Sunday, May 12, 2013

Spirit of Engagement: Hot Docs 2013

One thing inarguable about Hot Docs 2013, celebrating their 20th Anniversary this year, is that they are now reaching a mass audience with record-breaking numbers estimating 180,000 people. Many of the pictures at this year’s festival also showed just how much the definition of the documentary film has expanded over the last two decades. Some of this is due to the digital revolution (which reduces the cost of making documentaries considerably) as well cable networks (like HBO in the United States), or Canadian government sponsored networks (like TVOntario), who broadcast and produce them. So you can’t overlook the cultivation of a curious audience eager to come out – rain or shine – to see such a wide range of material daily. But are these documentaries on the cutting edge of what can be done with the form? It depends.

As for myself, I was impressed by the sheer diversity of subject material I saw on the screen. While I missed all of the award winning pictures, including Jason DaSilva’s When I Walk (about a young filmmaker fighting to fulfill his dreams while suffering from Multiple Sclerosis that won the Best Canadian Feature Documentary Award), Alphée of the Stars (about a filmmaker who spends a year abroad to focus on the needs of his developmentally challenged daughter that was given the Special Jury Prize), and Greg “Freddy” Camalier’s Muscle Shoals (about the famous Alabama studio that won the Audience Award), much of what I saw was worthy of attention (even if the films themselves sometimes failed to live up to the subjects they examined). 

Shawney Cohen's The Manor

The opening night film, for instance, Shawney Cohen’s The Manor (which is currently playing at the Hot Docs Cinema) was a pleasant surprise. This first time director (with the help of co-director Mike Gallay) turns the lens on his deeply troubled family but thankfully it isn’t to create one of Todd Solondz’s cruel caricatures. The Manor is instead a loving and intimate study of familial pathology. Cohen’s parents own a hotel in Guelph which houses a strip club, but the business isn’t doing any better than his parents. Shawney’s father is obese and belligerent about losing weight while his mother is anorexic from her own food obsessions and in denial about it. Given the family business, you obviously can’t ignore the dynamics surrounding various fixations on the body. But Cohen doesn’t make rash judgements on their problems. Nor does he make himself look superior. Cohen uses cinema-vérité techniques to go beyond our obvious definitions of family neurosis allowing us in the audience to transcend our own prejudices towards them. He miraculously makes the camera seem invisible so that we take in all the disturbing sides of his family without being nudged. Cohen extends a measured respect towards both his folks which allows them to open up to his quiet scrutiny while simultaneously drawing on our compassion. 

Freida Mock's Anita

Freida Mock’s Anita, about Anita Hill’s 1991 testimony to the Senate committee hearing on Clarence Thomas’s appointment to the Supreme Court, might have drawn on our compassion more had her film not worked so hard at being warmed-over hero-worshipping. One of the early controversial cases of sexual harassment is ripe for a sharp filmmaker to delve into, but Mock is too partisan to bother. She wants to get crowds cheering for Anita Hill rather than looking into the foundations of the hearings themselves – and their aftermath. While Hill is a great subject for a film and she carries herself (in both the hearings and her later life) with great poise and integrity, the hearings touched on more than just sexual harassment. What Anita first avoids is delving into how the prosecutorial tone of the Senate investigation reflects the deeper puritanical strains in American culture (the undercurrents that lead to books like Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter) and – even more significantly – the unresolved racial issues (given that both Hill and Thomas are black). Mock chooses to see the hearing simply as a gladiatorial arena where a proud and brave liberal black woman stands up against the white middle-aged patriarchy. But because Thomas is a black conservative, the film simply dismisses his defence as if he’s merely hiding behind his race. The political prejudices underlining Anita end up watering down the potency of its subject and simplifying it. 

Pussy Riot - A Punk Prayer 

Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer also loses its potency because it never goes beneath the story it tells. Maxim Pozdorovkin and Mike Lerner cleanly tell the tale of the Russian female punk band and the trial that ensued when this outfit staged some guerrilla theatre in Moscow’s central Orthodox cathedral. Although the picture helps us understand the authoritarian nature of the Putin regime in Russia, and we get a close look at some of the Orthodox followers and see how formidable they are. (They're about as scary as geriatric bikers out of Hells Angels.) But the movie draws its line in the sand too cleanly between freedom fighters and autocracy. I admire the irreverent spirit of Masha (Maria Alyokhina), Nadia (Nadezhda Tolokonnikova) and Katia (Yekaterina Samutsevich), but what is unacknowledged is the question of whether their art is any good. Nobody in the film considers that it might be just as dogmatic and intolerant as the institutions they attack. (I’m sad to say that “God’s Shit” is no “Anarchy in the UK.”) When the filmmakers look back at the more innocent beginnings in the early lives of these women, I think the picture gathers some resonance because it brings up associations with other radicals and our need to understand their origins. But all you get here are clues because the film doesn't care to examine them in any depth, or nuance. Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer is a partisan work of advocacy rather than a disturbing look at how – and why – the Pussy Riot case reveals how Russia is unable to embrace democratic principles because the ghosts of its Tsarist and Soviet past continue to haunt them. 


While actor Alex Winter is probably best known as Bill in the cheeky fun of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (as well as its superior sequel, Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey), he’s also been a pretty adventurous director (Freaked, Fever). His latest picture, Downloaded, might not be terribly daring in style, but the subject – the creation of the music download site, Napster in 1998 – is both smart and informative. Winter lays out the tale of self-effacing programmer Shawn Fanning who pioneered digital media sharing on the Internet along with Sean Parker, a self-promoting pioneer who would quickly move on to Facebook after the legal flame out over Napster. In the film, Winter speaks with software developers and musicians on all sides of the fence about the issue of copyright violation. But what is most fascinating about Downloaded is the way it uncovers how Fanning (without malice) simply exploited the short-sightedness of the music business on digital technology which ultimately threatened territorial control over their artists. Fanning also unwittingly exposed how their gouging of consumers on CD prices forced music fans to do – on a global scale – what fans in the Seventies used to do when they made cassette recordings of their favourite LPs to share with their friends. Downloaded is bound to antagonize those who still wish to cling to an analog world view, but Winter doesn't demonize one over the other. His film is simply a prescient reminder of how we are now living in McLuhan’s Global Village. 


Simon Klose’s TPB AFK: The Pirate Bay Away From Keyboard is the perfect companion piece to Downloaded, but done in a completely different style. If Downloaded gives a straightforward account of a digital pioneer, Klose shoots his film – about three Swedish computer wizards who created The Pirate Bay, an online Bit-Torrent tracker – as if chasing his story with hellhounds on his trail. In a sense, they were on his trail because Hollywood studios were using every means to shut down The Pirate Bay and imprisoning its founders even though their site shrewdly didn't host any illegal content. The film is much denser than Downloaded and, since it is happening in the moment, less reflective on its subject. But despite its misshapen aspects, TPB AFK is fascinating in contrast to Downloaded. If Downloaded illustrates the entrepreneurial side of American ingenuity, the European made TPB AFK shows us technological anarchists who take aim at American ingenuity with the sole purpose of undermining it. 

Good Ol' Freda

Good Ol’ Freda, the story of Freda Kelly, who ran The Beatles’ official fan club, is a fascinating portrait of an age before the Internet. Kelly wrote and edited and distributed the official fan club magazine of the Fab Four before Facebook and Twitter might have made all of her hard work either easier or irrelevant. The doc is a satisfying look at the saner side of fan worship. Not only did Freda have the scruples to stay fervently loyal to the group over the years (and not spread gossip or pull skeletons out of closets), she was also incredibly humble (not even telling her children of what she did). Listening to her look back over her life with The Beatles, she comes across as the antithesis of Beatlemania. She gets the fever of the music without succumbing to the fever of idolatry. Director Ryan White barely touches on the dark turbulence that tore the band apart, and Freda herself keeps the proceedings relatively innocent, but Good Ol’ Freda still unfolds like the discovery of a lost and forgotten scrapbook of hopeful times. 

Our Nixon

In Our Nixon, director Penny Lane doesn't take easy shots at the travesty of Richard Nixon's presidency. Since she wasn't around in the Seventies, she tries to look at Nixon soberly without having been soiled by the dirty tricks criminality of his era. Our Nixon gathers in a bird's eye view the whole troubling period through primary sources. Those sources turn out mostly to be from over 400 reels of Super 8 footage of Nixon's years between 1968 and 1974 and shot by his special assistant Dwight Chapin, domestic affairs advisor John Erlichman and chief of staff H.R. Haldeman.

Although Lane's style of shaping this archival footage might suggest the pioneering work of Emile De Antonio (Point of Order, Milhouse: A White Comedy), it lacks the agit-prop anger that fuels De Antonio's perspective. Penny Lane tries instead to hold together contradictory views by allowing the footage to speak for itself. While it comes to resemble a collection of home movies, the varied footage cuts together fluidly as if taken by one cameraman. She never once lets her own voice intrude but instead gives way to television interviews with Nixon's men, plus Watergate tapes of Nixon on the phone with each of them.

What resonates most about Our Nixon, though, is the way it touches our fascination with visual documentation. If the Kennedy family also obsessively filmed themselves, their footage went on to create the attractive and appealing myth that would come to define the Camelot of the Kennedy years (the very images we stored and savored that would be later overshadowed by murder and loss). In Nixon's case, his footage here provides a shadow version of the Kennedy charisma right down to the dark stubble on Nixon's face, and the used-car pitch-man body language, that gives visual clues as to why he wasn't to be trusted. With its spirit of timeless engagement, Our Nixon perhaps lives up to what we look for most in documentaries at festivals like Hot Docs.

Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.      

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