Hot Docs 2012 in Brief, Part Three: World Showcase & Rise Against

This post wraps up my reactions to Hot Docs with a look at select titles from World Showcase and Rise Against, a thematic section looking at activism.

Pete Nicks’ profile of Oakland’s Highland Hospital is an impressive and effective feat of verité filmmaking (pictured above). The camera unobtrusively charts one day in the busy waiting room, following the staff and their mostly uninsured patients who seek a range of medical care from the public hospital. The frustration expressed by caregivers and the ailing alike speaks volumes about the role economics plays in American health. Eschewing talking heads for an almost tangible experience of a hospital visit, Nicks’ film powerfully confronts the audience with the realities of our broken healthcare system and the urgent need to do something to address it.

The harsh realities of the economic recession inform the behavior of the subjects in Didier Cros’ film. A recruitment agency puts job applicants through the ringer over the course of two days, without giving them details about the job they’re going after, or even looking at their resumés. Forced to promote their rivals’ qualifications instead of their own, engage in outlandish debates, and to take condescending feedback, some of the jobseekers have enough and withdraw from the process, while others push forward – even when they find out they’ll basically be making minimum wage. It’s remarkable how artfully the film is shot, given this tense situation, blending a sort of hyper-realism with a dose of reality TV confessional to reveal the cutthroat business of getting a job.

The subject of Penny Vozniak’s film, director Jennifer Lynch, has had some decidedly negative experiences in her line of work: her 1993 directorial debut, BOXING HELENA, was eviscerated by critics, flopped at the box office, and became the subject of a high-profile legal dispute. Like her famous father following the debacle of DUNE, Jennifer’s been out of the director’s chair for years – until Bollywood comes calling, giving her a shot at redemption. Vozniak takes a behind-the-scenes look at the production, centered around a monstrous snake goddess, and Lynch’s collision with cultural differences, weather delays, and personality conflicts, which seem destined to sink her sophomore effort, perhaps worse than her debut. Lynch’s warm personality – and that of her wise twelve-year-old daughter – carries the doc, making the audience root for her success, even though it seems a hopeless cause.

Fernando, the younger of the titular brothers in Tora Mårtens’ film, is something of a hopeless cause himself. While older brother Pablo is away in Colombia in medical school, he’s wasting his life with drugs and alcohol in their hometown of Stockholm. When Pablo invites Ferdi to visit, his goal is to get his younger brother clean and sober, but despite the latter’s assurances, the camera catches him sneaking beers regularly. When their mother, Olga, arrives, the situation reaches a breaking point. With naturalistic lensing and a keen sense of storytelling, Mårtens crafts an exceptionally intimate portrait of the limits of brotherly love.

Rob Schröder and Gabriëlle Provaas also focus on a pair of siblings – septuagenarian identical twins Louise and Martine Fokkens. Still dressing alike and as close as ever, they no longer work in the same business. After half a century, Louise has retired from sexwork in Amsterdam’s Red Light District, but Martine can’t afford to close up shop just yet. While these economic concerns are addressed, neither they nor any judgements around prostitution are the point of the film – instead, the filmmakers wisely let the amiable women take the lead, relating their life stories even as Martine allows us a glimpse into her present-day work. What they reveal functions both as a flight of nostalgia and an insightful view of the changing face of sexwork in Amsterdam.

Filmmakers Sebastian Meise and Thomas Reider don’t pass judgement on their subject either. Swedish twentysomething Sven is a pedophile. He struggles to keep within certain bounds of behavior, but still indulges in situations that bring him into contact with the objects of his desire- photographing a young boy playing basketball, attending comic book signings and befriending young fans. He’s never acted on his desires, but he’s fearful that he might. His participation in Meise and Reider’s multi-year portrait – as signaled by its title – is, in part, to try to help others make sense of his illicit desires but also to hold him publicly accountable as his boundaries of acceptable behavior shift and he might edge closer to crossing a line that shouldn’t be crossed. Its in Sven’s unusual candor that this disturbing yet intriguing project gains its impact.

At the opposite extreme is the young man in Alessandro Comodin’s debut hybrid feature. Giacomo has few cares – the nineteen-year-old recently had a cochlear implant, allowing him to hear for the first time, and he’s spending a lovely summer along a secluded forest river with his friend Stefania, the filmmaker’s sister. This relaxed nature is apparent from the languid pace of the opening of the film, as the pair slowly approach the river, and by the little moments they spend in and around the water, mock-fighting and flirting. While the seeming inconsequential nature of their interactions might not suit some viewers, a (fictional?) shift late in the film casts an unexpected significance to what came before. Like ONLY THE YOUNG, Comodin’s film is a masterful evocation of the experience of youth.

Raphaël Siboni’s film is also composed of little moments, but they’re a very far cry from the innocent desire awakening between two teenagers – these are the outtakes and behind-the-scenes from the work of French porn king HPG. Expertly culled from thousands of hours, this experimental doc reveals the unglamorous and often monotonous reality behind pornographic fantasy. Through long takes, reality reveals itself – these men and women usually aren’t really hot for one another, they can’t really maintain those insane sexual positions, and sometimes, yes, they fake it. Siboni’s deconstruction of porn is a graphic, occasionally very funny, and intriguing look at the nature of a certain kind of documentary truth.

Deconstruction might also be applied to Naeem Mohaiemen’s approach to filmmaking and memory in his experimental documentary, the first part of a trilogy focused on radical left terrorist groups. The film recaptures the 1977 hijacking of a Japanese flight that forced its landing in Bangladesh, conveyed almost entirely by audio recordings of the at times absurdly polite radio communications and negotiations between the terrorists and the airport tower. These exchanges, revealed as text on the screen, lend an uncanny sense of immediacy to Mohaiemen’s story, suggesting that the events are unfolding as the audience watches, even as they are occasionally mediated by the filmmaker’s childhood self-involved memories of missing his favorite TV show due to the broadcast being pre-empted to report on the crisis. The result is no doubt a hard slog for some viewers, but I found it oddly compelling, though wonder if a feature doc form is the most effective way to tell this kind of story versus an installation or some kind of shorter, transmedia project.

One of only two films in the activist-oriented Rise Against section I saw at Hot Docs, I was happy to finally see Jim Hubbard’s decades-in-the-making chronicle of the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power. Part of a recent spate of documentaries taking an important look back at gay culture in the 1980s and the impact of AIDS – a subject that is in need of as much revisitation as possible – Hubbard’s moving film explores the evolution of the often unwieldy ACT UP, charting its growth and the increasing efficacy of its grassroots protest campaigns over time – from forcing greedy pharmaceutical giants to lower the cost of AIDS medications to taking on definitions of the disease that excluded women and minorities. While the film features present-day interviews with former activists reflecting on their experiences with the group, it’s no surprise that the archival protest footage best captures the empowerment born of righteous rage.

A similar sentiment may be found in Amie Williams’ record of the groundswell of activism that erupted after Republican Governor Scott Walker proposed not only salary cuts to public workers but also, and more insidiously, the elimination of collective bargaining rights. Taking to task the propaganda spread by rightwing media that the protests were fueled by out-of-state agitators, Williams profiles a diverse group of proud Wisconsinites who stood up for their rights. Despite the best efforts of Democrats to find a compromise, including a shocking refusal to show up for work, blocking the vote until shady Republicans found an (illegal) workaround, Walker got his way. The film affords visceral, on-the-ground access to a popular uprising, and relatable, ordinary subjects – the only false note, perhaps, is the desire to spin the infuriating conclusion to the standstill in any positive way. Yes, the disdain shown by Walker and his yes men fueled sentiment which led to some recall elections, but it still stands that injustice prevailed. That in itself should be the conclusion, and serve as a call to arms to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen the next time.


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

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