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Sunday in the dark at Hot Docs

Okay, it was a full day of film on Sunday, starting with a discussion panel and followed by three screenings.

The panel–at my old stomping grounds of Innis Town Hall (where I fell in love with film in first year university)–was about “long haul” documentaries. Those are the docs that take years to make. No particularly surprising insights there, except that the tendency seems to be for filmmakers who are this invested in their stories to want to keep shooting until there is a “happy ending”. Which ain’t always possible. I was hoping to hear about what it was like to try to maintain interest in their subject for so long, how greatly (or little) it ran roughshod over the rest of their lives during the extended shoot/edit, but, aside from the financial impact that self-financing such an enterprise can wreak on a filmmaker’s family, there wasn’t much said about that.

director Sandrine and her little sister Sabine

My first screening of the day was my second choice for that timeslot. I’d decided I couldn’t get all the way from the Royal to the Cumberland in time to see Junior, so Three Miles North of Molkom hadda be sacrificed and I went to see Her Name is Sabine at the Bader instead. (Naturally, the guy I ended up in line behind at the Junior screening… had just come from Three Miles North of Molkom!! [insert eyeball roll here] Anyhow, I ended up at French filmmaker Sandrine Bonnaire‘s beautiful and heartbreaking portrait of her little sister Sabine, instead: Her Name is Sabine.

Sabine, we are told (and we see in videos shot during her childhood) has always been unusual. When she was a child, her parents never knew what, exactly, was the cause of her troubled grasp of reality. It isn’t until the end of Sandrine’s film that we learn that her sister was eventually (in her late 30s) diagnosed as psychoinfantile with autistic behaviour. The film introduces us to Sabine at approximately age 37, where she is living in a private hospice that cares for special needs clients in western France. Her behaviour is startling–moments of clarity interspersed with trance-like periods, an inability to concentrate on anything for more than a brief time, and a constant desire to lie down and do nothing but stare blankly. When sister Sandrine cuts to videos shot on holidays when Sabine and her siblings where younger, we see Sabine–while still noticeably outre–laughing and interacting and communicating in a way that makes her present state even more frightening. She had been cared for by her mother for years, until her sisters all moved away from home and a brother died and she started to act out. She was no longer getting the attention that she once had, when her siblings were around. A little bit of violence and contrariness at first, and then, when it began to be directed at her mother, the family had to do something. She was hospitalized for 5 years and, when she was released, she was a mere shadow of the person her family had known. She went from periods of almost catatonic behaviour to unbidden screaming and biting and hitting and then back again. Now, whether this devolution was a natural progression (if that’s the right word to use) of her (as yet undiagnosed) condition or whether it was a result of her hospitalization or the massive amounts of drugs she was on, it is hard to say. No decision about that is made by her sister Sandrine’s film. But we are left with Sandrine taking Sabine under her care again. The emotional climax of the film (at least for me) is when Sandrine shows Sabine a dvd she has created from video footage she shot on their vacation in NYC when Sabine was just a teen. Sabine sits on the couch, watching herself 20 years younger–interacting, conversing, enjoying herself, behaving practically the same as any other teen in her position might–and present-day Sabine bursts into tears (as do I). I don’t know if she is crying because some part of her understands what she once was/once had and what’s she’s lost, but that is (obviously) how I read the scene. It is a remarkably beautiful portrait by her sister in directorial debut.


Junior, a film by Montreal filmmakers Isabelle Lavigne and Stéphane Thibault, focuses on four Quebec Major Junior Hockey League players over the course of a season. What’s interesting about the film is that there is no on-ice footage. We don’t actually see any hockey. We just see the boys’ lives off the ice. And how 99% revolves around that one little bit we don’t see. The pressure on these kids (aged 16-20) is unworldly, and they are faced with making decisions that could make an adult shiver. I mean, would you want to be given 5 minutes to make a life-altering decision when you were a teenager? The burden of expectations (their coaches’, their agents’, their teammates’, their families’, their own) weigh heavily on their (occasionally dislocated) shoulders and emotions bubble to the surface now and again to remind you that, jeez, these guys are still just kids. The filmmakers were given remarkable access to the kids’ lives and the team’s dressing room over the season, and they produced a film that gives those of us who merely stand at the end of the rink and cheer on our boys another level of understanding of what’s going on before, during, and after the game.

Dance With a Serial Killer

My day finished with a screening of Dance With a Serial Killer. Nigel Williams (U.K.) tells the story of French detective Jean-François Abgrall’s 5-year hunt for a serial killer who struck all over the country. It started in 1989–before the days of “C.S.I.”-type investigations–so think of last year’s Zodiac (a fictionalized recount of the search for the Zodiac serial killer in ’70s San Francisco, by David Fincher) and picture it as a documentary. Old-fashioned policework–lots of legwork, lots of interviews, lots of time with seemingly little progress. And, like the Zodiac investigation, the lead detective had a pretty good idea who the killer was. It was just a matter of producing the necessary evidence. The story starts on a crowded beach in northern France, where a sunbather is brutally stabbed to death for no discernable reason. Young detective Abgrall gets a faxed alert when the body is discovered and begins his investigation. Little does he know it will end up taking him all over the country, will last for years, and he will know in his heart who the killer is and still be faced with what appears to be an airtight alibi. The film’s pace is slow but that suits the subject matter. The story is familiar, but the hunt for a serial killer is a subject that is always fascinating to me. It is a story of obsession–on the parts of both hunter and hunted.

→ originally published 2008-04-21


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