Hot Docs 2011 in Brief, Part Three: Other Sections

My previous Hot Docs post covered a number of films in the just-wrapped fest’s two competitions. Today, I’ll look at a selection of docs from the World Showcase, the national spotlight, and the Next sections.

I’ve already written about four other World Showcase titles in my indieWIRE article (THE BATTLE FOR BARKING, MATCHMAKING MAYOR, NO ENTRY NO EXIT, and SOMEWHERE BETWEEN, which was just named the winner of the fest’s Audience Choice award). My colleague Peter Knegt covered another, YOU’VE BEEN TRUMPED, here. I’ve written about additional titles in the section in my roundups of Sundance, SXSW, T/F, Tribeca, and Dallas. Three new titles not previously covered include:

Roberts Rubins found an intriguing subject for his character study in a thirteen-year-old Latvian boy (pictured above). Though the film never makes it explicit, one wonders if Rudolf might perhaps be a touch autistic – somewhat awkward and largely a loner, he spends his time creating dangerous traps in the woods and making homemade horror “films” on long strips of parchment paper, meticulously drawing each frame and narrating bloody stories for whoever will listen. When the local priest challenges him to make a religious film to screen at church, Rudolf finds a father figure as well as a tough producer who offers direction to harness his creativity. Refreshingly, the doc embraces Rudolf’s artistic expression, a sort of outsider art that provides a constructive outlet, with no judgement, simply giving the boy a larger screen to tell his stories.

After years of growing up knowing he was adopted, filmmaker Steve Lickteig learned the identity of his biological mother, which not only his family, but his entire community, knew and kept from him. Obviously a very personal film, Lickteig explores not only what impact this information has had on his own sense of identity, but on his understanding of his family’s dynamics, particularly how his upbringing greatly differed from that of his older siblings. As he pieces more of the backstory together, the audience becomes privy to the complex interplay between his siblings, adoptive parents, biological parents, and the outside community, forced to stay quiet lest the entire lie Lickteig’s identity is built around comes to light. Given the subject matter, it’s understandable that the film at times strays slightly into over-indulgence, but ultimately, it’s a fascinating exploration of identity, family, and small town life.

Having its world premiere here, Jennifer McShane’s film is a profile of the maximum-security Bedford Hills Women’s Correctional Facility, and five inmates who are trying to manage their responsibilities as mothers during their incarceration. With women as the fastest growing population in US prisons, these women’s circumstances are not as unusual as one might expect. Through the course of the film, they reveal their crimes – ranging from drug offenses and robbery to manslaughter and murder – but try to make up for their past misdeeds through working in the prison’s children’s center, overseen by Sister Elaine, who feels prison punishes the women’s innocent children by keeping them separated. Though a worthwhile and largely successful project, I suspect a deeper concentration on fewer subjects would have made the film even better – some of McShane’s characters are strong, while others fail to make much of an impression, and lead to an occasional sense of scattered focus.

Narrowing from a global perspective to a national one, Hot Docs this year put the spotlight on Italy. My iW article already looked at I AM JESUS, but I also had a chance to view three other films from the Made In Italy section:

Massimo D’Anolfi and Martina Parenti’s exceptional in-depth, semi-experimental look at airport security was also part of the International Spectrum, and was rightfully recognized with a Special Jury prize. Setting up their cameras at Milan’s Malpensa Airport, the filmmakers capture a series of tableaux on the various aspects of security – from inspecting the runways to interviewing potential criminals trying to come into the country. While scenes might test some viewers’ endurance, I found the film riveting in its simple, yet gorgeously composed, static framing, which evoked – purposefully, I’m sure – a sense of watching security camera footage. This was easily one of my favorites at Hot Docs.

I was shocked to find myself engrossed by Gianfranco Rosi’s unorthodox biography of a Mexican drug cartel hitman, because, frankly, I was ready to write it off after the first few minutes. The film consists of a single interview with the Juarez hitman, wearing a black cowl that completely covers his face, in the titular hotel room. In lieu of archival photos or footage, the hitman semi-illustrates his confession by jotting notes or crudely sketching cars or houses in a blank book on his lap, or, to a more limited extent, physically re-enacts a particular kidnapping and torture case that once took place in that self-same room. It shouldn’t work at all, but the effect becomes strangely hypnotic very quickly.

When Kosovar mother Shpresa learns from an Italian charity that her Down syndrome baby needs heart surgery, she leaves her other children with her husband and travels to Milan. But neither she nor her husband, both uneducated, understand precisely how delicate infant surgery is. Stuck in a foreign country, Shpresa must contend not only with her anxieties about the surgery, but also the increasingly erratic and potentially dangerous phone calls she receives from her suspicious husband. Francesca Scalisi captures a different kind of drama than she initially anticipated in this gripping story of a mother torn between the needs of her child and the demands of her husband – and the Italian case worker caught in the middle.

Finally, aside from films seen elsewhere (RESURRECT DEAD, CINEMA KOMUNISTO, and THE BALLAD OF GENESIS & LADY JAYE) I was only able to screen one film in the festival’s Next section, which focuses on the arts, creativity, and pop culture:

It’s no surprise that Gereon Wetzel, whose delectable EL BULLI also screened at Hot Docs, is behind this bibliophile’s dream documentary, together with director Jörg Adolph. Like the film on chef Ferran Adria, this new biography goes behind the scenes with another master craftsman – renowned publisher Gerhard Steidl. Steidl is followed in the process of putting together different projects – from a waiting list that’s four years long! – including collaborations with Günter Grass, Karl Lagerfeld, and Robert Frank.

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Filed under Documentary, Film, Film Festivals, In Brief

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