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Monday, May 06, 2013

Sean Kelly

Hot Docs 2013: Films in Review

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I was a very busy person during the 20th anniversary of the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival.  Altogether, I watched 36 feature documentaries and 4 short documentaries that played as part of the festival.  I’m happy to say that I was able to write-up full reviews for 24 of these films over the course of the week.  However, I can’t ignore the films I didn’t have time to get so, this post will feature capsule reviews for the remain 12 feature documentaries, as well as the shorts.  For your convenience, I will also include links to all the full reviews.

Full Reviews

Capsule Reviews – Features

Another Night on Earth
Under the back-drop of the uprising in Egypt, a number of taxi cab conversations are recorded between the drivers an unknowing passengers.  The film doesn’t really give much context beforehand and it is only through the conversations do you come to realize what is happening in the world outside the cabs.  While the subject matter is definitely quite interesting, I thought that the actual execution of Another Night on Earth was little on the dull side and I found myself getting quite bored around the midway point of this film, which is only 54 minutes long.  I did perk up late in the film when a passenger goes on a heavily misogynistic rant against a female cab driver.  If only the film had more scenes like that.  Overall, Another Night on Earth is not a bad film, it just wasn’t enough to keep my attention.
6 | WATCHABLE

Ballerina
Inspired by the autobiography of world-famous Swedish ballerina Elsa Marianne von Rosen, Ballerina features a number of black and white dance sequences, re-enacting moments of von Rosen’s life, interspersed with colour shots of the now 89 year old ballerina.  If you are a fan of dance films like Pina, I would think that you would also find Ballerina to be an enjoyable film.  There is really not all that much to the film, other repeated pattern of narration, followed by a heavily-choreographed dance sequence.  Personally, it’s not really my cup of tea.
7 | FAIR 

Tough Bond
Throughout Africa there are countless children, who are forced to live on the streets.  One thing all these kids have in common is an addiction to inhaling “Tough Bond” brand furniture glue, which causes them to all-to-briefly escape from their lives.  A shocking sight throughout the film is how these kids constantly have a bottle filled with glue hang from their mouths at all times, making it apparent how addicted these kids are to glue.  Tough Bond focuses on various areas around Kenya, beginning at the small village of Yomo, where many of the featured kids originated from, all the way to Nairobi, where many street kids congregate.  Overall, I thought that Tough Bond was a quite interesting socio-political look at street kids in Africa, as well as the ignorance of elective officials to do anything about them.
8 | LIKED IT

Our Nixon
The bulk of Our Nixon is made up of footage from 500 reels of Super-8 movies, which were shot by Richard Nixon’s Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, Special Assistant Dwight Chapin, and Domestic Affairs Advisor John Ehrlichman, and sat in a vault for 40 years.  The footage is contextualized with the help of archival audio, including the infamous Watergate tapes, as well as archived news broadcasts and interviews with Haldeman, Chapin, and Ehrlichman.  While the film doesn’t really add too much to the story of Richard Nixon, I did find the film to be quite interesting, especially when it came to the secret recordings that were made in the Oval Office (a homophobic rant about All in the Family got my particular attention).  In fact, the film is more about the three staff members filming the footage, than Nixon himself, all of whom received jailtime for involvement in the Watergate Scandal.  Overall, Our Nixon is an interesting look at Richard Nixon front the point of view of those closest to him.
8 | LIKED IT

Lucky
I have to admit that I was curious to see Lucky based solely on the promotional photos of the film’s heavily tattooed and pierced titular subject.  However, this didn’t really turn out to be the kind of film I was expecting it to be.  Despite her punkish appearance, Lucky is a highly insecure person, who has lived in the system all her life.  She uses her tattoos and piercings as a mask to hide her true self.  However, she has since grown to regret her appearance, since it has heavily limited her options.  She has very high aspirations, with dreams of becoming famous, though she also seems to have little concern with the realities of life, including raising her child.  I couldn’t really find myself drawn too much to Lucky’s story, since I thought she was not a particularly likeable individual.  That said, she does show some growth over the course of the film and I think that Lucky still works somewhat as a candid portrait of a very unique individual.
7 | FAIR 

Aatsinki: The Story Of Arctic Cowboys
Aarne and Lasse Aatsinki run a reindeer farm in Finland, where they lead a collective of reindeer herders, who manage the last group of wild reindeer in the country.  The film gives a cinéma vérité look at the activities on the farm, over the course of one year.  With the exception of the occasional conversation, the bulk of the film is entirely silent.  I thought that as a whole, Aatsinki was a pretty decent observational documentary about the life on this reindeer farm.  Of course, I have to warn that the film does feature some very graphic images of butchers skinning and gutting reindeer for meat.  It was enough to cause a few walkouts among those at the screening I was at.  However, the slaughterhouse footage only makes up a small percentage of the whole film and rest of the film featured much more happy images, include the stereotypical image of reindeers pulling sleighs in the winter.
8 | LIKED IT

I Will Be Murdered
In 2009, a Guatemalan Lawyer named Rodrigo Rosenberg was found murdered.  A video-recording was subsequently passed around at Rosenberg’s funeral, which featured the man himself claiming “if you are watching this video, it’s because I’ve been murdered by President Álvaro Colom.”  The video becomes a viral sensation and causes an uprising in Guatemala, which is one of the most violent countries in the world, where 98% of murders go unsolved.  I Will Be Murdered looks into the investigation of Rodrigo Rosenberg’s murder and how he was so sure that he would be targeted by the country’s president.  Some very interesting revelations are made in this case and I thought that overall that I Will Be Murdered was a very intriguing look into this political scandal.
8 | LIKED IT

Alcan Highway
Finnish immigrant Hese buys an old truck in Alaska for $700, which hasn’t run in 40 years.  With the help of friends, Hese sets out to repair the car and drive it 4000km to Vancouver Island, where it will become a new mobile home for himself.  Despite being an observational documentary, Alcan Highway is edited in such a way to make it appear like a narrative story.  The film is evenly spread in three acts, with the first act dealing with the repair of the truck, the second act dealing with the road trip itself, and the third act dealing with the truck breaking down in Prince George, British Columbia.  I thought that Alcan Highway was a fairly enjoyable and humorous film, though I do with that the actual “story” of this documentary had more closure, since it never shows the end of Hese’s 4000km roadtrip.
8 | LIKED IT

The Crash Reel
In 2009, while training in Sault Lake City for the 2010 Winter Olympics, snowboarder Kevin Pearce crashed face first, resulting in a terrible concussion.  Pearce now suffers from irreparable brain damage and, despite his wishes to do so, he can never participate in snowboarding competitions ever again.  The film raises many questions about extreme sports stars, who are not covered by insurance, yet are expected to do exceedingly dangerous stunts in their competitions.  The film even brings up last year’s tragic death of Canadian freestyle skier Sarah Burke, who died after crashing on the same course Pearce had his accident.  Overall, The Crash Reel causes us to wonder if these extreme sports are worth endangering these competitors lives.
8 | LIKED IT

The Other Shore
Diana Nayad was one of the all-time best swimmers of the world.  Now in her 60s, she decides to come out of a 30 year retirement to try and reattempt the one swim that always eluded her – the 103 mile journey non-stop from Cuba to Florida.  Diana has a highly determined “never give up” attitude and I don’t think it will be spoiling too much to say that she tries and fails this swim multiple times over the course of the film.  While Nayad’s major challenge is being able to endure the three day swim at her age, she also has some very scary encounters with marine wildlife, particularly the deadly box jellyfish.  Overall, while it might be seen by some as one of the “also rans” of this year’s Hot Docs, I can say that I enjoyed The Other Shore and the message it gives about never giving up your dreams.
8 | LIKED IT

Quality Balls – The David Steinberg Story
Quality Balls tells the story of Canadian comedy gem David Steinberg, who was one of the visionaries of modern humour.  Steinberg was the son of the Rabbi and he became known for doing stand-up routines in the form of a sermon.  These sermonettes were highly controversial and even resulted in the cancellation of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.  Steinberg was also the second most regular guest, behind Bob Hope, on The Tonight Show and he had impeccable chemistry with Johnny Carson.  After some stints in Second City, Steinberg eventually moved on to directing and is currently involved with the HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm.  The film is a fairly straight-forward, yet hilarious, telling of Steinberg’s career, with his recent return to stand-up, after over 20 years, being used as a general backdrop.  Steinberg isn’t as well known as other Canadian comedians, so I am happy there was a film where he gets his due.
8 | LIKED IT

Future My Love
At its core, Future My Love is a documentary about 95 year old futurist Jacque Fresco, who wants humanity to abandon their reliance on a monetary economy and utilize technology to its full advantage and create renewable resources that will bring humanity together.  This film would’ve have been quite interesting if it wasn’t for the fact that the film was full of black and white avant garde scenes with introspective narration in the form of a love letter to society.  The film just does not really work in its current form and I really wish that more focus was spent on Jacque Fresco’s story, instead of using it to create some sort of art film.  It’s a shame.
6 | WATCHABLE

Capsule Reviews – Shorts

Derby & Groma
A number of old photos are found scattered along the ground and story of the vaudeville duo “Derby & Groma” is deciphered through the photos and archive footage.  The film goes into how important photographs are for preserving a certain point in history.  However the story behind photos can be lost and the photos were likely thrown out in the first place, because they held no connection to the current owner.  Overall, I thought this was nice little short about the importance photos hold in preserving history.
8 | LIKED IT

Happy Birthday Emily
This wonderful little short focuses on an elderly couple, who loves their dog Emily so much that they throw an elaborate birthday party for dogs in the neighbourhood.  The party includes everything from a piñata full of dog biscuits to an elaborate birthday cake made from dog food, rice, and other ingredients.  This is very heart-warming short that just shows how much people treat their pets like a member of their family.
8 | LIKED IT

Pink or Blue?
It may be only 7 minutes long, but Pink or Blue? says a lot when it comes to gender identity and stereotypes.  The film focuses of a very effeminate young boy, who wants to dress up as a princess for Halloween.  The boy is advised to ignore anyone in class who teases him about it and the film gives the message that you don’t have to conform to gender stereotypes.  In fact, the film has a very hard-warming ending with two princesses dancing with each other.  This was a cute little short.
8 | LIKED IT

Leonardo
A guy returns to his childhood home and reminisces about the time he dropped his old action figure of Leonardo from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles down the heating vent as a child.  All these years later, Leonardo is still down the vent and a belated rescue is underway!  I’m sure that everyone can relate to a long lost toy story like this one and I absolutely loved how this film plays out.  It was definitely the hidden gem of the Hot Docs short programme.
10 | LOVED IT  

Sean Kelly

About Sean Kelly -

Sean Patrick Kelly is a self-described über-geek, who has been an avid film lover for all his life. He graduated from York University in 2010 with an honours B.A. in Cinema and Media Studies and he likes to believe he knows what he’s talking about when he writes about film (despite occasionally going on pointless rants).