Well named

Starting with Sundance, back in ’06, I have made a habit of trying to sit on the aisle, in a row near the back of the theatre, whenever I go to film festivals. Sometimes you need to get out quickly to get to another screening and other times you discover that you’ve chosen unwisely and just wanna slink out without causing other audience members to be taken out of the film by your rustling and excuse-mes as you squeeze past them out the row.

Well, wouldn’t you just know it, but the only time I ended up having to sit down at the front of the theatre at this year’s Hot Docs was for the one film I absolutely hated and wanted to get the hell outta before it was finished. There was nothing I could do but just gut it out.

The write-up on this thing described it as being about Carlos Castaneda‘s five “wives”, who mysteriously disappeared right after his death—never to be seen again. Sounds like it might be interesting, right? Yeah, that’s what I thought too. But when the director introduced her film by saying that she doesn’t normally make her films for an audience—she makes them for herself—and then added, ‘I hope that if you don’t find what you are looking for in this film, you find something else’, well… As it turns out, I didn’t find what I was looking for and all I found in its absence was frustration and boredom.

Minou Norouzi’s Anatomy of Failure reminds me of something that was made by a self-absorbed teenager who doesn’t know 1. how to construct a story, 3. how to capture something interesting within the frame, 3. how to draw a comprehensible story from the people she sets before her lens, or 4. how to focus her fucking camera!

I sat and seethed through this self-indulgent thing. What on earth the programmers saw in this, I dunno. I saw some blurry navel-gazing shit on a beach and then a bunch of interviews with flaky nouveau-hippies.

The Apology Line

At least the opening film was interesting. It was called The Apology Line and was a rather poetic little film about an anonymous phone line in Britain that you call when you need to apologize for something and you don’t feel you can make your apology to the person who deserves it. Some of the apologies are funny while others are wrenching. Directed by James Lees, it won the Best Short Documentary award at the festival.

Minou, the number is 0800 970 93 94.

→ originally published 2008-04-26

Jesus Loves You but I do not

...but I don't

I was looking forward to the group-directed Jesus Loves You–a film about a bunch of fundamentalist Christian missionaries from around the world who converged on Germany to minister to the millions who were there to attend the 2006 World Cup–but it left me with little taste in my mouth, good or bad.

It was shot by four crews–meaning four directors: Lilian Franck, Matthias Luthard, Michaela Kirst, and Robert Cibis–so that each could focus on one particular missionary… Tillman is a charismatic German who started a group called Youth With A Mission. Scott is a young pastor who preaches at the 411 Church in NYC in a bad hairdo. Gershom is a friendly, outgoing Zambian who, despite his young age, is a veteran missionary. Cody, in contrast, is a complete noob at this–freshly baptised in Scott’s church and decidedly awkward when it comes to approaching the strangers to whom he is meant to appeal.

There is a lot of buildup to the missionaries’ arrival in Germany but once they are there, it seems like there is little interaction shown between them and the soccer fans, and the film seems to lose its direction and peter out. The few soccer fans we meet don’t seem to know quite what to make of these earnest folks appealing to them to accept Christ as their saviour. The ending felt abrupt, without resolution. Not sure what the point of it all was, y’know?

→ originally published 2008-04-26

Dammit Jim, I am a doctor, not a carpenter

The English Surgeon

The English Surgeon (dir. Geoffrey Smith, U.K.) has won the Best International Feature award at this year’s festival. While I would’ve cast my vote in the direction of Man On Wire instead (because it is interesting not only in content but in form–whereas The English Surgeon‘s content is compelling but it is not doing anything interesting formally), I must say that I really enjoyed it.

It tells the story of British brain surgeon Henry Marsh, who has been helping out an impoverished Ukrainian clinic for the past 15 years, and his colleague in Kiev, Dr. Igor Kurilets, who admits he looks up to Marsh as an older brother. The film focuses on one operation that Marsh is to perform on a poor Ukranian farmer, Marian, who suffers from a brain tumour. What might be a simple operation in London is complicated by an ill-equipped clinic and inexperienced staff. We see Marsh and Kurilets shopping for a cordless drill at a hardware store in the local market. You can imagine what a brain surgeon might need a drill for. Just not the kind a handyman might buy. The operation, itself, is featured in the film and it’s definitely not for the squeamish. I had to avert my eyes a couple times and the guy beside me sat there with his hands over his ears when the drilling started.

Marsh is a droll delight, and this serves to leaven what could’ve been shameless melodrama. Yet we see how a failed attempt to help a child in his past has left a permanent mark on his soul and how it informs all his doctor-patient relations.

While it might not have gotten my vote for the award, I still feel that it is a beautiful, facinating film about a lovely man.

→ originally published 2008-04-26

Pong on steroids

Wednesday was full enough that I didn’t get a chance to do any writing between screenings. I had brunch at Future Bakery with an old friend and then we went to a screening of Second Skin. After that, we parted and I went on to The English Surgeon, The Black List, and then finished the night with Stranded, I’ve come from a plane that crashed in the mountains. Then, on Thursday, it was lunch with another friend–this time at St. Lawrence Market–then he went back to work and I went on to see Who’s Afraid of Kathy Acker?, Mechanical Love, and one of the films to which I have most been looking forward: Dreams With Sharp Teeth.

But it is late and I wanna go to bed, so just a little right now…

Second Skin

Second Skin, directed by Juan Carlos Piñeiro Escoriaza, is a look at a handful of M(assively)M(ultiplayer)O(online)R(role)P(playing)G(amers) and the role the games, themselves, play in their lives. The games featured are World of Warcraft and Everquest and, yes, I’ve heard of them but this is the first time I’ve ever clapped eyes on them. My experience in this realm began and ended with Pong.

It was a very familiar sensation that settled over me as the subjects began to explain how they felt about gaming and we saw the players sinking into their virtual world. It came as no surprise, then, when, later in the film, we were introduced to Liz Woolley–the founder of Online Gamers Anonymous–who was trying to help self-admitted game-addicted Dan, who has lost his job, his health, his home, and his friends. Liz blames her own son’s suicide on his gaming addiction and has set out to help others. Now, bear in mind that I have all kindsa trouble not with what she is trying to do but how she is trying to do it. So I wasn’t surprised to see her fail.

We are introduced to lots of couples who met via the community of online gamers. Folks who met virtually–as the characters they play in the games–before they met in the real world as their real selves. The relationships that are the focus of the film, however, don’t seem all that stable or strong to me because the individuals seem so emotionally immature. The cutting between the real people and their avatars is almost cruel in that you go from a handsome, swashbuckling hero in the game to a bespectacled nerd with a bad haircut, crooked teeth, and a cheesy goatee at the computer. I mean, we’re talkin’ living clichés, here!

Of course, what exactly constitutes their “real” selves is in question. Some of the gamers do believe that they are more their “real” selves online. To an outsider like me, that is extremely sad. But I realize that their perspective is very different from my own so what do I know? I mean, there seemed to be a lot of gamers in the audience and they reacted very positively to the film. I get the feeling we’re only getting part of the picture, though. I’m pretty sure there must be gamers who aren’t as loserish as these folks seemed to me to be–people who are able to function as responsible adults in the real world and still find time to devote to this hobby.

The last game I played looked like this

→ originally published 2008-04-25

The Artistic Crime of the Century

Believe the coincidence or not, but I followed the film about folks intentionally falling from absurd heights to someone trying not to fall from absurd heights.

Philippe Petit

Man on Wire is James Marsh’s fabulous portrait of Philippe Petit‘s infamous 1974 high-wire walk between the Twin Towers. Crime? Performance art? Stunt? Coup? All of the above?

Marsh combines vintage footage (much of which has never been seen before–in fact, he was the one who had it developed for the first time) and stills with re-creations and present-day interviews with the principals to tell a remarkable tale from a more innocent time. Juggling these different techniques for telling the story, he has as deft a hand with film as Petit has with the high-wire (and juggling and sleight of hand). And both men are expert storytellers. At last, at this year’s festival, I have finally run across a filmmaker who is doing something interesting with the documentary form. Films like this one are why I’m here.

The film tells the story from the moment the idea of the WTC wire-walk struck Petit through the plotting of how to do it and the training he did to prepare for it to the actual carrying out of the plan and its aftermath. Late in the film, someone remarks that an illegal walk like this one could never happen today–‘You would be shot!’–and I must say that at the beginning of the film, when we see re-creations of the preparation for the illegal ‘coup’ (as they called it), that thought had occurred to me, too, as I watched a bow and arrow set smuggled into the towers inside an architect’s cardboard tube and the wires get packed in a big wooden box that was put into a wheeled garbage container that the imposters (dressed as WTC employees and construction workers) took, unquestioned, into the guts of the towers. This just couldn’t happen anymore. That it happened at the WTC makes that fact even more pointed, of course. Marsh may not mention the ultimate fate of the towers in his film, but the subtext of that is there–whether he wants it or not.

This film is deeply intelligent and entertaining, it is astounding and funny, daring and beautiful, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

→ originally published 2008-04-22

20 seconds of shitting your drawers

Well, after much frustration, I have finally found a suitable nesting place where I can sit down with a coffee (and a nosh) and get free wireless access. Not sure why that’s harder to find in Tronna than it is in Sarnia. Go figger. Anyhow, my li’l EEEPC and I are sitting in the Aroma Espresso Bar, just next door to the Bloor Cinema, waiting for the box office to open so I can pick up my tix for two of tonight’s screenings, and I thought I could tell you a bit about the film I just saw this afternoon.

Take a flying leap

It’s called 20 Seconds of Joy, and it’s about Norwegian BASE jumper Karina Hollekim. Directed by Swede Jens Hoffmann, the film covers about five years of Karina’s life as an extreme athlete (she is also into freeskiing and skydiving but the focus of the film is her BASE jumping).

The film follows the charismatic and beautiful and complicated Karina all over the world, and, as you might imagine, the cinematography is breathtaking. We peer over the edges of fjords and mesas along with the folks who are bound and determined to throw themselves off, and if you have any hint of vertigo, you should probably skip this one. Hoffman typically set up about five cameras to capture each jump–including a helmet-mounted camera. It is spectacular and I am so happy I was able to see it on a big screen.

Inspired by Rocky the Flying Squirrel

Hoffman talks not only with Karina and her fellow jumpers but also her family and friends. Most express how difficult to deal with her jumping is for them. She is mostly unconcerned about that and, luckily for her, they do seem to understand. There is discussion about Karina’s childhood—made difficult by a car accident which put her mom into a coma. Once she recovered from the coma, her mom had no short-term memory, and Karina found herself—at a young age—in the position of being the caretaker rather than the child. So she grew up fast and she grew up strong, and she constantly set challenges for herself. BASE jumping is a way of putting life’s challenges into perspective, I guess… I mean, if you can corral your fear of your own death and hurl yourself into the abyss off a thousand-metre cliff, then I guess losing a job or facing financial difficulties isn’t all that scary, y’know? Seems a bit extreme to me, but, hey, we’ve all got our own ways of dealing with life, I guess.

There is a turning point in the film which, Hoffman told us at the “long haul” panel on Saturday, came right at the end of the scheduled shoot. He decided to keep shooting, though, because he didn’t want that event as the end of the film. Wise choice.

See it on the big screen if you can!

→ originally published 2008-04-22

There’s Smelly and then there’s smelly

Chris Bell (left) in Bigger, Stronger, Faster

“Is it still cheating if everyone’s doing it?”, the tagline for Chris Bell’s Bigger, Stronger, Faster asks. Bell, despite being against using steroids himself, appears to think it isn’t. The thought that kept running through my mind as I watched his film was, “Boy, somebody around here sure has watched a lotta Michael Moore films!” And, honestly, I enjoyed Bell’s film as much as I enjoy most Moore films, so it’s not necessarily a knock against him. It is, then, a first-person documentary that uses wit and irony to deliver its message–which is that steroid use amongst pro athletes is rampant, has been going on for years, has negatively affected only a tiny percentage of users, and has no proven longterm health effects. Like Moore, his opinion is made pretty clear. His thesis is that steroid use is the American thang to do–with “win at all costs” being the way he believes Americans feel. He manages to find some less-than-stellar representatives for the other side of the argument (like the amazingly clueless California Rep. Henry Waxman, who is one leading the anti-roid charge but knows less about the subject than his unseen offscreen assistant does) but–that said–he does also let his steroid-using brothers (nick’d “Mad Dog” and “Smelly”) stand as representatives of those who are pro-roid even though the Bell boys are not necessarily positive role models (nor are many of the other pro athletes he looks at). And it all revolves around him. Very moorish. Still, it’s quite entertaining and the crowd loved it. As an aside, after I’d picked up my ticket for the screening and got in line to get into the Bloor Cinema, I noticed, beside me and off to the side of the lineup, a very familiar-looking face. Ben Johnson. (Briefly) The World’s Fastest Man. I decided against asking him for advice on how I could improve my own plodding running pace.

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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.

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Beyond our ken

ken – noun
1. knowledge, understanding, or cognizance; mental perception: an idea beyond one’s ken.
2. range of sight or vision.

Honestly, even after sitting through an hour and a half documentary about it, the whole belief system of the Australian ‘cult’/’alternative approach to spirituality’ called Kenja is still beyond my ken.

And so I consider the film, by Aussie filmmakers Luke Walker and Melissa Maclean, a bit of a failure in that I can’t quite get a handle on what Kenja is all about. Shouldn’t they at least try to give me an objective understanding of what the proponents are excited about and opponents are upset about? According to what I’ve read, the group offers a Utopia where life’s purpose is defined, the human spirit discovered and the universe itself explained. Well, if you’d asked me what the group’s purpose was when I walked out the door of the Al Green theatre tonight, I’d’ve shrugged and said that it appears that the group’s purpose is to teach “klowning” and put on talent shows for its members. ‘Cause that’s pretty much all I could figger out. There was something else about ‘energy conversion’ that happens between two members who sit, staring at each other in plastic chairs a foot or so apart. Fucked if I know what that bit’s all about.   Continue reading

Decisions, decisions!

Hot Docs 2008

Okay, everything’s sorted out for my Hot Docs sojourn this year, so I can finally relax about that. I’ve bought the festival pass, booked the hotel and the time off work, and made a first pass through the schedule to make note of films that sound interesting. I have also bought the cutest, the lightest (so light, it practically has a negative weight!), the pinkest little (and I mean little) laptop, that I can slip into my purse and take along to use to update der blog between screenings. (I tried carrying my regular laptop with me one day during the fest last year, and it was just too damned unwieldy.)

In preparation for this trip, I had to make a series of decisions, and making decisions isn’t one of my strengths. Because I seem to have a talent for making the wrong ones. It’s just one of my many character defects special gifts.   Continue reading