Friday, April 25, 2014

Getting Real: Hot Docs 2014

In its early years, if the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto had been something of an industry event that gave filmmakers a chance to find a wider audience for their work, over two decades later, it's safe to say the audience is now there and continuing to grow. That growth has led to having their own movie house (The Bloor), which presents documentaries all year round. The Festival each year also showcases various themes such as Docs at Dusk, which shows free films every evening at 8pm with live music following, Hot Docs Talk, a seminar where this year social science experts and film-makers discuss the impact of agenda-focused documentaries, and this year, provide a welcome tribute to veteran documentary director Barbara Kopple (Harlan County U.S.A., American Dream) whose early films certainly helped popularize smart and engaging work on important social themes. Since technology changes as rapidly as the weather, it has also allowed for documentaries to be made on the cheap – often digitally –which have helped create wider definitions of what constitutes a documentary film. Part of the new shifts in technology even include the expanding use of social media, which not only makes possible the expansion of the audience (through Skype), but the technological shifts can also provide subject matter for any number of films including this year's opening night film, The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz, which examines the tragic life of the freedom of information activist who helped develop Reddit and RSS and was ultimately hounded by the U.S. government on outdated computer fraud laws.

With the rising popularity of documentary films, however, also comes a trap for those who want to find and keep the audience they've worked so hard to attract. Some documentaries, on terrific subjects, employ familiar tropes from other successful docs just to give viewers exactly what they expect to see rather than risk surprising them with something daring and different. Neil Berkeley's likeable Harmontown, which follows Dan Harmon, the writer/creator of NBC's cult hit show, Community, on his podcast tour of the United States, is a perfect example. When Harmon was fired from Community after its tumultuous third season, he immediately reached out to his legion of fans through a weekly stage show held in the back of a comic book store in L.A. The program became so popular that Harmon took it on the road as a 20-city series of dates and Neil Berkeley recorded it. Along the way, Berkeley (Wayne White: Beauty is Embarrassing) traces Harmon's not-so-harmonious past as a writer who created failed pilots (1999's Heat Vision and Jack, where Jack Black played a fugitive astronaut and Owen Wilson his sidekick with a talking motorcycle), locked horns with partners (The Sarah Silverman Program, where Silverman fired him over creative differences after the first season) and had an ongoing war of words with Chevy Chase (one of the co-stars of Community). But Berkeley focuses primarily on the people who have grown to love Harmon, which not only includes his fans, but also his girl friend, Erin McGathy, his natty stage sidekick, Jeff Davis, and Spencer Crittenden, a huge bearded cuddly bear who was a fan that joined the show as their master of Dungeons and Dragons.

The sweetness in Harmontown comes out of Berkeley's innate curiousity about the kind of devotion Harmon has attracted from his fan base. He chronicles with affection how Harmon's artistic frustrations have found a way to trigger a warm spot in those who feel like losers and outcasts. For them, the concept of Harmontown is their virtual exile village where they can feel comfortably at home in a world they've come to see as hostile. But the film (and this virtual world) becomes perhaps a little too cozy. One can immediately spot a current of rage in Dan Harmon that only surfaces periodically (especially in the end towards Erin), but Berkeley is so taken by the fan devotion that he takes his eye off the subject he's depicting so that he can become one with the adoring crowd. All of this may be just fine for those who possess a fannish devotion to their idol (and Community), but for a documentary about a compelling dramatic subject, you might find yourself wanting more out of the drama than there is. While Berkeley doesn't avoid the brittle rage and self-loathing that Dan Harmon possesses (he is a self-admitted functioning alcoholic), but he spends more time chalking up Harmon's frustrations with networks and other talent as "creative differences" rather than looking into the turbulent dynamics of nerd solidarity. I admire the streak of decency of Berkeley's work in Harmontown, especially in the way he humanizes a difficult and creative character. But the picture has a little too much of the soft underbelly of its subject.

The Case Against 8 is also a promising subject. This HBO documentary, directed by Ben Cotner and Ryan White (the charming Good Ol' Freda) about how Proposition 8 (know as 'Prop 8'), the California law that attempted to overturn the law that legally allowed gays to marry, was defeated in the Supreme Court. The victory was accomplished by the unlikely legal team of Ted Olsen (who fought for Bush's Republicans during the 2000 election recounts in Florida) and David Boies (who fought for Gore's Democrats and lost) with the help of two gay couples. The Case Against 8 begins strongly hinting at how two legal rivals, with opposing politics, work together to fight for the civil rights of America's gay population within months of Obama's election (an election that's rightly seen as the fruition of the Civil Rights reforms of the Sixties). There's a rich irony waiting to be uncorked where we have Obama seeking bi-partisan co-operation in Congress – and failing – and then this equally historic Civil Rights decision which is an example of exactly where Obama was attempting to take the country. But The Case Against 8 removes its focus from the legal strategy of two fascinating rivals who both share a passion for constitutional law, into the more conventional and audience friendly human interest story about the couples who fought alongside them. While it might seem obvious to go in that direction, to have us see how these two couples argue for the same freedoms as heterosexual couples, the problem is: there is no drama in their story (and we already know the outcome). Since they're so committed to each other and so fully in love, you'd have to be a complete moral idiot to oppose their right to marry. The picture is too busy going for our heartstrings (with a wall-to-wall gushing score added by Blake Neeley that hammers home the sentiments if you're missing the point). The Case Against 8 stokes our sense of outrage rather than depict the far more dynamic story of how bi-partisan co-operation overturned bad law into good.

The Case Against the 8

Jesse Moss's The Overnighters, which won a special jury prize at Sundance, doesn't lose its tough mindedness in the way The Case Against the 8 and Harmontown do. What begins as a compelling portrait of Jay Reinke, a Lutheran pastor in Williston, North Dakota, who tries to find shelter for the huge arrival of unemployed people across the country and are drawn by the lucrative jobs in the oil industry, becomes a probing examination of the failure of good intentions. While the town folks look on this massive influx of new citizens with suspicion, Reinke sets out to do what he feels is God's work by giving them shelter in his church as "the overnighters." But the story goes much further than settling for a typically laudatory portrait of a good Samaritan. We discover that Reinke's best motives are also tainted by a certain kind of naivety when he decides to house people with highly questionable pasts (some who even have criminal backgrounds). Moss manages to walk with a nimble sensitivity along a tightrope that balances personal investigation and private space. But The Overnighters doesn't congratulate itself for being on the right side of an issue. Moss spends the movie parsing sides and looking for the true story. For a film about finding refuge, Moss doesn't provide an easy one for the audience.

- Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa, Randy Newman's American Dreams, 33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica, Artificial 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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