Hot Docs Capsule Reviews – The Final Cut Edition




The 17th Annual Hot Docs festival wrapped up a week and a half ago, so I should probably wrap things up as well. After 28 features and 4 shorts, I’m starting to see double…Here’s the last batch of films I caught:



AMERICAN: The Bill Hicks Story (2010 – Matt Harlock, Paul Thomas) – Like many people (at least two thirds of the audience at the screening of this film for example), I missed out on Bill Hicks’ entire career while he was alive. My introduction to him was via the liner notes to the album “Aenima” (1996) by the band Tool which was dedicated to him and released shortly after his death by pancreatic cancer at the age of 32. Hicks was the type of stand up comedian who had opinions – strong opinions – and he built up a dedicated following who appreciated his philosophies. He railed against what he saw as injustice, the mediocre, the irrational and the plain stupid. The documentary traces his arc from a teenage school clown through his early stand-up performances in Houston (where he was too young to legally be admitted to the club) and then on to the larger clubs, TV appearances and wider recognition at comedy festivals (the Montreal Just For Laughs fest was a big turning point for him) and in Europe (particularly England). The documentary mostly tells his story through old clips as well as many photos that were used in a sort of animated collage form. You don’t actually see the talking heads of the people from his life (who do much of the narration) until the last 10-15 minutes of the film. Some people weren’t enamored with this approach, but I felt it really focused the story on Hicks. Whether you agree with his stance on the wide range of topics he covered (and there is bound to be something he did or said to offend most people), he had razor sharp timing, cutting barbs and many insights. Anyone who can deliver a comedy routine and use it to encourage the use of logical thinking in our children is OK by me.



A Drummer’s Dream (2010 – John Walker) – The drummer’s dream of the title is initially wrapped around the idea that Nasyr Abdul Al-Khabyyr had of bringing together some of the best drummers in the world to a remote summer camp to teach and inspire other student drummers. So for a whole week, in Northern Ontario, Al-Khabyyr gets to hang out with Dennis Chambers, Kenwood Dennard, Horacio “El-Negro” Hernadez, Giovanni Hidalgo, Mike Mangini and Raul Rekow (people who have played with Santana, Miles Davis, Tito Puente and many others) and realize his dream. As it turns out, his dream was shared by many others too…The students have the time of their lives learning at the feet of these experienced musicians, the pros themselves find the camp to be a revelation and the audience in the theatre are treated to some astounding drumming. As many tricks as they show off (Mangini’s incredibly fast rolls, the multiple different time signatures being played at once, Dennard’s voice/drum/keyboard mix, etc.), these guys never lose sight of the musicality of what they are doing. Their passion for what they do is contagious and it makes you wish you had attended the camp yourself.

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Hot Docs 2010 – Marwencol




After spending 40 days in a coma – the result of a brutal beating outside a bar – Mark Hogancamp woke up. He woke up a different person, though, with significant brain damage and a great deal of memory loss. He now needed to somehow build a new life and get on track, but he just wasn’t sure how to do that since professional therapy was too expensive. But at least he wasn’t drinking anymore. If there’s anything good that came from his hospital stay it’s that he no longer had a taste for alcohol. It just doesn’t appeal to him now, whereas previously, it was the focus of his life. He states that he hasn’t had a girlfriend in over 9 years – 5 of those have been since the incident and the other 4 before it were because he was always drunk.

There is something else good that came from all this though – his art. Or should I say, his therapy. In order to focus his imagination and help regain some control of the nerves in his hands, Mark has built an entire 1/16 scale replica of a WWII Belgium town in his backyard. It comes complete with vehicles, soldiers, a bar and, of course, 27 Barbies. The characters in his village have elaborate stories worked out for them on a daily basis and it all gets documented in hundreds of photos. These individual storylines play out fights, love affairs, suspicious behaviour and a whole lot of staged catfights between the Barbies. It’s his imagination after all, so he can use it however he sees fit. He’s trying to practice it every day after having it almost stolen from him years ago.

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Hot Docs 2010 – Waste Land




It’s where everything not good goes – including people.


The Jardim Gramacho landfill outside of Rio De Janeiro is the largest in the world in terms of the volume of refuse received to it on a daily basis. It’s rolling hills of garbage give the ground the consistency of Jell-o as hundreds of “pickers” walk through it every day to collect recyclables for money. 200 tons of recycling a day get removed by these people, many of whom live in the slums just outside the dump. Though for some they can make a “decent” wage ($20-25 a day), it looks like a horrible life. The people we meet though – the pickers – are wonderful, delightful and full of life.

Lucy Walker’s film “Waste Land”, though, begins in a completely different realm than this landfill. Things start in New York City, as we follow Brazilian-born artist Vik Muniz. His tools of the trade are mostly non-traditional items which he uses to create pictures that he then photographs. Thread, wire, chocolate syrup, caviar, diamonds, pigments and sugar are some of the objects he has used for his work (his photos of the pictures he has created from sugar are stunning) – not looking like much on close inspection, but becoming something beautiful at larger distances. Similar to how his hometown of Sao Paolo is described…

Given this, it’s not much of a stretch to imagine him wanting to work with garbage. This idea (and the film) quickly move beyond just a simple document of his latest series of works though. Once the decision to go to Jardim Gramacho is taken, it doesn’t take long for them to meet some of the pickers. His approach is to take photos of some of his new acquaintances, project them on the floor and them fill them in with a variety of recycling material pulled from the landfill before the final photo is taken.

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Hot Docs 2010 – The Kids Grow Up




Director Doug Block (51 Birch Street) is an obsessive documentarian. He seems to have endless footage of his daughter throughout her life – following her around, asking her questions – and continues to add to the archives as she prepares to leave for university. She’s becoming less and less thrilled with the idea, but he just can’t seem to stop. His little girl isn’t just moving on to another chapter of her life…She’s leaving. And he’s not quite ready for that.

Can any parent really be ready for that though? I guess you can prepare and come to an understanding of your nest emptying out, but can you really be ready? In order to explore that question (and attempt to work it through for himself), Block uses his old footage of his daughter (starting around age 4) with its snippets of long conversattions about what she wants to be when she grows up and intersperses it within current day chats and other “home movie” moments. His daughter Lucy (now 17) is working her way through the last year of high school, spends more time with her friends, has found a boyfriend and doesn’t quite want to spend as much time in front of the camera as she used to. Block persists though.

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Hot Docs 2010 Awards




As Hot Docs 2010 has wrapped for another year – their most successful year ever by the way – now is the time to review some of the award winners. The Audience Award winner was announced today (along with the Top 10 top vote-getters) and the jury-voted Industry Awards last Friday. Before getting to the results though, a bit more about the success of the fest:


    – 136000 tickets sold during the 11 day period of the festival – a record for Hot Docs
    – 170 of the 275 public screenings went “rush”
    – a 10% increase in sales over last year
    – 2088 films submitted in all to the festival


That’s great news for us documentary fans.

Though my prediction for the Audience Award winner didn’t quite come true, A Small Act still finished in the Top Ten along with a fine crop of others. The big winner was Thunder Soul, the story of the reunion of members from the Kashmere High School Stage Band – a powerhouse funk outfit led by Conrad Johnson that decimated its opposition in band competitions in the 70s. Here’s the full Top Ten:


Hot Docs Audience Awards

    1. THUNDER SOUL (Mark Landsman; USA)
    2. A DRUMMER’S DREAM (John Walker; Canada)
    3. MY LIFE WITH CARLOS (German Berger; Chile , Spain , Germany)
    4. AUTUMN GOLD (Jan Tenhaven; Austria , Germany)
    5. LEAVE THEM LAUGHING (John Zaritsky; Canada , USA)
    6. RUSH: BEYOND THE LIGHTED STAGE (Scot McFadyen, Sam Dunn; Canada)
    7. LISTEN TO THIS (Juan Baquero; Canada)
    8. A SMALL ACT (Jennifer Arnold; USA)
    9. WASTE LAND (Lucy Walker; UK , Brazil)
    10. MARWENCOL (Jeff Malmberg; USA)


Fourth place finisher in balloting, Autumn Gold also won the Filmmakers Award – a new award this year for which Hot Docs invites attending filmmakers with official selections in the 2010 Festival to vote for their favourite film.


And the big winners from the jury voting:

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Hot Docs Capsule Reviews – The Technology vs Nature Edition




As Hot Docs 2010 winds down, here’s another sampling of a few of the films I’ve caught over the last week:



Soundtracker (2010 – Nicholas Sherman) – Tracking down sounds is indeed exactly what Gordon Hempton does. He’s finding it harder and harder to do, though, with the proliferation of technology spreading into National Parks and supposedly untouched areas. Nearby highways, construction areas and jet planes contaminate the voices of nature and leave places of complete quiet or simple natural sounds to become fewer and farther between. So Hempton searches for them. His obsessive nature shows its light towards the back half of this slow-paced, but overall lovely contemplative look at how we’re slowly but surely drowning out Mother Nature.



talhotblond (2010 – Barbara Schroeder) – It’s all in the telling. A good story can be turned into a great one if you tell it with all the proper beats, hold back little bits of information and then drop in some surprises. That’s the strategy in this telling of a bizarre internet love triangle of two co-workers becoming rivals for the affections of a girl with the screen name “talhotblond”. One of the two men isn’t exactly what he describes himself to be online and as the truth comes out, tragedy ensues. There’s some interesting questions raised by the film regarding the veracity of the internet, the culpability of those who hide behind false identities and how we look at privacy. Some of those questions could even be raised about the film itself in how it handles the story. Perhaps, but it sure doesn’t stop this from being a gripping, surprising and ultimately very sad story.

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Hot Docs Review – A Small Act




I‘m pretty sure I just saw the Audience Award winner of Hot Docs 2010. If I was a betting man, I’d plop a nice chunk of change down on A Small Act coming out on top after all the votes have been cast. Sure the Rush documentary has the built-in fan base and is a ton of fun (and it just won the Tribeca Audience Award), but Jennifer Arnold’s latest (a finalist for the Grand Jury Award at Sundance) is warm, triumphant, hopeful and inspiring without ever being the slightest bit mawkish or sappy. It’s basic premise is that anyone can make the world a better place – if not on a grand scale, at least by making a difference to individual people – one small act at a time.

The main through line of the film is the story of three young Africans from a small village in Kenya. They are all smart and have loads of potential, but their families lack the funds necessary to put them into high school. Without some form of assistance, they will likely get sucked into the cycle of poverty so many have before. This is where the Hilde Back Educational Fund comes into play. It has been set up by a former resident of the same village to help those students who show promise, but lack the financial station to pay for their early education. Chris Mburu heads the fund and simply wants to pass along the same type of act of kindness that was provided to him when he was of the same age and couldn’t afford schooling. It came from a middle age Holocaust survivor who had fled to Sweden and was looking to give something back and help someone just like she had been helped after leaving her home country. Her donations (to the tune of about $15 a month) gave Chris the chance to acquire an education. And that he did. After attending Nairobi University, he went to Harvard, became a lawyer and now works at the United Nations as a human rights attorney specializing in areas like genocide. He never forgot that small gesture from a woman he had never met, so he named a new educational fund after her.

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Hot Docs: The Parking Lot Movie Review


What happens when you throw a bunch of over-educated graduate students, slacker musicians and other creative and testosterone-loaded souls into a job where absolutely nothing is required of them except sitting there and taking money from customers? Well, Kevin Smith more-or-less answered this question with his indie-hit Clerks in 1994, but here is a documentary seemingly populated entirely with Randals.

The Corner Parking Lot is a sodium-lamp lit stretch of broken asphalt and dumpsters for the restaurants along the downtown area of Charlottesville Virginia. Being a sleepy town and a college town (the University of Virginia) there a mix of class that grind against one another in the evening and weekend nightlife. A number of the philosophy and anthropology graduate students work under their very employee-friendly boss and owner of the lot. They are (more or less) given free reign to release their creative energy in passive-aggressive prankery against the ‘parkers.’ The gate board is adorned daily by existentialist aspects of the job and pop culture trivia applied ritually with stencils and spray paint. Guitars, flip coning (soon to be an Olympic sport) and graffiti scrawls on what it means to park become performance art. In short, hanging out is what these guys do best. They serve you but they do not have to like you, and if you are in the rich lawyer, drunken frat boy or air-head sorority set then they are very much judging you by what you drive, how you park. They see the delightful irony of someone driving a $70,000 Cadillac Escalade desperately trying the squeeze it into the crevices of the smaller parking spaces, and then trying to not pay the $4.00 lot-fee. They could explain why you have to pay, they could explain the fundamentals of capitalism if they chose, but mainly they will mock you. Perhaps they will engage your parking break, just to see if you notice before you make it back to your home (you know you don’t use the damn thing!) Have no fear, they equally rail against the other end of the automotive economic scale, those smug and oh so superior Prius owners. Apparently, you should drive a Honda Civic to not be in the CPL doghouse – it is good on gas, easy to park and otherwise non-offensive aesthetically.

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Hot Docs Capsule Reviews – The “I Love You Man” Edition




As Hot Docs 2010 kicks into full gear, here’s a sampling of a few of the films I managed to see in the lead up to the fest:



Rush: Beyond The Lighted Stage (2010 – Sam Dunn, Scot McFadyen) – The two images above are apropos for a discussion of the latest musical documentary by the team that brought us Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey and Iron Maiden: Flight 666. Rush is a band that has always had a sense of humour about themselves and it shines through in this almost 2 hour journey through their 35 year recording career. Whether it’s appearing in the film “I Love You Man” (top photo), making a rare TV appearance on “The Colbert Report” or looking back at their old publicity shots and admitting they didn’t know much about fashion, the trio enjoy not taking themselves too seriously. I had a great big smile on my face the entire length of this film – from the early live footage with drummer John Rutsey to the closing credits dinner between the three bandmates. Granted, my bias is showing – I love this band. It’s actually a good thing that there is currently an embargo on full reviews (until the theatrical premiere on June 10th) because I’m not sure I can quite express my genuine feelings about the film yet…So if you are a fan of the band, you will adore this film – there is a veritable plethora of old film and photos that I would expect even the most hardcore fan has not seen (including a scene from an old Allan King documentary entitled Come On Children with a very young Alex Lifeson telling his parents he doesn’t want to finish school). For those who aren’t big fans, there is still a great deal to like since the band’s story arc is always engaging, the incorporation of the many photos and graphics is extremely well done and the various testimonials of other musicians are very entertaining. And the music is, if I may be allowed a small fanboy moment, awesome.



The “Socalled” Movie (2010 – Garry Beitel) – Funk, Rap and Klezmer. An obvious combination of musical styles right? No? Well, Josh Dolgin thought they were and so he began to experiment and create songs using these styles as touch points. In his younger days, he called himself “Heavy J” in order to fit in with the scene. It never really took hold, though, and people started to call him “The So-called Heavy J”. After awhile, that last part dropped off and he became “Socalled”. Through 18 or so short sections (some a few minutes, some closer to 10-15), we watch Josh create, perform and talk about his art. My favourite portion has to be his meeting and NY concert with Fred Wesley – former trombonist and leader of James Brown’s band – where they bust out some serious funk. I get the feeling Dolgin is a spiritual kin to Glen Hansard (from the film “Once”) who proclaimed “Make art! Make art!” at the Oscars a few years ago. That’s just what Dolgin does on a daily basis.

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Hot Docs: And Everything Is Going Fine



With only a desk, a glass of water, a few props and some cursory notes, Spalding Gray would sit before a live audience and tell them his story. Whether about his knowledge of death and sex before age fourteen or his mind-altering experiences in Thailand, his physical ailments or the suicide of his mother, what transpired in each monologue was half theatrics, half confession. Late in his career, when he grew tired of telling his own story, he would invite audience members on stage and interview them, hoping to uncover the germ of theatre in their unassuming candor. His role as ‘poetic journalist’ remained the same, his title as master of the monologue preceding him wherever he went.

This cottage industry of telling his story kept him busy throughout the eighties and nineties, onstage and onscreen, affording him the chance to work with some of the finest filmmakers working at the time, including Jonathan Demme and Steven Soderbergh who both saw something cinematic in his monologues worth pursuing in that medium. Under very different circumstances, Soderbergh returns again to tell Spalding’s story, this time as a documentary in tribute to his friend that six years ago took his own life. The film, And Everything Is Going To Be Fine, never addresses the tragic event, nor does it try to consolidate a life with anything other than Spalding’s own voice. Piecing together archival footage of interviews and performances, Soderbergh has forged a new monologue, a summation of the life of Spalding in his own words (albeit rearranged). Would you like to know more…?

Hot Docs Review: Eat The Kimono




Hanayagi Genshu certainly is an interesting woman. She’s a dancer, singer, storyteller, political activist, feminist and even a former inmate. She travels throughout Japan to perform her convention bending dances and make speeches to stir up those she feels have been wronged or held back. “The world will get a little bit better if the oppressed speak out. You musn’t be silent”. Throughout the hour long Eat The Kimono (another film in the Hot Docs 2010 retrospective series of Kim Longinotto’s career), the controversial Genshu’s voice is at the centre of every scene. Other people chime in occasionally, but the filmmakers focus exclusively on Genshu and what she has to say. The result allows her message to be heard unfiltered, but also allows the viewer to make up their own minds about Genshu herself.

She’s not immediately likeable. Our introduction to her is through old news footage of her arrest (for stabbing a dance teacher). As she is being led off by police officers, she shows a strong disregard for what she has done by telling the camera that she will be alright and flashing a peace sign – an odd choice after committing a violent crime. She tends to dominate conversations and, even when dealing with her causes, usually brings the topic around to herself. She never hesitates to mention her struggles growing up as the child of travelling performers, how poor they were and how she was bullied and called names. This led to her current fights against prejudice, discrimination and the pyramid system (ie. class structures) and she uses these stories of her childhood in many of her songs and dances. It’s also the reason why she served those 8 months in prison for knifing the dance teacher. Looking back on the incident, she relates that the instructor was talentless but held the position because of her level on the pyramid. She stabbed her because “We have suffered, I want you to know our pain”. She also claims that the police made a much bigger deal over the situation than was warranted: “I just cut her neck a little bit”.

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