Hot Docs 2017 Review: The Road Movie

If you have spent any time lost in the YouTube wormhole, and we all have, you have probably seen some of the car accident footage that has been uploaded and archived by witnesses, usually from cheap cameras mounted at the front windshield of their cars. It might surprise you (or maybe not, if you are a Reddit regular) that the vast majority of these clips come from Eastern Europe, mainly Russia. Why?

Director Dimitrii Kalashnikov opined at the Q&A of the film that trust is not a big thing in Russian public life, and more than half of Russian drivers have dash mounted cameras to avoid situations of other drivers lying about what happened, and also rampant police corruption.

The tagline for The Road Movie, a sumptuously curated and exquisitely edited collection of dash camera footage is “Everything can happen on Russian Roads,” and for 67 white knuckle minutes, he more than makes the case that the Russian (and surrounding regions of Belarus, Serbia and Bosnia) sense of humour about such absurdity is a remarkable one. In spite of all the crazy ass driving, coldly observed in wide-angle static single takes (the nature of the medium) — high speed roll-overs, road rage fist fights, head on collisions and several very likely fatal situations — the Slavic sensibility towards all this adrenaline pumping madness, is that of casual nonchalance. Shock is one thing, this is something else entirely: a cultural touchstone.

We rarely see the passengers in the cars, but we hear their reactions, and we see other witnesses in other cars or pedestrians on the street. Take an incident where a five tonne dump-truck goes up on two wheels and capsizes over a city curb. All the while, a posh woman in a white parka sporting a designer purse takes notes of this incredibly vivid occurrence, but then casually crosses the intersection on the walk signal (two crossings) and goes on with her life.

In another clip, we hear two men question what is the cause of thunderous rumbling before we see a tank roll out from behind a building. The reaction is the equivalent to ‘you have got to be shitting me…is it ours?’ When the see the tank is in fact rolling up to the public carwash for a power-scrub, it is ‘fuck this country.’ Laid-back Russian pop music grooves in the background.

What sets The Road Movie from just a simple YouTube super-cut is that Kalashnikov has a sense of timing, and a bigger story than just action and mayhem (although there is plenty of both). He has a way of trimming the found footage to precisely calibrated lengths and in effect, to have a conversation with the audience.

Each ‘single take scenario’ has a set-up, an incident, and a resolution, but the way they are assembled (like a good album) set a rhythm that keeps the audience on their toes, seek and searching around the frame at the beginning, will this be a fist fight story or a spectacular car crash? Just when you have a handle on things, he will hit you with a rapid montage, a flurry of stuff, and transition to a wedding gone wrong, a mentally unstable person jumping on the hood of the car, or a litany of other ‘stranger than fiction moments.’ The often incongruous audio, be it song or conversation, sets its own comedic soundtrack.

While the assembly is not quite as ambitious or ambiguous as last year’s other YouTube found footage psychology experiment, Fraud, it is far more hella-entertaining. Where else would you have up-close video of the massive meteorite that rocked Chelyabinsk in 2013 bumping up against a man pulling a sledge hammer out of his trunk to get another driver to move his car, or an epic boreal forest fire filmed from the inside?

I learned the wide variety of situations Russians can mould the word “BITCH” to suit, and that in spite of all the violence that happens on the byways of Russian life, the people have a no-fuss way to recover and move on, that is utterly at odds with the West. But I would certainly think twice about renting a car and hitting the open road in the world’s largest country, at least not unless I was hoping to be in the sequel.

One final note, I am sure that the collective effect of The Road Movie is amplified by seeing it on the big screen, where one’s eyes (and head) have to more actively scan the screen. Oscilloscope Pictures has picked up the 67 minute film, and hopefully will put it out in limited release. If you are not of the faint of heart, you had best seek this one out at a festival or moviehouse for the maximum experience.

Hot Docs 2016 Review: The Last Laugh

The Last Laugh

When I was 15 years old, I worked at the local movie theatre. One of my coworkers, who wasn’t Jewish, decided he wanted to tell me a joke about Jews. Against my better judgment, I told him to go ahead. “What’s the difference between a Jew and a pizza?” he asked. I cringed, worried about the answer. “What?” I asked. “The pizza doesn’t scream when you put it in the oven!” He laughed to himself for a solid minute, eventually stopping when I didn’t join in. He didn’t realize I was Jewish, for starters. Nor was he aware that my maternal grandfather had survived a Siberian work camp, having escaped the Nazis that killed his parents and sister: my great grandparents and great aunt. I snapped at him, declaring not only how unfunny the joke was, but also how stupid and insensitive it was to make a joke about the Holocaust. He felt immediate remorse, but still didn’t understand why he wasn’t allowed to make the joke.

In some ways, this dichotomy, the issue of censorship and a complicated right to jest, is at the heart of The Last Laugh, a documentary that explores humour and the Holocaust. Interviewing entertainers like Mel Brooks, Sarah Silverman, Rob and Carl Reiner, Judy Gold, Susie Essman and Harry Shearer, director Ferne Pearlstein explores the nature of humour and propriety.

The only thing that separates the The Producers (1967, 2005) from History of the World: Part I (1981), argues Brooks, is time. We have enough chronological distance from the Spanish Inquisition, Brooks suggests, that no one batted an eye at his outstanding musical number. However, when The Producers was released, both its original incarnation and its later Broadway rendition, some Jews were morbidly offended at his audacity. The suggestion is made throughout The Last Laugh, by Brooks and others of his generation, that to mock the Holocaust itself is verboten, but to mock the Nazis was empowering, and still is. Portrayals like that in “Springtime for Hitler”, or Charlie Chaplin’s depiction in The Great Dictator, aim to remove their authority, and therefore their power, through humour and mockery. For this generation, and those surviving the Holocaust, to laugh was to disarm.

In speaking to Holocaust survivors, including entertainer Robert Clary (Hogan’s Heros), we come to understand the integral nature of humour in the ghettos, and the death camps. Survivor Renee Firestone recalls laughing to herself when receiving a full physical exam from Dr. Mengele himself, knowing full well that most of the Jews being examined were about to be gassed. The redundancy of the exam gave her, and others, enough of a giggle to help survive.

Pearlstein brings to the forefront the question of why laugh? How could you find humour in such horror? The answer, resoundingly from survivors, is that without laughter, they would never have survived during or after the Holocaust. The Nazis couldn’t understand finding humour in anything that was happening, so their control was usurped through Jewish laughter.

But in answering the complicated questions of how one could laugh in the face of such turmoil, more questions are unearthed. Who has the right to laugh at such things, and who has the right to joke? Do you jest about the Holocaust, or is it only allowed to make fun of the Nazis? How far is too far? And are only Jews allowed to investigate the murky waters of humour and this particular strife? Are younger generations of comedians incapable of truly grasping the weight of the Holocaust now that older generations of survivors are dying? It evokes issues of censorship that are unavoidable.

In many ways, The Last Laugh raises more questions than it answers. However, it encourages its audience to be thoughtful in their laughter, to ruminate on why they laugh, and what is appropriate to laugh at. To laugh at screaming Jews in an oven, for instance, is grossly insensitive. However, there is humour to be found in Dr. Mengele telling you that, should you survive this, you should have your tonsils removed. They’re rather large.

The Last Laugh has its International Premiere on Sunday, May 1st at 1:15pm at Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, with two more screenings on Monday, May 2nd at 9:00pm, and Saturday, May 7th at 10:30am.

Hot Docs 2016 Review: League of Exotique Dancers

League of Exotique Dancers, Hot Docs 2016

“Feminism wasn’t about burning your bra and not shaving your legs. Feminism was shaving your legs and working in a bar as a sex object, but knowing that you were. […] And not selling your pussy and your soul for a wedding ring.”

  • Judith Stein

Burlesque is a profession shrouded in public scrutiny. Callously written off as little more than strippers, selling their bodies, the women who’ve performed this art of seduction have often been shamed for their less-than-conventional career choice. Arguments are made that these women mark a regression for Feminism. That they behave unladylike, crass, twisted, and vile. In actual fact, these women embody one of the fundamental rules of Feminism; it’s all about choice. Alongside equality with men, a woman’s right to control her life, and her body, is solely her own.

Even if that means showing some skin.

Would you like to know more…?

10 to see at Hot Docs 2016

Hot-Docs-Featured-1900x560-1461346192

It’s that time of year where Documania runs wild in Toronto for the city’s second highest profile festival, one I myself have come to prefer every year. The selections for Hot Docs 2016 are stacked and wonderfully curated. If you pick a bad one, it’s probably on you. While the selections below are reviewed based on screeners, I highly encourage who can to get out and see these in the cinema. It’s so rare to see a documentary with a packed crowd, and the Q&A’s that happen during Hot Docs are so much more special than the ones you see at TIFF by nature of centering around real stories and real characters rather than the cloud of celebrity. You never know what to expect.

MY SCIENTOLOGY MOVIE
(dir: John Dower, 100 minutes)
Tickets

After a decade of videos from Wise Beard Men, numerous expose books, countless articles, and most recently, the dense info dump of Alex Gibney’s Going Clear, you’d think we’d had enough Scientology documentaries. And maybe so. But along comes John Dowler and well known UK presenter Louis Theroux to pull an Act of Killing by hiring actors, who with the help of former Scientologist Marty Rathburn, recreate bizarre and violent events from David Miscavige and others that he had witnessed during his decades as a high ranking church official. MY SCIENTOLOGY MOVIE is far less concerned with the usual informative points of interest regarding Xenu and obsession with celebrities than it is fascinated with the justifications in behavior made by past and present members of their secretive organization. What results is a lot of cameras directed at other cameras, paranoia, intimidation, and cheeky provocation. This documentary is in no way a great starting point for anyone wishing to learn more about L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology, but for those of us who thought we’d seen and heard everything, this fresh angle is for you.



TONY ROBBINS: I AM NOT YOUR GURU
(dir: Joe Berlinger, 115 minutes)
Tickets

Speaking of cults, Tony Robbins and his self-help seminars have themselves often been thought of as such, and similarly have been behind closed doors as well as very expensive. From Joe Berlinger of PARADISE LOST / METALLICA: SOME KIND OF MONSTER fame comes this unprecedented look at Robbins’ Date With Destiny series, and if there’s a twist to be found, it’s that Tony Robbins comes out of this looking really really good, to the extent that some have accused I AM NOT YOUR GURU of being an informercial. While the film generally takes Robbins at his word and some subtle touches (fonts, establishing shots) might give off a brochure esthetic, these criticisms fall on deaf ears when Berlinger lets the confrontations take center stage, where attendees are pushed to their emotional breaking points by the charismatic, foul-mouthed, no-bullshit-taking Robbins. Robbins operates as a Gordon Ramsay for your life, and Berlinger’s concert film/cinema verite approach allows the viewer to walk away deciding for themselves if this is a good thing. Robbins is appearing at Hot Docs which makes this an especially hot ticket, but you can catch this when it comes to Netflix on July 15th.



LO AND BEHOLD: REVERIES OF THE CONNECTED WORLD
(dir: Werner Herzog, 98 minutes)
Tickets

I have to wonder if I could have accepted a film like this from anyone other than Werner Herzog. LO AND BEHOLD is a meandering series of anecdotes about the wired age that almost feels like a proof of concept for a Cosmos-type TV series. Which is to say, it’s entertaining and Herzog’s trademark calm, collected nature makes it feel like a stream of consciousness. From the unbreakable box that represents the invention of the Internet to the solar flares that will destroy us all to all of the harassment in between, Herzog’s fascinations and questions make this a very personal look at the increasingly impersonal. A favorite segment finds Werner visiting with those suffering from the very real EHS that fans of Better Call Saul will recognize, literally having gone off the grid, paying a personal price for our need to Google the name of that one guy who was in that thing. Admittedly, LO AND BEHOLD does feel like it could end at any moment, and there is an opportunity for a stronger final thought that isn’t there, but 98 minutes with Herzog is always worth your time.



CREDIT FOR MURDER
(dir: Vladi Antonevicz, 87 minutes)
Tickets

If there is one documentary I have been pushing people to see, it is this film from Israeli director Vladi Antonevicz, a jaw-dropping, cinematic undercover procedural adventure which finds him posing as a white supremacist in Russia to solve the horrific murder of two immigrant men which had been posted to Youtube and ultimately became an infamous viral video. CREDIT FOR MURDER draws you in with the sordid allure of your first convincing conspiracy video and never lets up. The intricate detective work, superb presentation of event timelines, and mind-boggling admissions from far right nationalists are astounding. These Neo-Nazi antagonists fear nothing and if anything are trying to impress the viewer with how hateful they are. They are too trusting of the man with the camera, and too secure that there will be no reckoning for their actions, which makes for great viewing. This is provocative, detailed, vital documentary filmmaking and will almost certainly be in my year end top 10.



TICKLED
(dir: David Farrier, Dylan Reeve, 92 minutes)
Tickets

The less said about TICKLED is to your benefit, and the filmmakers would prefer it stay that way. All you need to know is that co-director and journalist David Farrier found a video online for something called “competitive endurance tickling”. Huh. Considering that we have pillow fight and ax throwing leagues, it was not absurd to want to make a short quirky news story about this oddball sport. But it became clear very quickly that the people behind this “sport” did not appreciate the publicity, opening the door to an investigation that keeps paying off sinister revelations and mysterious puppeteers. TICKLED easily surpasses Catfish in the WTF is With People department, and will keep you guessing.



THE SLIPPERS
(dir: Morgan White, 90 minutes)
Tickets

Just a bit over a year ago I finally laid eyes on THE REP, Morgan White’s excellent documentary about the rise and fall of the beloved and sadly out-of-business Toronto Underground Cinema. I went into this follow-up unsure if a focus tracing the cultural impact of a single piece of film memorabilia could sustain a feature length, and was more than pleasantly surprised to see that not only will THE SLIPPERS satisfy film lovers let alone Ozheads, but that White has significantly leveled up in his craftmanship in a short period. This is a slick, professional piece of work that indicates a passion for the subject matter that rivals that of his wealthy subjects. The story of the titular ruby slippers keeps going into unexpected places – conspiracy theories, capers, failed dreams, and deep envy. The lively talking heads, including a healthy dose of Debbie Reynolds, collectively reveal the rise of memorabilia collecting and how these props take on iconic and symbolic significance that transcend their original context into objects of inspiration, achievement, and how sad it can be to watch what happens when they fall into the hands of someone who doesn’t appreciate them.



HOW TO BUILD A TIME MACHINE
(dir: Jay Cheel, 82 minutes)
Tickets

Like THE SLIPPERS, Jay Cheel’s first documentary feature since 2011’s terrific, hilarious BEAUTY DAY dials back the lunacy into a more contemplative but equally compelling place through two obsessed men and an iconic piece of film memorabilia – the HG Wells time machine. Animator Rob Niosi has been replicating the prop for years in extreme nitpicking detail. Rob Mallett became a theoretical physicist for tragic reasons. Cheel’s Errol Morris influences shine through even more so than his previous effort as he ties both stories together via the power of cinema as it’s own time machine, and milking emotion out of hobbies and fields of studies often thought of as cold and impersonal practices. If any film has convincingly proven that the journey is as important as the destination, it’s this one.



SOUTHWEST OF SALEM: THE STORY OF THE SAN ANTONIO FOUR
(dir: Deborah S. Esquenazi, 89 minutes)
Tickets

The wave of interest in true crime stories laced with a dose of injustice is still in full swing, and another to add to your list is this film, which like PARADISE LOST before it, comes out of the last gasp of the Satanic Panic, and led to four Texan women subject to a homophobia-driven, literal witch hunt. This film, faced with the problem of not much footage from the time of the trial, forgoes suspense for an emotionally charged story about the exoneration process 15 years later, the difficult reintegration process, solidarity in clearing their name as one, and the regret and trauma of someone who had been manipulated into a false confession as an act of revenge.



HOLY HELL
(dir: Will Allen, 105 minutes)
Tickets

*ANOTHER* cult documentary? Actually, HOLY HELL might be *THE* cult documentary. Director Will Allen spent 20 years within the Buddhafield, a hippie-ish cult, where he served as the official documentarian and too-close friend of Michel, a guru clad mostly in speedos, obsessed with his own appearance to levels that would make Liberace blush, and of course – dangerously drunk on power, spiritually and emotionally abusive. Michel is as creeptastic as they come, always staring through you, looking like a melted Martin Short even as he holds himself up as a paragon of beauty through the bizarre films and awful 80s-tastic music videos Will Allen created to glorify his master. This is an escape film, a revenge film, an ode to lost friends, and it has the most satisfying ending sequence(s) of anything I’ve seen from this year’s festival. And it may be coming to a theater near you sooner than later.



MAGICIANS: LIFE IN THE IMPOSSIBLE
(dir: Marcie Hume, Christoph Baaden, 85 minutes)
Tickets

Of all things, MAGICIANS reminds of the Jerry Seinfeld COMEDIAN documentary, as well as the pro wrestling documentary BEYOND THE MAT. In all cases these are entertainers who face a stigma around their chosen profession, a struggle to attain a certain level of skill, and an even greater struggle to stand out among the field. And then there’s the unique hits to relationships, jealousy and finances that almost all performers face. Hume and Baaden’s film follows four extremely talented magicians in different stages of their careers, from a Tonight Show regular to a master of cards to the flashy Vegas showman who has to worry about bigger names stealing his act right when he’s finally on the edge of his big break. There’s something wonderful about watching people who are so very good at one specific thing weave their (wait for it) magic. Not being told how they do it just adds that extra level of intrigue, and finding out why these wonderful weirdos do it more than makes up for it.

7 Worth Seeing At Hot Docs 2015

THE SANDWICH NAZI

Male escort. Art collector. Musician. Blowjob connoisseur. Sandwich maker. Salim Kahil’s deli is not for the faint of heart, plastered with warnings of verbal abuse and countless do-not-do’s. Customers recount the first time they saw his penis as if this was something one would expect as a regular lunchgoer. This crass Surrey BC restaurant owner seems to have one-upped New York’s famous Soup Nazi.

Everyone has been stuck on the bus with someone like Salim Kahil, or seen them berating people on a streetcorner. At first their outbursts seem funny-random, sad, just plain creepy (or all of the above), but you get used to them to the point that most of their stories start to run together. Such is the case within The Sandwich Nazi, a short film now expanded to feature length, whose stories and rants are almost entirely sexually based, and carry the film rather than punctuate a well told life story. As such one’s mileage may vary depending on how you take on a personality like Salim’s. He may grate on you immediately or over time. You may be laughing from start to finish. You may gradually find him endearing after being initially shocked.

Would you like to know more…?

Friday One Sheet: Hot Docs!

Toronto’s massive documentary film festival, Hot Docs has started up and will be showcasing hundreds of documentary films over the next few days. May of these films have one-sheets that will be on display, here are two of my favourites, both framing people dwarfed by their own landscapes.

Above is the mythic American West in the 21st century, as four cattle drivers attempt a trail from Mexico to Canada with their herd in Unbranded. Below is the barren desert in Waziristan, one of many subjects tackled in the frightening documentary about the asymmetry of modern warfare, Drone.

Hot Docs 2014: Grant Baldwin and Jenny Rustemeyer Talk About Food Waste and Just Eat It

Hot Docs 2014: Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story

Halfway through Hot Docs 2014, I had the great pleasure to sit down with filmmakers Grant Baldwin and Jenny Rustemeyer to discuss their call to arms Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story. Number fourteen of the top twenty audience favourites this year, and winner of the Emerging Canadian Filmmaker Award, it’s an eye-opening demonstration of just how much we’re blindly discarding.

I met them at the Park Hyatt, and we quickly ventured up a small flight of stairs adjacent to the lobby where a quiet, secluded room with a fireplace sat waiting for us. “We’re really tired,” Grant needlessly apologizes. It’s no wonder: asides from the exhaustion of the festival circuit, Grant and Jenn have a newborn baby boy in tow.

With a young child to care for, the question of food waste immediately springs to mind. This is of little concern, as Jenn deftly adds, “people always say there’s so much more waste when you have children. I think it depends on the way that you raise them. In our family, we used to serve food family style so that the food was in the middle of the table. You would take what you want, and then you had to eat everything on your plate.”

“[I]t’s interesting now, having a child,” Jenn continues, “because people [ask] ‘what about food waste? Do you think it’s safe?’ Absolutely. I would feed the food waste that we found to our son. It’s perfectly safe. [I]t’s not garbage food; it’s just surplus.” Would you like to know more…?

Hot Docs 2014: Sleepless in New York, The Case Against 8, Songs For Alexis, and The Possibilities Are Endless.

Hot Docs 2014

Sleepless in New York

Hot Docs 2014: Sleepless in New York

Director: Christian Frei

Program: Love, Factually

Run Time: 92 minutes

Love hurts. Rejection hurts more. Enter New York City, where thousands of people wander the street in abject agony: they’ve just been dumped. Christian Frei put out a call to arms, flyers on the street, asking people who have recently been rejected to contact him regarding his latest documentary. Enlisting the help of acclaimed biological anthropologist, Dr. Helen Fisher, Frei follows three lovelorn individuals as they attempt to cope with their confusion, pain, and dejection.

Frei asks some fundamental questions with Sleepless. Why do we hurt when we’re left? Where does that pain come from? How can we cope? With someone as esteemed as Dr. Helen Fisher taking your subjects into the lab, you’d expect a fair amount of interesting data. While the results of their FMRI’s (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) suggest some truly shocking and fascinating chemistry, there’s little information beyond this.

There’s a distinct comfort in hearing jilted Alley talk about her suffering after being left by her boyfriend of three years. Michael’s inability to stop thinking about the woman who unceremoniously dumped him after living together pulls at every searing heartstring. Lovelorn Rosey pining for a fling who strung her along is painfully relatable. Knowing you’re not alone in your pain can be incredibly cathartic. But these people, like us, want answers. Dr. Helen Fisher and Christian Frei combine their disciplines to provide some of the answers, while allowing us to wade through the pain of the incomprehensible. A brain scan can show us what lights up, what reacts, when we’re in a state of anguish. But it can’t relate to us. Frei has created a means for the lovelorn wanderers of the world to relate to one another, creating a dialogue we can all understand.

Screenings

Sunday, May 4th at 1:30pm at TIFF Bell Lightbox 1 Would you like to know more…?

Hot Docs 2013: The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne

HIt takes a certain amount of chutzpah to walk into a jewelry store and pull a pure short-con swindle. Doris Payne, now in her early eighties, remains as wiry and razor sharp as she ever was, pulling one jewel heist or another around the world as she has been for the past 60 years. Delightfully no-tech, she uses sleight of hand, the expectations of the clerk and a chameleon ability to role-play – meaning she’s a wonderful liar! And there is something rather magnetic (on screen anyway about a magnificent liar.) Payne has her own level of fame and notoriety in the criminal world, and even at her advanced age, is far from feeling too old to retire from her unusual lifestyle. But the world, now bursting with technology and chain department stores featuring ubiquitous surveillance, has passed by her criminal moment.

HotDocs13-DorisPayne

Would you like to know more…?

Friday One Sheet: Not Criminally Responsible

With Canada’s Hot Docs festival underway, I feel it is worth highlight good poster design for documentaries. Playing this years festival is one called NCR. It is aa film about a woman who was stabbed by a man who wasn’t in his right mind at the time. The defense in court used to be called criminal insanity, but is now called, ‘Not Criminally Responsible’. The poster for the image, emphasizes us looking down on a person in a padded cell. A real flair for typography, not only with words providing the wall paper (these cases where someone avoids prison for hospital care are always talked about) and the letter C in the title is encircling the head of the person like a broken halo. A great design overall.