Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Realist Cinema: Meek's Cutoff

Meek's Cutoff by Kelly Reichardt, 2010

After the masterworks that are Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, director Kelly Reichardt has become one of my favourite directors working today. Her attention to observation and simplicity give her works a humanistic feel – one driven more by the subtle nuances relationships evoke instead of flashy action scenes.

Reichardt’s newest film, Meek’s Cutoff, screened at the Toronto International Film Festival this month, and after slight debating, I bought a ticket. I knew I had to see the film no matter what, but as a rule I try to see the festival films that may not get a theatrical release in the city. Word on the street is that Meek’s Cutoff will probably not screen in Toronto until 2011, so I decided to break my rule and spend the extra cash to watch the film in Toronto’s new cinema Mecca, the TIFF Lightbox.

Set in the 19th century, Meek’s Cutoff is the story of a group of families traveling the unending plains of the Western United States. Led by the titular Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), the immigrants are walking to a destination where Meek states they will be able to settle and make a better life for themselves. When we first meet our clan, they are wading through a river with their provisions and wagons, three weeks past their promised arrival date. The families struggle to traverse the dusty landscape and to feed themselves and the animals that assist them in their transport.

As each day passes, the more the characters question their leader. Paranoia leads to discussions by the men about Meek possibly being in cahoots with Natives who want these travelers led to their deaths. When a Cayuse man (Rod Rondeaux) is spotted and captured, tables are turned, and the group decides to use the man to lead them to a source of water to quench their thirst and fill their barrels. Meek, untrusting, tries to sway the decision.

Meek’s Cutoff plays out as a series of simple events: the travelers collect wood, sit to eat and pray, set up camp then pack up again. Many of these scenes play out in almost silence, and as a means for simple, documentary-style observation, they are beautiful to look at, but never really add up emotionally. Their journey is one that could be described as hell, but the immigrants’ actions and discussions never really made me feel connected to their plight. Their origins are never discussed and after an hour passes and “nothing happens”, one is left clinging for some sort of drama to appear.

Now the phrase, “nothing happens” can be interpreted in different ways. One may argue, “nothing happens” in both Wendy and Lucy and Old Joy. The characters in those films spend much of their time sitting around and ruminating about their situations. But with her first two features, Reichardt succeeded enormously on the subtlety of her surroundings and the performances. We learned much about Mark and Kurt’s complicated friendship through a small campfire discussion, and really felt for Wendy when she called her family back home and received only a short, unhelpful response. In Meek’s Cutoff, we are distanced from the characters to a point where we never really connect to them. Other than watching these people learning to trust a Native man who is completely alien to them (even this seems a little inconsequential – Michelle Williams’ immigrant wife character, first terrified, appearing all of a sudden willing to approach him) we are offered very little in the way of the human drama we have come to expect from Reichardt’s realist storytelling.

The film has its redeeming qualities in the beautiful cinematography (that many of you are now familiar with as shot in the classic 1.35:1 Academy ratio) and Rod Rondeaux’s solemn, stoic performance. Miscast are Shirley Henderson and Michelle Williams, as two wives in the group. Henderson’s British accent came through during many of her lines and made me wonder if her character was meant to be British. Williams is not particularly bad in her role, but the world-weariness the Oregon landscape called for seemed missing from her performance. She simply didn’t feel like she belonged. Bruce Greenwood’s Meek is simply a caricature, what felt like a cringe-inducing Yosemite Sam impression. The musical score also felt tagged on. It was minimalist and used to minimal effect.

With such beautiful, previous results, I could not help being nervous before viewing Meek’s Cutoff. Reichardt secured herself as a master of observing modern living and relationships that I wondered if a period piece could evoke the same feelings. Upon leaving the theatre, other than feeling thirsty, what came to mind was not necessarily the time and place that mattered, but the content. And in this case, the proverbial water barrel felt half-empty.

2 out of 5

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg

Like her, love her, or completely loath her, Joan Rivers is one hardworking woman. Since beginning a stand-up comedy and acting career in the 1960s, she hasn’t stopped. Seriously. Just watch A Piece of Work and you should have a new-found respect for the crass red carpet staple.

The insightful documentary follows the then-75 year old working diligently on a new play about her life, playing comedy clubs big and small and constantly trying to find new gigs to pay her bills and feed her hunger for stardom. She is down on her knees in the bathroom writing jokes (how many 75 year-olds are able to do that?), and performing pratfalls during rehearsals for an upcoming comedy roast. As Rivers states in the film, she is one of those “if she isn’t performing, she’s no one” types of people.

A Piece of Work is a sympathetic study of a workaholic outsider. Although she has been working in the industry for almost forty years, many will agree that Rivers has yet to be appreciated as much as some of her peers. Tracing the history of the comedienne’s career, the filmmakers explore how a career that was once so promising, has, in some circles, become a bit of a joke. They wonderfully interweave the past and present, letting Rivers tell her story as her continuous struggles as a performer wage on.

Stern and Sundberg must be commended for the material Rivers gives them. She candidly speaks with such insecurity and emotion that we are given a woman that is a complete opposite to the one we’ve been exposed to over the years. One may think plastic surgery would hide emotion, but even that specific subject brings Rivers to tears - real tears. To earn Rivers’ trust on such revealing topics is a great achievement and skill. But my wish is that more of these moments existed throughout the film. Sitting down and talking with Rivers and experiencing how frail and honest this woman is was definitely a game-changer on how even I, a fan, felt about her. I think these instances were very heartfelt, and true, so I would have been happy with more attempts to show her humanity.

The film also could have used more footage from early on in the performer’s career. I understand expense might have been an issue, but it really would have helped a younger fan like myself understand just how revolutionary her subject matter was for its day, and how established she was before many of her setbacks began to pile up.

Winning an award at Sundance this year for Documentary Editing, A Piece of Work is very deserved. Creating a story with no narration and pretty much letting Joan Rivers’ words guide the path for the narrative would not be an easy task, but the film was engaging and easy to follow, if only a little long. The comedienne’s presence is undeniable and you can’t wait until she lets loose another one of her vulgar tirades. It’s all for a good laugh and I hope to experience more in the future.

3 1/2 out of 5

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

TIFF 2010

Here in Toronto, the city's international film festival is slowly creeping toward its opening date. The fest is rather expensive, and I usually like to save my money for the much cheaper and rarely distributed films at Hot Docs, but looking at the films that have been announced so far, I might have some choice documentaries to pay up for.

I don't believe all of the films have been announced (I really want Meek's Cutoff to come. Although I try to use these festivals to see works that probably won't get a release date in the city, Kelly Reichardt is one of my favourite current directors, so to witness she and Michelle Williams in the same room would be priceless).

Coming to town are new films by Errol Morris and Kim Longinotto. I saw the latter's excellent troubled school for boys documentary Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go at Hot Docs earlier this year. I will definitely be checking out her new title.

Here is a list of titles that have interested me so far. Werner Herzog's new film sounds especially fascinating. * = Very interested.

The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town
Thom Zimny, USA World Premiere
“The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town” takes us into the studio with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band for the recording of their fourth album. Grammy and Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Thom Zimny has collaborated with Springsteen on this documentary, gaining access to never before seen footage shot between 1976-1978, capturing home rehearsals and recording sessions that allow us to see Springsteen’s creative process at work.

Nostalgia for the Light*
Patricio Guzmán, France/Germany/Chile North American Premiere, World Premiere
In Chile’s Atacama Desert, astronomers peer deep into the cosmos in search for answers concerning the origins of life. Nearby, a group of women sift through the sand searching for body parts of loved ones, dumped unceremoniously by Pinochet’s regime. Master filmmaker Patricio Guzmán contemplates the paradox of their quests.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams*
Werner Herzog, USA World Premiere
Werner Herzog gains exclusive access to film inside the Chauvet caves of southern France, capturing the oldest known pictorial creations of humankind in their astonishing natural setting. He puts 3-D technology to a profound use, taking us back in time over 30,000 years

The Game of Death
Christophe Nick & Thomas Bornot, France North American Premiere
This documentary examines the idea of the limits of obedience and punishment. Based on an experiment conducted in the ‘60s, the setting is a modern television game show where we see how far people will go to inflict pain on a contestant who stands to win one million dollars.

Jose Luis Guerin, Spain North American Premiere
Filmmaker Jose Luis Guerin documents his experience during a year of traveling as a guest of film festivals to present his previous film. What emerges is a wonderfully humane and sincere portrayal of the people that he meets when he goes off the beaten track in some of the world’s major cities.

How to Start Your Own Country
Jody Shapiro, Canada
Shapiro’s documentary about micro-nations, tiny countries seldom recognized by the outside world, mixes comedy and compassion with a serious analysis of the concept of statehood and citizenship.

Machete Maidens Unleashed!
Mark Hartley, Australia International Premiere
From cult cinema documentary director Mark Hartley (“Not Quite Hollywood”) comes this account of the wild and unruly world of genre filmmaking in the Philippines when the country was a back-lot for a bevy of B-movie mavericks and cinema visionaries.

Pink Saris*
Kim Longinotto, UK World Premiere
Acclaimed director Kim Longinotto is often drawn to tough women. Now she follows Sampat Pal Devi, the leader of the “Pink Gang,” who brings her own brand of justice to the streets of Uttar Pradesh, India, combating violence against women.

The Pipe
Risteard Ó Domhnaill, Ireland International Premiere
Irish farmers and fisherman rise up in protest when Shell tries to build a pipeline for natural gas through their county. The local confrontation reflects an international concern for how energy companies affect the environment and communities.

The Sound of Mumbai: A Musical*
Sarah McCarthy, United Kingdom North American Premiere
For one emotional night, a group of children living in a slum in Mumbai, India, get a chance to experience a different world as they perform “The Sound of Music” with a classical orchestra, fostering hopes that it could change their lives.

Errol Morris, USA World Premiere
The director of “The Thin Blue Line” and “The Fog of War” tells the story of a former Miss Wyoming whose quest for one true love led her across the globe and onto the pages of tabloid newspapers.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Realist Cinema: Winter's Bone

Winter's Bone by Debra Granik, 2010

God knows I love a good documentary, but of course I indulge in different types of film. Therefore I have decided to dedicate a section of this blog to Realist Cinema. Although there doesn't seem to be a specific definition for this genre, I see any film with a docu-drama feel fitting this category.

There have been some prominent realist American films over the past few years that are set in the hostile, rural terrains of the American landscape. Ballast, Frozen River and the films of Kelly Reichardt (maybe less so, due to their warmer climates) fit the bill. This renaissance of simplicity over spectacle has aroused great interest in me. After seeing notices for Debra Granik's Winter's Bone, I knew that I had to check it out.

17 year-old Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) lives in the Ozark Mountains, taking care of her young siblings and ill mother. Ree struggles daily to provide, hunting for squirrels in the forest and counting on neighbours for provisions, even for the family's horse. When Ree is told her mostly absent, drug-abusing father put up the Dolly home as his bail and failed to attend his trial, Ree makes it her mission to find him before the property is taken away in a week’s time.

This is when Ree’s adventure of sorts begins. In a desperate search for her father, Ree treks to the homes of various neighbours she knew he was in contact with. She speaks with Teardrop (John Hawkes), her uncle, who is infuriated with Ree every time she brings up the subject of her father. When she is told in confidence to seek out the home of one particular resident, her resistance to find answers is met with fierce caution. A search for a missing man becomes a life or death situation.

Winter’s Bone is both terrifying and beautiful. The landscape is stark, but the blues and greens of the forest and mountains are magisterial. These characters inhabit a world that at once offers nothing, yet is surrounded by infinity of discovery. The cinematography plays up the landscape, and the absolutely beautiful soundtrack that utilizes the music of the local inhabitants gives the hardships seen in the film a poetic resonance.

Lead Jennifer Lawrence is fearless in her depiction of Ree. She is hard-nosed and authoritative, and Lawrence doesn't shy away from any gruesome characterizations other actresses may have found too dirty. John Hawkes is also a great discovery, giving Teardrop a spectrum of emotions - he is at once despicable and caring. I knew I recognized Dale Dickey, who plays the convincingly brutal Merab. She guest-starred in a couple of episodes of Breaking Bad, playing a witch-like crack addict to great effect. Another stupendous and rangy portrayal.

Although I did enjoy the film, I felt it was repetitive when Ree traveled to the various neighbours' homes in search of answers. Another trek to another location. I understand that it displayed her need to persist, but it felt a bit redundant. A dream sequence including squirrels also seemed a bit out of place.

Winter's Bone is a film of brutality and the struggle to survive amongst an austere locale and people (a scene where Ree confronts some of these people is one of the most terrifying scenes I have seen in a while). It isn't shy in this sense, and I applaud the film's vision and honesty.

3 1/2 out of 5

Monday, June 7, 2010

Exit Through The Gift Shop

Exit Through The Gift Shop by Banksy, 2010

I would not call myself a street art aficionado. Although the movement and talent interest me, it has never grabbed me the way other mediums have. I respect the work and lengths these artists go to in order to produce their pieces, and the secretiveness of it all is exciting, but for whatever reason, I haven't explored the art further.

I was introduced to Banksy's work a couple years ago when my roommate received a book of his work from her uncle. As soon as I saw the cover, he became familiar. It was like a song playing on the radio that you know, but you don't. His iconic images are seen everywhere - all over the world - his style recognizable. Painted silhouettes of rats and kissing British policemen now have a name behind them.

Hearing about the release of this film, Banksy again became familiar to me. I remember recalling my roommate's book, thinking "oh, it's about that guy." After being released here in Toronto for a couple weeks already, I finally went to a screening yesterday, maybe more to enjoy the medium of documentary (and to see what all the buzz was about).

But Exit Through The Giftshop's main subject, surprisingly, is not Banksy. It is a man named Thierry Guetta, AKA Mr. Brainwash, a man obsessed with filming everything on his camcorder. Running a vintage store in Los Angeles, Guetta begins to befriend various street artists. He claims to be collecting footage for a documentary on the movement, filming these artists making their marks in different cities, spray-painting and stenciling their signature images on the most daring pieces of wall and billboard.

The filming of these acts becomes an obsession for Guetta, and he travels all over the world with his new friends to capture anything they do. He befriends the most infamous street artists, but one evades him. The most elusive, yet well known street artist out there: Banksy. It becomes Guetta's personal mission to find Banksy and film him creating his pieces. When Banksy needs an assistant during an LA visit, someone suggests Guetta, and to Guetta's utter shock, the two meet and eventually become friends and accomplices.

But is Guetta actually a filmmaker? What are his motives for following and filming these artists, night after night, day after day, city after city? A bigger concern arises when Guetta decides to become a street artist as well. He wants to do big things, and fast. How valid is his work when there is too much too soon, and all of it looks very familiar? Is Mr. Brainwash an artist, a copycat or both?

These last questions are what made Exit Through The Gift Shop so much more interesting than I expected. While I was surprised by the film's focus, I was also glad for it, as Banksy's need to keep himself a mystery would have grown tedious if the film were just about him. Guetta's rise to fame, and how he achieved it really make the viewer wonder how easy one's status is gained. My friend made a good point when he said that after the screening he wondered if the whole film was a ploy by Banksy to just show how much of the art world is really a joke. As Banksy is the director, his access and tactics seem a bit self-serving. He keeps himself hidden, but uses Guetta's own footage against Guetta. Was the interview footage of Guetta filmed by Guetta, or did Banksy concoct it all?

At first, like Sam over at Wonders in the Dark, I was taken aback by the use of voiceover. God knows a terrible voiceover can ruin a film for me (Vicky Cristina anyone?), but I quickly looked past it's overt sarcasm, and became really involved with the story. Images of street artists grappling over bridges and climbing out windows in order to create their art were intense. Since these acts of artistry are purposely done while no one is around, it was like seeing your pets talk while they think you're not home. The narrative was also fascinating, unraveling the story so we are hooked and shocked in the appropriate places.

If Banksy directed and edited this film to serve as a commentary on our consumerism and the shams of the art world instead of a portrait of an artist (the title fits this perfectly), he completely succeeded in hooking me into this strange little world. Assuming the film would be all about Banksy, I became very involved with this unexpected commentary. Maybe now I can borrow my old roommate's book and look at this medium a little differently.

4 out of 5

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Les Parents

Les Parents by Christophe Herman, 2009

Last Thursday, Toronto’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Film Festival, Inside Out, opened for its 20th Anniversary run. My own short documentary, Doing It On the Ice, played at the festival last year. A film about a gay curling league here in Toronto, it was well-received and a very exciting platform for my first-ever public screening. My friend’s experimental short is playing at the festival this Wednesday, so we thought we would take advantage of the festival and see something on the weekend. We settled on Les Parents, a feature documentary by Christophe Herman.

Les Parents focuses on couple Alain and Richard who reside in a small village in France. Instead of going to a standard nursing home, senior citizens can opt to live with Alain and Richard, who run a sort of alternative, hostel-type environment in their home. The couple takes care of the residents 24/7, washing their hair, making them meals, and taking them for walks. The home is comfortable and peaceful, and the warmth the two men show towards their patrons is obvious. When Alain’s AIDS-related complications begin to rise, the couple must choose whether to continue with their business or focus more on Alain’s illness.

The distance Herman uses for the first three quarters or so of the film works well for the subject matter. We are slowly immersed into the special world these two men have created for their tenants. Herman asks no questions, yet observes the men as they take care and interact with the two, featured women living in the hostel. As one of the women has Alzheimer’s Disease, the struggles the couple faces daily become apparent. Simply trying to calm the woman down as she cries for her parents to come to her birthday and states that her father has just returned from World War I, becomes a heartbreaking routine the viewer must also endure. But the beautiful moments peppered around the hardships, the men singing with the ladies and joking with them, creates a nice balance. As the three quarter mark comes around, though, this balance is somewhat lost.

At this point we are suddenly introduced to Alain’s illness. Before, nothing was mentioned. And the details of the illness aren’t clear as no one in the film exactly states that Alain has AIDS (we had to learn this from the festival’s program). But we soon realize that the couple’s home and business may be sold so Alain and Richard can end their days together in a more gay-friendly climate, and one more suited to the complications that may arise with Alain. I think the film could have worked better if Alain’s illness was gradually revealed throughout the documentary. The sudden shift of focus felt very jarring and both themes could have been better juxtaposed.

Herman also chooses to use impromptu interviews with the couple here, shifting from its observational tone. Using these interviews, we do get direct insight from Alain and Richard on how they feel about the business, Alain being sick and the intolerance they face in the village, but stylistically it just does not flow well. More time spent on moments where the couple discusses their relationship with each other and speak about the alternative nursing home they run would have added a less-forced type of emotional and informational reveal without compromising the rest of the film’s aesthetic.

Les Parents is a beautiful film with an emotional heart that just feels rushed by the conclusion (an unwelcome, sudden ending does not help any). Possibly money was a factor as to why more time wasn’t spent wrapping the story up properly, or the director wanted to leave us to our own devices. Either way, I believe the film deserved one last bit of attention – one last look for a very interesting story’s sake.

3 out of 5

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Hot Docs 2010 in Photos

Here are some screen captures from some of the documentaries I saw at this year's festival.

Little Alex from Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go

Mark Borchardt and Mike Schank in American Movie

Into Great Silence

A resident in La Belle Visite

Mark Hogancamp's alter ego's marriage in Marwencol

The Fabulous Fiff and Fam

Complaints Choir

A Yanomami tribe member in Secrets of the Tribe

The Suh family in The House of Suh

Monday, May 10, 2010

Hot Docs 2010 - A Summary

Today, I offer a round-up of the ten films (twelve including the short films) I saw at this year's Hot Docs Film Festival. A couple amazed me, others disappointed. Here is the list:

General Orders No. 9 by Robert Persons, 2009
A poetic documentary with too much pretension. The narration killed the images onscreen at times, which could have made for a much more interesting film if less was involved. A dreamlike piece on how the American South has been transformed by man throughout time, the director almost resembled the film's antagonist - a being who took something simple and made it unnecessarily overwrought.
2 1/2 out of 5

Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go by Kim Longinotto, 2007
A wonderful film documenting a year in the lives of the staff and students at Mulberry, a school for troubled youths in the UK. Director Longinotto takes a direct cinema approach, displaying relatively no contact with her subjects, using the interaction between them to tell the story. Therefore, the film feels honest, although one may wonder how much the camera provoked the children. Hold Me Tight contains images that range from unsettling to triumphant - children spitting in the faces of adults, but also crying for them when they graduate - so the emotional range the viewer is taken on keeps her/him engaged throughout. One is left concerned about the future of these kids after the credits roll, which is a great achievement for the director. A retrospective was shown of Longinotto's work during the festival.
4 1/2 out of 5

American Movie by Chris Smith, 1999
This year's festival contained a section of films entitled "Ripping Reality", and was a look at achievements in documentary over the past decade. Shamefully I had never heard of Smith's American Movie until reading about it in the Hot Docs program, but what a spectacular film. Absolutely more hilarious than most comedies out there today, this documentary captured the right moments at the right time with the right subjects. The filmmaker hit a goldmine with these characters, a group of amateur filmmakers led by their committed director, Mark Borchardt, out to make a horror feature. Smith is able to achieve a wonderful balance of pathos and hilarity as Mark struggles to finish his film, much to the chagrin of his family members.
5 out of 5

Into Great Silence by Philip Groning, 2007

A quiet (not surprising, seeing the title), repetitive film observing the daily lives of a devout sect of Catholic monks living in silence in the French Alps. At a length of almost three hours, Into Great Silence is an endurance test, as Groning achieves the redundancy of these people's lives through the repetitious use of Biblical text and images, such the daily ringing of the monastery's bell. The best moments of the film were when the filmmaker showed the men taking a break from prayer to enjoy the company of one another, either sledding down a snowy mountain side or finally allowing themselves to chat outside in the summer sun.
More of an achievement I respect and admire than one I would enjoy watching again.
3 1/2 out of 5

The Mirror by David Christensen, 2010
(screened with the short film The Freshwater Plague by Jake Chirico, 2009)

The Mirror is a film I enjoyed, yet maybe had too many expectations for. On paper it sounds like an almost magical tale - a small town in northern Italy loses sunlight for eighty-three days of the year. The town's mayor develops a plan to construct a mirror and place it on the mountainside to reflect sunlight onto the town during those dark months. Christensen was lucky to have a great central character for his documentary - the mayor is outrageous and flamboyant, relishing in the press and in the many phone calls he receives throughout the film. His plan is original and interesting, and he is the perfect person to tell the town's story, yet the film becomes a bit of a muddled mess. The introduction to the film is sloppy and quick. We are introduced to so many characters in little time that confusion is inevitable. The chapters that make up the film also appear to be a lazy construction effort instead of really adding anything to the story. They contain sentences that tell of future scenes to come, even though some are inconsequential. During the Q & A, the director's answers felt very long-winded, which made me understand why The Mirror also felt that way.
3 1/2 out of 5

The Freshwater Plague is a fun short film displaying the invasion of shadflies that arrives every year for two weeks in North Bay, Ontario, Canada. They cover sidewalks and storefronts, creating a nuisance for the citizens of the city. Although containing somewhat annoying, quick shots of buzzing flies to emphasize their pestering ways, the film has some strong visuals and is quite entertaining.
4 out of 5

La Belle Visite by Jean-Francois Caissy, 2010
Maybe my favourite type of documentary, like Longinotto's Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go, La Belle Visite takes an observational approach, using distance instead of interviews to tell its story. Set in a Quebec nursing home that once was a motel, the film follows a group of elderly residents as they play bingo, eat dinner, have visits from the doctor and pray. It is meditative, poetic, simple and beautiful. The distance Caissy kept from his subjects allowed the audience to see portions of the residents' lives we would not normally see. This is also why he did not include many meetings between visitors and the residents. A wonderful film and a definite highlight from the festival.
5 out of 5

Marwencol by Jeff Malmberg, 2010
Already receiving attention after its win at the South by Southwest Festival earlier this year, Marwencol is a remarkable portrait documentary. The film's subject is Mark Hogancamp, a man who was brutally beaten in the nineties, losing all memory of his former life. He finds comfort in his creation of a World War II town for his dolls and barbies in his back yard, painstakingly adding details to each building, vehicle and face. Using his camera, he creates visual stories, but unbeknownst to Hogancamp, these photographs soon come to the attention of a magazine editor, and labelled as gallery-friendly fine art. Watching the documentary, you really get a sense that Hogancamp is very comfortable with Malmberg. He opens up to him like you wouldn't expect someone with his condition would. The subject is fascinating, the story is well-told and edited, and the photographs are stunning.
5 out of 5

Complaints Choir by Abigail Bligaard Soby, 2009
(screened with the short film The Fabulous Fiff and Fam by Solveig Melkeraaen, 2010)

After realizing that The Fabulous Fiff and Fam was a short documentary screening with Complaints Choir, I still opted for a ticket, despite being more interested in the former. Complaints Choir is a bit of a one-trick pony documentary that really does not amount to something more than it could have been. Complaint Choirs are organized around the world by Tellervo Kalleinen and Oliver Koctha-Kalleinen, Finnish artists who believe complaining is a necessary form of cathartic release. They travel to various cities, organizing these choirs where people, after much organization and composition, eventually sing their complaints in public. The documentary focuses on the artists working in two cities: Chicago and Singapore. Although the complaints themselves are humorous, they soon get redundant and lose steam. Nothing else really holds the story together and the film ends up feeling very disjointed. We are introduced to various characters who do not have any real story arc, including the artists. Briefly we see a church group who has organized an anti-complaining campaign, but other than the subject matter, the two groups have nothing to do with each other in the film. There is also a mother Singapore with an autistic adult son finding it extremely difficult to provide for him and a young gay couple, also from Singapore, who have to hide their love from society. We are given glimpses into their lives, yet after tensions heighten due to government opposition to the choir's performance, they are never heard from again. At sixty minutes, the film feels both too short and too long. A short documentary on one of the cities would have contained the humour and drama found in the situation, without using any filler. A longer film could have provided more insight into the participants' lives. A half-baked film without much depth.
2 stars out of 5

The Fabulous Fiff and Fam is a sweet short out of Norway about two elderly women (I seem to have a thing for documentaries about seniors) who have been friends for life. At almost ninety years old, these ladies still take trips together - drinking wine, sitting by the pool, gossiping and reminiscing on their past. The director uses a very cinematic form of shooting to tell the story. The vibrant colours and slow, revealing tracking shots reminded me of The Savages. These ladies are full of life and love each others' company, and the tone of the film really suits their personalities. A poem about childhood and looking forward in life read by one of the women to her friend near the end of the film will have you reaching for a tissue, if mostly for her companion's reaction. Absolutely lovely.
5 out of 5

Secrets of the Tribe by Jose Padilha, 2009

The content in Jose Padilha's documentary is very interesting, yet the way it is compiled and displayed is not. In the 1960s anthropologists traveled to Venezuela to study the Yanomami tribe, a tribe that had no real contact with the outside world before that point. As various anthropologists visit the area and/or read of the studies conducted by these workers, accusations begin to arise. Did these men really conduct medical experiments on members of the tribe that were harmful instead of helpful? Did one man sexual abuse young tribe members? Horrible allegations come out of the dark, and most, if not all, are impossible to now prove. Initial studies on the Yanomami were hailed by anthropologists around the world, yet some are now discounting any credit the ones studying the tribe might have had.
Secrets of the Tribe is highly involving, with great images of the Yanomami people in archival footage and the present. Yet the film is lacking creatively. When the film opens, the audience is bombarded with information and characters, and many talking heads spew details that become unnecessarily complicated. Padilha also uses an odd editing technique, where one interviewee will mention another character, and we are shown a brief clip of that character, usually just sitting in his interviewee position in silence, looking silly. The audience laughed at various times because of this, and all it really added to the film was an obvious sense of manipulation. If one interviewee is talking poorly about another, and we are shown that other person looking dumbfounded and out of context, of course we may tend to side with the person speaking. It may have been an attempt to help the audience understand who was who, but it failed.
3 1/2 out of 5

The House of Suh by Iris K. Shim, 2010

Playing out almost like a crime thriller, The House of Suh was very successful in engaging the audience in a horribly sad and difficult story. A Korean family immigrates to Chicago, parents and two children - a loved son, Andrew and a repeatedly told, unloved daughter, Catherine. As the years pass, Andrew becomes prized while Catherine is ostracized and turns into a rebellious teen. When both parents die while the children are still young, Catherine becomes the head of the household, her boyfriend Robert moving in. Andrew eventually goes off to university, but tensions between Robert and Catherine rise, and as secrets are revealed, Catherine urges Andrew to murder Robert, which he does. Andrew is now serving a one hundred year prison term.
The House of Suh's success is hugely dependent on great story telling. Detail after detail are revealed strategically throughout the film, many causing the audience to emit gasps. Andrew is a very engaging interviewee. He speaks so matter-of-factly about his situation and about what happened, that we believe his every word. The mystery of Catherine also keeps one curious and wanting answers. Shim's use of imagery played a little obvious (i.e. when Andrew spoke of an outside light flickering on, an actual light flickering on is shown), yet I appreciated her intent for re-creation. The use of drawings to portray events also seemed a bit indie-precious and unoriginal, but I began to see their similarity to court-room sketches. With all of its faults, this documentary still amounted to something exciting, sad, concerning and ultimately unforgettable.
4 1/2 out of 5

Monday, May 3, 2010

General Orders No. 9

My first film at Hot Docs 2010 was the experimental documentary feature General Orders. No. 9 by Robert Persons.

General Orders opens in silence as hands from an unknown owner remove trinkets of the past from a drawer - bullet shells, the skeletal head of a bird. The discovery of these small treasures sets the stage for the rest of the film - a poetic montage of the history of a decaying land. The screen is soon flooded with image after image of tranquil Georgian townships - places that seem almost out of place in most of our urbanized lives. A voice with an old southern drawl explains the history of these towns with the aid of stylized black and white maps - where the roads met, that's where the towns were built - like the centre of a wheel. At the centre of town, there was the courthouse, and on the courthouse the clock tower. Finally, perched on the clock tower was the weather vain.

Much of the film plays off of this idea of division of land as a metaphor for it's eventual dissolution. As we are shown beautiful landscapes and the simplicity of lives and towns once popular, we are reminded by the author that this common way of settlement is being lost in the construction of urban high rises and cemented freeways. The filmmaker relies heavily on juxtaposition and montage to create an almost picture book film which he speaks over as the voice of God. But herein lies General Orders' main issue. The narration is a prime example of taking what could be a beautiful collection of images to tell a story, to something far more pretentious and unnecessary. The director's internal ramblings become so forced and vague that the story becomes less about the subject than him attempting to be artistic. His many musings throughout leave the viewer confused and searching for their meaning, even if they are not as important as what, maybe, saying nothing at all could say.

This type of "artistic overkill" is also seen in a fast montage near the end of the film of photographs from around 1900 escalating towards images of urban decay. Set to a score that could have been from a horror film, it became a wildly erratic way of forcing the film's message down our throats one more time. It didn't serve a purpose for the film, yet came across as a way for the director to flex his filmmaking muscle. Like the land of which General Orders speaks, the beautiful pictures that construct a documentary are sometimes best left alone.

2 1/2 out of 5

Friday, April 30, 2010

Hot Docs 2010

What better way to kick things off here at Visions of Non-Fiction, a blog dedicated to the world and history of documentary film and television, than reporting on Toronto's 2010 Hot Docs Film Festival.

Founded in 1993, Hot Docs has grown to become North America's largest documentary film festival. Opening last night with Thomas Balmes' Babies, which follows the first year in the lives of four infants around the globe, Hot Docs runs until next Sunday, May 8th.

will be getting a proper theatrical release that same day, and as it was the first documentary to go into rush screenings, I was not able to purchase a ticket with my pass. I am more than happy, though, to be able to see ten other films that might not get the same kind of exposure as Babies already has. After some research, I have uncovered that a couple of my selections are not quite new and have been released in some capacity at some point in time. Nonetheless, Hot Docs is my favourite film festival of the year and I am happy to discover some treasures that are new unto me.

Tonight I am scheduled to see two films: General Orders No. 9 by Robert Persons and Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go by Kim Longinotto. The latter is a part of a retrospective of the filmmaker's work and was completed in 2007. One is of the decline of the American South displayed through experimental techniques, the other about a boy's school in the UK for troubled youth.

Full reviews will be up in the near future!