Wrapping up my reactions to films from this year’s Hot Docs, this post looks at a few of the remaining programming sections not covered in previous posts (here, here, and here). These include the playful and subversive Nightvision, thematic focus on Rule Breakers & Innovators, and the art, music, and culture strand Next.
THE GREAT HIP HOP HOAX
One of the titles I was saddest to have missed upon its premiere at SXSW was Jeanie Finlay’s exploration of a talented but disrespected Scottish hip hop duo who managed to talk their way into a recording contract only after passing themselves off as California natives (pictured above). Though intending to reveal the truth early into their scam, Billy and Gavin get caught up in their “Silibil n’ Brains” assumed identities, and make it much closer to hip hop stardom than anyone can believe – only to just miss capitalizing on their big break, at the cost of their friendship. Finlay has their full participation, as well as thoughts from others who were caught in their web of well-meaning mischief, to reveal the full, entertaining, and often unbelievable story in this expertly constructed cautionary tale about the siren call of fame.
Speaking of hoaxes, British filmmaker Morgan Matthews turns his camera on several men who aim to find the legendary man ape, the subject of numerous hoaxes over the decades. Despite the lack of any believable evidence, Bigfoot has developed an impassioned following of would-be cryptozoologists and hunters, eager to prove the Sasquatch’s existence. Matthews follows three different search parties: Dallas and Wayne, prone to trying to communicate with the creature via unusual screams; short-tempered longtime hunter Tom Biscardi and his motley crew of assistants, including comic standout Chico, a Navy Seal; and, primarily, “master tracker” Rick Dyer, who is trying to rehabilitate his image after a 2008 hoax wherein he claimed to have the body of a Bigfoot. Matthews, logically, is skeptical as to Bigfoot’s existence, but affects a naivete during his ridealongs that proves revealing of his subjects. Audiences will likely debate this, but, generally, Dallas and Wayne seem genuine in their beliefs, and ultimately harmless, while both Biscardi and Dyer come off as absolute hucksters, either trying to trick Matthews into buying into their schtick, or otherwise, working in collusion with him to perpetrate another hoax – the jury’s still out. Regardless, it can’t be denied that Matthews’ film is very entertaining, if structurally challenged – for all the buzz the conclusion has generated, it ends abruptly, basically dropping the Dallas and Wayne and Biscardi threads to focus exclusively on a suspicious (and dubious) encounter in the woods while accompanying Dyer.
SICK BIRDS DIE EASY
Also speaking of hoaxes… This Nightvision entry purports to be the chronicle of filmmaker Nicholas Fackler’s expedition to Gabon with a random assemblage of friends and others to explore the healing properties of iboga, a plant used by shaman to cure addiction, but illegal in the Western world. The entire pretentious enterprise seems manufactured rather than real, with thoroughly and intentionally unlikeable and illogical characters right out of central casting – arrogant, entitled Westerners who speak for the pygmy tribe they visit rather than actually gain any insight from them, and who continuously engage in morally ethical behavior. It’s hard to give this the benefit of the doubt and trust that it’s a genuine, if ineptly made, documentary rather than some ill-planned attempt at a satire. Whether it is or not, it just doesn’t work at all.
There’s a huge amount of pretension displayed by the subject of Angela Christlieb’s portrait, wealthy Luxembourger Marc Rollinger – but he’s refreshingly well aware of and even self-deprecating about his pomposity. Rollinger is obsessed with Don Giovanni – so much so that he spends his free time jetting to whichever European city is staging the opera, usually with a handsome, beefy, and well-compensated male companion at his side. Unapologetically opinionated, strangely candid, and possessed of an often quite funny sardonic wit, Rollinger sees his life paralleled in the opera – not just in the protagonist’s self-indulgence but also in his tragic end: Rollinger suffers from a terminal autoimmune disease, which motivates his excesses and informs his sadness. Still, even Rollinger, early in the film, questions whether he makes for an appropriate documentary subject, and I’m not entirely sure he’s wrong, to be honest. There are intriguing aspects to his life and his way of approaching impending mortality, but he doesn’t always sustain viewer interest in what is, nevertheless, a well-shot and stylish film.
Mortality and grief are at the core of the final film in Nightvision, Amy Finkel’s engaging exploration of the bond between pets and their caretakers, even beyond the grave. The film surveys the lengths pet owners (aka “pet parents”) go to process their grief after their companion’s death – from freeze-drying to pet cemeteries, mummification to cloning – revealing our culture’s own uneasy relationship with mortality. Owners interviewed indicate a sense of comfort from their attempts to hold on to their beloved animals, speaking to the scientific research briefly presented about the biochemistry at play between human and animal, while service providers note the importance of validating their customers’ loss – pets viewed as beloved family members, not just as a disposable piece of property. In some ways an updated GATES OF HEAVEN, Finkel’s approach is ever respectful, even when dealing with some of the more outré practices on display.
FREE THE MIND
Moving over to the festival’s thematic sidebar, Rule Breakers and Innovators, Phie Ambo’s film puts more of a focus on brain chemistry and its potential to address serious disorders. Ambo’s focus is the work of researcher Richard Davidson and his scientific work on the Buddhist practice of Mindfulness, as demonstrated in parallel studies of PTSD in soldiers and ADHD in children. The former go through a more regimented treatment for the debilitating effects their time in combat is having on their lives, while the latter is primarily focused on the efforts to help a small boy conquer his fear of riding in elevators. While it’s interesting to consider the contrasting applications of Davidson’s theories on these two distinct studies, the veterans are far more practically explored, and, honestly, simply more convincing than the situation with the young boy, on whom the concept of Mindfulness is far more diffusely applied. As a whole, the film provokes intriguing questions, but seems to be stretching a bit to show Davidson’s efficacy.
TINY: A STORY ABOUT LIVING SMALL
Taking on just the right amount for its length and focus, Christopher Smith and Merete Mueller’s follows the filmmaking couple as they set out to build a tiny house – a residence that suits their essential needs but can fit in a standard parking space. Decidedly Smith’s dream, but with Mueller’s cooperation and support, he purchases five acres of pristine Colorado land and sets to work, of course underestimating how complex the undertaking is. The filmmakers’ observations about the process, and their personal and environmental reasons for wanting a tiny house, join interviews with other tiny house owners to impart a clear sense of the growing movement. By the project’s nature, the personal narration works more often than it doesn’t, and the film’s structure makes for an ultimately satisfying viewing experience.
THE HUMAN SCALE
Andreas M Dalsgaard also offers a design-oriented doc for Hot Doc’s Rule Breakers strand with this smart consideration of the need for city planning to return to the smaller scale. Using Danish urban planner Jan Gehl’s ideas as a focus, the film looks at several cities that are attempting to shift their design away from an elevated macro view to an eye-level perspective, where residents, and, importantly, pedestrians, can make better use of them than motorists. Beautifully lensed, with a smart selection of test case cities under consideration, Dalsgaard’s film is a compelling thinking piece, even if it’s at times a bit insular.
TERMS AND CONDITIONS MAY APPLY
Rounding out Rule Breakers, Cullen Hoback serves as a guide through the erosion of privacy on the Internet. Recognizing that most people spend no more than a few seconds glancing at the various terms and conditions agreements connected to various websites, applications, and the like, Hoback seeks to understand what exactly we’re authorizing by so easily clicking “yes.” This alone is a great structuring device for a doc, and Hoback follows it through to its often sobering conclusion, establishing how we’ve become willing participants in the destruction of our own privacy, authorizing entities like Google or Facebook to give authorities access to our information and behavior patterns. While the film is constructed on the conventional side, and Hoback’s narration might be somewhat overused, both approaches are suited to the project, and its provocative conclusions definitely hold the viewer’s attention.
THE PUNK SINGER
The Next section of the festival turns the spotlight on films about art, music, and culture. Sini Anderson’s entry is a comprehensive, honest, and intimate appreciation of Kathleen Hanna, known to many as the lead singer of seminal bands Bikini Kill and Le Tigre, and one of the pioneers of the riot grrrl movement – and someone who inexplicably vanished from the scene for several years. Blending an impressive body of archival footage of performances and personal movies with candid interviews from Hanna and key musicians and other figures from her life, the doc reintroduces adherents to the singer’s appeal and importance, especially to young women in the 1990s, and, no doubt, wins her some new fans. Well-spoken and outspoken, Hanna also candidly discusses the health concerns that led to her withdrawal from music until very recently in Anderson’s strong portrait.
AS TIME GOES BY IN SHANGHAI
Uli Gaulke’s film offers a collective profile of the oldest jazz band in China, Shanghai’s Peace Old Jazz, as they prepare for an international concert appearance in Rotterdam. Ranging in age from 65 to 87, these men have seen dramatic change in their country, including the Cultural Revolution, which was meant to cut them off from their passion for American music. Some still performed in secret, waiting until China opened up again to play professionally, which the band has done since 1980. With multiple characters, Gaulke never gets into extreme depth with any one individual, but the passing musings they make evoke an ethereal sense of the tumultuous history of China in the 20th century, elevating this from what could have been a condescending, sentimental geriatric portrait.
THIS AIN’T NO MOUSE MUSIC!
Closing out Next and this year’s Hot Docs coverage, Chris Simon and Maureen Gosling’s doc celebrates the work of Arhoolie Records founder Chris Strachwitz, a German immigrant who has made it his life’s unrelenting mission to locate and preserve American folk music in its myriad forms. The only thing the affable Chris doesn’t like, as noted by the film’s title, is soulless, irredeemable commercial throwaway music, and this breadth of interest informs Simon and Gosling’s portrait, which is awash in the sounds of New Orleans jazz, zydeco, Louisiana blues, and Tex-Mex norteño. Chris doesn’t provide a strong enough central thread to carry the film, resulting in a high concentration of anecdotes and an overall survey-like approach, but his passion is clearly and lovingly conveyed, proving resonant with the audience.