Monday, May 9, 2016

Hot Docs 2016

As subscribers to Doc Soup, we get 12 free tickets to Hot Docs, which ran April 28 to May 8. Choosing from all the films can be a bit overwhelming, with 232 titles spread across 14 different programs and 11 different theatres. 

The Toronto festival is the biggest in North America by volume. We get many international premiers of a lot of docs that have already screened at Tribeca, Sundance, or SXSW. Many of the Canadian films are world premieres. Catching these films on the big screen is hard to do. Although the festival may be over, the Hot Docs Cinema continues to screen documentaries 364 days a year (every day but Boxing Day).

Persistence and fortitude seem to be at least as important as talent for documentary filmmakers. Isn't that the way with most things? Many of the pieces take five or more years to finish, often because of the difficulty of raising the cash. A few titles this year were partly made possible with funds raised through Crowdsourcing, which also helps secure an audience eager to see the final product when the film is complete.

For more than one of the filmmakers, it was the first time they were seeing their own film on a big screen in front of a large audience. Their excitement was contagious. I walked by someone sitting in the audience at I Am Not Your Guru that looked remarkably like Tony Robbins - and it was - he had flown from Australia to be part of the Toronto festival.

This year, our film selection was limited by a busy calendar, but we still managed ten in ten days. Hot Docs is definitely one of the perks of living in Toronto!
After Circus
The Last Laugh
The Happy Film
Android in Lala Land
Contemporary Colours
I am Not Your Guru

There were some unconventional subjects with conventional approaches. After Circus joined retired circus performers in a retirement community, where they banded together to resurrect some of their acts. Engaging and upbeat, but it literally avoided too many close-ups of the characters' warts, which would have made it all the more interesting.

Koneline's director had the perfect name for a documentary about an indigenous community facing a new mining venture: Nellie Wild. She talked about bringing along a camera with a curious vs. judgemental eye, into the community. It was gorgeous to watch, even the skinning of a moose was captivating. The sound editing was incredible, as well, with the director sharing how one song was played backwards to avoid it coming across as too dreary. This could have been a typical film with a narration or one point of view, but it took a more unconventional approach and was all the more richer for it. I only wished it had more visuals with the Northern Lights, instead of one single 20 second shot at the end.

We chose some films because of their famous musicians. Android in Lala Land (Gary Numan / Cars) and Contemporary Colors (David Byrne / Talking Heads). Android was a satisfying portrait of a musician in their later years, creating a new album not only for artistic but pragmatic reasons - needing an income. Contemporary Colors, on the other hand, was quirky but had only glimpses of Byrne - it was more about an event the icon staged to feature high school kids presenting Color Guard choreography. 

Death and the question of the meaning of life were central to at least two of the docs we saw. Gleason was about a young man struck with ALS. A well known football player in New Orleans, he is able to leverage his celebrity to raise funds and awareness for the disease, creating a Team Gleason. He lobbies Washington to provide technology that will enable sufferers to continue to communicate after the disease has ravaged their ability to speak. Shortly after his diagnosis, Gleason learns his wife is pregnant with their son, and he begins a series of vlogs to his son, trying to communicate life's important lessons. In early days, before the child is born, he is able to speak, but as the disease progresses, and after the child is born, Gleason is using technology to explain his struggles with the disease. 95% of ALS patients opt out of an operation that, while it will continue their life, will afterwards require around the clock care. Gleason chooses to continue his fight, and I couldn't help but wonder if he would have made a different choice if he hadn't been fundraising with a slogan that was, "No white flags."

The New York Times employs a staff of five to write obituaries, some prepared ahead of time for the subject's eventual death. Obit interviewed the writers about their craft and allowed the camera into the morgue - the place the paper files old clippings prior to the digital era.

The Happy Film took almost 7 years to complete and faced many challenges, including lack of funding, the death of the first director, and some creative ennui. The concept was to follow three different regimens to see which would result in the greatest incremental improvement in happiness: meditation, therapy, and drugs (prescription). The concept belonged to a graphic designer, who learned a lot about storytelling, shooting, and editing in the process of the film. Great graphics! Jonathan Haidt, social psychologist and author, acted as advisor to the film.  Stefan Sagmeister fell in and out of love four times during the making of the movie, and the quest for happiness came across more as a quest for a relationship. In the end, Stefan advocates drugs as being the most efficient route to increasing happiness.

You have to wonder if all the negative publicity Weiner received about his inappropriate sexting would have made as many headlines if it weren't for the opportunities his last name presented for sexual double entendres and scintillating headlines: Weiner's Second Coming! Beat It! Too Hard to Stop!  The headlines took away from his stand on the issues as his name in the run for NYC mayor became a punchline.

Some jokes are in bad taste and some are offensive. Are there some things you should never joke about? Are jokes about the Holocaust ever funny? That's one of the questions the director of The Last Laugh posed to comedians Sarah Silverman, Mel Brooks, Gilbert Gottfried, and survivors. The Anti Defamation League deems it is never appropriate, whereas some survivors say being able to laugh at absurdities helped to keep them sane.

I Am Not Your Guru was an uncritical look at Tony Robbins, filmed during his trademarked seminar, Date with Destiny. Six long days are edited down into two hours, including looks behind-the-scenes into how the motivational speaker works with his team and keeps his energy pumped to the max. Many who sign up leave with lives genuinely transformed. Director Joe Berlinger had his own Date with Destiny, and it affected him so profoundly, he wanted to share the experience with a wider audience. The film isn't a replacement for the full-length experience, but offers more than a glimpse into why 200,000 people a year line up to pay the $5,000 entry fee. 

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