Hot Docs Wednesday

Cowboys in Kosovo (Netherlands, Director: Corinne van Egeraat) — The director’s Albanian friend from Kosovo had fled to Amsterdam when the war broke out, but his brothers and cousins stayed, and now, years later, she returns with him to act out their childhood dream: to play cowboys in a movie. Kosovo’s landscape is remarkably similar to that seen in a lot of old Westerns, and once the brothers don their chaps and ten-gallon hats, it’s pure play as they re-enact scenes from their favourite Westerns, such as The Magnificent Seven and Shane. Interspersed are their recollections about the war and how toy guns and real guns are very different. (8/10)

Putin’s Mama (Netherlands, Director: Ineke Smits) — Vera is an incredibly sharp 77-year old who’s convinced that the son she sent to live with her parents at age 10 has grown up to become Russia’s president. She is so heartfelt in her wish for him to come and visit, and her story seems so plausible, that by the end, I was convinced. So rather than this being a story about a possible crackpot, it became for me a fascinating character study of a strong Russian woman who married a Georgian and “became a peasant.” The village life is richly portrayed and I found myself wondering along with Vera why Vladimir doesn’t come to visit his mama in this colourful place. (9/10)

Hot Docs Tuesday

Story of a Beautiful Country (South Africa/Canada, Director: Khalo Matabane) — This was a disappointment. Billed as a road movie through the new South Africa (and today marks ten years since the first democratic multiracial elections in the country), it ended up stranding us inside a taxi watching the director converse with people either a little crazy (like the unreformed militant Afrikaner with his M-16) or a little drunk (like the endless interview with an interracial couple it looked like the director met at a nightclub). There was some real insight from a few, and a lot of pointless jabber from most. The truth is that South Africa is a beautiful country, and so a lot of striking images were captured, even through the windscreen, but as a documentary, this failed to live up to my expectations. (6/10)

Army of One (Canada, Director: Sarah Goodman) — Canadian Sarah Goodman was living in New York around the time of 9/11, and noticed the long lineups at army recruiting centres after the tragedy. In this too-short film, she follows three volunteers for more than two years, through basic training and beyond. Of the three, only one is still in the army (and the director informed us at the screening that now-Sergeant Miller has returned home safely from Iraq). We follow the three as they try to find a purpose in their lives, one that the army promises but fails to deliver. The film ends a bit abruptly. I would have loved to see even more. It brought back my own brief experiences in the Canadian military, and sharpened the deep ambivalence I have about the way the army molds people to do a job nobody wants to talk about. There are a lot of good people in the military, and a lot of good things. But there are also many things that aren’t talked about in the recruiting centres, and this film uncovers and lays them bare. (9/10)

Hot Docs Monday

Vietnam: Ghosts of War (Canada, Director: Micheael Maclear) — Michael Maclear is an institution in Canadian broadcasting. Not only was he the first Western journalist to report from North Vietnam during the war (even witnessing Ho Chi Minh’s funeral), he was the producer of the only serious attempt to document the entire history of the Vietnam conflict (the 1980 miniseries The Ten Thousand Day War). In this film, Maclear travels back thirty years later, to a Vietnam at peace. The thesis of the film is that superpowers (first, France and then the US) misread the situation in Vietnam and that they continue to do the same thing today in the Iraq war. The film points out how “arrogance and ignorance” make it very easy to start a war and very difficult to end one. Maclear has a very idiosyncratic style and it didn’t always work for me (for instance, the film doesn’t follow a predictable narrative arc and felt about half an hour too long), but I appreciated the personal viewpoint and the way he combined original footage from the 60s and 70s with new stuff shot just this past year. (8/10)

Hot Docs 2004

Hot Docs is a documentary film festival here in Toronto now in its 11th year. This year, I finally decided to see some films. It’s a huge contrast to the massive, glitzy, and celebrity-obsessed Toronto International Film Festival that I’ve been attending for the past ten years. Lineups are more manageable, for one. And nobody’s looking for stars all over town. In other words, it’s great.

I saw four films this weekend:

  • Slasher (US, Director: John Landis) — This film follows Michael “Slasher” Bennett, a sort of used-car supersalesman who’s brought in to struggling dealerships to “slash” prices in special weekend sales. He boasts of selling 200 cars once in four days. He brings in his DJ pal, as well as a “mercenary” salesman just to turn up the heat on the dealership’s guys. He hires pretty girls to “register” customers to win prizes, including an $88 car. His legendary skills only go so far in economically depressed Memphis, where his crusade only manages to sell 35 cars on Memorial Day weekend. This was enjoyable, but bogged down when the sale started to turn sour. (7/10)
  • The Take (Canada/Argentina, Director: Avi Lewis) — Directed and written by Canada’s royal couple of the left, Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein (author of the bestselling No Logo), The Take is a fascinating look at what happens when the unemployed decide to take matters into their own hands. After Argentina’s spectacular economic collapse in 2001, many factories simply locked their doors and fired their workers. Rather than see the bankrupt businesses sell off all the equipment for pennies on the dollar, the workers have begun reclaiming the factories, first occupying them and then restarting production, without the bosses. Lewis and Klein made the film after their anti-globalization message met with the question: “What would you replace globalized capitalism with?” Though the film doesn’t attempt to portray the “occupied factory” movement as the answer for every situation, it raises interesting questions in an emotionally engaging way. (10/10)
  • The Ritchie Boys (Germany/Canada, Director: Christian Bauer) — This film tells the story of a group of Jewish refugees who enlisted in the US Army during WWII and were recruited for a special intelligence unit and sent back to Nazi Germany, where they worked mostly as interrogators of POWs. Their story makes for a fascinating and moving film. Surprisingly, it’s also full of humour and fond memories. (10/10)
  • Super Size Me (US, Director: Morgan Spurlock) — I’d wanted to see this since I’d heard about it at SXSW, where it was screened in March. Director Morgan Spurlock, inspired by a court case involving two obese teens who attempted to sue McDonald’s for their health problems, decides to live for a month on nothing but McDonald’s food. He intersperses footage of his daily “meals” with interviews with health care professionals, lobbyists for the food industry, educators, even a former Surgeon General. The film has been criticized by some as a bit of a stunt. Of course, eating fast food for thirty days isn’t going to be good for you. (Boy, see the film and you’ll see how much of an understatement that is!). But Spurlock uses his stunt as a way to raise some good questions about personal as well as corporate responsibility. This film makes a good companion piece to Eric Schlosser’s excellent book Fast Food Nation. A harrowing, and yet entertaining, experience. And it’s opening theatrically on May 7. Check out the film’s web site, too. (10/10)

So, a great start. I’ve got six more films to see in the next week, plus a few more to choose. I’ll try to say something about each one.