Hot Docs 2011 in Brief, Part Two: Competition

In my week in Toronto, I managed to see enough notable films at Hot Docs to warrant a couple of posts here to supplement those titles discussed in my indieWIRE coverage. This post looks at a selection of films in the festival’s international and Canadian competitions, while the next will cover the remaining sections.

The winner of the International Spectrum was DRAGONSLAYER, repeating its SXSW win, with honorable mentions to Sundance winner HELL AND BACK AGAIN and GRANDE HOTEL, while AT THE EDGE OF RUSSIA claimed the HBO Documentary Films Emerging Artist Award. Remaining notable titles in this section include the following:

BOY CHEERLEADERS
My only real complaint with James Newton’s hourlong profile of UK boys cheerleading team (pictured above), the DAZL Diamonds, is that the subjects are so endearing that its running time is not long enough to delve deeper into their stories. This highly enjoyable doc spotlights a number of boys and their tough coach, Ian, as he preps the lads for nationals and a TV appearance. The film only touches upon whatever flack the participants may have received for engaging in a traditionally girls’ activity, and chooses instead to focus on what their involvement has done for the lower- and working class boys’ confidence and sense of self-discipline.

PHNOM PENH LULLABY
Cultures clash in Polish director Pawel Kloc feature debut, the story of Israeli Ilan and Khmer Saran, an unlikely and highly dysfunctional couple living in Cambodia. There’s something off about Ilan, who is likely as much an outsider in his native Israel as he is on the streets of Phnom Penh. Saran is an alcoholic with multiple children who she clearly can’t take care of, including her six-month-old Jasmine, apparently Ilan’s, and two-year-old Marie, whose father is in Singapore. The couple (mis)communicate, and argue, in painfully broken English, even as they struggle to barely subsist by telling tourists’ fortunes. Not always easy to watch, the film nevertheless offers an eye-opening look at lives on the margins, as they contend with poverty, exploitation, and each other.

THE COLLABORATOR AND HIS FAMILY
Speaking of Israelis, directors Adi Barash and Ruthie Schatz (whose doc THE GARDEN premiered at Sundance in 2004) tell the story of the Palestinian El-Akel family living in Israel. The patriarch, Ibrahim, seeking better opportunities for his family, worked as an informant for the Israeli security services for 20 years in exchange for asylum and identity papers. The film follows Ibrahim, his wife Yusra, their three teenage sons, and two toddler daughters over more than two years after they have fled to Israel fearing persecution due to Ibrahim’s collaboration. Status-less during this time, tensions build between the El-Akels as the teens resent being treated like criminals by Israeli authorities, and as Yusra grows impatient with how long it’s taking for Ibrahim’s handler to make good on his promise. Barash and Schatz offer a close-up, sympathetic, and complex portrait of a man dealing with the unexpected consequences of his own sacrifices.

LOVE CRIMES OF KABUL
Staying in the Middle East, Tanaz Eshaghian, whose previous film BE LIKE OTHERS premiered at Sundance and won multiple awards at Berlin, debuted her new project here about inmates in an Afghani women’s prison. In contrast to the violent and destructive criminals they are housed with, the four women profiled stand accused of “moral crimes” – pre-marital sex, running away from home, and housing a runaway woman – that threaten the tenets of Afghani society. Potentially facing 15-20 years for their shameful actions, the women offer matter-of-fact recounting of the circumstances of their crimes for Eshaghian’s equally no-frills camera – a product of the shooting circumstances. At the same time, they prepare for trial, and weigh their options on how they can mitigate their situations – often by marrying. The film presents fascinating, direct insight into women’s status in the eyes of Afghanistan’s legal system, as well as the contradictions of sexual behavior in a traditional, repressed society.

NEW CASTLE
Best documentary winner at last year’s Pusan, Chinese director Guo Hengqi’s observational portrait of a remote lime- and coal-mining village in the Shanxi province highlights challenges to modernization to traditional societies. While perhaps obliquely referencing the old British saying about carrying coal to Newcastle, the film’s title is a literal translation of the name of the village, Xinbu, and also points to one of its central concerns – with the population dwindling, the government plans to destroy Xinbu’s ancient homes and relocate the residents to new row houses. Guo explores the punishing and dangerous lives of miners in the area, as well as other Xinbu residents, as they respond to the changes wrought on their lives and traditions by the government’s controversial “New Socialist Countryside” development plans. While the film has a perhaps too-leisurely pace, it nevertheless provides an affecting glimpse into a community on the cusp of radical change.

Shifting over to the Canadian Spectrum competition, which honors Canadian filmmakers, the big winner was FAMILY PORTRAIT IN BLACK AND WHITE, which premiered earlier this year at Sundance. A Special Jury Prize was shared by THE GUANTANAMO TRAP and the Cannes-bound AT NIGHT, THEY DANCE, neither of which I was able to see, unfortunately – as was the case with most of the films in this section. In addition to THE HILLTOPS, I can offer thoughts on a couple of others, however:

BEAUTY DAY
There’s something undeniably charming about Jay Cheel’s film, which previously screened at MoMA’s Canadian Front. The doc’s affable, eccentric subject, Ralph Zavadil, achieved a small share of cable access infamy in the early 1990s in his persona of “Cap’n Video,” the host of his own stupid human tricks show – think JACKASS years before Johnny Knoxville brought his show to MTV. Named after one of the Cap’n’s typical exclamations, Cheel’s doc catches up with Zavadil now, who lost his show after a particular stunt went too far, and wants back on the boob tube for his 20th anniversary, now that viewers accustomed to YouTube have finally caught up with his vision. This isn’t a doc that will change the world, but it makes for an enjoyable 90 minutes of almost wholly unknown TV history.

WIEBO’S WAR
Reverend Wiebo Ludwig’s fight against oil companies is a compelling and contentious starting point for David York’s film, which received an honorable mention from the Hot Docs jury. A difficult and at times argumentative subject, Ludwig leads a small religious community, Trickle Creek, where his family wished to live apart from secular society, only to be forced to deal with the oil industry drilling for gas under his property, and the toxic sour gas emitted. Labeled an eco-terrorist by some, the authorities try to pin a series of sabotage bombing on him, since Trickle Creek has been vocal about their opposition to the mining, citing health concerns, livestock deaths, and spontaneous abortions as likely results of the toxic pollution. Unfortunately, the impact of the film is often severely diminished by York’s ill-advised decision to narrate (to excess), and, more distractingly, to insert himself even further into the film’s narrative in filmed discussions with Ludwig and his followers about their concerns that his atheism will color the project. This information is fine for background information in the presskit, but adds very little to the film – it doesn’t need to be on screen.

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