Hot Docs 2012 in Brief, Part One: Canadian Spectrum & Next

Though I had a shorter visit in Toronto for Hot Docs than I usually do, and had to balance covering the Forum with fulfilling my duties as a juror for the Canadian Spectrum, I managed to find enough time to watch quite a lot of films – enough to warrant at least three separate posts. Today’s will cover a selection of films from my competition section as well as a few from the music- and art-focused Next section.

Nisha Pahuja has had a great couple of weeks, taking home the top award in the Canadian Spectrum just days after winning Tribeca’s World Documentary Feature award with her film on contrasting expressions of femininity in contemporary India (pictured above). She follows subjects in two distinctive, parallel settings: the Miss India pageant and a Durga Vahini camp, the women’s section of a radical fundamentalist Hindu movement. While both locations offer bracing insight into the limited options afforded to women – beauty objects or defenders of self-repression – it is in the figure of veteran camper Prachi that Pahuja has found a truly remarkable subject. Though clearly self-motivated, independent, and strong, Prachi recognizes that the ideals she says she’s willing to kill for essentially serve to keep her subservient, dependent, and weak.

The four young subjects of Héléne Choquette’s film also have few opportunities. Living an undocumented existence on the dangerous border of Thailand and Burma, where children are often kidnapped for the sex trade, they are originally from Burma, part of the Karen minority. Their only hope is to find a better life through competitive Thai boxing, but it’s fairly clear that it’s unlikely they’ll make it far. Still, in the absence of other possibilities, they have little choice, encouraged by their trainers to push themselves so they can share in some of their winnings. The featurette is nicely photographed and provides just the right amount of context to bring a poignancy to the boys’ stories. At the same time, it stumbles in adequately and clearly differentiating them, making it difficult for viewers to embrace them as individuals.

Just as the boys’ fate seems to hang over them, so to does that of director Carlo Guillermo Proto’s father in this unusually candid personal documentary. Gustavo, a Chilean immigrant to Canada, lost his own father to suicide as a teen, and has apparently been in the grips of a profound depression for most of his life. Concerned that his memory is slipping, he takes tests to determine if he is developing Alzheimer’s, and discusses committing suicide rather than become a burden to his family – a topic that he’s brought up more than once before. Carlo effectively juggles his role as son and director without being exploitative, but the real surprise here is the matter-of-factness demonstrated by the entire family around Gustavo’s issues. It makes for a strangely compelling – albeit frankly bizarre – viewing experience somewhere between a family therapy session and an existential drama.

Unusual family dynamics are also the focus of Christy Garland’s film. Set in Guyana, the primary subjects are Muscle, a working class man with dreams of attaining the middle class, and his 75-year-old mother, Mary, an alcoholic with a traumatic past who has a penchant for sneaking away to the town center on the hunt for alcohol. In between working and tending to his birds – he engages in cockfighting and competitive songbird contests to raise money to open a bar – Muscle must employ some toughlove on Mary. Fearful that she will fall or be knocked over on the road – as has happened before – he has taken to locking her up like his caged birds, placating her with shots of vodka. Garland conveys her subjects personalities and failings with dignity, but also brings an unrelenting sadness and repetitive quality to the doc. While this may match the cycles of addiction and abuse under which its protagonists live, this and the sometimes rough technical aspects may lessen its impact for some audience members.

Angad Singh Bhalla’s look at the collaboration between a prisoner and an artist simultaneously forces viewers to contemplate the experience of solitary confinement and to relish the idea of freedom. Imprisoned in the notorious Angola prison for four decades, Black Panther Herman Wallace has spent much of that time alone in a six-by-nine-foot cell. Working with artist and activist Jackie Sumell, he describes his ideal house, and Jackie sets out to make it a reality in post-Katrina Louisiana. Featuring strong characters, Bhalla’s film powerfully addresses institutionalized racism in America’s judicial system and the power of art and imagination to transcend physical bonds. However, Herman only appears in the film via phone conversations. While this appropriately underscores his lack of freedom, this leaves Jackie to carry the balance of the film. Frankly she’s not as interesting as Herman, and the consequent focus on a white woman in what should really be the story of a black man unfortunately serves to undercut an otherwise solid project.

Another big issue is tackled in Charles Wilkinson’s doc, the winner of the Special Jury Prize. The subject here is energy, and, more importantly, our addiction to it. With such a huge topic, Wilkinson smartly chooses to localize it, focusing on Canada’s Peace River, and four major energy development projects that promise to address the nation’s energy needs – gas, nuclear, hydroelectric, and tar sands. Experts on both sides of the environmental debate weigh in on the impact these projects will have on the region, while, for his part, the director asks the more cutting question – why can’t we use less? While the film taps into global concerns, it is very much a Canadian-centric film, however, which will likely limit its appeal, and I personally didn’t care for the style of the narration. That said, the doc is well-made, with slick photography especially emphasizing the beauty of the Peace River.

Najeeb Mirza’s immersive documentary on an unusual sport in Tajikistan similarly features gorgeous visuals. The titular game goes back centuries and involves scores of horsemen attempting to wrestle a goat’s carcass from one another. The main players are Azam, a shepherd for whom the sport represents national pride; Khurshed, a shady wealthy businessman who improbably hopes to bring the sport to the Olympics; and Askar, a young player whose problems with sponsors lead him to make a controversial alliance with Khurshed. I wish Mirza did a better job of clarifying the gameplay – even if it’s not that important, what the viewer is confronted with instead is an often confusing chaos – lovingly photographed, to be sure, but chaos nonetheless. Despite this, the film succeeds through well-defined characters and its extraordinary setting and sport, without resorting to ethnography.

Jonah Bekhor and Zach Math’s playful exploration of the Icelandic Phallological Museum succeeds through largely similar means – they’ve found some great characters and a truly one-of-a-kind topic, and have the benefit of Iceland’s almost unreal landscape to provide breathtaking visuals. Once again, there are three main subjects: Siggi, the likable curator of the museum, who has spent decades amassing the penises of every mammal except a human; Páll, a now-ancient legendary Icelandic adventurer and lothario, willing to donate his member upon his death; and Tom, an oddball (and borderline creepy) American so enamored with his penis – named Elmo – that he’s even willing to have it amputated so that he can make it into the museum before Páll does. A worthy addition to the oeuvre of docs on eccentrics – like I THINK WE’RE ALONE NOW, THE INVENTION OF DR NAKAMATS, and many more – Bekhor and Math’s film is focused, engaging, and, if lightweight, still very enjoyable, revealing the complex hold that the penis has over men.

Also generally enjoyable and lighter is Omar Majeed and Ryan Mullins’ behind-the-scenes look at a drama therapy workshop for the developmentally challenged. Dr Stephen Snow spends months facilitating his charges’ development of an adaptation of a well-known fairytale. Emerging as appealing underdog subjects are Ray-Man and Tanya, two troupe members who best exemplify how they’ve gained confidence, interpersonal skills, and independence through Snow’s process, not only on stage, but in their daily lives. The filmmakers reveal the story of their personal growth as the impending production draws ever closer, with backstage romances, stagefright, and other crises providing the expected drama.

Shifting over to the Next section, Jukka Kärkkäinen and J-P Passi’s film also highlights the developmentally disabled using performance to express themselves. In this case, it’s through punk rock. The four members of the Finnish band Pertti Kurikka’s Name Day might have challenges that other musicians don’t have to contend with, but they also deal with a lot of the same issues – infighting, jealousy, and creative differences. Their experiences inform their music, perfectly feeding into the raw, angry energy of punk, allowing them to sound off against how the disabled are treated in society on one hand, or how much they hate compulsory pedicures on the other. The film pulls no punches, upends expectations, and should win over viewers whether they are punk music fans or not.

Punk was clearly just as important a vehicle of self-expression for the women of the influential Fifth Column, whose history and impact are related in Kevin Hegge’s loving doc. Interviews with the band members, especially the driving forces GB Jones, Caroline Azar, and Beverly Breckenridge, lay out Fifth Column’s origins in the queer music and art scene of the once-tough Toronto of the mid-1980s. Embracing DIY, they promoted an anarchic creativity through their music, zines, and films, serving as inspiration for the later Riot Grrrl movement, and introducing Bruce LaBruce to the world. While at times tending to the hagiographic, the band engaged in enough self-destructive behavior that Hegge can’t help but present some of the dark side, such as the zine war pitting a supposed “sell-out” LaBruce against Jones and others. Beyond collecting an amazing amount of archival material – performances, videos, interviews – the film is perhaps most successful in demonstrating how like-minded misfits were able to come together in an era before digital social media to create community and art with a lasting legacy.

Ventriloquists might be just above mimes for some people in the category of misfit performers. Recognizing that it might be time to give up her ventriloquist act, Nina Conti – acting as both director and subject – learns that her mentor (and former lover) Ken Campbell has died and bequeathed all of his dummies to her. What’s more, he wants her to go to Vent Haven, the site of the largest ventriloquist convention in the world, and home to a museum that serves as the last stop for unwanted puppets. Setting out for Kentucky with her trusty but acerbic sidekick Monkey and a number of new charges, including an old man puppet through which she tries to channel Ken, Nina explores her artform in order to decide if it’s time to retire or not. Executive produced by Christopher Guest, and the winner of an audience award at SXSW, this is a strange film that really shouldn’t work, but absolutely does. Nina’s conversations with her puppets – clearly a form of self-therapy – are revelatory about the anxiety she feels about her career and about Ken’s passing. Monkey is the interviewer for many key scenes, putting the viewer in the odd position of accepting him and the other dummies as full-fledged characters, separate from Nina. The result is unsettling, but not in a bad way, and may even make people who hate ventriloquist acts look twice.

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Filed under Documentary, Film, Film Festivals, In Brief, Recommendations

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