A couple of weeks ago I attended the kickoff press conference for the 2010 edition of the Hot Docs International Documentary Film Festival – North America’s largest documentary film festival and, I believe, second in size anywhere to the annual one in Amsterdam.
I love documentary films and was eager to see what was in store for us this year, but I have to say that I didn’t quite expect I would almost squeal with delight during the rundown of films and special programs. My inner fanboy wasn’t ready for the announcement of Rush: Beyond The Lighted Stage, the documentary about the career of one of my long time favourite bands by the directors of Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey and Iron Maiden: Flight 666. Forgive me for briefly becoming 15 years old again.
That’s what this festival can do though…Once again, programming director Sean Farnel and his staff have pulled together a lineup that may slightly overwhelm (166 movies from 41 countries in 11 days), but can also excite even after just a quick perusal of the individual film titles and short synopses. It’s an excitement that was also certainly present in the Hot Docs organizers themselves as they stepped us through the special programs, special presentations, retrospectives and some of their individual favourites.
This year during the festival, two filmmakers are receiving their own retrospectives: Kim Longinotto (10 films) and Canadian Tahani Rached (3 films). Another series looking backards is the Ripping Reality program which showcases 10 docs that made a strong impact in the last decade. The set includes titles such as American Movie, The Fog Of War, Darwin’s Nightmare (one of the most depressing films I’ve ever seen) and one of my favourites from the decade (from any genre), Spellbound. The latter is a film I feel may have had even more influence on the state of documentaries today than Bowling For Columbine did.
Other programs include the “Canadian Spectrum” (kiddingly referred to as being thematically centered on Death), “Next” (focusing on the performing and creative arts) and “Made In South America” (focusing on the vitality of filmmaking coming from that region). Hot Docs is also offering several outdoor rooftop screenings during the festival and will be hosting a street party in Yorkville. Quite the program for the festival as it enters its 17th year.
But what about some of the individual movies?
The first of the two opening night galas is Babies – a sure-fire crowd-pleasing look at the early lives of 4 young babies from different corners of the world (U.S., Japan, Namibia, Mongolia). Many people have probably already seen the trailer or the posters lining the walls of their local cineplex, so this is likely going to be one of the biggest and most popular docs of the year. One hopes that it also provides good stories, interesting people and insights into the different cultural aspects of raising children. Early indications are that it will.
The second opening gala event is Sam Dunn and Scott McFayden’s Rush: Beyond The Lighted Stage. It will be practically impossible for me to turn any kind of critical eye towards this – not only has the band been a fave of mine for, uh, roughly 30 years now, but they seem to be genuinely fine people and have great senses of humour (check their liner notes on pretty much any album). They were also big fans of the Montreal Expos back in the day, so they’re aces in my book. More importantly though, directors Dunn and McFayden have a way of bringing their obvious love of hard rock and heavy metal to the screen without being fawning or annoying.
As Farnel went through some of the 166 titles (20 of them being World Premieres) hitting 10 different screens across the city of Toronto, he presented many different stills and several clips. Unfortunately, everything sounded and looked terrific – with only 11 days to the festival, how can I catch it all?
Some titles that have my attention slightly fuller than others:
- Wasteland – One of the largest garbage dumps in the world is located just outside of Rio de Janeiro and is one of the settings of this Sundance award-winning documentary (a screencap from it kicks off this post). It focuses not only on the famous Brazilian artist Vik Muniz and his latest art installation, but also on the “pluckers” who make their livings from recycled garbage and who help Muniz find the refuse he needs for his project. Trailer found here.
- Casino Jack And The United States Of Money – Jack Abramoff’s rise and fall is the subject of Oscar winning director Alex Gibney’s (Taxi To The Dark Side) latest. The many different capers that were run concurrently and centered on Abramoff apparently make the film equal parts intriguing, funny and frustrating as all get out.
- And Everything Is Going Fine – Another Spalding Grey monologue directed by Steven Soderbergh? Yes and no…Gray does appear to be giving a feature length monologue, but this time it’s pieced together from a variety of archived footage to make up a single last statement by the deceased playwright and screenwriter.
- B1 – Antonio Tenorio da Silva prepares over 3 months for his attempt at a 4th gold medal in Judo at the Beijing Paralympics. The trailer below has no English subtitles, but it speaks volumes.
- Life With Murder – A look back at a murder case from 12 years ago which, by all accounts, is open and shut. The guilty party, however, still claims innocence and his family backs him up completely. A story more about what’s left in the wake of crime than anything else, the film shows that victims can be found on both sides of the courtroom.
- The Story Of Furious Pete – How does someone go from being anorexic to being a champion competitive eater within the span of a few short years? Furious Pete is here to tell us how it all happened. It sounds like he isn’t just all about the gastronomic feats as he also raises money for charitable foundations that help those with eating disorders. You have to wonder, though, if he’s simply traded one disorder in for another.
- A Drummer’s Dream – Ontario’s cottage country plays host to a gathering of 7 top-notch drummers (Nasyr Abdul Al-Khabyyr, Dennis Chambers, Kenwood Dennard, Horacio “El-Negro” Hernadez, Giovanni Hidalgo, Mike Mangini and Raul Rekow) as they jam through various genres and discuss their own approaches to rhythm and music. Apparently the closing monster session is a killer. The trailer is already pretty damn good…
- The People vs George Lucas – The title says it all doesn’t it? I’m not sure I want to subject myself to an hour and a half of fanboy rants against Lucas, but the film promises something a bit more – a wider discussion of the question “Who owns and controls a piece of art?”. Unfortunately, there will still likely be instances of fan fiction and homemade lightsabers as the teaser below shows:
- Complaints Choir – Everyday complaints from hundreds of people (e.g. “Why do Boy Bands never play any instruments?”, “Why do trains always smell like pee?”, etc.) are chosen and set to music. Choral music. The resulting creations are actually quite beautiful and they also manage to shine a bit of light on our different cultures and ways of life as the choirs are created in different spots around the globe.
- Space Tourists – It’s a documentary involving space travel. I’m already sold. What? It’s by Christian Frei, the director of the fabulous War Photographer? Count me in for sure! And it has music by Jan Garbarek and Steve Reich? It’s like they’re designing the film with me in mind…Anousheh Ansari paid $20 million for a trip up to the International Space Station with some cosmonauts and Frei uses the trip to contrast the idea of space tourism with a crumbling Russian space program and rural Kazakhstan. Here’s the trailer:
- Disco And Atomic War – Do you really need to know more than the following? From the Hot Docs web site’s description of the film: “…this witty, charming, and provocative film recounts how Estonian engineers fabricating makeshift TV antennas, and rural farm girls updating townspeople on the plot developments on “Dallas”, led to the demise of the Soviet Union.”. I’ll even throw in this screen capture:
- Kings Of Pastry – The Meilleur Ouvrier (ie. “Best Craftsman”) is France’s top honour for chefs and is awarded only once every four years after a 3-day competition involving all manner of recipes and personal creativity. Not to mention grueling circumstances. D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus are back again with a behind the scenes look at these 16 pastry chefs vying for the top prize. Visit the film’s website for a clip.
- Thieves By Law – Ever wonder how the Russian mafia became known as one of the most terrifying and brutal crime organizations around? Alexander Gentelev’s film purports to trace the history of the creation and rise of the mafia from Stalin through its growth during the fall of the Soviet Union to its current expansion around the globe. Three former members of the mafia (each with different backgrounds and specialties) provide their personal experiences in what appears to be a darkly humourous and very frightening film that shows a world that’s likely ten times worse than movies and TV could possibly make it out to be.
It all starts April 29th when the moving pictures on the screen take over the limelight…