Hot Docs

HotDocs review: Casino Jack and the United States of Money [2010, Alex Gibney]

Posted on by Gary in Everything, Hot Docs, Reviews | Leave a comment

Toronto – Jack Abramoff produced films… such as the Red Scorpion here. How did he become the top lobbyist on the Hill? The answer is closer to fiction than you think. Casino Jack and the United States of Money is a mesmerizing whirlwind tour of American politics from the vantage point of a lobbyist – the world’s your oyster and the only problems are regulations.

This is a fairly efficient portrait of everyone involved in the Abramoff/Scanlon scandal… after the fact. So most of the characters involved (Former Congressmen Bob Ney, Tom DeLay, and their aides) are interviewed with the occasional input from journalists who uncovered the whole deal to begin with. Due to the magnitude of the story, there’s ample material to work with. To make a long story short: the film tracks Jack Abramoff and his connections from his College Republican National Committee days, right up to the Inidan casino scandal. These political connections often come back as guests or accomplices, nodes off the main branch story.

Ultimately the film is depressing. As you shake your head in disbelief you also realize that it was allowed to occur. Since the roots went fairly deep,  it deserves to be seen by all – it gives a better handle for future events. To navigate the audience through a story this big in its entirety in 2 hrs is simply not a task for the uninitiated. Gibney and his team has really simplified the dots so it’s easy to connect. Those cutesy flow diagrams help, too. Was it greed or simply riding off the wave that was there? When the thread gets stretched from Chinese slave labour to Malaysians, from native tribes to Mexican casinos and Russian mobs, you just want to say: “No more”. I don’t really want to know how the model democracy of the day operates on rotten flesh of the disadvantaged. The narrative has a distinctive investigative journalism feel – basically the extended version of what you would find on DocZone or Fifth Estate, sans a host. Many of the cutback schemes, connections, characters (and especially the emails) are preposterously funny. To hear about ploys of tacking beneficial bits of legislative loopholes on bills in the Congress, FROM A CONGRESSMAN, really brings it home. (Since we’re following the American model, I wonder how long it’ll take the Canadians to copy that trick?) To those of you who are intimately familiar with this story it may not be news – then the value of the documentary may vary. But to me the film was engaging and manages to transform a political maelstrom into a clown show by relating Jack Abramoff to a spy novel protagonist. The whole thing DOES read like a fiction – too bad it’s real.

HotDocs review: Space Tourists [2009, Christian Frei]

Posted on by Gary in Everything, Hot Docs, Reviews | Leave a comment

Toronto -Three people are sitting in the claustrophobic cockpit of the docking module at the front of a Soyuz rocket. One of them lack the decades of training, military flight background, and scientific expertise typical of astronauts. Yet all shared the aspirations of being in space. As the countdown nears 60 seconds, a hushed prayer:

Here I am, at the center of the world.
Behind me, myriads of protozoa,
before me, myriads of stars.
I lie between them in my entirety.
Two shores taming the sea,
a bridge that joins two worlds.
And, dear God, a little butterfly,
a shred of golden silk,
laughs at me like a child.

I don’t know if Frei added that voice for dramatic effect, or do the Russian cosmonaut commanders always mutter this Tarkovsky poem before launch (I know for certain that if he did not use it multiple times in the film its romantic effect would have doubled). But Space Tourists is both a documentary and a dramatic piece of cinema. Its 3 parts joins together like the 3-stages of the Soyuz, propelling the audience toward a better understanding of the entire landscape surrounding the glacially expanding space tourism in Russia/Kazakhstan. Stage 1 is Jonas Bendiksen, who documented the former Soviet state through his photography. Pictures of desolate Soviet landscapes, abandoned space program headquarters, grimy and worn inhabitants are haunting, but it tells about past more than present. A band of Kazakh junk raiders contrasts with paying space tourists Anousheh Ansari and Charles Simonyi to show us the norm. The modern space program contributes to both rich and poor, in some poetic sense. A donation of 20 million dollars gets you sufficient training to withstand the launch, feeding the ailing Russian space program, while farmers and goat herders gets to salvage scrap metals and parts from the rocket stages. Where’s the future, then? Frei’s got that covered, too, with some footage from the X-prize challenges, and projects from the under-privileged ARCA (Romanian Cosmonautics and Aeronautics Association).

The film is beautiful to watch. There are, of course, rockets. And people flying down the tubes in Mir, swallowing water droplets, and demonstrating how to piss/poo. But the more interesting parts are the junk raiders cooking and eating from a piece of rocket gear that’s very very charred, and farm villages with a second stage rockets poking out of the field where livestocks roam. Obviously with the footage on Mir, Frei has no control over the camera. But within Star City, Baikonur Cosmodrome, and on the plains of Kazakhstan, the shots contributed much to the feeling of the film – a slight foreboding. There is a disjointed feeling, too. Although I put the film in that “3-stage” metaphor, it’s not really presented clearly in that fashion. The X-prize and Bendiksen parts seem especially alien to the rest of the film – almost like they were tacked on to sandwich the space flights. Seeing how much promise the space program had, and how it’s mostly abandoned, leaves quite a taste in the mouth. We could have all been up there, I guess, had we not been distracted by other “priorities”. Now, according to ARCA, we’ll all be dangling from a balloon for couple of hours before we’re shot up to space. Frankly, leaving my home planet on a trajectory dictated by the weather in a hand-crafted carbon-fiber diving bell is something I need to be paid to do.

Hot Docs Review: Short Docs

Posted on by Wade in Everything, Hot Docs | 1 Comment

Six Weeks [Marcin Janos Krawczyk, 18min]
This is a pretty powerful doc. In Poland when a mother gives her baby up for adoption, she has six weeks to change her mind. This story follows one particular mother who, due to her current economic situation, had decided to give her baby up for adoption. Few words are spoken in this verite piece. In terms of simply showing a story, Six Weeks really hits the mark. One of the final scenes where the baby is handed over to its new, and very excited parents is shown without audio. At that moment I kind of hate them, as if they were forcibly taking their new baby away from its biological mother. Very well executed.

Six Weeks screened with Chemo

Flawed [Andrea Dorfman, 12min]
This is a story told through a series of stop motion water colour paintings. Even when the novelty of the animation style wore off, I still found myself interested in the story. The story is one of being happy with yourself and what makes each of us individuals. The whole time I was watching it, I was reminded of the documentary Sound And Fury.

Flawed screened with Small Wonders

Time’s Up [Jan Peters, Marie-Catherine Theiler, 15min]
This short looks at the time crunch in all of our lives. As stated in the film, when you have no money you have lots of time, when you have lots of money, you don’t have any time. It is a common problem. As I was watching it, I was secretly going through the list of all the things I had to do later in the day. The story is told through the 9 month pregnancy of the filmmakers. Early on in their pregnancy, they have a car accident, which was caused by them rushing and speeding in their car. From that point on, they knew things had to change. The style of this short is quick and cool. Great use of reenactments to tell the story in a creative way. I thought it was a pretty good movie. My friend Vanessa called it her new favourite documentary.

Time’s Up played with The Kids Grow Up

Basin [David Geiss, 8min]
Basin takes you on a visual and audio journey through Alberta’s oilsands. Told through a Cree drummers’ beat, the visuals show us the beauty and destruction of the olisands. I would have liked to have seen this in the theatre to get the full effect. Instead, I saw it on a viewing station where I suspect I didn’t get the full effect that the director was trying to get across.

Basin plays with Land
Sunday, May 9th, 2:PM a the Isabel Bader Theatre

Peter In Radioland [Johanna Wagner, 10min]
I am pretty resistant to new technology. When my boss asked me if I wanted satellite radio in my truck, I said no. When he asked me if I wanted a GPS, my response was ‘I have a map book, thanks”. I feel like I have a connection to Peter, who hates all things digital. He is happy with is radios, frequencies, and other analogue devices. Peter is stuck home, off work, as he battles depression. I like the cinematography of this short dock. Some great images.
I now have a satellite radio and GPS in my truck. What was I thinking?

Peter In Radioland screened with Marwencol

Hot Docs: Neighbors [2009, Rached]

Posted on by Mark in Hot Docs, Reviews | Leave a comment

Toronto – How does one go about building an equitable society? We humans have been struggling with that zinger for a while now; and it seems that it often takes some kind of revolution to shake things up. At some point the downtrodden gather to rise up against the upper classes in the name of equality. Too often it seems that the ideals that are used to ignite and mobilize the people are then co-opted. One ruling regime supplants another and progress lurches forward, then sideways, then backwards a bit. Sometimes society seems to progress the same way a drunk dancer does when he lurches across the dance floor.

“[President] Nasser, I liked him a lot. Though he arrested me many times.” – Mahmoud Amin El Alem

Neighbors takes a multifaceted look at the microcosm of the Garden City district in Cairo, an affluent neighborhood that was prominent in the 30’s-50’s. Through the eyes of the locals, we see the changes that take place in this district through the socialist movement of the 50’s up to the post-911 world. In addition to snapshots of Garden City’s changes, we also get a better understanding of many local’s feelings towards Egypt’s place in the world. The characters talk candidly about their experiences and how it has shaped their lives.

For the rich gentry of Garden City, president Nasser’s socialist revolution marked the end of an area of decadence. Garden City was the most westernized area in the most westernized country of the Arabic world. The villas in the district tell a story of old money mixed with the European values of intellectual freedom. Many of the interviewees have mixed European descent and speak flawless French. They long for the decadence and simplicity of their privileged youth. From an idealistic point of view, they also long for the freedom of speech that their world once had. They are rightfully frightened by the fundamentalist movement that is gaining momentum all around them.

We also see an equalization force as the 50’s revolution gives way to an emergence of a middle class of sorts. No longer is Cairo split into ultra-rich and ultra-poor. But there never seems to be enough resources to go around, and the middle class looks at modern Egypt and laments the arrival of what one interviewee calls “the tyranny machine.” It doesn’t seem to matter any longer who is in power, the machine just needs someone to push the buttons; and it only gets more experienced with time.

Colonialism’s influence on Cairo and Garden City is profound. It was British, American, and French money that created this Parisian-style gated community. As we fast-forward to the present day, we see beautiful old British villa’s get supplanted by the American embassy, a concrete monstrosity of a fortress. Egyptians and Americans alike explain the distinct loss of respect and admiration that America has sustained in this part of the world since the invasion in Iraq.

“To find your way amidst good and evil, power and individual, past and present… How to find your way… That’s the real issue. And remain strong, solid and optimistic throughout it all. I’ve always been optimistic despite the many beatings I endured.” – Mahmoud Amin El Alem

One of the very best interviews is saved for the end, where we meet an older intellectual at home with his books and his thoughts. Mahmoud Amin El Alem explains the need to balance the fight for freedom and progress with positivity and grace. He’s a man that has been beaten and imprisoned for his political views, but still manages to preserve a boundless optimism and gentle disposition. His wisdom is the kind we need to make any real progress.

Neighbors is a fascinating, gritty, and human look at Cairo’s Garden City district. There are two Hot Docs screenings on Friday May 7, and Saturday May 8.