Hot Docs

Hot Docs Review: The Parking Lot Movie [2010, Meghan Eckman]

Posted on by Ricky in Hot Docs | 1 Comment

Toronto – Documentaries that are light and funny are quite rare these days, since it’s definitely more meaty as a filmmaker to focus on some unknown social issue taking place in some unknown city in some random third world country. This is why the Parking Lot Movie was so appealing when I saw it on the schedule. The documentary takes a look at the lives of current and former parking attendants who work at the corner parking lot in Charlottesville, Virginia (home of University of Virginia). This parking lot is special because owner Chris Farina does not use a automated system and instead employs a steady cast of misfits and miscasts, most of whom are too overeducated and overqualified to be working at a parking lot (including Yo La Tengo bassist James McNew).

The documentary mostly consists of testimonials of all the attendants coupled with footage of day to day interactions with clients, most of whom look down upon the attendants. Meghan Eckman did a great job with finding quality comments from the attendants and the attendants were all very well spoken and quite humorous.

Definitely recommended if you are looking at having a good time.

Parking Lot Movie plays on the Cumberland Parking lot Rooftop on Thursday, May 6 at 8:00 pm

HotDocs review: Made in India [2010, Rebecca Haimowitz / Vaishali Sinha]

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

Toronto – “We’ve been trying for 7 years. I’m 40 years old. And all I’ve ever wanted is to have a child of our own.” To paraphrase Lisa Switzer, the protagonist of Made in India, is to sink into that same futility that she feels. I suppose I’ll never know how much that urge to express one’s maternal instinct can drive one to attempt far-flung solution, but then again it’s really no different from any other human endeavours – when all else seems to fail, we WILL try what option is left to us.

As we are told in a short introduction just before the film, Made in India wast the fruit of labour spanning 3 years, between Rebecca Haimowitz, who is expecting, Vaishali Sinha, and their team. Through the Switzers, they present a first-hand account of Westerners’ foray into the booming reproductive/procreative tourism scene. I’ve honestly never heard of such word combination, but it is a fitting description. More and more, desperate perspective parents turn to help in countries such as Lithuania, Ukraine, Thailand, and India, where “wombs are available for hire” at a modest cost relative to their home country. I use the quotes completely without derogatory intentions – that is surrogacy. The fact that we can use plain, non-euphemistic language does not mean that one should wade boldly into these ethically murky waters. In this case, the Switzers acquired the help of Planet Hospital, who arranged the doctors and fertility clinicians in Mumbai that will extract, inseminate, and implant their children into a local surrogate mother. Proceeding from that irretrievable junction, we follow the pair and the surrogate through pregnancy scares, legal contests, social stigma, and much unspoken undercurrents, to the return of two baby girls to San Antonio, TX.

I liked the directness of the narrative. The flimmakers interviewed all of the usual suspects, and pointed out several inadequacies that require delicate handling. For a film that deals with difficulties in making babies, it is surprisingly evenhanded. Lisa and Brian was not particularly emotional, surrogate mother Aasia did not burst into fury when she found out that she wasn’t going to get paid sufficiently. I think members of the audience was more emotional than all involved – maybe the camera was a calming factor. The issue of regulating this “trade” and the women rights involved was brought forward by several spokeswomen, while the Indian government insisted on providing guidelines not laws. I think many countries are waiting for legal precedence, but no one wants to go first. The ramshackle hence dishonest nature of the current system is in plain view. Aasia was held in the hospital for nearly two weeks and managers asked for her fees to be paid by the genetic parents, all the while restricting or denying anyone’s access to the babies. That was effectively ransom. Only the involvement of the US consulate facilitated the release of these children – imagine if the Switzers were citizens of a country of little international presence. The filmmakers may have won the lottery the day they teamed up with the Switzers, but I doubt that these troubles are rare occurrences like the agencies/clinics suggest. Arguments about how much the surrogates should be paid will no doubt surface in other reviews/commentaries and I won’t do a detail accounting of how much percentage the agencies/clinics took (> 50%), but the film was not as thought provoking as it could be. There’s no attempt to discover the US legal system’s response to this new trend. There is only a muted expose of the schemes ran by the fertility clinics and their overseas partners. And, where are the gloves? Everyone in the fertility clinic was around the biosafety hood with hairnet and mask sans gloves! Does no one care for the genetic/surrogate mothers’ safety? Where are the consumer rights groups that mandated themselves to protect people from enterprising salesmen in these “international health care agencies”? There are some missing pieces that could have made the documentary a more valuable project. The one thing that stood out for me was how dominant the Hindi-turned-Islamic surrogate was, in deciding to take on such a project. There are undergraduates in universities here with less tact/guile than her, and I would not easily associate her with the slums of Mumbai. Perhaps its for the best that the filmmakers did not interview any neighbours, leaving Aasia in peace to raise her own children as best she can – which is really what both families involved in the film ever wanted for themselves.

Made in India will be screened twice more in the festival:

May 2 (Sunday) @ 6:45pm, Cumberland 2
May 9 (Sunday) @ 8:00pm, Innis Town Hall

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.