Hot Docs

Hot Docs preview: Autumn Gold [2010, Jan Tenhaven]

Posted on by Gary in Everything, Hot Docs, Reviews | 2 Comments

Toronto – “For those of you in the audience who’s not in the special club and want to know what it’s like to have children, adopt an 100 yr old man, who needs 24 hr nursing care. And then find out, gee, my life’s really changed.” So said Dana Carvey on his HBO special. Well. What if you have 100 yr old men and women who do not require oxygen cylinders or pampering? What if their lives have barely changed such that they still live as if they are 60 odd years younger? What would Dana Carvey say in that case? “Mmm. Well that’s definitely a pleasurable sensation!”

Ok. If anyone has seen that show I apologize – those two lines were taken completely out of context. But just as out of context is the name of this documentary: it should really be called Winter Gold. This is the story of 5 athletes as they journey to Lahti, Finland, for the 2009 World Masters Athletics Championships in track and field. If the average age in most developed countries is 75 to 80, then there’s nothing “autumn” about these athletes’ age. Jiri Soukup, Gabre Gabric, Herbert Liedtke, Alfred Proksch, and Ilse Pleuger, are all over 80, and some over 90 years old. The Masters (not golf… although that comparison can be fitting…) is an age-group competition – where one competes within their own group and his/her performance is then normalized with an “age factor” so that it’s comparable to others’. Often times you might watch a documentary and think: “Oh, there’s nothing special about these people, I can _____ (insert activities like backyard wrestle, run carnivals, skydive, highrise wirewalk), too, if I wanted to”. Not here. The film makers simply followed these men and women on their training and daily life so that the experiences can be “pre” lived by us, who will probably not have the chance. Ever. The energy of these geriatric was simply astounding. In the opening, Jiri (82), climbed 5 stories in 1 minutes and was still composed enough to dole out some wisdom on life. Gabre (94) led a group of 60 yr olds on aerobics exercise and then trained on her bike. Herbert ran the 100m sprint, Alfred still sketched nudes at 100, and Ilse danced around the living room with a broom looking/moving like she’s 45 and not 95.

It is a nice touch that Tenhaven did not make this feel like a freak show of immortals, which it easily could have been if he had focused on or even mis-emphasized these people’s idiosyncrasies (aka the style of some Japanese TV documentaries…): did they have special diets, environment control, meditation? Is there a ritual they go through daily? The answer, surprisingly, is no. These people led normal lifestyles. If anything, the secret to longevity is there is no such secret and you should stop worrying about one. Rather, we are reminded of what happens when you live long enough – everyone and everything else dies, trees included. There were definitely moments of intense longing. Perhaps that’s a part of the reason they enter these competitions – the need to be with peers and not feel alone. And then there’s the competitiveness that still drives these people. It’s not a small competition, either – I think there’s maybe 5000 or so competitors each year. That’s bigger than some scientific conferences. I have mixed feelings about the slow-motion shots in this film. On one hand it allows you to see the focus and concentration on their faces, but it was also slightly melodramatic and clashed a bit with the rest of the film, when it cuts from a demure narrative to something out of the Kraken battle in the Clash of Titans. I rather enjoyed that dimmed optimism – knowing that finality is imminent and yet quietly go on living one’s life – without high drama. You’ll have to watch to get the individual results of the competition – I’ll just close by saying that it was very cool to hear O Canada mixed-in with the credits. Watch for hilarity when The Italian shows up!

Catch the documentary on:
May 4th (Tuesday) 7:00 pm @ Isabel Bader Theater.
May 6th (Thursday) 11:30 am @ Isabel Bader Theater.

Hot Docs review: Bhutto [2010, Duane Baughman]

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

Toronto – I SWEAR: Hotdocs was watching me. My accreditation with them came through mere 5 seconds after I began typing out this preview. It is actually a bit surreal and will probably set off some paranoid reflections. But as it stands now, I came away from this film with two mathematical notions. 1. The more you shout, the more people remember. 2. courage is probably independent of the reasons not to be (in fact it probably scales inversely to adversity).

Drawing early on from a comparison to the Kennedys, this focused biographical sketch of Benazir Bhutto started off with a rather distant perspective of a land-owning Pakistani family. By distant, I am supposing that the idea of owning and administering a track of land the size of Orange/LA county, CA with a population to match is not an upbringing that most average viewers (obviously me included) can resonate with. This is not to say that the Bhutto family was portrayed as arrogant – far from it. They were the (Harvard, Oxford, Berkeley, etc) educated elites of Pakistan. The aristocratic background, then, served to instill a sense of responsibility. Like the British lords and nobility, their success derives from the well-being of their subjects. This attitude was apparently carried over from aristocracy to democracy. The original, was Benazir’s father, Zalfikar. By introducing the his rise to power and eventual downfall in a coup de’tat orchestrated by his hand-picked general, Baughman set up the political landscape in which Benazir will operated for the next 29 years. The twice prime minister of Pakistan started off as a Harvard undergraduate during the peace and love hippie movement, which would not have prepared her for repeated family tragedies with her father and brothers (father, I mentioned, was executed by rivals; both brothers died of circumstances that literally reeks of backlash assassination). Through out this constant foreground of political wrangling, she started a family, raise 3 kids in exile while her husband was incarcerated in Pakistan for 11 years. With a strong woman at center stage, add to this hot steaming stew the fundamentalist movement, USSR and the US fighting through their proxies Iran/Iraq, Mujaheddin, Gulf war, the ever looming presence of India, nuclear bombs, Pakistani internal power struggles, 9/11, War in Afghanistan – this quickly turns into a jumbo mess that I wouldn’t touch with a pole the length of Long Beach. Big cohones to her for standing up for what she, and ultimately her family, believes in, knowing quite well that the outcome might be martyrdom.

The production value of the documentary is quite high – and this is most obvious in the introduction. It is a 5 minutes condensate from colonial period to the formation of Pakistan. Graphics showing buildings transforming into statistical dots on a rising excel chart, models of US C130 cargo planes dropping aid, tanks strolling down main streets, all helped to transfer a mindset to the viewer. It’s quite stark. The CG texts are particularly powerful reminders (for example, the literacy rate of men and women, the amount of foreign aid, the amount of military spending versus that on education). Throughout the narrative, of course, interviews from friends, family, media, and detractors/rivals are utilized to reinforce the image of Benazir Bhutto as a champion of Pakistani democracy. At points the film reminds us that politics is about power – but it’s the people who actually yield that power over to the elite. With her building schools, forming women police forces, and trying to spread polio cures, I can’t help but feel that she’s sculpted into a Frankenstein of Mother Teresa and Margret Thatcher. But there’s also a slight feeling of one-sided-ness to the interviews – her niece and the former president were the odd voice against her. Some may consider it bad taste to mock someone posthumously. That’s why the archival footage adds much more realism to the story. I wonder if it was difficult to obtain them, however. She was a prominent figurehead, especially in the Western sense. Had she not been educated and well-known in US/UK, those images would probably have been lost to state-run censorship/intelligentsia, making them more “precious”, which is often the prize for watching these documentaries. But that’s me being facetious – the point is that using these snippets like a paper mache, Baughman has managed to sculpt a likeness of Bhutto that many may agree on. For those of us on the other side of the globe, the images of seas of people at her campaign rallies serve as an admonishment of what we take to be our right.

Catch the documentary:
May 1st (Saturday) 6:15 pm @ Bloor Cinema.
May 4th (Tuesday) 11:00 am @ Isabel Bader Theater.

Hot Docs Review: Nénette [2009, Nicolas Philibert]

Posted on by Ricky in Hot Docs | 1 Comment

Toronto – I think Planet Earth has spoiled me on all documentaries involving animals. I loved that documentary, even bought it on blu ray (from England, not the Siguorney Weaver one) before I had a blu ray player. Hell, I still don’t have a blu ray player. The footage captured in that documentary was astounding, so it set the bar pretty high in terms of documentaries involving animals.

Now obviously, the documentary Nénette is not that type of documentary, but I’m just doing the comparison to give you some expectations of footage I had going in to this documentary.

Nénette is an orangutan who has been at the Jardin Des Plantes zoo since 1972. One of the zoo’s most popular attractions, the ape gets regular visits from many visitors, many of whom have seen Nénette through the years and have developed emotional attachments to it. The documentary consists of many faceless people talking about their relationship to Nénette and how they think Nénette is doing/feeling. It doesn’t take a zoologist to realize that this is one depressed animal. The zoo settings are horrendous and there really isn’t that much room for an animal of that size to roam. That’s beside the point though. The film consists ENTIRELY of zoo footage, which could have been great if the animal, you know.., did anything. Anyone whose seen an older animal at a zoo would know that those animals tend to do nothing. So what you get is 70 minutes of a bored orangutan, doing pretty much nothing but sitting down and occasionally moving. There wasn’t even many zoo keeper – orangutan interaction you might expect from a documentary about an animal at the zoo. Visually, I had a hard time keeping my attention on the screen, and that is an issue considering the film is entirely subtitled (because it’s in French).

Aside from the zookeepers, there weren’t many “experts” in the field who were interviewed, so I guess for me, it seemed like a lot of the opinions and information was not something I would fully trust or believe. I didn’t really get anything out of this viewing other then that Nénette is probably pretty sad.

Here is a more in-depth article about the movie, with explanations from Nicolas Philibert as to why he made the movie.

Nenette (70 minutes) plays on the following days:
May 6, 7:00 PM, Isabel Bader Theatre
May 8, 4:30 PM, Isabel Bader Theatre

Here is a trailer in french.

Hot Docs: The “Socalled” Movie [Garry Beitel, 2010]

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

Toronto – What is it about human nature that drives us to create? Most of us travel through life worried about stepping outside the boundaries prescribed by society. But there are others that seem to have a creative fire that burns brightly from the outset. They create, and create, and create. Some are lucky enough to turn their mental manifestations into a career. The “Socalled” Movie is a portrait of just such an individual.

Socalled is the stage name of Josh Dolgin, a Montreal-based musician that blends Jewish klezmer music with hip hop and funk. The documentary consists of 18 short films that examine different aspects of his life. One vignette shows Josh introducing funk Trombonist Fred Wesley (of James Brown fame) to klezmer music. Another explores the creation of his youtube sensation You Are Never Alone.

It is interesting to see the creative process at work in Josh’s head. However, the energy and momentum created by many of the short films is often derailed with a more plodding interview style that is interspersed throughout. While the “18 short films in a row” approach does allow freedom to jump around, it does come at the expense of continuity. In glimpses we see Josh wear so many hats; first as a musician (pianist, singer, arranger, rapper, producer, composer, and accordionist), and then as a magician, a cartoonist, and a filmmaker.

How could you see [the history of the world] … and not want to be a part of that?  How could you see all this stuff that humans have done with their time and brains and not want to at least give it a try? Cause there’s only one shot of being a part of the world. – Josh Dolgin

It was only at the very ending of the film that things coalesced with Josh’s quote above. In an earlier short, he was quick to admit that he didn’t think of himself as a great singer. Yet he is inspired to keep trying by the creativity he sees around him. Josh wants to be a part of the human saga; and who can blame him? It’s what has been driving him to create his entire life. How human is that?

Hot Docs runs from April 29 till May 9th. The complete Hot Docs schedule can be found here.

Socalled is screened on the following dates

Sun, May 02 9:15 pm at Bloor Cinema.
Tue, May 04 11:30 am at The ROM Theatre.