Monday, May 9, 2011

Hot Docs - Still Reeling!

Saw more than 12 films at this year's Hot Docs.

There were some outstanding documentaries and others we sat (or slept through) were very forgettable if not downright boring.

Too bad you can't always tell the duds in advance.  Even some of the great docs seemed to go a bit past their ideal length. Hmmm.... Looking for feature status or a salable slot on tv?  Although it didn't help matters that we often screened many of the films at 9:45 pm - which is about 15 minutes before my normal bedtime. I'm going to have to do a better job picking my schedule next year! 

This was the largest ever Hot Docs, with more than 151K audience attending 360 screenings of 199 films.  

All of these did have some brilliant bits and unforgettable characters.  I can definitely see why the directors picked their "stars".  They make or brake the story (yes, I meant to spell it that way :-)).

Quick highlights of some of the films I saw (I've starred my absolute favourites).

** Poster Girl
A young woman returns from the Iraq war with post tramatic stress disorder and faces an ordeal trying to rebuild her life.  She has to battle hard with the U.S. government to get access to basic benefits that will help get her life back on track so she can rejoin society.  Along the way she discovers the power of art to heal.  Robyn is the last female in the line on right.  She spoke at the screening and was direct and without pretense.  Very brave person.

** Project Nim 
A biography about a chimp that was taken from its natural mother and raised by humans.  Nim was taught sign language in an effort to discover what chimps thought, then shipped off to a medical testing lab, then onto a life of solitary confinement.  Fascinating story directed by the Oscar winning director of Man on a Wire.  This raises the nature vs. nurture debate to a whole new level.  Some of the people who worked with Nim were there to take questions from the audience.  One of the primatologists was responsible for rescuing Nim from his life of solitary confinement.

Ken and Elmo
** Being Elmo, A Puppeteers Journey
When he was 10, he fell in love with the muppets and started trying to build his own puppets.  By 18 he had met Kermit Love, master builder and Jim Henson collaborator.  He was soon holding his own with Captain Kangaroo.  But his dreams really did start coming true when he started working on Sesame Street.  Elmo came to life in his hands.  Such a curious talent... subtle movements and eye positions make such a difference, you realize these people really are artists.

**Carol Channing:  Larger than Life
I knew about Carol Channing, of course!  But this documentary made me respect her all the more.  Almost 90, she has a new beau in her life and they are head-over-heels.   She performed Hello Dolly well over 5,000 times - yet never got the opportunity to star in the film version.  Barbra out-campaigned her for the part.  The Director hung out with Carol on the theatre scene and realized she had to start recording some of her incredible stories.

Despicable Dick
Despicable Dick and Righteous Richard
This guy is at the 8th and 9th step of the famous 12 steps.  He is at the stage where he asks forgiveness for his truly despicable actions (throwing one of his wives naked into a hotel hallway, tossing another from a moving car, ignoring his children).  Despicable Dick is still a prick when sober. While he reminisces it is almost as if he is celebrating the bounder he was; he doesn't seem to be at all sorry.

Chance Encounters
By strange coincidence, a married couple of TTC drivers both encounter suicides while driving their subway trains.  The 'chance encounters' change their lives forever.  (About one person every week attempts suicide by jumping in front of a train).  10 minute student film shows definite promise.

My home town Toronto has a new growth industry.  People who try to make a living playing poker at underground games across the city.  These "grinders" partake in illegal activities while the cops turn a blind eye.  Not many females at the tables.  Every day there are 200+ games in clubs ranging from downtown to suburbs.  One of the featured spots was actually less than 10 blocks away from where I live.  The Director was a grinder himself and was happy to give it up because it had become as tedious a way to earn a living as working on the GM Assembly line.  Now, to make some quick cash, he'll head off to the casino to play tourists who usually don't have a clue what they're doing.

The Hollywood Complex
Kids hoping to be cast as the next star of a prime time series migrate to Hollywood for Pilot Season.  Their families put up stakes of several thousands of dollars on the gamble.  Most return home unsuccessful after a season or two.  Others are no longer children and moving into mid-adolescence, but still persist.  Heartbreaking, really.

Melissa:  Mom and Me
They stripped together in Japan.  Now 10+ years later, the Director tries to hook up again with her friend to see how her life is turning out.  Not so hot, actually.  Melissa is struggling with addictions and self-esteem issues.  Both the Director and Melissa were there at the screening, but I couldn't really think of anything to ask as I wasn't particularly curious.  The story was pretty well told in the film.

Over a ten-year period, two families feud and bare-knuckle fight.  These Travelers are Irish gypsies.  Remember Snatch?  Brad Pitt probably hung out with some of these guys as he was preparing for the role.  HBO is turning this into a series.

The Good Life
These characters were probably the least likable of the lot.  Once part of the ruling class in Denmark, they've now lost their wealth and are totally helpless.  The 50+ daughter sits around most of the time blaming her 70+ mother for all her misfortune.  Very similar to Grey Gardens with respect to lost fortunes.  At least 30 minutes too long.  The Director, who was there for the screening, said the daughter thought herself quite glamourous when she saw the film  Go figure.

Valley of the Moon
Hippies living on a beach in Sardinia, Italy.  When do they cross the lines and become homeless bums?  The Director was there to take questions.  Sometimes he needed the translator to restate the questions and answers; other times he spoke in English.  One of the hippies is living in Tuscany now, the other in Rome.  Maybe I'll bump into them in September when I travel to Italy?  Although I might not recognize them with their clothes on....
At Night They Dance
A family of women try to make it on their own in Egypt, by having two of the daughters bellydance at wedding celebrations (the portion of the ceremony attended almost exclusively by males).  I saw this film in the afternoon and despite its tantalizing subject matter still fell asleep.  This will be screened at Cannes, where I wonder whether they will share my opinion it is too long?  Amazing subject matter.  The filmmakers are married to each other, live in Quebec when they are not on the road, and answered questions while they took turns holding their baby.

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