Thursday 31 May 2012

Toronto Youth Shorts Film Festival - Part 2

Continuing where I left off in Part 1, here's the rest of my preview of the Toronto Youth Shorts Film Festival (taking place on Saturday June 2nd at Innis Town Hall) which consists of three more documentaries and two further fictional films.

First up is "A Slice Of Life", an awfully charming 15 minute short about an Ontario pie contest and the filmmaker's attempt to enter it. In the short running time, we not only see writer/driector Emily Powell learn how to make a pie (from some of the experts that run the contest), create it and then bring it to the big competition, but we also meet several other contestants and hear about past winners. The occasional pie-making secret is even thrown in for good measure (for example, adding a touch of liqueur to your filling). It's shot very typically, so you won't be getting any groundbreaking visual flair here, but the film doesn't really require any. It would intrude and divert away from the well-told, engaging story. One of my favourites for sure.

The second film is focused on the stories of pet owners, their fond memories of their pets and how they felt when they died. Though this could easily have been awash with sentimentality as the owners relate their stories, it completely avoids this by recreating the experiences with actors, animation and puppets. Each of the stories is just a couple of minutes long, so the cute factor doesn't wear thin and the bonds that the people felt with these animals still come across. In some cases the owners had not had the animals for very long, but still grew quite attached. The title of the film ("Our Best Friends") is as close to gushiness as the 10 minute running time gets.

"Dolime Dilemna - Waterproof?" is a far more conventional approach to its subject, but certainly no less effective. The city of Guelph Ontario depends on an underground aquifer for their water supply, but the local quarry is slowly eroding the aquitard protective layer. I know this because the short does a pretty good job of laying out the geological terms that are relevant as well as the possible threat to Guelph's water. While the construction company's representative minimizes the danger and tries to emphasize the NIMBY syndrome (Not In MY BackYard) as the excuse for those who argue against the quarry continuing to dig, the rest of the film calmly lays out the issues (through professors, scientists and the mayor of the city). The danger is that when they stop pumping, the surface water will mix with the underground supply and the contamination will begin. Unfortunately, since the danger is not immediate (ie. there are no results of testing the water that indicate contamination has occurred), it's very hard to get government attention. The film has its biases obviously, but its rational, straightforward approach helps to not only get its specific point across, but also allows it to expand to a wider issue - everyone assumes that our fresh water supply is unending.

The last two films are dramatic works of fiction and unfortunately suffer in comparison to their documentary counterparts. Both are set in very real worlds and depend on natural sounding characters, but neither quite hits the right tone. Granted, these are very small films, so the quality of the acting is actually quite fine for the scale, but both tend to go for the big emotion inside their scripts. I'm glad they aimed high, but it feels like they overshot. Having said that, the construction of both films is solid. "Heart Of Perception" shows us the story of a homeless man and pretty young woman who brings him food and money. It tends toward the over-dramatic (or over-melodramatic due to the overuse of tinkling piano and plucking guitar), but it doesn't immediately tell you the relationship between the two so leaves a bit of mystery. He buys her an old camera on the street and it appears to create a bit of a spark in her as they take photos of each other. Because of where it winds up, it felt like it needed much more context and back story, but it's a fine effort for a two character story.

"Breaking Over Me" is also a bit too self-consciously serious with a pretty blunt script (and another plinking piano score that tries to handle all the heavy lifting of the emotion). A teenage girl attends the funeral of her estranged father and sees his new family. He deserted her and her Mom when she was young ("Did you hear about Dad? I heard he passed away." "Probably for the best. World's better without him."), so she doesn't mention to her mother that she actually went to the funeral. However, she starts going to the funeral home and sitting in on random services. One day she walks into one of them and only one other person is in attendance. She lies about knowing the man's deceased wife and they begin to chat since each has a need to talk to the other. The dialogue is still somewhat forced ("So, what did you do?" "Before I got old?") and the emotional climax isn't quite as effective as it could be, but it's quite the chunk to attempt in a short piece. There's a lot to be said for the effort - not just the execution, but the goal of reaching for a larger idea.

So if you're looking for some of that kind if inspiration, grab yourself some tickets for the Saturday June 2nd screenings from the Toronto Youth Shorts Film Festival web site.

Tuesday 29 May 2012

Blind Spot #5 - "Pather Panchali" & "Nanook Of The North"

It's been a good solid two decades that I've been wanting to see Satyajit Ray's famed "Apu trilogy". As my interest in film started to poke its nose into various realms, I continued to see the trilogy (and particularly the first film from it - "Pather Panchali") get mentioned in discussions of foreign cinema and also land on various lists. Sometime later, I met a lovely young woman who gave me some deeper background on not only Ray's influence within the Bengali community, but also the rather wide range of artists that particular Indian region has generated. Just for that, I married her. Well, OK, there were a few thousand other reasons too, but it sure didn't hurt. My wife had always loved the gorgeous score from "Pather Panchali" (composed and performed by Ravi Shankar) and we played much of it during our wedding (mixed in with French Canadian folk music, Charles Mingus and King Crimson - yeah, it was a good day). Still, though, I had not managed to see the film. I missed it whenever it showed at the local Cinematheque and there were no Region 1 releases at the time. When one finally came out, word was that the transfer was terrible. So I put it off. I've been meaning to hunt down the Region 2 version ever since I bought my region-free player, but simply haven't done so.

Similarly, Robert J. Flaherty's seminal documentary "Nanook Of The North" has been on the to-watch list for years as well. It's even more surprising that I haven't sat down to see it until now - it's readily available on Criterion, it's under 80 minutes long, it's one of the earliest feature length documentaries and it's also one of the first examples of a filmmaker playing with the truth on screen to get to a "bigger" truth. Herzog may be known for that today, but Flaherty was a good half-century ahead of him. It also provides footage from the North of my own country that shows a lifestyle that is completely alien to my own. So why haven't I seen it? I don't know, but isn't that why I'm doing this Blind Spot series?

Once again, my pairing of films works out quite nicely...The stories are vastly different of course, but beyond the obvious pairing of foreign cultures documented in academy ratio B&W images, both films are wonderful at creating a sense of place. Not just the specific environment where the story is set, but also the pace of daily life, the chores, the family interactions and the difficulty of doing things that our modern Western culture takes for granted. And even in the compromised transfers of both DVDs, the cinematography - especially of the natural surroundings - is breathtaking. Whether it's the floes of ice, a steaming train through a wheat field, a lone cabin pitched against the huge Northern sky or reflected plant life in the dusk of a warm humid evening, these films cry out for pristine looking versions. I doubt that too much more could be done for Nanook, but Ray's films need far better treatment. Word is that Criterion might release the trilogy at some point (they provided a splendid version of Ray's "The Music Room"), so let's hope that many others can start filling in this particular blind spot in the near future.

After viewing "Pather Panchali", I'll be closing off on the rest of the trilogy shortly. It's truly wonderful. There are certain filmmakers that have an innate ability to convey humanity in their characters. Kore-eda and Kaurismaki are two names that spring to mind (at least as far as current directors go), but you can bet Ray will be on the list now as well. It's not just the range of emotion, but the honest way it comes across. At the start of the film, the young boy for whom the trilogy is named hasn't even been born yet, but he is on his way. We meet Apu's Mom and sister Durga as they eke out a living while being "allowed" to stay within the confines of the family orchard. There's some history within the family as to proper ownership, but Apu's Dad isn't concerned - in his mind all you need is two good meals a day and new clothes twice a year. What more could anyone want? His focus is being an artist - his family has always been filled with writers and scholars and he has great hopes of writing a new style of play for the bands of travelling players that roam the countryside. Until then, he must go off looking for work on a regular basis and bring back his earnings to his family. His positive outlook is contrasted sharply with his wife who has to be worried about their daily existence, their reputation, how she is viewed as a pregnant woman and how to eventually marry off Durga (and what they would get in return). A great deal of effort is put into how the family is perceived and where they are supposed to fit within society - not even the larger society, but just the small one around them. Even the father isn't immune - once Apu is born, he wants to spend some of the little money they have to celebrate and show off to everyone in the community. This becomes a bigger issue when Durga is accused of stealing the bracelet of one of the young girls at the main house. Durga has been caught stealing food before and her Aunt sees the whole family as a bunch of thieves. Though Durga is defended by her mother, she later gets literally thrown out of the house until the end of day. Hardly fair in Durga's mind, since Apu (probably 6 or 7 at this stage) has stolen toys himself, but never gets punished. It's a clear demarcation between males and females in this portion of society - as much as many mothers aren't happy with their own lots in life, they end up forcing the exact same standards and rules that hurt them onto their own daughters. Though wrapped around these central themes, much of the film shows the simple life of Durga, Apu and their Mom. The children have free reign over the forest and beautiful fields as they play between chores. While the cinematography shows the grandness of their location, we also get a closer look at nature - bugs, dragonflies, rain falling on the leaves of the forest - to emphasize how closely these people interact with it even within their own homes.

Of course, Nanook himself might scoff at their living conditions. He doesn't just live with nature, he has to fight with it every single day. Flaherty originally was part of an expedition to the large region East of Hudson's Bay and was asked to prospect it for possible growth in the areas of railway and mining. As Flaherty met the Inuit people who lived there, he realized that their way of life was slowly coming to an end - and so he began to bring up his cameras to document what he could. Since much of his original footage was lost and because he initially had a narrative feature in mind, Flaherty recreated many of the scenarios we see in the film. What we end up seeing is somewhat like a greatest hits of the Eskimo lifestyle: transporting the "family" via kayaks, building an igloo, capturing, killing and eating seals, etc. It's all quite simply shot and quite revealing - especially the more intimate scenes with Nanook's "family". Perhaps you've noticed the use of quotations around "family" - as it turns out, that's not Nanook's wife or children in the film. They are simply other natives of the region who were brought in to film these different events - many of which weren't even activities they did on a regular basis anymore. However, Flaherty felt it important to document the way that they did actually live - if Nanook doesn't actually hunt in exactly those methods anymore, he certainly used to do it and has the kind of skills that were required. The film even states right from the intertitles at the start that Nanook is essentially a composite of the people Flaherty met during his many years in the North. If he occasionally condescends a bit to them (calling them "happy-go-lucky", creating a scene where Nanook looks at a long playing record and tries to bite it with his teeth), there is an obvious appreciation of the people and the life. Yes, the seal capture and the kayak transporting (where members of Nanook's family start popping out of the kayak like clowns from a tiny car) were essentially faked, but the overall intent of the film is to provide the feeling of what it was like to live in this cold and often hostile environment. From that perspective, the film is a complete success. It doesn't just show the hunting activities or the building of shelter (though I had never thought they actually used ice as a window), but also many of the smaller details. For example, the snow is sometimes as dry as sand, so the runners on a sled have to be glazed with water before it can actually slide. That same sled is typically stored on top of the igloo at night in order to prevent the dogs from chewing the seal hide that binds it together. Flaherty even shows the minute details like the spit cleaning of a baby and the nighttime rituals.

Though I'll never get a sequel to Nanook (the story is that Nanook - or the person playing the character of Nanook - actually died during final prep of the film), I'd love to see how their lives developed as the regions around them did. If their old ways of life died out, were they able to adapt? Did life become easier or harder for them? Flaherty's film doesn't just raise these questions, it makes you very much want to know the answers. By the end of the film, you even have feelings for the sled dogs (the shot of the dogs huddling at night in the cold, lashing winds is the perfect way to show the environment). Fortunately, I can at least follow up with Apu in two further films to see what wonders and heartbreak are in store for him while plunging myself further into a world I never knew much about. It's been a bit of blind spot one might say...

Toronto Youth Shorts Film Festival - Part 1

It's best if I just take the description of the Toronto Youth Shorts Film Festival (starting this Saturday June 2nd) straight from their web site:

"The Toronto Youth Shorts Film Festival is a volunteer-run not-for-profit initiative that works to bring a series of events for local young and emerging filmmakers in the Greater Toronto Area to showcase their talent and creations to an audience of independent film lovers."

It's more than just a showcase though...It's a forum for the filmmakers to meet with industry people, share ideas and - most importantly of all - get feedback from experienced filmmakers and their peers. In its fourth year, the festival appears to be growing and gaining steam. Given the overall quality of the sample of films I had a chance to see, it feels like the staff of the festival are getting the word out to some of the best young local talent. You can't help but want to fast forward 5-6 years into the future to see what these "kids" (not to offend any of the filmmakers, but I'm way older than all of ya...) will have created by then.

The three animated films I saw (all between 1-2 minutes) are all wonderful, charming and feel like much more mature work. The stories are somewhat simple and straightforward, but each has a distinctive feel to it and a real sense of creativity. The tools of today may make it easy for "anyone" to create, but they don't necessarily provide the imagination and inspiration these filmmakers all had. "Blind Luck" was the first of the three and it put a lift in my day straight away. There's just something about an animated character (even a dog) that, when drawn with certain details and attributes, can immediately make you smile. A working dog leading his blind owner across a street is distracted by a bright red ball and must choose between his instincts and his training. The gags and outcome are well realized, but that dog (and all his subtle expressions and movements) is quite fantastic.

The second film entitled "Vernal Equinox" depicts, as you might expect, the arrival of Spring - though not without a fight. The Winter wolf is not ready to cede its time, but a helpful warrior is there to do battle with it to allow Spring to take its rightful place. Using imagery from fantasy, manga and probably video games, the mini-epic is over and done with in under a minute-and-a-half, but it leaves a lasting impression (if you can look past the image of a scantily clad feminine Spring needing the male warrior's help). The last of the three ("Amare") is the simplest in both design and colouring, but is probably the most charming - partially because of that simplicity, but also due to its story of a woman scorned and the man who looks past all of that to her inner true self. An idea simply, but quite lovingly, expressed.

If the live action films (both fictional and documentary) don't quite live up to the animated ones, it's understandable. Typically running closer to 15 minutes each, the live action films tend to feel padded or like they have extended their reach a bit too far from their original ideas. Having said that, they tend to share a commonality: good solid ideas. I'll mention three of the eight I saw and hopefully follow up with a second post covering the rest before the festival starts on Friday. The first ("Backwards Rider") is a documentary about a local artist/environmentalist named Lesley Slowley. His claim to fame is riding his bike (at regular speed) backwards on the streets of Toronto (glimpsing behind him every couple of seconds to see where he's going). Given Lesley's recycled paper art, involvement with the Occupy Toronto movement and rather obvious dislike of rules, he definitely looks backward to move forward as a general rule...The film loses its sympathy with him, though, during an encounter with the police. Whatever your opinion is of his views and politics (e.g. whether you agree that the police are correct to cite him for dangerous riding OR that Lesley is correct to point out the pollution caused by their cars), it's all too obvious that he isn't interested in having the discussion as he shows no attempt to understand another viewpoint. It paints Lesley as less of a complicated person (not to mention less interesting) than I originally thought he might be.

The next short called "Prolepsis" has one of the more interesting frameworks and central concepts, but unfortunately ended up being one of my least favourites. One example of the definition of the title is "the anachronistic representation of something as existing before its proper or historical time" which corresponds nicely with the faux-doc's plot point of a news report from the future somehow slipping into a standard news feed. As the government works the angles and the public frames it according to their own cultures, dissent arises, riots break out, etc. The film is patched together with TV news footage from various actual news networks, but also has some of its own "interviews" and footage near a barricade. A common issue with these type of films is trying to make the interviews appear natural and unscripted - an issue that certainly stands out here. As well, it exceeds its required running time by about double what it really needs, tends to stay with its interview subjects far too long and ends up restating numerous points. However, it's an interesting concept that shows promise.

The last is "Loss Together", a story built around the idea of "friendships" in the office and online that aren't really built upon anything of consequence. On a single day, the colleagues in a non-descript office have to deal with the death of a co-worker that no one really knows (except for the occasional Facebook status update) while preparing to go to a pub gathering in the evening for another co-worker's birthday (again, one that is mostly unknown to everyone). It's never quite as funny or dark or biting as it could have been with a stronger script and some needed editing, but it's still quite well constructed and has the makings of something far stronger.

The festival is screening its 31 films in three separate blocks (mixing animation, documentary and fiction into each one) on Saturday June 2nd. Check their web site for details on tickets and times. It's a worthwhile event that should provide bursts of inspiration for any attendee.

Monday 28 May 2012

Coincidental Parallels - "Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind" and "Leningrad Cowboys Meet Moses"

"Oh my darling, oh my darling,
Oh my daaaahrling Clementine"

Of course, I expected to hear this little snippet of the old folk ballad during my most recent viewing of "Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind" (as I showed it to my son for the first time - a viewing filled with comments like "Hold", exclamations like "Oh, I get it!" and then further comments like "Hold"), but I didn't expect to hear it again during the very next film I watched: Aki Kaurismaki's bordering on nonsensical and slightly deranged Finnish/English/Mexican/Russian hybrid Leningrad Cowboys Meet Moses. There it was, though, in the very final scene before credits, being sung by the old man who twice tried to steal the nose of the Statue Of Liberty from the bus of the Leningrad Cowboys (I warned you - clear and straightforward narrative this is not).

No offense Andre Wilms, but I'll take Kate Winslet's version over yours any day...

Now There's Something You Don't See Everyday... #6

Leningrad Cowboys Meet Moses (1994 - Aki Kaurismaki)

Tuesday 15 May 2012

And People Wonder Why I Love Seijun Suzuki?

An ordinary director would say, "This isn't realistic. It's absurd." With him, though, even if I presented a somewhat unusual idea, he'd take it apart and put it back together in an interesting way.

Production designer Takeo Kimura about director Seijun Suzuki when discussing his 1964 film "Gate Of Flesh".

How do you not love this guy?

Monday 14 May 2012

Hot Docs 2012 - "Despite The Gods"

"They break for tea!"

The incredulous tone in Jennifer Lynch's voice when she says the above is one of the many clues that she really wasn't prepared for India. Not as a tourist and certainly not as a film director. When she accepted an offer to take the helm of the Indian production of "Hisss" (basic plot - snake turns into woman and then turns back into snake), not only did she not expect those frequent breaks on set, the very rough concept of time held by most, concerns about script sections being sacrilegious and a far-reaching lighting technicians' strike, but she certainly didn't think the entire control and final edit of the picture would be wrested from her. Penny Vozniak's "Despite The Gods" started as a simple behind the scenes EPK, but as Lynch's own fortunes began to fall, the story behind the film (and the footage Vozniak was capturing) became far more interesting.

Lynch had intentions of creating an examination of sensual female beauty. Her producers had a different concept in mind - pure exploitation. There's no doubt the concept lends itself to the latter, but Lynch's approach to several scenes, some careful shot-making and an emphasis on practical effects makes you believe she could actually pull off the former. She has a few obstacles to overcome though - not the least being her unfamiliarity with the customs and ways of doing business in India. Fortunately, she has a pretty great crew as evidenced by her assistant directors, actors and other various people (my favourite being the caterer who helps out with sound effects). Complicating things further is Lynch's own teenage daughter Sydney who happens to be spending the summer out of school on location with her Mom. She's actually quite intelligent and self-sufficient (several times during the film you actually wonder if she is possibly the most mature person in the room), but she's obviously a distraction for Lynch at times. Strangely, she's even more of a distraction for the producer.

As fascinating and entertaining as the behind the scenes issues are with culture, people and equipment, the biggest issue of all is nothing new - money. The producer warns Lynch early on that you can't make a $3 million picture look like a $500 million picture and at that moment you are certainly on his side. The investors only have so much capital to put up and agreements were made, so he comes across as a voice of reason. As the production wears on, his logic and reason start to dissolve as he tells her he can wrap some remaining scenes for her in a single day, starts trying to yell "Cut!" during filming (insisting that what they captured was good enough) and expresses his annoyance with Sidney to her Mom (which of course upsets the one person he needs to stay focused - his director).

Vozniak gets deeply personal footage of Lynch talking about the shoot, her Dad's own catastrophic experience with "Dune" and her life/career. It provides additional insight into her own process, her drive to be an artist and a whole mess of insecurities. Her honesty is actually quite endearing which is why it was awfully sad to hear her tell the viewing audience after the premiere that she counts the loss of the film "as the greatest loss I've ever had". The only version of her director's cut was destroyed by the producers and the film (with additional crappy CGI added) was turned into a run-of-the-mill B-movie. Despite everything, Lynch continues to make films - a little bit closer to home for the moment though.

Friday 11 May 2012

Trailer for 2012 Shinsedai Cinema Festival

Absolutely stellar work on the trailer for this year's Shinsedai Cinema Festival:

Yeah, I want to see each one of those right now too...Now that the full lineup has been announced and tickets are on sale June 21st, a final preview post to go along with my initial preview should follow along soon. In the meantime, just watch that trailer another couple of times...

Thursday 10 May 2012

Hot Docs 2012 - "Aida: A Natural Born Artist"

It's hard to say if Aida Makoto will ever truly let himself be happy. As an artist, he'll always be restless (as most really creative people are) and never completely satisfied with all his work, but he can't seem to be content with life. "Life is miserable if you can’t be an artist", he says, not quite convincing us that it's much different if you are one. Aida says he has ADHD and you tend to believe him when he takes one of his countless smoke breaks and continues to have a hard time focusing on the details of his paintings. Strange when you consider just how very detailed they are, but then you remember how long he's been working on them and that he may simply never finish them. His large painting of about 30 schoolgirls dressed in blue by a waterfall looks complete down to the last little leaf, but it's been in the works for 3-4 years. It's been shown at numerous art shows, but it's never quite finished. In fact, as he is setting it up at a new gallery, he sees it under a different set of lights and starts to completely reconsider some old choices. He even tells the gallery owner that if the painting sells, he wants to make sure that he can still finish it afterwards.

Another work in progress is the depiction of a mountain of businessmen's bodies piled high and rising out of the mist. We see him just beginning the details of each individual body at the beginning of the film while he works in a large warehouse gallery in China. The paintings are too big to really work on full time in Japan, so he's set up shop here over the summer and imported his wife and son as well. The film tracks his progress and as the summer comes and goes, his works are in various stages of not being completed. His family returns home and he stays behind. He returns for New Years festivities and then once again returns to buckle down since the businessman mountain painting is due for a showing. It shows, but it's still not quite finished...

Both paintings are quite remarkable. Not just for their size, but for the bits of detail as well as the entirety of the picture when you step back. His other artwork is quite conceptual and usually focuses on the somewhat perverse. No matter what, though, he continually questions himself and tends towards excessive alcohol consumption - even after what others might consider a successful showing (he tends to downplay things that go well). His wife works as an artist as well and seems to have a much more practical approach towards her work as well as her life. Raising their son has not been easy - he has his own behavioural issues - and it feels like she is still helping raise Aida as well sometimes.

The film loses its way occasionally by focusing on the young boy, even though there looks to be a very interesting story of its own there. The boy has similar issues as Aida does - he feels "different" than other kids, doesn't much care for playing with them and keeps to himself mostly (his parents believe he developed this complex partially from hearing a previous teacher continually putting down his two artist parents in front of him) - but we don't get much development of the storyline. I suppose you could view Aida's son as yet another "work in progress" or perhaps compare the film's tendency to wander away from the paintings to Aida's own inability to stay focused on them, but it doesn't help the viewing experience.

However, if this portrait of artist Aida Makoto isn't overly artful in its own approach to its subject, that's OK. Aida has more than enough of his own art to bring to bear.

Tuesday 8 May 2012

Hot Docs 2012 - "We Are Legion: The Story Of The Hacktivists"

The history of the online movement/collective of activist hackers called Anonymous should be a pretty fascinating tale. Whether you approach it from a technological point of view, a social media one, a political one or simply focusing on how geeks have gained power, there's a great story in there. So why did I sour on "We Are Legion: The Story Of The Hacktivists" so quickly? It actually had all of the above and additionally gave some great insight into how many of the internet's major memes get started (via the 4chan site which was the initial launch point of the movement), but annoyance levels began to rise at the outset. The simple reason? The actual hackers interviewed.

I'm actually fairly intrigued by hackers in general and the concept of Anonymous specifically. If I don't agree with all of their tactics, much of my politics does lean in their direction, so it's not a matter of entering the film with any major issues against these people. But apart from a few examples, interview after interview showed me either self-important, entitled or childish views towards their roles within the larger scope of Anonymous. From early juvenile hacking escapades (one hacker chuckles over how fun it was back in the day to get a group of people to invade a SIM-like game for kids and create swastikas made from identical characters) to wide-sweeping generalizations about police and the importance of some of their successes, I didn't find these people to be great examples of activist leaders. It's a damn shame because there's so much more of interest to examine - the technical ins-and-outs of their hacking methods (or at least some of them), trust levels within the wide group, the variety of "targets" that have been considered, etc.

To be fair the film does give an idea of how Anonymous bubbled up from its roots and when it deals with the history of the amorphous group, it's actually entertaining. I do wish the film covered more in depth examples of specific hacking successes (having just read the fascinating account of how the Stuxnet malware was traced, I was looking for more), but I can't fault it on that front. It comes back to the main subjects of the film though - perhaps these were the best candidates that were willing to be interviewed, but when you pretty much dread any return to one of the talking heads, it's hard to establish empathy or engagement.

Hot Docs 2012 - "The Revisionaries"

I left the Hot Docs screening of "The Revisionaries" angry. Not stomping mad yelling obscenities, but stewing over what I had just seen, frustrated over an inability to do anything about it IMMEDIATELY and trying in vain not to be cranky with the friends who exited the theatre with me. This wasn't overly surprising since I went into the film - which covers the Texas State Board of Education's systematic attempt to dismantle their education standards through politics, religion and ignorance - with the expectation of acquiring a certain sense of outrage. It's not that I was looking forward to that, but I felt that I should see if the film covered any angles or viewpoints I hadn't heard before. The attempts to dilute the teaching of evolution in certain regions of the U.S. are a huge bone of contention with me, so I wondered how the film would approach the situation in Texas. The first part of the film covers the period of 2009-2010 when the school board tried to leave a loophole in its curriculum standards to allow a "strengths and weaknesses" arguments clause and therefore let non-scientific "theories" into science classrooms.

The film played it mostly as expected - an inherent bias that matched my own and a slight mocking tone of those who completely misunderstand the scientific method, but with an overall style and approach that was reasonably fair. Apparently most of the revisionists who saw the film were quite happy with it and thought their side came through well. Indeed their true colours and viewpoints do come through - mostly through board member and one-time chairman Don McLevoy who desperately tries to open the door for "intelligent design" to find its way into science classrooms in Texas by forcing debate and votes on how evolution should be taught. Considering McLevoy is a Young Earth Creationist (ie. someone who believes the Earth is less than 10000 years old, Noah's ark really existed, dinosaurs walked with humans, etc.), it's clear that he shouldn't be anywhere near decision-making authority when it comes to science education standards. But that's far from the most surprising thing in the film...First of all, McLevoy comes across as a mostly decent person even though his ideas have no foothold in reality. He's completely deluded himself into thinking he understands how science works (he even claims to be a skeptic by nature), but genuinely believes in the things he's trying to do. In what seems to be honest frustration, he admits that he just doesn't understand his detractors. He's a dangerous person to be in a position of major influence over one of the country's major text book markets (to enter the Texas market, the manufacturers have to meet the Board of Education's guidelines) since he simply doesn't realize his limitations, but I expected a different kind of fanatic.

That's where the second surprise came in - Cynthia Dunbar. Initially she appears to be a well-meaning but incompetent board member who just doesn't understand the concept of a scientific theory. However, the more we hear her speak and the more we learn about her (she teaches at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University School of Law after having graduated from Pat Robertson's Regent University School of Law), the more she becomes the centre of the issue and one of the main driving forces towards the wreckage of the future of Texas as an educated state. In short, she's a horrible person. My bias is showing, but when someone's political and religious agendas clearly supercede any thought of serving the people in their region, when she deliberately misinterprets questions and historical fact (she states in her book "One Nation Under God: How The Left is Trying To Erase What Made us Great" that the founding fathers of the United States created "an emphatically Christian government"), when she states that religion founded education, that government should be guided by a "biblical litmus test" and that public education is a "subtly deceptive tool of perversion", I'm not sure how you reach any other conclusion about this person's true morality. It's completely and utterly compromised.

Even worse than the evolution debates in the school board were the ones that followed. After McLeroy loses his bid to retain his chairman's seat, he focuses on what to change in the guidelines for social studies. With Dunbar's stewardship, they pass what seem to be hundreds of amendments to the standards that take great pains to pick apart bits of history they don't like - squashing names and events they would prefer were not a part of history and inserting their own views. It's infuriating. Other board members are disgusted by these amendments, but the discussions are much more generalized this time around and therefore politics rules the day. The result is that most members of the board are convinced to allow all the changes through. Though the film edits many of the requested changes to specific soundbites that will enrage audiences (or at least should enrage them) and uses background music that brings to mind a circus, it is clear that minorities, women and non-Christians don't really come out on the winning side of the revisionists' version of history. The chalkboard titles of the movie become more than just a reference to the classroom - they indicate that apparently history is just as easily erasable.

As dire as all this is, the film isn't without humour. Several great moments are provided by my new hero Eugenie Scott (Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education). She's a marvelous speaker, clear-headed and not prone to get sidetracked by the ridiculous. In short, she is a shining ray of hope for logic and reason. Unfortunately, anthropologist Ron Wetherington is less successful in helping out the evolution side - he's obviously brilliant, but allows himself to get caught in the debates. While he explains different technical aspects of the mechanics of evolution, the board members grow bleary-eyed and confused. I applaud his willingness to fight for the cause, but it's frustrating to see his arguments complicate matters and even work against him. McLeroy also adds some humour, though most of it is at his expense (his Sunday school trip to a field with his pupils to show them that there would be plenty of room to house all the species on an ark is wonderfully surreal). And then there's Cynthia Dunbar. There's nothing funny about Cynthia Dunbar. Director Scott Thurman praised the Toronto crowd and thanked them for laughing during the movie. He commented that he hasn't heard as much laughter in his U.S. screenings and postulated that it may be due to the fact that we didn't have to worry about it up here in Canada. That's where Thurman and I disagree - everyone should be worried and a bit angry about the kind of aggressive attacks on science and historical fact shown in his film. Hopefully that anger can then be turned into something constructive.

Sunday 6 May 2012

Hot Docs 2012 - "Sexy Baby"

I wasn't very far into "Sexy Baby" when I thought it might be an excellent choice for my son to watch with me. He's only a year younger than 12 year-old Winnifred (the first of the three main subjects we meet in the film) and she was being very sharp in her thoughts about how she has been exposed to sex via media, friends and our overall culture. She's smart as a whip, but even though she has this perspective she still apes some of the styles and attitudes. And she totally needs some training on how NOT to use social media. It all seemed like perfect fodder for good conversation with The Boy as he winds down his last year of elementary school and preps for the trials and tribulations of middle school.

As the other two storylines wove into the mix, thoughts of those father/son discussions quickly dissipated ("Nope, he won't be seeing this anytime soon..."). To be clear - that's not a reflection of the film's quality. The addition of 22 year-old Laura's story regarding her upcoming cosmetic surgery on her vagina (ie. labiaplasty) and 30-ish Nichole's discussion of her career in stripping and porn (and her subsequent business ventures in those realms) provide further viewpoints and expand on a variety of points about the pervasiveness of messages about sex in society. As you might expect, though, these stories raised topics and contained footage far beyond what a pre-teen should be processing - even Winnifred. What we hear from both of them is that the very adult industry of porn has - in particular with the growth of the internet - become a strong influence on a wide variety of people. As Nichole states "Porn is for adults. It's not made for teenagers."

That may be a pretty obvious statement, but considering the number of clips the film shows of young men and teenage boys talking, it's even more obvious that a combination of various media and porn have altered male notions of what to expect from sex. And as Laura tells it, many of her guy friends in their early 20s already have very specific expectations (through watching years of porn) about what a woman wants during sex - even down to exactly what a woman's vagina should look like. Jokes they've made and comments she's received from former boyfriends have made her feel insecure about the overdevelopment of her labia. I'll say that again - she has low self-esteem due to how her vagina looks. You might shake your head at that or even simply suggest that she hang out with a better crop of young men, but the story's points are very salient: our ideas about sex tend to get formed before we even engage in it.

Laura's story fades to the background a bit (we probably know more about her cosmetic surgeon by the end than we do about her) but that feels somewhat appropriate considering how she feels about herself. The main focus of the film is Winnifred's burgeoning sexuality as she crests past her 14th birthday by the end of the film. The more we hear her talk (and, if you listen to her parents, the more time she spends with a bad influence friend), the more her grounded views on sex don't quite match her actions. She gets banned from Facebook by her parents 7 times for posting inappropriate pictures, learns the "come hither" look (it's actually kind of disturbing to see her younger sisters imitate her as well as their favourite music video stars) and pushes her boundaries. Nothing extraordinary for a teenager, but given the context of the film and the plain talk that Nichole chimes in with occasionally, even if you already have a clear understanding of the role of sex in today's media soaked culture, you'll still walk away a bit unnerved. As Nichole says (she really does have some of the best advice in the film - though she herself is somewhat cornered in a business and a marriage that expect certain things from her), a young person's first encounter with sex should be personal and 1-on-1, not through the internet. You may not be able to show "Sexy Baby" to your child yet, but it sure should drive out some good topics of discussion.

Thursday 3 May 2012

Hot Docs 2012 - "Bones Brigade: An Autobiography"

The full title of Stacy Peralta's latest film is both inaccurate and spot on. Many people had the impression - especially if you know anything about the fact that the director also formed the mid-80s skateboard team that is the subject here - that perhaps Peralta was going to centre the documentary around himself and what he did for the sport. From my perspective though - and this was amplified by Peralta's own comments after Tuesday night's International premiere (complete with a packed house filled with "skater dudes") - the title implies that it is the entire team that is telling the story of their rise through the 80s into role models for a distinct set of kids. Peralta was the guiding force behind the team, a part of the company that backed them (Powell-Peralta) and undoubtedly has the reins of the film, but the story is very much driven by the individual members. Each of the core 6 skaters of Peralta's original team were recruited when they were quite young (10-13 years old) and showed promise. They also showed tendencies to be outcasts with a desperate need to belong. Not long after joining the team (by the time most were 15-16), they had become world class athletes.

Though it is the story of the whole team, Peralta's influence is everywhere. Most of the film happens in the 80s after his own professional riding career was over (with several older clips of Peralta in his prime skating era as seen in his earlier film "Dogtown And Z-Boys"), but he's still in a great deal of the archive footage encouraging, coaching and managing the kids. He gets talking head time as well to discuss not only the team, but his business partnership in Powell-Peralta. And of course, he brings his sense of style to his directing duties by adding many cinematic touches to the look of the movie: the talking heads are rarely framed in consistent ways, on screen titles resemble those from old 80s VCR tapes playing in machines that had lost the ability to properly track the image, the music selection always fits the tone and pace of the story, and the content never lags. Like Dogtown and "Riding Giants" (his surfing movie), you do not have to have a single reference point in the history of events or have any nostalgic reverence for the people involved. The film provides an entertaining, oddly emotional and well laid out story with surprisingly interesting central characters.

The biggest name of the bunch is likely Tony Hawk due to his fame having spread internationally and outside the skateboarding community (movies, video games, commercials - being a world champion 12 years in a row will open a few doors), but you can't help focus on a couple of other Brigade members: Rodney Mullen and Lance Mountain. Each could hold sway over an entire movie's arc with their backgrounds, troubles and rather different outlooks on what skateboarding means. Mullen revolutionized freestyle skateboarding and created absolutely astonishing tricks - using his board like a pogo stick, balancing on its side and sometimes almost forgetting that the damn thing had wheels - and was the first person to go airborne on flat land without touching the board or using a ramp. Even more fascinating is listening to the stories of his controlling (though apparently well-meaning) father, his battles with the continued pressure to win competitions and his drive to master every aspect of his skating. Mountain, on the other hand, was never going to be a master of the sport. Peralta tagged him early on to be a successor as manager of the team, but until that point he always felt like he didn't quite belong in the rarefied air of his teammates. Though he was the main focus of an early Bones Brigade video release (riding through the streets of L.A. and using various environment obstacles in his moves, he essentially helped popularize street skating), he never felt he could compete. He mentions at one point that when Mike McGill invented the McTwist (an insane 540 degree flip) he thought he was done for and would be pushed out of boarding. When he finally completed the trick himself months later, he was furious with himself for having taken so long to do it.

One might raise an eyebrow at the emotion of these mid-40s men recalling the different aspects of their careers and lives (especially since all 6 have not only become successful within boarding, but in their business careers as well), but in the context of the film and the interview segments it feels quite honest. Their relationship as a team grounded them all - they found a sense of belonging, a purpose and avoided the standard trappings of young people given too much too soon. When the sport suffered a lull in the early to mid-80s, they all seemed to be able to ride it out and helped to gradually build the sport back up to highly popular levels. With the X-Games today (it's hard to imagine those games could have come about without the Bones Brigade), the exposure is much greater than anything Peralta himself might have envisioned back in the 70s. In the end, whether you care a whit about skateboarding and its culture or not, Peralta's films have documented not just the sport and the excitement of seeing the impossible before your eyes, but the stories of some fascinating individuals. Isn't that what the best documentaries do?