Here’s the second of two posts with my brief considerations of the documentaries I watched at TIFF last week (for part one, covering ANPO, COOL IT, CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS, and ARMADILLO, click here):
GAME OF DEATH
Christophe Nick & Thomas Bornot’s doc looks at the updating of the infamous Stanley Milgram experiment at Yale University in the early 1960s. As most people who’ve taken college psychology will remember, Milgram tested individuals’ obedience to authority figures, seeing if ordinary people would potentially shock a man to death if they felt they were merely following orders and wouldn’t be personally held responsible. Witnessing the role of humiliation and punishment in modern reality TV, the film adapts the experiment into a game show format to surprising results. GAME OF DEATH is very watchable, but it feels and looks like the TV project that it is. In addition, there are odd omissions in its analysis of the results – most notably the absence of consideration of the effect of the prize component to the tests subjects in this adaptation.
The environment continues to be a huge topic for documentary filmmakers, with a number of films at TIFF focusing on various issues, including COOL IT, WINDFALL, and this Irish production. Director Risteard Ó Domhnaill firmly couches his film on the impact of a proposed natural gas pipeline in human terms, using a number of citizens of the town of Rossport as everymen resister figures against the machinations of the Shell oil company. The foul-mouthed Maura stages a hunger strike, while fisherman Pat defiantly enters dangerous waters, both try to force the multinational corporation to take stock of the hazards their plan will bring to the community, its means of livelihood, and its way of life. Their David vs Goliath struggles are often engaging, but there is a certain repetitiveness on display that grows a little weary. Still, there’s much to appreciate and learn from a community that refuses to back down from seemingly insurmountable odds.
Another community’s energy-related struggle is the basis for Laura Israel’s film, which looks at what happens when wind energy development comes to smalltown Meredith, NY. The promise of economic benefit from allowing the installation of massive windmills gets some of the townspeople’s interest, but a growing vocal faction, researching the hidden costs involved with living in the literal shadow of 400-foot towers, became dead-set against allowing the wind companies access to the community. As neighbor faces off against neighbor, serious questions are posed about responsible ways to develop and implement clean energy, and how to do so in a way that doesn’t have a detrimental impact to those who should be benefiting from it.
Kim Longinotto has deservedly built a world-class reputation as a champion of women’s issues in her documentarians. Her latest film, having its world premiere at TIFF, may be more confrontational than some of her previous, slower-paced observational studies, but that’s only appropriate, given her protagonist. Sampat Pal Devi is the leader of the “Pink Gang,” a movement in progress that aims to empower women in remote northern India’s Uttar Pradesh, a place still steeped in misogynist practices. Sampat emerges as a tireless and outspoken crusader, directly and loudly confronting men about their abuses in the hopes of bringing a sea change to the region’s antiquated culture. While the film overstays its welcome by a good 10-15 minutes of fairly repetitive sequences, Longinotto has once again succeeded in turning her spotlight on a necessary issue.
THE SOUND OF MUMBAI: A MUSICAL
I must confess that I’m typically not a fan of musicals, but for some reason, perhaps because it screened annually while I was growing up and there was nothing else to watch on TV, I like THE SOUND OF MUSIC. For this reason, I’m strangely predisposed to like Sarah McCarthy’s portrait of a group of Mumbai slum dwelling kids who are given the opportunity to perform the songs from the Rodgers and Hammerstein production at an upper-crust performing arts center (pictured at the top). Kid-focused docs can really overdose on the saccharine cute factor, but the director very smartly limits her story to center on a couple of kids – chiefly the hopeful Ashish, who is given a solo that goes to his head, much to the chagrin of his best friend turned jealous rival, Mangesh – the latter’s catty comments are welcome standouts. As the film builds up to the night of the concert, the score effectively, if sometimes too obviously, comments on the kids’ sadly naive dreams that their one-night performance will lead to a path out of their endemic low-caste poverty. While I’ve been tempted to call the film a guilty pleasure, that’s not exactly right, because it’s clear that McCarthy knows what she’s doing – while it seems a surefire crowdpleaser that some audiences might just take at surface level – cute moppets singing songs – there’s an intelligent social commentary running at the same time.