Film festivals are an interesting organism. On the one hand, they bring together big-buzz films and match them with lesser-known fare from all corners of the Earth, offering a rather eclectic and irresistible mixture. On the other hand, it's often hard to traverse the selections and always pick decent fare. Most often, great picks are intermingled with a number of eye-rolling doozies, and no matter what you do to try and avoid them, they inevitably pop up. But Hot Docs is different. For the last three years, I've been overindulging in documentaries, and like I touched on in my recent rant, I've liked almost every film I've seen.
It's a pretty rare phenomenon, and it says a lot about the quality offered in North America's largest documentary film festival. And it's not just me. This year, the Hot Docs audience increased by 42% over last year, reaching an estimated 122,000 people. Does this mark a change in attitudes towards documentaries? I can only hope...
In this dispatch, you can read about pre-teen filmmakers, a love story about brothels and quadriplegia, the Borat aftermath, Korean stuntmen, art criticism merged with murder, and the female orgasm. How's that for variety?
Zombie Girl: The Movie
We haven't talked about Emily Hagins much on Cinematical, save for a brief mention in 2005, but the object of this doc certainly deserves some attention. Zombie Girl focuses on Emily's determination to make a feature film -- at the old and mature age of 12. It's the sort of story that both inspires you, and makes you feel incredibly lazy in your own life; but the charm is that Hagins isn't some child prodigy, an old soul in young skin -- she's a regular girl who has the determination to make a dream come true, and has the rare ability to keep with it.
Unfortunately, this is a doc that thrives on the idea of a young filmmaker, but fails to rip past the surface to see what's below. Sometimes this can be forgiven in a film so jam-packed with information that there's just no room for it all, but there's plenty of room to discuss what's been left out -- the bigger picture on DIY filmmaking and what it means for cinema, how and why she inspired such dedication to get adults and kids alike attached for the long haul, reactions to her film, and other particulars.
Nevertheless, Zombie Girl is a worthwhile look into the industry, at once providing hope for the younger generations, inspiration for young and old filmmakers alike, an solid look into the aspects of filmmaking we often don't consider, and a excellent example of female strength and passion.
A Good Man
Some documentaries cannot be ignored because the subject matter sounds like something straight out of Hollywood -- like the story of a man who marries a quadriplegic woman and decides to open a brothel to ease the financial strain on his family.
It sounds strange, but A Good Man is simply a compelling look into our pre-conceptions about love, disabilities, and happiness. Years ago, soon after getting pregnant with Chris' child, Rachel suffers a debilitating stroke that leaves her able to feel, but not move. Although he can only communicate with her through yes/no blinking, Chris marries her. Fourteen years later, they have two children, and he's just as devoted to her as he was in the beginning.
Yes, the film follows his attempt to open a brothel and bring in more money, but that's secondary to this truly unique treatment of disability. Here is a man who doesn't let the challenges that would break others hurt him, and who faces adversity with a shocking and inspiring amount of grace. At the same time, A Good Man offers two other valuable notions: another look into the sex trade, and how sex workers are some of the most compassionate people in the face of disability, and how being surrounded by a positive atmosphere can make anyone thrive. (Rachel has lived much longer than anyone else in her condition.)
Carmen Meets Borat
Before questions of accountability were raised with Slumdog Millionaire, there was the case of Borat, and how Sacha Baron Cohen traveled to "Kazakhstan" (Romania), mislead villagers, paid them little, and then portrayed them as whores, thieves, and abortionists. But rather than merely showing the aftermath of the film, director Mercedes Stalenhoef focuses on Carmen, a young girl in the village dreaming for a better life -- a move that makes for a compelling balance between youthful dreams and the short-sighted plans of outsiders.
This treatment provides a double punch -- first, what the life of a young girl is in a town like Glod, and second, just how destructive Hollywood can be in its short-sightedness. Much like Slumdog, the aftermath of Hollywood is troubling. These people are desperate for what we think of as basic necessities, and the cameras result in nothing but mistrust and suspicion that breed sentiments like: "They talk to us, but they'd rather kill us."
In a refreshing example of what can happen when people experiment with form, Action Boys offers a look into the lives of those accepted by the Seoul Action School. Director Byung-Gil Jung wanted to make a documentary to change the negative image of stuntmen in Korea, so he piled on a healthy dose of self-deprecation and feature-length narration into a documentary about his experiences, which comes together like a long, tongue-in-cheek story rather than a removed cinematic investigation. While this isn't the documentary that offers a lot of depth, it's a nice balance of entertainment and storytelling.
One can safely imagine that the man who created both The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover and The Tulse Luper Suitcases would create another interesting experience out of Rembrandt's "Night Watch," and "interesting" doesn't even begin to cover it. We're talking about a doc that takes art criticism to an unheard of level -- integrating opinion and history together into a murder mystery, one that is not only immensely entertaining, but also funny and educational.
Rembrandt's J'Accuse plays out as a cinematic mosaic -- explaining clues about the painting through re-enactments, split-screens, fade-outs, and more visual flairs. Rather than just present information blandly, or with carefully-executed shots, Greenaway makes the film a work of art just like its subject. What would seem like a dry subject -- discussing the rationale behind an old painting -- quickly becomes intensely engaging and educational, which is the best a doc could hope to be.
Like the above films, Orgasm Inc. uses humor to lighten an often aggravating and troubling load -- this time, it's used to battle the notion of female sexual dysfunction. While following the development of drugs aiming to help women have orgasms, Liz Canner looks at the reality behind FSD, and how closely this new "disease" reflects archaic notions of female hysteria.
Instead of preaching, Canner lets the facts speak for themselves, most compellingly through a woman who goes so far as to have electrodes implanted near her spinal cord because she thinks she's diseased. Why does she think this? Because while she has the ability to have orgasms, she can't have them through regular intercourse.
This is one of those docs that will pummel you with frustration, but is so very necessary in this new world -- both for the habit of creating diseases for drug companies, and also for the rampant ignorance about women's sexuality.