movies and TV could possibly make it out to be.

It all starts April 29th when the moving pictures on the screen take over the limelight...