Next in my Hot Docs coverage catch up are a selection of films appearing in the festival’s non-competitive Special Presentations and World Showcase sections. I’ll round it up with one additional post later this week looking at the remaining programming strands.
The Special Presentations begin, appropriately enough, with Hot Docs’ opening night film, director Shawney Cohen’s exploration of his family’s dynamics and dysfunctions (pictured). Working with co-director Mike Gallay, Cohen introduces the viewer to his dangerously overweight father, equally alarmingly underweight mother, player brother, and, most importantly, their family business – the titular strip club/motel, and some of its employees. No doubt because of Cohen’s personal connection, the film has an effortless, fly-on-the-wall immediacy and intimacy, where it makes perfect sense that a completely nude dancer would walk into the frame to ask Shawney’s dad a question about her next shift. But far from the broad, titillating farce such a set up might suggest, the film is surprisingly complex, focused less on T&A and more on the impact of their unconventional trade on each family member, manifested in the weight issues for the parents, an embrace of a lothario lifestyle for his brother, and a resigned passivity, even inertia, for Shawney himself. It’s a very strong portrait, with characters and conflicts indelible enough that at times it even feels like it could support a continuing episodic series.
HIGH FIVE: A SUBURBAN ADOPTION SAGA
Another intriguing portrait of a family comes from Julia Ivanova, who follows the efforts of childless couple Cathy and Martin Ward to adopt five Ukrainian siblings into their suburban Canadian home, over the course of several years. While initial efforts to adopt the younger children prove relatively easy, changes to Ukraine’s international adoption policies result in difficult, protracted delays that put stress on the slowly forming new family. Even when the red tape is finally cleared, the Wards must contend with the economic reality of providing for their new children, as well as interpersonal conflicts as the eldest daughter, Yuliya, struggles to find a place after years of serving as a de facto mother to her younger siblings. The frayed and ultimately fractured relationship between Cathy and Yuliya is both fascinating and heart-wrenching to watch unfold. Though she occasionally interjects, asking the children questions in Russian, Ivanova generally shows great restraint in this mostly observational film which doesn’t sugarcoat the challenges of crosscultural adoption.
RENT A FAMILY INC
Family is also at the core of Kaspar Astrup Schröder’s film about a Japanese family man’s most unusual business enterprise, dubbed I Want To Cheer You Up Ltd. For a fee, Ryuichi Ichinokawa poses as a client’s father, husband, or employer – and can call on others to fill other needed roles – usually to help his clients save face – of extreme importance in Japan’s strictly regimented, approval-seeking culture. The opening scene, however, shows a different, and very revealing, application of Ryuichi’s business – he plays a client’s new husband, who humbles himself to her ex-husband, mentioning that his salary is not as high, so that the ex will help with child support. While affected for the job, this self-effacement speaks to Ryuichi’s own family life – scenes at home show him to be completely disrespected by his children and wife, who has kicked him out of the bedroom. He works multiple jobs to provide for them, and keeps his company a secret out of fear of further rejection. Without overtly psychologizing his subject, Schröder clearly conveys the underlying connections between Ryuichi’s unsatisfying personal life and the make-believe family roles he’s able to step in and out of as a sort of coping mechanism, solving problems along the way.
REMOTE AREA MEDICAL
Some of the subjects of Jeff Reichert and Farihah Zaman’s film have problems that go far beyond saving face – they are without basic medical care and so desperate for assistance that they spend days waiting for a limited number of slots to see the volunteer doctors of Stan Brock’s free pop-up clinic in Bristol TN. Set up in a NASCAR stadium over a weekend, the service – originally providing assistance to the developing world, but now primarily focused on the overwhelming demand in the US – provides medical, dental, and eye care to those in most need. Appropriately taking a survey approach to provide a kaleidoscopic view of uninsured America, and focusing on the patients moreso than the volunteer doctors and nurses, Reichert and Zaman’s observational film demonstrates the impact a pair of glasses or some relatively simple dental work can have on self-esteem, speaking to the sorry state of the healthcare system that necessitates such economically-motivated triage.
If Reichert and Zaman’s film spotlights the masses, director AJ Schnack’s world premiere hones in on their would-be leaders – the Republican contenders for the White House in 2012. The setting is Iowa, the first major proving ground in the 2012 presidential campaign, with the major contenders for the nomination forming a veritable circus sideshow for Schnack’s direct cinema approach. Following the ups and downs of the polls, the film trails Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, and, to a lesser extent, Rick Perry, as they shake hands, kiss babies, give stump speeches, and try to win over the hearts and minds of a divided and dysfunctional Republican party. While the outcome is no surprise to anyone who paid any attention to the race while it was happening, that’s not the point of Schnack’s well-constructed film. The fascination comes in the unexpected and rare moments of candor he captures, from Marcus Bachmann’s bizarre thumbwrestling fetish and untoward excitement over baked goods to Santorum’s vexed, almost paranoid interview about being ignored by the media. What’s perhaps not as surprising, but which speaks volumes, is how the candidates, for the most part, are always on – rarely seeming genuine and always looking for that opportunity to get that vote.
A WHOLE LOTT MORE
Shifting over to the World Showcase section, Victor Buhler’s film, which had its world premiere at Hot Docs, took third place in the audience award vote. Its title refers to Lott Industries, a Toledo OH based company that employed the developmentally disabled in manufacturing jobs for decades. However, when the US auto industry tanks – Lott’s biggest client – the company is forced to assess its sustainability and its mission. Buhler follows Lott’s president, Joan Browne, as she faces bureaucratic pushback on the changes she hopes to make to save the company; the experiences of job-seeking Kevin, demonstrating the employment challenges faced by developmentally disabled people; and Lott employees Wanda and TJ, who depend on their jobs not only for income and independence but as a way to show their abilities and worth to the larger society that tends to dismiss them out of hand. The heart of the film rests in the characters of Joan and especially Wanda – both immensely likeable and relatable figures who are intimately connected to Lott’s fate. Much less successful are the other two subjects, particularly Kevin, who has a tangential relationship to Lott that often makes his sequences feel like they belong in another film.
Marta Dauliūtė and Elisabeth Marjanović Cronvall have no such problem with their subjects – their film focuses on just two young Lithuanian migrant workers and themselves. Meeting Edvardus and Arturas on a ferry headed to Sweden, Marta and Elisabeth push them to be the subjects of their project. Wary of exposing themselves on camera, reinforcing prejudices against migrant workers, the young men nevertheless begin to open up – partly a product of sexual chemistry, partly a desire to matter. Despite being part of their own film, the filmmakers manage to avoid self-indulgence, wisely keeping Arturas and Edvardus central as they slowly open up, revealing their insecurities and dreams. At the same time, Marta and Elisabeth’s efforts offer a telling study of the documentarian/subject relationship, and the negotiations that it necessitates, perhaps most explicitly in the film’s excellent closing scene.
TRUCKER AND THE FOX
Arash Lahooti’s film also explores the rapport between a filmmaker and his subjects, but in this case those subjects are of the four-legged variety. Iranian truck driver Mahmood Kiyani Falavarjani has won awards for his short films starring animals, but faces a devastating setback when his leading lady, his pet fox, is killed. Distraught, he’s institutionalized and diagnosed with bipolar disorder, but beyond various forms of therapy, Mahmood knows that he can only heal if he makes another film. He’s got a story worked out – a donkey romance – but he needs a new fox, and sets out to trap and domesticate his new star. As might be expected, Lahooti’s film is unusual and at times entertaining – a portrait of an artist, his affliction, and his potentially healing and hurtful obsession.
The titular subject of Laura Checkoway’s film is also seeking healing in her own way. New Yorker Lucky Torres hides a lifetime of abuse and abandonment behind an angry, tattooed exterior. Growing up in foster care after their mother left them, Lucky and her sister Fantasy have struggled with stability all their lives. While Fantasy has settled down since having children, motherhood has not straightened Lucky out. She’s still usually homeless, jumps from girlfriend to girlfriend, and finds it difficult to find work, though she dreams of success as a model. She’s a compelling figure, if not always a likeable one – the audience feels frustration in the choices Lucky makes, but Checkoway’s film also engenders empathy and understanding for her struggles.
THE LIFE AND CRIMES OF DORIS PAYNE
Also featuring an indelibly unique protagonist is Matthew Pond and Kirk Marcolina’s entertaining portrait of an octogenarian jewel thief. Over six decades, the charming Doris Payne has made away with close to $2 million of jewels, hitting high end stores all over the world, from Monte Carlo to Costa Mesa CA. Interviews with Payne – facing theft charges during the course of the film – and her best friend Jean – who shows more concern about Doris’ legal troubles than the subject herself – reveal the story of how a poor African American woman rebelled against the limited opportunities in a still racially divided America to become one of the world’s most infamous jewel thieves. These one-on-ones are the most effective tool Pond and Marcolina have in capturing Payne’s vitality, humor, and charisma – even if audiences know they’re probably being conned, they can’t help but find her endearing. Less successful are the re-enactments, which too often impart a cheesy TV feel to the proceedings, but thankfully they don’t radically undermine the film’s overall charm.
Unfortunately, while charm is ostensibly what Christine Beebe is going for in her portrait of an effete would-be artistocrat, the actual result is annoyance. Focused on a self-obsessed, self-described aesthete prone to expensive tastes and fantasies – so much so that he changes his name from Brian to the pretentious Felix – the film follows him in his quest to meet with the last surviving Habsurg after he is bequeathed sixty years of correspondence between the latter and a man named Herbert Hinkel. At the same time, Felix worries he will develop the same degenerative disease afflicting his father – the apparent motivation for his journey. Aside from the latter, the rest is all too precious, with Felix growing increasingly more irritating the longer he’s on camera. Demonstrating not a whit of self-awareness of how absolutely ridiculous he is, Felix makes for an incredibly unsympathetic and tiresome subject, yet Beebe allows him to dominate while only briefly touching upon potentially more intriguing subjects like Hinkel and Otto von Habsburg.
THE DEVIL’S LAIR
Riaan Hendricks’ main subject, Braaim, suggests much richer character terrain. He’s a leader of the Nice Time Kids, a powerful gang in South Africa’s Cape Town flats, and the master of the drug trade in the area. Facing a potential turf war from rival gangs the Americans and the Boy Scouts, Braaim’s world is a dangerous one – but his wife, Gadija, knew that going in, as she tells Hendricks’ camera more than once. Still, beyond worrying about Braaim making it home in one piece, she’s also increasingly concerned about their children – so much so that she’s actively considering divorce. Hers seems like the only voice of relative reason in Hendricks’ film, which features scenes of disturbing violence, the presence of both firearms and drugs in front of children, and plans to use a school as a cover for an assassination attempt. Hendricks captures a rawness and surprising, stark access to a life decidedly on the fringe – one that almost never willingly allows this much public exposure. At the same time, there’s a banality to Braaim’s activities that is more offputting than inspiring of outrage, and suggests that no matter what he might tell Gadija, he’s never going to change. This blaséness imparts an overall lack of dynamism that works against the film as a whole, suggesting that there may not really be enough here to sustain its feature length.