Monday, May 9, 2011

Hot Docs 2011 - Buck

By Cindy Meehl, 2011

My last screening of the festival was yesterday, Sunday, May 8. A Mother's Day afternoon showing of Buck, Cindy Meehl's tale of Buck Brannaman, a traveling horse whisperer and horse clinic organizer, proved to be a wonderful way to end my venture into Hot Docs 2011. Brannaman's story of personal growth after a childhood of pain and becoming an amazingly talented and patient presence around horses was a hit at Sundance earlier this year and (just announced) placed sixth in Hot Docs' Top Ten People's Choice standings. Brannaman is an amazing subject. Interesting, handsome and hilarious, his poise, wisdom and grace carry the film. The landscapes are beautiful and the scenes with untamed horses at the clinics are tense, frightening and exciting. Meehl has captured something special here, for horse lovers or not.

5 out of 5

Hot Docs 2011 - The Forgotten Space

The Forgotten Space
By Allan Sekula and Noel Burch, 2011

After the high of seeing The Interrupters, I rushed to a cinema in the same complex to see The Forgotten Space by Allan Sekula and Noel Burch. I had to skip a Q&A with Interrupters' director Steve James in order to catch this film, but I was soon wishing I hadn't. Maybe it was because I had just seen a very engagingly emotional piece, but I never really found myself connecting to The Forgotten Space, a film about the the effects of globalization on the transport industry. The film seemed more suited for a television news program, but even then, with its cloying voiceover and unfocused editing and subject matter, I don't know who would have found it particularly enthralling. Maybe a second chance is needed, but I doubt that will happen anytime soon.

2 out of 5

Hot Docs 2011 - The Interrupters

The Interrupters
By Steve James, 2011

Hoop Dreams director Steve James came to the Hot Docs Film Festival this year with a documentary about the state of violence in Chicago. The Interrupters follows the workers of a group named CeaseFire, a committee dedicated to intervening in altercations and preventing violence in the harsh streets of their city. The film is a lengthy 142 minutes, but the screening felt steady and brisk. With this film, James has captured a city in turmoil with grace, humour and empathy, and he succeeds as well as he does because of the wonderful subjects he interviews and focuses on. CeaseFire's Ameena, Eddie and Cobe offer a world of history and wisdom not just to the many young Chicagoans they are helping, but to the audience as well. The film is edited in the default "seasons of the year" style, but it is such an emotional and powerful piece that tears were often running down my face throughout the screening. Another festival favourite.

5 out of 5

Hot Docs 2011 - At The Edge of Russia

At The Edge of Russia
By Michal Marczak, 2011

A young officer in the Russian military is sent to the country's northern border. Meeting his fellow patriots at their log cabin-like outpost, they are given the task of patrolling the snowy, barren land for invaders. Marczak has really captured something magical in At The Edge of Russia, as everything comes together wonderfully. The snowy landscape is beautiful and haunting, and the outpost itself becomes a secluded haven, a character itself. Speaking of characters, the director could not have found more interesting subjects. Without the use of interviews, we come to know the men, each with their own words of wisdom for the young recruit and each with their own characteristics and standings within the makeshift family. They pass their days with futile training activities, distracting themselves occasionally with games, songs and dances. The men's jobs may appear boring, watching the film is anything but. A real highlight from this year's festival.

5 out of 5

Hot Docs 2011 - Living Skin (with Guanape Sur)

Guanape Sur
By Janos Richter, 2011

Guanape is a short film that preceded the screening of Living Skin. Both films were a part of the Workers of the World series at this year's festival and both films came up slight for me as I had higher expectations. The short documentary is beautiful visually and the subject is highly promising: workers are sent to an island off the coast of Peru every eleven years to collect bird excrement that has hardened and turned into profitable fertilizer. Many risk injuring themselves due to infections, illnesses and the peril found on the steep landscape. When the film abruptly ended, I found myself wanting more. More scenes of the interesting landscape, more focus on how the fertilizer is collected and organized, and more intimacy with the workers. Sometimes Abrupt endings feel warranted.. Sometimes they just feel... abrupt.

3 out of 5

Living Skin
By Fawzi Saleh, 2011

In the bustling city of Cairo, child workers play a prominent role. Living Skin is a mid-length documentary following various young boys as they work in the city's tanneries, handling animal skins, treating them with dangerous chemicals and shipping them by horse and cart. The conditions these boys live and work in are shocking and Saleh does a wonderful job capturing their daily routines, but its chosen structure comes off as a bit too easy and sloppy. The film is edited into days of the week, but for no apparent reason, because after the title card with the date is shown, one day is undecipherable from the next. The film is also heavy with narration from the boys, which plays over scenes of them working. The narration is interesting at times, such as when the boys speak about their work, but there are also tangents from them about girls they love and other feelings that, although are cute, come off as unfocused and would have been better presented elsewhere.

3 out of 5

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Hot Docs 2011 - We Were Here

We Were Here
By David Weissman, 2011

Weissman’s feature documents the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco from its uncovering in the late 1970s and early 1980s to its slowdown, yet still much alive state, today. We Were Here is a “talking heads” documentary, which can leave the viewer, such as myself, hungry for more visual and creative flair. But the interviews presented here are just so heartbreaking and involving, really making this film something to cherish. Interviewing various subjects who lived through the era: a florist, a nurse, a hospital volunteer, Weissman intercuts their words with haunting visuals of lives lost and of citizens in political and social unrest. Without said visual flair and a concrete ending (but could there really be an ending with such a subject?), the film risks alienating audiences, but the director has compiled such fantastic interviewees that I wonder if there was a dry eye in the entire theatre last night. A wonderful film and a great history lesson.

4 ½ out of 5

Hot Docs 2011 - Zelal

By Marianne Khoury & Mustapha Hasnaoui, 2011

Directors Khoury and Hasnaouri confine themselves inside the walls of a Cairo mental institution in their film Zelal, their camera rarely leaving the hard and worn faces of the resident patients. It can be a difficult film to watch as we learn many patients (I want to write inmates) have been abandoned by their spouses and families, with some showing signs of possible sanity but no freedom of choice. The direct cinema style displays haunting portraits of people forgotten by the outside world, but also creates a sort of redundant showcase: the ramblings of the insane become almost synonymous. The film should be seen for its unnerving view inside a world that is rarely observed, a world that should be opened up and renovated in its infrastructure and healthcare. But be prepared for possible boredom.

3 out of 5

Hot Docs 2011 - The Casle

The Castle
By Massimo D’Anolfi & Martina Parenti, 2011

The Castle is a cinema verite-style documentary focusing on various characters working, arriving, departing and living in the Malpensa Airport in Milan. Whether it’s a young man being questioned for smuggling drugs, people’s bags and phones being extensively searched or a hilarious bomb specialist investigating an abandoned suitcase, D’Anolfi and Parenti are allowed incredible access. The film asks no questions, but just observes with a wonderfully steady (although sometimes too steady) hand. A great piece of direct cinema.

4 out of 5

Monday, May 2, 2011

Hot Docs 2011 - The Hollywood Complex

The Hollywood Complex
By Dan Sturman and Dylan Nelson, 2011

Set in the Oakwood Hotel in Los Angeles, California, The Hollywood Complex focuses on the families of child actors who stay there during the annual Hollywood television pilot season. While some families leave after the season is over, many stay year after year, their children taking classes and going to auditions. The film is pretty wonderful overall, displaying shocking and hilarious portraits of money-hungry parents and agents, and children wanting fame before anything else. The subject is one that needs to be uncovered and presented to the public, as much of the casting process for these children is startling. But as one of the directors stated during the Q&A, many classic films could not have been made without children, so there is a troubling conflict of sorts. If I have one complaint, it is with the same director trying to cover up his tracks during the Q&A by saying that he was worried by some of the audience’s laughter during scenes and that he hoped they presented not only the bad and the ugly, but also the good. I believe that much of the reaction to the film, with such subject matter, is unavoidable, and that the “good” really wasn’t much on display here. It did come off as an indictment of an institution, which is nothing to be ashamed of. And as a personal conflict: as much as I enjoyed the documentary and participated in the laughter, I just hope the film’s children never see it.

4 out of 5

Hot Docs 2011 - Maids and Bosses (with Three Walls)

Three Walls
By Zaheed Mawani, 2011

Screening before the mid-length feature Maids and Bosses, Three Walls is a terrific short about the history, design and society’s current feelings towards the modern-day cubicle. Director Mawani intercuts wonderful shots of factory workers building cubicle walls with the testimonies of several office workers and architectural designers. The film is a hilarious and poignant look at not just the physical structure, but office life in general.
4 1/2 out of 5

Maids and Bosses
By Abner Benaim, 2011

This year Hot Docs has a series entitled Workers of the World, a category that holds three of the films I will be seeing during the festival. Maids and Bosses is one of these films, which presents the dichotomy of servant and master in modern-day Panama. The film showcases both maid and house-owner, allowing each to tell their stories of either strife or success, with most of the sentiment belying the maids who have to undergo less than desirable treatment from their bosses. Many of these maids tell compellingly startling stories of absurd treatment, yet the film trivializes them with sometimes-unfitting music and strange and long cinematic diversions, such as a child making a mess in a toy room in slow-motion. I feel if the film followed two or three maids’ stories and used a more cinema verite approach, the film could have been more successful.
3 out of 5

Hot Docs 2011 - Wisconsin Death Trip

Wisconsin Death Trip
By James Marsh, 1999

Part of the Ripping Reality series at this year’s Hot Docs Festival, which screens “looked-over” gems from the past ten or so years, Wisconsin Death Trip is Man on Wire director James Marsh’s look at the strange events that occurred in one small Wisconsin town between 1890 and 1900. Edited as almost a photo essay, the film uses articles from the town’s newspaper to list off what happened and incorporates wonderfully filmed reenactments to go along with the narration. Although the almost unbelievable occurrences make the film very engrossing, the ‘compilation’ feel of the editing (event after event after event) creates an expected tiresomeness.

3 1/2 out of 5