More than I Need to Know By Norman Wilner

in 10th Hot Docs: Canadian International Documentary Festival

by Norman Wilner

After a month spent watching videotapes and DVDs for the 2005 Hot Docs festival, and I have learned more about Newark mayoral politics and the practice of Satanism in Bolivian silver mines than I ever thought I’d need to know.

Hot Docs is the rare festival that immerses you in information, rather than drama, with the flow of shorts and features offering a slow accumulation of intimate knowledge. One may not agree with a point being argued, or the style with which a filmmaker has chosen to present it, but one is always being educated.

I have discovered that the blockbuster grosses of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 have inspired many, many filmmakers to produce activist documentaries of their own, raging at corporate Machiavellianism and the evils of globalization without necessarily having a clear plan to address those capitalist wrongs.

I have noticed that the boom in Israeli documentary filmmaking – the Middle Eastern state was the focus of this year’s national spotlight – has allowed a new generation of camcorder-toting liberals to address the current convulsions of their homeland’s identity: Will the nation be secular or ultra-orthodox? Tolerant or intolerant? Open to conversations about sexuality, or repressive to the point of parents ostracizing their gay children? Accepting of Palestinians within its cities, or bent on walling them into their own impoverished communities?

I have also discovered that I know more about global warming than Rachel Gauk, the director-writer-producer-composer-star of The Vanishing Ice – not too surprising, as her pompous 20-minute “meditation” on the state of the polar ice caps offers barely any insight, scientific or otherwise, into the phenomenon – and that I still don’t really understand why or how the father and sister of Nurjahan Akhlaq were murdered in their Lahore home, despite her having made Death in the Garden of Paradise about that very incident.

The twenty-one first films eligible for this year’s FIPRESCI award presented a jangle of tones and textures, from Moore-flavored exposés to ragged personal explorations to TV-ready explorations of unusual legal decisions. Storytelling ranged from impenetrable to efficient; no film managed to be successfully stylish or elegant – kind of a sad note, really, in a festival that saw Errol Morris receive a distinguished achievement award and retrospective.

Shot with a prowling camera and an eye for baroque compositions, Michale Boganim’s Odessa Odessa, a study of Ukrainian Jews who’ve formed new communities in America and Israel, was easily the most cinematic film on our list … though Boganim’s motif of constantly panning the camera from one side to the other, as he repeats images and conversations throughout the film, made for an irritatingly precious experience.

The other Israeli productions submitted for our consideration were far more banal in both execution and concept – Avi Nesher’s Oriental, which argued that the pursuit of an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord is kind of like a Jewish woman belly dancing while accompanied by Arab musicians; Ilil Alexander’s Keep Not Silent, which attempts a feminist spin on Sandi Simcha Dubowski’s 2001 festival hit Trembling Before G-D by profiling three Jewish lesbians unfortunate enough to be living in religious communities; Avishag Leibovic’s Diet Liebovitch , which uses camcorder footage to prove that the members of her immediate family are, to a person, jolly and fat, sort of like a houseful of Semitic Santas.

Of course, Leibovic’s family come off looking like harmless goofs when compared to the subjects of Say Amen, David Dery’s distillation of what must have been months of obsessive camcording into an indictment of his parents and siblings’ refusal to accept his homosexuality. But Dery’s entirely understandable disappointment at his family’s inability to support him seems to have curdled, in the editing process, into slanderous rage, and his film seems increasingly like a one-sided pity party than an honest look at a difficult family dynamic.

A number of entries seemed to be the result of directors choosing to pursue subjects, or people, who didn’t produce quite as much drama as their chroniclers might have hoped. Chris Romeike’s 9 Months 6 Blocks hangs out with three residents of the same Toronto neighborhood – a retired postal worker, a widowed Tibetan mother and a teenager trying to set his life straight after some undefined gang activity resulted in his expulsion from high school – but nothing much happens to any of them.

Not much happens in Napoleon for a While, either, as Bart van Esch follows middle-aged dreamer Wolfgang Kröne on his quest for the celebrity that eluded him three decades ago, when he produced and starred in a film about the Napoleonic Wars, and either embraced, or fell victim to, the autocratic mind-set in which he’s locked today. There’s comedy and tragedy in the spectacle of this reasonably talented man trying to sell himself to the German public by singing about his weight problems on a morning chat show, but van Esch takes a long, long time getting there.

The Tunguska Project follows aboriginal Canadian playwright Floyd Favel from Saskatchewan to Siberia, in pursuit of the story of the Tunguska event, where a massive and thus far unexplained explosion devastated the region in 1908. Favel is a fascinating persona – a pompous, self-absorbed artiste who makes grandiose speeches about sacred lands when not trashing his hotel room in a drunken stupor. His constant speechifying to the camera provides ample fodder for an examination of Canada’s paralysis when it comes to evaluating its indigenous art, but director Gisèle Gordon isn’t willing to go there, forcing the material into a bloodless, toothless dance around the less photogenic elements of Favel’s personality.

Arturo Perez Torres’ Wetback: The Undocumented Documentary starts out as a fascinating examination of the cultural and economic forces that impel Latin Americans to illegally enter the United States, but the men Torres chose to follow aren’t particularly interesting, spending much of their journey in uncomfortable silence while the director’s camera dogs their every move. Torres’ solution – juicing up the action with a couple of mariachi numbers – seems like an admission of failure.

Similarly, the undeniable empathy Lost Children directors Ali Samadi Ahadi and Oliver Stoltz felt for the Ugandan children recovering from the horrors endured during their conscripted military service in the Sudan is compromised by a sense of calculation, as though they doubted their audience’s ability to be properly shocked by the story.

The three young Colombians followed by Scott Dalton and Margarita Martinez for their blank-faced La Sierra must have seemed like a fascinating cross-section of Medellín life, but one quickly disappears from the action while the other two play to the camera, the filmmakers never pressing them to confront the reality of their lives as paramilitary guerrillas.

And while Battleground: 21 Days on the Empire’s Edge, succeeded in its goal of presenting an unadorned look at three weeks in the life of the American occupation of Iraq, it had the questionable fortune of following a chipper Iraqi exile as he searched for his long-lost family, the better to play the cruel practical joke of turning up unannounced at their homes and waiting to be recognized. Perhaps he’d just watched too many episodes of Punk’d in the West, waiting for Saddam to be overthrown.

A few other entries suffered from a mismatching of artist to material: Stroke, Abel Raises Cain and The Alma Drawings were all made by people with personal connections to their subject matter – Katarina Peters followed the recovery of her younger husband, Boris Baberkoff, from a debilitating stroke; Jennifer Abel documented the vivid career of her father, media prankster Allan Abel; Jeremy Munce argued the divine inspiration of his long-dead aunt, Alma Rumball, who spent the last 20 years of her life drawing elaborate works of art with an increasingly complex mythology behind them.

But each work suffered from the filmmakers’ inability to present the material in a manner that made it accessible to people who weren’t their subjects’ family or friends: Stroke undercuts Baberkoff’s harrowing rehabilitation with Peters’ artistic posturing, Abel Raises Cain finds Abel retreating in terror from the suggestion that her father’s increasingly outlandish hoaxes might have lowered the level of media discourse in America rather than educate the masses about it, and The Alma Drawings runs out of steam about ten minutes in, with Munce desperately trying to connect his relative’s demented ravings – which, the more we learn about them, seem to be the result of undiagnosed schizophrenia, or some other neurological accident – to Christian prophecy and even crop circles, just to pad out the running time.

Nadja Drost’s Between Midnight and the Rooster’s Crow, a muckraking investigation into what appears to be an Ecuadorian environmental scandal involving a Canadian oil company and a leaky pipeline, won the festival’s award for Best Canadian Documentary, Short to Mid-Length – though Drost seems far too taken with her own crusading to build a compelling case against the inter-governmental corruption that apparently created the situation.

And then there are the features made in the no-frills style most Canadians quickly recognize as “CBC Lite” – a handheld, undistinguished aesthetic perfected by our revered broadcasting corporation over decades of television work. Questions are asked off-camera; answers are recorded impassively, and presented without affect. It respects the audience’s intelligence and avoids the appearance of bias – but it can also result in some dry filmmaking.

Gilbert Duclos’ Off Limits, for example, was dismissed by some as aggressively ordinary, though its discussion of a controversial decision by the Quebec Supreme Court that declared a Montréal woman’s likeness to be her own inviolate intellectual property was one of the more stimulating philosophical investigations to screen at this year’s Hot Docs. And I’d argue that director Duclos’ restraint in tackling the issue should be considered one of his film’s strengths; he was, after all, the photographer whose candid picture of a young woman sitting on a stoop resulted in the court case in the first place.

But Marshall Curry’s Street Fight, which took the festival’s prize for Best International Documentary, avoids dryness entirely, offering a fly-on-the-wall look into politics as usual in Newark, New Jersey, where four-term incumbent Sharpe James was challenged by city councilman Cory Booker in the 2002 mayoral race. As James uses every dirty trick in the book to keep his opponent from building momentum, Curry’s camera watches Booker struggle incredulously against a tide of character attacks, heavy-handed coercion and blatant cheating, trying to keep his dignity in the face of a full-on political scourging. It was the most riveting film I saw in the entire festival, in and out of competition.

Finally, there’s our award-winner, The Devil’s Miner, about which my colleague Gerald Peary has written at length in his report. I’ll say only that the documentary’s remarkable subject matter is as fascinating as the conditions in which it was made, with directors Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani following their young subject into the claustrophobic bowels of a Potosi silver mine in order to capture an absurdist reality almost unimaginable to anyone who hasn’t actually lived it. Any work that can do that deserves international recognition.