As with my recent Tribeca roundups, I’m going to continue my attempt to catch up on festival coverage with a series of posts this week on Hot Docs, which wrapped up its 20th anniversary edition earlier this month. I previously wrote about AMERICAN COMMUNE, THE GHOSTS IN OUR MACHINE, I WILL BE MURDERED, and RIVER in a festival dispatch for Indiewire here, but am planning to share my thoughts on more then thirty more films. This post covers docs featured in the two competition sections, International Spectrum and Canadian Spectrum. The winners of the former included: Best International Feature Documentary to DRAGON GIRLS, Special Jury Prize to CLOUDY MOUNTAINS, HBO Documentary Films Emerging Artist Award to 12 O’CLOCK BOYS, and Best Mid-Length Documentary to THE CIRCLE.
Inigo Westmeier was the big winner with this profile of three students of China’s Shaolin Tagu Kung Fu School, an elite training facility located in the birthplace of the martial arts discipline (pictured above). This is no casual afterschool activity for its 20,000 students, as is immediately apparent by the opening scene, which offers the spectacle of the entire student body in perfect, regimented synchronicity as they demonstrate their skills in the school’s huge plaza. While Westmeier returns to this broader picture of the school throughout the film, the focus narrows on three teenage girls and their responses to the incredible pressure – both physical and mental – from their trainers and parents to excel. Though the film occasionally feels too drawn out to sustain complete interest, it’s overall a skillfully made, bittersweet, and at times revealing portrait of the sacrifices made by young individuals in a collectively-oriented society.
Another Chinese-focused film that scored with the Hot Docs jury, Zhu Yu’s Special Jury Prize winner reveals the hazards of asbestos mining among a small group of workers. Between April and October, people like Wang Hongbin and his father risk their health – wearing only flimsy scarves or masks for protection from the omnipresent dust – for the economic rewards the dangerous work provides – enough for the younger man to pay for his wedding. Strictly observational, detailing both the backbreaking toil and the occasional quieter moments in the workers’ makeshift tents, Zhu’s somewhat overlong film nevertheless offers understated insight into a dangerous job and those who are motivated to perform it.
The final film in the International Spectrum to receive a jury nod covered here, Bram Conjaerts’ featurette aims to explore some big issues. The title refers to the path formed by the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest particle accelerator, located 175 meters below the Franco-Swiss border, and which aims to unlock the mysteries of the universe’s creation. While CERN’s device has some screentime, the bulk of the film follows its 27km circuit above ground, with Conjaerts questioning ordinary folk about not only the LHC, but their general thoughts on the meaning of life and death. There’s no denying he meets some curious people – such as a former CERN employee who now spends his time marveling at the play of light off of CDs he’s suspended on trees, or a couple of Raelians who talk about their belief in extra-terrestrial life – but, despite its unusual and admittedly appropriate setting for tackling these existential questions, the film ultimately feels too scattered and arbitrary, like most other “big question” docs.
FOREST OF THE DANCING SPIRITS
Living among the Aka people of the Western Congo Basin for several years, filmmaker Linda Västrik crafts a somewhat too ethnographic, but still very much intriguing, portrait of the pygmy tribe. Though the fest’s description highlights the impending destruction of their forest by industrial logging, this threat doesn’t feature to any great extent in Västrik’s film. Instead, the filmmaker, largely keeping silent, documents the Aka’s way of life, refreshingly permitting individuals to speak for themselves and tell their own stories. A key focus is on the efforts of a young couple to have a child – previous stillbirths are blamed on black magic, and the camera witnesses the local witch doctor’s efforts to diagnose and rid the young mother of her affliction. While observations like these, and other instances of tribe rituals, such as visitations from important fertility spirits or the sharpening of children’s teeth into points in a rite of passage, offer some level of fascination, the most shocking revelation could have been made much earlier – the Aka are essentially slaves, their owners the larger Congolese people, with both groups speaking matter-of-factly about the arrangement.
BEFORE THE REVOLUTION
Also surprising is the very premise of Dan Shadur’s film – while mortal enemies since 1979’s Islamic Revolution, Israel enjoyed a favored status in Iran during the Shah’s regime. Trading infrastructural support for oil, thousands of Israelis made their home in Tehran, enjoying the lower cost of living, and seemingly keeping out of politics – including Shadur and his family. While all that changed with the removal of the Shah, the film focuses on the time before, nicely employing Shadur’s family home movies and the recollections of other ex-patriates interviewed here to provide a curious glimpse at a very different Iran – and perhaps a small bit of hope that present-day biases and dogma are not as intractable as they may appear.
JUST THE RIGHT AMOUNT OF VIOLENCE
Rounding out the International Spectrum is Jon Bang Carlsen’s hybrid doc about the trouble teens and the extreme solution some parents have found to get them in line – enrolling them, against their will, in a strict reform school in Utah, a state whose less restrictive laws enable the very questionable methods employed. Faced with the understandable hesitancy of real parents opening up their family dysfunction for some random Danish filmmaker’s camera, Carlsen chooses to stage long scenes of the intake process – scary thugs make arrangements to arrive at the parent clients’ home at the crack of dawn, surprise the offending teen, and take them into custody – with force if necessary – and transport the rightly freaked out and escape-minded kids to their prison. Carlsen doesn’t explicitly reveal that these are fictional before the fact, but, despite the participation of real-life interventionists, it’s almost immediately obvious given the histrionic acting and the unlikely camera angles. If that wasn’t enough, for some inexplicable reason, the director chooses to insert himself in a parallel thread throughout the film, musing about his non-existent relationship with his deadbeat dad. Frankly, none of it works – there’s no illumination of youth rebellion, no real attempt to dig into the practices of the reform schools, no engagement with the play between reality and artifice, and no excuse for the self-indulgence demonstrated – a real shame given that Danish documentaries have tended to be among the strongest in recent years.
Shifting over to Canadian Spectrum, the winners included: Best Canadian Feature Documentary to WHEN I WALK, Special Jury Prize to ALPHÉE OF THE STARS, documentary Emerging Canadian Filmmaker Award to BRAVE NEW RIVER, and Inspirit Foundation Pluralism Prize to BÁ NÔI.
ALPHÉE OF THE STARS
I missed the latter two titles, but managed to see Hugo Latulippe’s tender ode to his daughter, the titular figure. Born with a rare neurological disorder, Alphée is challenged on both a physical and cognitive level, calling into question her potential for mainstream schooling. Resisting recommendations to enroll her in a special needs school, the family instead takes a year off from Quebec, relocating to the Swiss countryside, where they hope their daughter will adjust to an integrated progressive preschool. Created as an essay, Latulippe employs an indirect narration that ordinarily would feel too precious, but here is surprisingly affecting. Like his daughter, navigating the world in her own distinct way, the film too is able to find its own pace, occasionally with some self-indulgence, but never to such an extent that it upends it effective simplicity.
Simple is probably the last word that would be used to describe Michael Jorgensen’s controversial investigative doc, which follows the efforts of Vietnam vet Tom Faunce to determine if he’s located a fellow vet, John Hartley Robertson, who was assumed to have been killed in action in 1968. Initially skeptical – after all, the man speaks no English and appears much older than Robertson would have been – but is slowly won over as others come forward lending credence to the man’s claims, including a soldier Robertson trained, and, most touchingly, members of his family. Jorgensen wisely reserves judgement, including elements within his film that would give ammunition to both skeptics and believers, letting viewers come to their own conclusions as this gripping stranger than fiction story plays out to a satisfying conclusion. It should be noted that during the course of the festival, different reports have been made asserting that Robertson is instead a wily French-born imposter, but this has not dampened the conviction shown by some of the subjects featured in the film that the right man has been found.
Tackling its own controversial topic – the legalization of sex work – head on, Kent Nason and Teresa MacInnes’ take pains to represent multiple perspectives in what is an incredibly complex issue. Focusing on Canadian law, and a recent ruling that struck down certain provisions that regulated prostitution, the film presents the case for decriminalization of the sellers of sex, represented by an influential, successful attorney and the happy former and current sex workers he found to champion the cause; another group of former sex workers who see sex work as coercive and dangerous, and call for the criminalization of the buyers of sex; and, too briefly, intermittent thoughts from a sampling of the buyers themselves, most represented in silhouette. If this wasn’t enough, the filmmakers demonstrate the competing models more-or-less under discussion by traveling to New Zealand and Sweden, introducing a host of additional subjects. While its admirable that Nason and MacInnes try to give voice to so many, it’s a tall order for 75 minutes, and it ends up diluting the focus, with only one or two main subjects’ personalities really registering above a respectful, but surface, treatment.
NCR: NOT CRIMINALLY RESPONSIBLE
Finally, John Kastner presents the world premiere of his newest film, an exploration of the impact of the mental disorder defense in horrific cases of violence. His subject is Sean Clifton, a mentally ill man who nearly killed “the prettiest woman he could see” by stabbing her repeatedly in an Ontario Wal-Mart in 1999. Permitted unfettered access, Kastner follows Clifton, who has been treated in a psychiatric hospital for years, as he seeks a conditional release. Interviewing Clifton, the victim, and her parents, the director explores the impact of this random act of violence on them all, while also showcasing another case of mental illness through a secondary but scattered profile of Clifton’s roommate, who is unable or unwilling to admit to his own paranoid condition. As demonstrated in previous work like LIFE WITH MURDER, Kastner has a particular filmmaking style that feels offputting and almost clinical – he’s frequently heard, in monotone, asking questions to his subjects off-camera, and he uses incredibly awkward re-enactments to approximate Clifton’s OCD. Combined with a strange structure that privileges the attack far too much and a decidedly low-energy main subject, the result is a project that is far too stagnantly paced to be entirely effective.