Hot Docs 2012 in Brief, Part Two: International Spectrum, Special Presentations & Nightvision

My thoughts on documentaries at this year’s Hot Docs continues with a look at selections from the International Spectrum, Special Presentations, and Nightvision sections. I was very intrigued by the latter, a new section this year devoted to films that stretch the idea of documentary filmmaking, and was only sorry to have missed what sounded like a really fun title, FINDING TRUELOVE.

Winner of the Best International Feature award in the International Spectrum category, as well as the Best Documentary Teddy Award earlier this year in Berlin, Malika Zouhali-Worrall and Katherine Fairfax Wright’s stirring film is a timely chronicle of LGBT activism in Uganda (pictured above). Influenced in part by archaic British colonial anti-sodomy laws and by the despicable hate-mongering of American evangelical missionaries, Ugandans have been mobilized against the so-called “homosexual agenda,” with religious and political leaders advocating for the death penalty for gays, tabloids gleefully publishing exposés that encourage violence, and courageous men like out activist David Kato, the main subject of the film, being murdered midway through the production. At the right place at the right time, the filmmakers were able to ensure that audiences get a sense of Kato and his mission, reminding viewers that much is left to be done.

Aussie director David Tucker’s look at the culture clash between the East and the West was also a winner at the festival, picking up the award for Best Mid-Length Documentary. Middle-aged Welsh businessman Ted initially enjoys his experiences in Thailand, matter-of-factly noting that his money could buy significantly more attractive companionship than he could hope for back home. But when he decides bargirl Tip might make a good wife, he relocates to start a new life that doesn’t go exactly as either party expected. Reflective of their cultural differences, Ted is more open about his predicament, presenting himself as a victim, while Tip is cooler and less revealing. This “he said, she said” structure leads the viewer to acknowledge that neither is completely innocent or completely at fault, acknowledging the economic disparities that motivated both characters.

The two subjects of Ida Grøn’s doc don’t have quite the dramatic relationship as Ted and Tip – at least not due to one another. Set in a Danish hospital, this moving film follows Angus the clown as he visits children fighting cancer – like six-year-old Tobias. Tobias, who the audience is told has a pretty grim chance of recovery, endures painful-to-watch treatments, but is able to lose himself in play during the two times a week that Angus visits. Their time together is surprisingly affecting and authentic – this is no hokey PATCH ADAMS fluff – and Grøn’s featurette is just about the perfect length.

Tamar Tal’s featured couple is 96-year-old Miriam and her grandson Ben, whose enjoyable bickering carries this intergenerational journey to preserve a legacy. At stake is Pri-Or, the photo studio Miriam ran in Tel Aviv with her late husband for four decades, now slated for demolition in the interests of urban redevelopment. Working together, the grumpy grandmother (so old she doesn’t care who knows what she really thinks) and her patient grandson appeal to the powers that be and to their customers to help them save the store. A small but lovely film.

The teenage best friends in Elizabeth Mims and Jason Tippet’s remarkable feature documentary debut live in a suburban desert town and are left largely to their own devices. Lanky Garrison and goofy Kevin spend their time skateboarding or hanging out in abandoned homes, enjoying the neverending summer until a confession of a stolen kiss with the pretty Skye destabilizes the careful equilibrium of their friendship, and signals the awkward but inevitable transition from adolescence to young adulthood. Mims and Tippet achieve an astonishing level of naturalistic intimacy, conveying their subjects as fully-realized characters that seem universally familiar yet distinct. Viewers will feel wonderfully lost in Garrison, Kevin, and Skye’s world during the course of the film, and experience a palpable sense of loss and dislocation when it ends.

German director Philip Scheffner, in contrast, seems to aim for deliberate distanciation in his formalistic deconstruction of an investigative documentary. Constructed like a reverse puzzle, the film begins with the ending – two decades ago, two Roma men are apparently accidentally shot to death on the German-Polish border. Seeking to unpack the reasons for their deaths, the filmmaker visits with their families, witnesses, and officials involved in the case to interview them about their memories of the incident and of the men. While the audience is given access to these interviews, we don’t witness them as they take place, but instead after the fact, as the audio recordings are played back to the interviewees for confirmation, the camera trained on them listening attentively. Scheffner’s unique approach is intriguing, but the film seriously outstays its welcome, testing the viewer’s patience.

The same can’t be said for Katja Gauriloff’s in-depth look at the production and transport of a common can of ravioli across multiple countries. Along the way, Gauriloff presents at times provocative portraits of the anonymous workers who have a part in bringing that ravioli can to market, with beautifully lensing serving as a stark contrast to their less-than-glamorous work environments. While this Finnish film might challenge some viewers’ comfort levels, depending on how much they really want to know about where their food comes from, it maintains a level of assured artfulness as the action moves from country to country, ingredient to ingredient.

Victor Kossakovsky also takes the audience on a multi-country journey in his breathtaking meditation on four pairs of locations literally a world apart from one another. Juxtaposing the few places on the planet that have populated opposites – China and Argentina, New Zealand and Spain, Russia and Chile, and Botswana and Hawaii – the film explores remarkable similarities – some natural, others manufactured. Wisely eschewing narration for a strictly observational approach, Kossakovsky, who also shot the film, captures stunning landscapes and the sublime in even the most mundane of activities. Unorthodox camera movements and editing, as well as disjunctive use of local music, lend a sense of welcome play to the proceedings, making the whole experience of this epic film a delight.

Helena Trestikova’s film is a more personal epic, spanning nearly forty years in the lives of a Czech family, and, really in the turbulent history of their nation. Trestikova began filming Jana and Petr upon the occasion of the birth of their son Honza in 1974, and remained in contact with them until the present. Meanwhile, Petr began to document his family in diaries and his own films. Weaving her own footage with Petr’s, and aided by Petr and Jana’s present-day reflections, Trestikova charts the family over the years, against the backdrop of life under socialism, the fall of Communism, and the changes wrought by democracy. Longitudinal projects like this are impressive, but what makes this especially intriguing is the focus on the ephemera of the family’s daily lives – the work they do on their house, the troubles Honza has at school – moreso than the radical political upheaval in the country (except insofar as it directly affects the former). While some cultural specificities may be lost on many viewers, and they lead largely unremarkable lives, that’s in many ways the point: being allowed this uncommonly intimate look at the private lives of an ordinary family.

Before they return to civilian life, Israeli soldiers finishing their mandatory tour of duty attend a civics course preparing them to be good citizens. No doubt influenced by their military training and recent experiences but also indicative of their age, the hot-headed student/soldiers seem prone to spout contradictory and infuriating generalizations. Their instructor, showing infinite patience, challenges his charges to think through their often short-sighted comments which take aim at a wide range of concerns – from the question of Palestine and Arab rights to issues secular Jews have with Orthodox Jews and much more in between. Silvina Landsmann’s observational film is an engrossing, microcosmic peek into the complexities of Israeli society and politics.

As a teenager with a troubled past, director Karen Winther found a new community and surrogate family in the form of Blitz, a radical Leftist organization in Oslo. For reasons even she can’t completely fathom, she betrayed the group in such a way that she’s never been able to forgive herself. In part to atone for this sin, and in part to make sense of it, she seeks out those she harmed to apologize. Winther’s storytelling is clever, withholding the exact nature of her betrayal through teases that incrementally draw the viewer into her past. Deeply personal without succumbing to hand-wringing filmmaking-as-self-therapy, her film functions not only as an honest reckoning long in the works, but also as an absorbing meditation on the siren call of belonging and how extremism exploits that basic human need.

A disparate group of women found a sense of belonging in an unlikely career, as revealed in Brett Whitcomb’s loving reflection on a 1980s cult TV classic. Updating women’s wrestling for a modern television audience, GLOW adopted the colorful, exaggerated Sturm und Drang of men’s “professional” wrestling that made such figures like Hulk Hogan and the Iron Sheik wildly popular to introduce audiences to powerful, attractive female protagonists decked out in signature 1980s neon. Over-the-top heroines and villainesses, catfights, and comedy skits combined to make GLOW: Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling an instant camp classic and ratings winner until behind-the-scenes duplicity led to the show’s demise. While this background makes for fun nostalgia, the present-day elements of Whitcomb’s enjoyable film provide more emotional substance, especially in the warm figure of Mt Fiji, one of the program’s most memorable and beloved characters.

Speaking of characters… Mary Kerr’s titular subject is an eccentric if ever there was one. A formerly homeless alcoholic referred to affectionately as “Radio” by the who’s who of Hollywood because of the old-school boombox he wears around his neck, he makes it his business to keep up with virtually every major film production taking place in New York City. The draw? Beyond access to craft service, Radio has a deep love not only for movies, but for the community of filmmakers, crew, and actors that make them – so much so that he’s talked his way into cameo or background extra parts in more than a hundred major films. There’s an infectious quality to Radio’s exuberance around the set, and it’s clear that the celebrity interviewees appreciate him, making this more than just a portrait of a decidedly oddball figure.

Some of Allison de Fren’s subjects might also be considered off – after all, they make or own artificial love dolls – scale model lifelike mannequins which can be used sexually. Narrator Julie Newmar – who starred as a robot herself in the shortlived 1964 sitcom MY LIVING DOLL – introduces viewers to various individuals involved in the erotic doll industry – from the creator of the customizable RealDoll and obsessive Japanese doll collectors to a peculiar “technosexual” Asiaphile who takes his companion to dinner and the Doll Doctor, a specialist who repairs broken or disturbingly abused dolls. Interviewees reflect on the appeal of artificial women both in the past and the present, speculating on what it means for conceptions of femininity when a mute, inert overgrown doll represents the “perfect” woman. While de Fren takes on too much, lending a survey-like feel to her project, the film succeeds in stirring the viewer’s curiosity.

I debated writing about this and the next film because, while both utilize elements of non-fiction, in my opinion they tend more towards fiction. While that makes them appropriate for the Nightvision category, it also takes them outside of the usual wheelhouse of w(n)td. That said, I’ve decided to devote a few lines to each. New Zealander/German Florian Habicht makes a quirky romantic comedy (set mostly in my East Village neighborhood), with the “documentary” conceit that he crowdsources story developments from strangers he runs into, or, more humorously from his dad via Skype. The tall, lanky Habicht is immensely likable, and it also helps his film a great deal that he’s able to imbue it with a sense of whimsy that matches his personality. That said, the project just didn’t work for me – while the conversations with his dad (usually conducted while the director is in the tub) are typically fun, the “crowdsourced” sequences never seem at all authentic, and neither does the overall story within the story in which he supposedly falls for the actress playing his love interest. Even though there’s a part of me that enjoyed watching him, I’m left unsure as to what his play with fiction/non-fiction was meant to accomplish.

Documentary filmmaker Ian Olds (FIXER, OPERATION: DREAMLAND) collaborated with the inimitable James Franco on this bizarre project, working with footage Franco’s production team shot on the set of GENERAL HOSPITAL for the actor’s reprisal of the role of “Franco,” a sociopathic conceptual artist plaguing one of the soap’s leading men. Rather than construct a straightforward behind-the-scenes doc, such as Franco’s own SATURDAY NIGHT, Olds has manipulated the material to play with the actor’s celebrity and reputation for having a hand in everything from graduate school to performance art. Early in the film, which follows James around LA’s MoCA, the setting of the soap episode, greeting fans, he experiences a dissociative break, signaled by a voice over that begins and runs through the remainder of the film. Aside from some minor visual effects, the footage remains Franco’s own – it’s the soundtrack that is altered to fictionalize the proceedings – which, frankly, probably wouldn’t have been particularly engaging if they had been played straight. The result is a strange little piece of psychodrama that is alternately humorous and sometimes slightly creepy. I don’t think I’d watch it again, but I’m happy to have seen it.


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

3 responses to “Hot Docs 2012 in Brief, Part Two: International Spectrum, Special Presentations & Nightvision

  1. Visiting anualy the IDFA in Amsterdam and the DOK.fest in Munich, where I live, I see it more and more a sad fact, that about one third of the docus playing at Intl. Dok Film Festivals are always the same. – Seeing your summary above (and thanks for sharing! Toronto is always a bit to far to travel and I love that great people like you keep me in the loop!) – I know four of the films. – I do appreciate we all get to see great docus no matter where we are living.
    Should not a wider range of documentaries have a chance to find their audience rather than playing one year long the same program in the festival circuit?
    And should those (obviously amazing) docus running almost each and every festival in a 12 months time not simply find distributors keen enough to bring them to their audiences at home in cinemas and/or on TV?
    I think festivals are a great place for new and unknown things to find an audience. I think they’re a great place for classics and/or well know content / new productions to be exposed. I just wish the choices of the festival directors were a bit more fresh and not stealing from each other this much :)
    Anyway. Some great gems there in your post that I obviously missed so far – hope to see them soon in Germany in cinema / on TV / available for purchase :)

    • Hi Sanne: Thanks for your comment. While I’m always interested in finding out about the new films at a given festival, I’m fortunate in that I see a lot of new docs each year via programming and I tend to go to many larger festivals regularly, so I can try to focus on these unknown films instead of the “bigger” titles.

      It is true that some films prove very popular and end up programmed at many festivals – part of this is that these films are usually very good, and often among the very very best that are produced in a given year. It makes sense as a fest programmer to want to include these high-quality films as part of your own line-up for a number of reasons, including: 1) the films are great and you genuinely like them, 2) for some regions that may not have a viable documentary distribution system, the festival is the only place that audiences can see these films, and 3) even if there is some potential distribution, sometimes the festival serves as a good test-run for local industry to judge if a given film is worth picking up for local distribution.

      Of course, each fest programmer tries to find a balance between highlighting a selection of films that have been proven successes elsewhere (and thus will likely resonate with his/her own audience) and showcasing new discoveries that expose new filmmakers and their work, and, importantly, speak to the festival’s own unique identity/mission. I think there is definitely room for both. At the same time, the sometimes unspoken truth is that there are not always a large number of genuinely amazing undiscovered films out there. Should a festival show a mediocre-to-OK film that would be a world premiere, or show a very good-to-excellent film that has already screened at one or more high-profile festivals elsewhere? Ultimately, even if a festival happens to have a lot of the same programming selections as another event, there are large enough fundamental differences between them – chiefly the audience and location – so that the work can be appreciated in the given context.

      • Thanks for your reply!
        I understand – only get a lot less chances to see a wider variety since I am not a programmer – probably a pretty selfish view :)
        You are absolutely right about the different audiences and different perceptions of one film on different festivals – this is true even for similar locations.
        I had not considered the wish to “test run” products before picking them up for local distribution…but I still wish for a more off-the-beaten-path side-programs within larger festivals.
        There are some festivals screening only off-beat productions, like the UNDER.DOX in Munich. For me it would be also interesting to have the makers of mainstream and independent productions mingle on a big forum.
        But I simply will go with your advice and pick the less-hyped and less often repeated movies as my own focus next time :)

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