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