Jay Cheel of the Documentary Blog and some of his Film Junk cohorts (Sean and Frank) join our own Kurt Halfyard for a mondo wrap-up podcast of the recent Hot Docs film festival. As Jay states, the show is “designed specifically for those of you who like listening to four guys talk about documentaries for nearly three hours”, so fans of the Cinecast might enjoy it as a short warm-up to the next show…
It’s hard to say if Aida Makoto will ever truly let himself be happy. As an artist, he’ll always be restless (as most really creative people are) and never completely satisfied with all his work, but he can’t seem to be content with life. “Life is miserable if you can’t be an artist”, he says, not quite convincing us that it’s much different if you are one. Aida says he has ADHD and you tend to believe him when he takes one of his countless smoke breaks and continues to have a hard time focusing on the details of his paintings. Strange when you consider just how very detailed they are, but then you remember how long he’s been working on them and that he may simply never finish them. His large painting of about 30 schoolgirls dressed in blue by a waterfall looks complete down to the last little leaf, but it’s been in the works for 3-4 years. It’s been shown at numerous art shows, but it’s never quite finished. In fact, as he is setting it up at a new gallery, he sees it under a different set of lights and starts to completely reconsider some old choices. He even tells the gallery owner that if the painting sells, he wants to make sure that he can still finish it afterwards.
Another work in progress is the depiction of a mountain of businessmen’s bodies piled high and rising out of the mist. We see him just beginning the details of each individual body at the beginning of the film while he works in a large warehouse gallery in China. The paintings are too big to really work on full time in Japan, so he’s set up shop here over the summer and imported his wife and son as well. The film tracks his progress and as the summer comes and goes, his works are in various stages of not being completed. His family returns home and he stays behind. He returns for New Years festivities and then once again returns to buckle down since the businessman mountain painting is due for a showing. It shows, but it’s still not quite finished…
Cinéastes assemble! The entire crew is back for this full throttle episode of the Cinecast in which we lather love all over Joss Whedon… or do we? Kurt Halfyard made a last minute decision to check out Avengers just before recording – remember this is the guy that gave Cabin in the Woods a rather scathing review. So thinks might get interesting **(SPOILERS!!)**. After Marvel talk, we get into the homework submissions for the week and I can tell you that thanks to Matt Gamble, the grades are all over the map; no F’s yet, but everything from D’s to A+ are handed out. From there, Kurt wraps up HotDocs, Matt brings up a sore spot in another take on Lockout while Andrew listened to rap and watched Hackers. Lots of “stuff” here – who knew Kurt had a vasectomy?
As always, please join the conversation by leaving your own thoughts in the comment section below and again, thanks for listening!
Full show notes are under the seats…
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I left the Hot Docs screening of The Revisionaries angry. Not stomping mad yelling obscenities, but stewing over what I had just seen, frustrated over an inability to do anything about it IMMEDIATELY and trying in vain not to be cranky with the friends who exited the theatre with me. This wasn’t overly surprising since I went into the film – which covers the Texas State Board of Education’s systematic attempt to dismantle their education standards through politics, religion and ignorance – with the expectation of acquiring a certain sense of outrage. It’s not that I was looking forward to that, but I felt that I should see if the film covered any angles or viewpoints I hadn’t heard before. The attempts to dilute the teaching of evolution in certain regions of the U.S. are a huge bone of contention with me, so I wondered how the film would approach the situation in Texas. The first part of the film covers the period of 2009-2010 when the school board tried to leave a loophole in its curriculum standards to allow a “strengths and weaknesses” arguments clause and therefore let non-scientific “theories” into science classrooms.
The film played it mostly as expected – an inherent bias that matched my own and a slight mocking tone of those who completely misunderstand the scientific method, but with an overall style and approach that was reasonably fair. Apparently most of the revisionists who saw the film were quite happy with it and thought their side came through well. Indeed their true colours and viewpoints do come through – mostly through board member and one-time chairman Don McLevoy who desperately tries to open the door for “intelligent design” to find its way into science classrooms in Texas by forcing debate and votes on how evolution should be taught. Considering McLevoy is a Young Earth Creationist (ie. someone who believes the Earth is less than 10000 years old, Noah’s ark really existed, dinosaurs walked with humans, etc.), it’s clear that he shouldn’t be anywhere near decision-making authority when it comes to science education standards. But that’s far from the most surprising thing in the film…First of all, McLevoy comes across as a mostly decent person even though his ideas have no foothold in reality. He’s completely deluded himself into thinking he understands how science works (he even claims to be a skeptic by nature), but genuinely believes in the things he’s trying to do. In what seems to be honest frustration, he admits that he just doesn’t understand his detractors. He’s a dangerous person to be in a position of major influence over one of the country’s major text book markets (to enter the Texas market, the manufacturers have to meet the Board of Education’s guidelines) since he simply doesn’t realize his limitations, but I expected a different kind of fanatic.
I wasn’t very far into Sexy Baby when I thought it might be an excellent choice for my son to watch with me. He’s only a year younger than 12 year-old Winnifred (the first of the three main subjects we meet in the film) and she was being very sharp in her thoughts about how she has been exposed to sex via media, friends and our overall culture. She’s smart as a whip, but even though she has this perspective she still apes some of the styles and attitudes. And she totally needs some training on how NOT to use social media. It all seemed like perfect fodder for good conversation with The Boy as he winds down his last year of elementary school and preps for the trials and tribulations of middle school.
As the other two storylines wove into the mix, thoughts of those father/son discussions quickly dissipated (“Nope, he won’t be seeing this anytime soon…”). To be clear – that’s not a reflection of the film’s quality. The addition of 22 year-old Laura’s story regarding her upcoming cosmetic surgery on her vagina (ie. labiaplasty) and 30-ish Nichole’s discussion of her career in stripping and porn (and her subsequent business ventures in those realms) provide further viewpoints and expand on a variety of points about the pervasiveness of messages about sex in society. As you might expect, though, these stories raised topics and contained footage far beyond what a pre-teen should be processing – even Winnifred. What we hear from both of them is that the very adult industry of porn has – in particular with the growth of the internet – become a strong influence on a wide variety of people. As Nichole states “Porn is for adults. It’s not made for teenagers.”
An exceptionally tall girl in an orange dress with a piece of red-velvet cake on a plate and a lanky New Zealander with a video camera meet on the subway headed for Coney Island. They chat. They separate. They meet again. Could it be fate? Could it be the romance of both their lives? So begins the premise of Love Story, which is part Rom-Com, part art-experiment, part documentary. The woman is Masha, a Russian beauty who Kiwi filmmaker Florian Habicht hired to be his girlfriend for the making of the film. Their meeting is staged, as is Florian’s quest to find her afterwards. He solicits on-the-street advice from a charming rouges gallery of New Yorkers on how to proceed with his relationship-slash-film with the girl, including at one point climbing right into a taxicab occupied by a lady stock-broker to ask for seduction advice for a possible sex-scene (more on that in a moment.) In one of many fourth wall breaks, you not only get the seduction advice (“play the shy card”) but you also see the stock broker sign the documentary release form from a stack that Habicth carries around. If nothing else, it shows the power of a man and a movie camera and a built in conversation in a city of extroverts – and that even the most guerrilla of filmmaking projects still has a lot of paper work.
BThere is a lot of passion, soul baring, and white-knuckle anxiety on display in Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky’s documentary on the world of independent games and their micro-sized design teams. Instead of hundreds of people working on all aspects of a top tier title, in the two case-studies delved into in Indie Game: The Movie the entire team is two people. A mere duo, responsible for doing every aspect of the game, including programming, art design, level construction and managing the business side. Eating well (or shaving) does not factor high on the priority scale. Financially these guys are operating with little safety network other than generously patient parents or girlfriends. Even if the game is actually finished in a relatively bug-free state to allow for release (challenge enough!) it still has to hit traction in the X-Box Arcade (or WiiWare or Steam), direct digital distribution platforms managed by the big boys (Microsoft, Nintendo and Valve) Failure means that two to four years (or more) just went by with no monetary compensation. As one of the designers of Super Meat Boy succinctly puts it, “No Pressure!” Combine the ever present financial pit of spikes with the designers’ passion for making their games fresh, personal and ultimately a form of artistic expression and communication with the eventual gamer and the stakes for soul-crushing failure or triumphant success become even higher. The filmmakers impart a heightened awareness of this by crafting one of the emotionally draining dramas of the year. An eight dollar video game may be trivial in the grand scheme of things, but dig deep enough and there is a well-spring of dramatic tension and suspense. When, Phil Fish, the designer of the novel multi-dimensional platform jumper, Fez, stares into the camera and declares that if he cannot finish or release this game he will kill himself, it is easy to suspend disbelief to the hyperbole, because the dude is indeed on the edge. These guys are committed to their craft as much as the filmmakers are to documenting it.
The full title of Stacy Peralta’s latest film is both inaccurate and spot on. Many people had the impression – especially if you know anything about the fact that the director also formed the mid-80s skateboard team that is the subject here – that perhaps Peralta was going to centre the documentary around himself and what he did for the sport. From my perspective though – and this was amplified by Peralta’s own comments after Tuesday night’s International premiere (complete with a packed house filled with “skater dudes”) – the title implies that it is the entire team that is telling the story of their rise through the 80s into role models for a distinct set of kids. Peralta was the guiding force behind the team, a part of the company that backed them (Powell-Peralta) and undoubtedly has the reins of the film, but the story is very much driven by the individual members. Each of the core 6 skaters of Peralta’s original team were recruited when they were quite young (10-13 years old) and showed promise. They also showed tendencies to be outcasts with a desperate need to belong. Not long after joining the team (by the time most were 15-16), they had become world class athletes.
Though it is the story of the whole team, Peralta’s influence is everywhere. Most of the film happens in the 80s after his own professional riding career was over (with several older clips of Peralta in his prime skating era as seen in his earlier film Dogtown And Z-Boys), but he’s still in a great deal of the archive footage encouraging, coaching and managing the kids. He gets talking head time as well to discuss not only the team, but his business partnership in Powell-Peralta. And of course, he brings his sense of style to his directing duties by adding many cinematic touches to the look of the movie: the talking heads are rarely framed in consistent ways, on screen titles resemble those from old 80s VCR tapes playing in machines that had lost the ability to properly track the image, the music selection always fits the tone and pace of the story, and the content never lags. Like Dogtown and Riding Giants (his surfing movie), you do not have to have a single reference point in the history of events or have any nostalgic reverence for the people involved. The film provides an entertaining, oddly emotional and well laid out story with surprisingly interesting central characters.
Either Mads Brügger has balls the size of grapefruits or there is mondo chicanery going on in The Ambassador. Well, it’s a given that there is trickery happening, so the thing to figure out is who the trick is on: The Central African Republic (a former French colony smack-dab in the middle of the contient), shady European dealers of grey-market diplomatic credentials, helpful local guide-advisers or us the viewers. The result is a thoroughly captivating, often hilarious bit of guerrilla filmmaking that is subversive both to its subject matter, and its medium of choice.
Lets start at the beginning. Mads Brügger Cortzen is a Danish media personality that is kind of an amalgamation of Michael Moore and the Borat side of Sasha-Baron Cohen. His previous TV documentary/comedies, Danes for Bush and Red Chapel explored the political and social landscapes of the United States during the 2004 election and the social and propaganda mores of North Korea, respectively, both by on-the-ground insertion in a particular form of misdirection of intent. I’ve not seen either of these films (nor his TV Talk Show, The Eleventh Hour) but I want to see them all based on the brains and brawn exhibited in The Ambassador. Here, Brügger goes to the Central African Republic to set up a (blood) diamond smuggling operation fronted by building a match factory. He gets his contacts and credentials by spending $30,000 to some rich European brokers who have a side-business in selling diplomatic papers from one African country (here, Liberia) to another (CAR). Then, donning an expensive tan suit, mirror shades and polished burgundy riding boots, the new diplomat-entrepreneur is ready to get some old-school colonial exploitation happening. Over the course of the film, Brügger, with his ‘trusty’ adviser Paul (a CAR local), and his beautiful white secretary, dispense many ‘envelopes of happiness’ to people on the political and business scene in Bangui. He tours parts of the country, visits other diplomats for advice, and eventually works his way up to meetings with the ministers of defense and security. The latter being the son of the president of CAR, François Bozizé. What is crazy about the whole thing is that our consul-in-training is going by his real name, something that anyone in the Central African Republic could have found with a simple Google search in five minutes. Why Brügger is not dead in a ditch somewhere is beyond me. Either that or the joke is on me. It is a joke told with enough chutzpah and style that it perhaps does not even matter.
New Orleans is a city vibrant with colour, steeped in music and chock full of fantasy. The streets of the French Quarter are, on just about any given night, filled with feathered costumes, seductive dancers behind window shades and skeletons rattling about in every corner. I daresay, though, that the entire city might not have as many flights of fancy and dreams as 11-year old William does. After winning 6 Superbowls with the NY Giants, he plans to become a lawyer and then shift into architecture. He doesn’t think that seeing Michael Jackson live is terribly realistic at this stage, but still holds out hope that he could be the first person to actually fly. The ladies would really love him for that…
William tells us all about these dreams in exuberant tones like only a young boy can. It’s refreshing to see the world through his eyes and listen to him still full of life. It’s easy to see why the Ross brothers (Turner and Bill) chose him as the central filter for their own dreamy excursion through Century City’s nighttime streets – their latest film Tchoupitoulas (following up their remarkable 45365). William and his two older brothers make the ferry journey over from Tchoupitoulas for an evening of walking through the French Quarter with the expectation to catch the last ferry home at midnight. When things don’t go quite to plan, they end up wandering the city for the entire night until the ferry gates reopen in the morning to take them back home. The Ross Brothers are along with them for the adventure and document what they see and how they feel.
I am doing a series of one-minute video reviews for The Substream on the various Hot Docs films that I flit in and out of during the festival. Below is a one of them: the solid and informative documentary how pranksterism and trolling on the interwebs eventually morphs into high-stakes political and social activism. The hacker group Anonymous is outlined and examined in We Are Legion: The Story of the Hactivists.