The World Comes to Toronto

in 11st Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival

by Angela Baldassarre

Lovers of independent and non-conventional cinema found a veritable paradise in the city of Toronto during the month of April. It’s during that month, in fact, that the burgeoning metropolis became home to a slew of specialized and critically acclaimed film festivals, some of which are now considered to be among the most important in the world.

In only 11 years Toronto’s Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival has become the largest and most prestigious festival of its kind in North America, and second in the world only to Amsterdam’s prestigious documentary film and video fest.

Kicking off the festival was Christian Bauer’s The Ritchie Boys, which tells for the first time the story of a secret US army unit during World War II. Taking their name from Camp Ritchie in Maryland, where they trained, the unit comprised mostly of young Germans, among them many Jews, who fled the Nazis to begin a new life in America. With knowing the enemy, his psychological weak-points and language better than anyone else, the Ritchie Boys developed new concepts of psychological warfare for their fight against Nazi Germany. Their mission: to research, undermine, demoralize and induce the enemy to surrender. Landing in Europe on D-Day, 6 June 1944, the Ritchie Boys specialized in propaganda, disinformation, interrogation and the search for war criminals. Among their ranks were such famous names as journalist and best-selling author Hans Habe, Klaus Mann (the son of Thomas Mann), writer Stefan Heym, the director Hans Burger, and David Robert Seymour, co-founder of the Mangum photo agency.

Closing the festival was Jehane Noujaim’s revealing Control Room, which exposes the selective coverage done by American media during the recent Iraq conflict. With testimonials by Al-Jazeera journalists and U.S. army press officers, filmmaker Noujaim reminds us that in this age of mega-corporate U.S. news media there are other perspectives on world events besides those of Fox, CNN, MSNBC-ABCBS and whoever else feeds us information. And just because Al-Jazeera doesn’t toe the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld party line, that hardly makes it a mouthpiece for Al Qaeda. Exceptional.

On the international front there was Phil Grabsky’s insightful The Boy Who Plays on the Buddhas of Bamiyan, about Afghani families who took refuge from the Taliban inside the caves behind the legendary statues destroyed by the fanatics. Now that the Taliban has been ousted, these families risk being evicted by conservationists looking at turning the site into an historical landmark.

Less inspiring was Stanislaw Mucha’s The Center, where these German filmmakers look for the “Geographic Centre of Europe.” The feat proves particularly precarious considering that the centre keeps shifting every time the EU takes on another community. Interesting and amusing initially, but turns tedious.

James Miller’s Death in Gaza had this scribe crying like a baby while watching it. As some of you may know, Miller, the world’s bravest and most talented war documentarian, was killed while filming this documentary. Miller and his crew were interviewing Palestinian children in the Gaza strip, documenting their violent plight, with the intention of then interviewing their Israeli counterparts. But before he can do so, he was senselessly shot in the neck (all this is live on camera) by Israeli soldiers even though he was carrying a white flag. Heartbreaking.

The only Italian film at Hot Docs was Fabrizio Lazzeretti’s Justice In Time of War about Giacomo Turra, a young man from Padova who in 1995 died in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia. The case was quickly archived as an overdose but the autopsy evidence tells another story: Giacomo Turra died at the hands of five police officers. At the age of 24, Turra was a poet and an anthropology student. He travelled to Colombia to study the indigenous populations of the Sierra Nevada. When his father Sisto went to Colombia to reclaim his body he found he couldn’t recognize his own son, so severe was the beating he’d received.

On a lighter but less involving side was Ruth Leitman’s Lipstick & Dynamite, Piss & Vinegar: The First Ladies of Wrestling, about the rise of female wrestling in North America, beginning in the 1950s. Many of the original women are still alive and on-camera, and their stories often recount a difficult and abusive life.

One of the best films, which deservedly gets a theatrical release later this year, is Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Metallica: Some Kind of Monster. This remarkably intimate and revealing look at the famous band Metallica details the intricacies of being part of such an egocentric association as the group prepares to make its first album in six years. This writer is not a Metallica fan, but was nevertheless riveted by their story.

Also interesting was David Ofek and Ron Rotem’s No. 17, about the attempts by the filmmakers to identify the 17th victim of a suicide bus bombing in Israel. Their meticulous investigation manages to involve police and government officials. Fascinating.

Less fascinating, though, was Eric Chaikin and Julian Petrillo’s Word Wars about four top Scrabble players who prepare for a national tournament. I guess you have to be an avid Scrabble fan to appreciate their dogged passionate.

This writer was also less sympathetic towards Curtis Levy and Bentley Dean’s The President Versus David Hicks, which traces the attempts of Australians to get one of their own, David Hicks, released from the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay. Hicks, a former rodeo rider, joined the Taliban before September 11, and was captured by U.S. soldiers shortly after. Considering he’s been trained in a philosophy that promotes the murder of any woman for having premarital sex, and any person who does not adhere to his religion, there’s every reason to keep this man behind bars.

Andrew Davis provided an artier take with Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus, an amusing road trip through the American Deep South featuring blues performances and some testimonials (often repetitive) by inhabitants of the bible belt.

Then there’s the year’s most talked-about documentary, Morgan Spurlock’s exceptional Super Size Me. The young filmmaker, who is in perfect physical health and shape, decides to eat only McDonald’s meals for 30 straight days to see if such a diet can be harmful. Well, the results are not so shocking, but Spurlock’s transformation is. After watching this remarkable film, this writer won’t even buy a bottle of water at a McDonald’s.

Among the Canadian films at Hot Docs this year was Avi Lewis’ The Take, about Argentine workers who take over the country’s bankrupt workplaces; Sarah Goodman’s Army of One, about three Americans who join the U.S. army following September 11; Phillip Daniels’ Seeking Salvation, about the history of the Black Church and Black communities in Canada; and Lesley Ann Patten’s Words of My Perfect Teacher, about the students of Buddhist master Dzongsar Khyentse Norbu. Special sections included spotlights on The Netherlands and South Africa, a retrospective of the works by Outstanding Achievement Award-winner Michael Maclear, and focus on filmmaker Nettie Wild.