Hot Docs

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.

HotDocs review: Dr. Nakamats [2010, Kaspar Astrop Schroder]

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

Toronto – Being a celebrity can be hard. Being a self-promoting celebrity is even harder. The hardest thing is diamond.

I feel like I need a bit of absurdity to go with the film so I can swallow the protagonist’s claims. Yoshiro Nakamatsu says he holds 3,300+ Japanese patents, all of which he did out of love not money but none of which should be sold at half price. His other eccentricities include smelling cameras for their “goodness”, deriving creativity from diving and depriving himself of oxygen, sleeping 4 hours a night and only drinking for fluid the 55 element-enriched “brain drink” he invented, believing that he’ll live to 144 because it’s a multiple of 6, orchestrating his 3 children to give him a surprise present at 12am, AND keeping his mother’s body in a special contraption on the ceiling of his home so he can telepathically communicate to her for ideas. Ok, so maybe I don’t have to believe him. But when the 81 years old standing in front of you says that he teaches at the University of Tokyo, preaches a 3-step program of creativity with an accompanying 5-tier pagoda of success, you really wonder who’s trying to convince who. What I think we have is a very eccentric man whose ego is in need of 24-7 pampering, and have an endless stockpile of rehearsed lines for each situation. That, at least, is admirable.

Because Dr. Nakamats is so very out of the ordinary, the film didn’t use a whole lot of other visual elements save the sign-post font graphics. I don’t feel like that I have been informed a great lot, either – unless this is meant to be a mockery to the man – in which case it baffles the mind why Dr. Nakamats himself showed up at the screening. And I didn’t like it when the audience skips around this obvious contradiction but was confronted with cutesy one liner responses. Overall I was a little disappointed, not the least because Isabel Bader theater was uncharacteristically 30 minutes late.

HotDocs review: The Mirror [2010, David Christensen]

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

Toronto – “Mirror mirror on the wall, who’s the ugliest of them all?” Of the seven deadly sins, only sloth, lust and gluttony need not apply to a small town mayor who wants to build a mirror to reflect sunshine into his town square. So I’d say this magic mirror has shown that he’s the ugliest of them all.

Not that the railwayman (train engineer) is a bad person. The events of this film just doens’t reflect very well on him (OK no more puns, I promise). The small town of Viganella doesn’t have much tourism, it is dwindling in size, and there isn’t much that stirs the residents. That may have been the original reason to mount such a publicity stunt. As Christensen noticed in the Q&A however, the valley tends to harbour mayors with vanity projects. What is one to do after coming up with an idea like this? Well, you get an architect, not an engineer. One that doesn’t understand the basic principles of Newtonian mechanics, nor commonsense, is preferable. Otherwise you won’t have a very engaging documentary. And you need someone to lay the ground works before marching in the mirror. What about some German Buddhists? Brilliant. They endure hardships and require no more than prayer and mental peace. And for publicity? How about everyone? Let’s gather delegates from Spain, Mexico, Japan, local and international (Al Jazzeera, would you believe it?) reporters. We’ll mobilize the entire town to put on a parade 5 minutes before the Sunday mass finishes.

The scene at the valley really isn’t as bizarre as I have described. In fact, the film highlights the cooperation between valley neighbours Viganella, Bordo (the Tibetan Buddhist settlement), and Cheggio (an abandoned ghost town with few residents). The project, and not its culmination in a press frenzy, actually rallied the residents. Even though each has their own opinion on the mirror, a better sense of community is established as a result of the exercise. The Mirror is an evenhanded portrait of the valley, and quietly contemplative at times. Christensen did put a bit more social emphasis on the clash between Germans and Italians. But I think that’s a fair decision given that the tension was inherent, and not in the presentation style of the film. As to the mirror itself, it broke once during mounting, 2nd time at the inauguration, and became something of a non-issue after the fanfare. It wasn’t an architectural wonder anyways – just a very mundane flat steel construction that resembles a reflective billboard. It was quite surprising, though, that all of the soundtrack in the film was from residents of the valley. Accordion, electric and acoustic guitars, indian and steel drums. They and Susan Boyle remind you the talents that are hiding out there waiting for an opportunity. The mayor’s next project is: “building a cafe beneath the mirror”. Sounds like more self-serving public service. The mirror costed EU$100,000, or $500 for each of the 200 residents. Expect more outlandish spending. I wonder what the construction crew will forget to account this time; maybe how many cows they will need to fly-in to make whipped cream.

Hot Docs: The Rainbow Warriors of Waiheke Island [2010, Suzanne Raes]

Posted on by Ricky in Hot Docs | Leave a comment

Toronto – When I first received the screener for this dvd, I thought I was going to watch some documentary about some sort of Maori warriors or something, instead I got a screener about retired hippies who worked for Greenpeace when it first started getting popular in the 80s. The Rainbow Warriors of Waiheke Island takes a look at the original crew of the ship the Rainbow Warrior a trawler purchased by Greenpeace and launched as a protest ship against nuclear testing and whaling among other things. The crew as you would expect, is a bunch of rag tag hippies looking to do something about the planet. This documentary interviews a fair amount of the crew, who seem to have all retired to the same island in New Zealand, where they still live in the peaceful community based lifestyle.

Watching this documentary, I was constantly reminded of this Peep Show scene. Other then that, I can’t say this documentary did much for me, it was interesting to see how the downfall of the Rainbow Warrior inadvertently led to the rise of Greenpeace to the levels its at now. Some of the footage of them on the Rainbow Warrior was somewhat interesting, but all in all, to me, this documentary lacked some kind of fire that you like to see in documentaries. The crew all seemed to have moved on from their days so while they fondly remember their times there, you get a sense of detachment from those days as well.

So watch this documentary if you want to see how Greenpeace become the powerful company it is today, and don’t expect some Maori Warriors to show up, just because the title has ‘warriors’ and is associated with New Zealand.

The Rainbow Warriors of Waiheke Island plays at 1:30 pm TODAY, at the Rom Theatre