Thursday, April 28, 2011

Making it Real: Three Strong Documentaries From Hot Docs 2011

When I was growing up in the late sixties, not only were good documentaries rare, there was very little difference in style and form to distinguish them. At times, with the exceptions of Robert Flaherty (Nanook of the North), Marcel Ophuls (The Sorrow and the Pity) and Frederick Wiseman (High School), they resembled magazine or newspaper articles with moving pictures added. We've obviously come a long way in both the diversity of content and the aesthetics of documentary style. But sometimes that ambition gets misplaced when the aesthetics overwhelm the content (The Thin Red Line, Manufactured Landscapes), or when directors break faith with the audience by becoming disingenuous in order to stir a partisan viewer's passions (Fahrenheit 9/11). But judging by what's being unfurled this year at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto, which opens tonight with Morgan Spurlock's POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold and runs until May 8th, the wide range of fascinating subjects suggests a cornucopia of pleasures to behold. In particular, there were three very distinctly provocative films that immediately caught my attention.

Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood's Magic Trip is an expressionistic and kaleidoscopic portrait of the fabled road trip that author Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Sometimes a Great Notion) and the Merry Pranksters took in their legendary Magic Bus. While the story covers how their 1964 LSD-fuelled cross-country sojourn was an attempt to reach that year's New York World's Fair, Magic Trip is really about a communal experiment by a collection of counter-culture dreamers whose dreams ultimately come apart in paranoia, disillusionment and burn-out. Their post-Kennedy assassination stab at drug-induced idealism eventually collapses in freak-outs and madness. In order to document all of this, Gibney and Ellwood have gathered the original 16MM footage the band shot on their trip which is integrated with audio interviews - past and present - that help weave the narrative together. In Magic Trip, we get an impressionistic quilt of the genesis of how their travels unravelled the mythology they'd created of themselves. For instance, we get a clearer picture of Neal Cassady, the mythical icon of Moriarty from Jack Kerouac's On the Road, who becomes this speed-demon bus driver who chatters incessantly from a state of chemically-enhanced dementia. Magic Trip provides a solid bridge between the mythical American characters of fifties beatnik culture and how through their experiments with acid turned them into tragic figures. What's fascinating about the picture is how both directors accomplish this without resorting to cheap moralism.

Sgt. Nathan Harris in Hell and Back Again.
In Hell and Back Again, which bears some resemblance to the late Tim Hetherington's Restrepo (2010), director Danfug Dennis has created a war documentary that finds its dramatic power by shaping its story like a fictional drama. But you won't make the mistake of taking it for fiction. Hell and Back Again follows the US Marines Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment as they get dropped behind enemy lines in Afghanistan for a rigorous campaign against the Taliban. While following the regiment, as they get consistently attacked by enemy troops (as well as get frustrated by the locals they're assigned to help), Dennis captures the numerous frustrations of American soldiers in a largely tribal culture who are unable to find the footing necessary to vindicate their purpose for being there.

What Dennis does that is so distinct from most war documentaries is that he intercuts the story of the battalion's mission with its aftermath where Sgt. Nathan Harris is recovering at home after being severely injured in Afganistan when he was shot in the hip. Setting up a parallel narrative allows Dennis to contrast Harris's hopeful ambitions with his platoon with the struggles in returning home to his marriage and his lengthy rehabilitation needed to heal his injury. Harris and his wife are openly candid in their difficulties dealing with his lack of mobility, plus the manner in which he has changed since he's come home. Much like Jeremy Renner's character in The Hurt Locker, Harris can't deal with the mundane tasks of everyday life after being in the heightened atmosphere of contemporary warfare. Hell and Back Again boldly fuses documentary realism with the illuminating power of great drama.

Susan Saladoff's Hot Coffee, which is made for HBO, is stylistically conventional in that cookie-cutter approach that HBO covets. But as a piece of political advocacy, it's a cleanly argued tale of the subtly nefarious ways in which American corporations are working to limit their legal liability in various negligence suits. Saladoff begins with the infamous case of Stella Liebeck, the senior who sued McDonalds when she spilled her hot coffee on her thighs. The story was spun as a case of consumer greed making Liebeck appear as a laughing stock and a target. What Hot Coffee reveals is how that law suit was misrepresented in the media to the extent that the truth became an urban legend. (Most people believe, mostly thanks to talk show pundits, that Liebeck was driving with an open coffee in her lap which spilled creating minor burns. What actually happened was that Liebeck was parked in the passenger seat trying to secure her coffee lid on her superheated beverage that, when it spilled, created third-degree burns on her thighs.)

But Saladoff, who has worked as an attorney, uses the Liebeck case as a launching pad for a fascinating investigation into how tort reform and mandatory arbitration are helping corporations in undermining the democratic jury process for deciding civil justice. She goes on to explore how Mississippi judge Oliver Diaz was targeted in a smear campaign when he wouldn't always rule in favour of corporate interests. Hot Coffee also examines the horrific case of Jamie Leigh Jones, a Halliburton employee, who was housed in an all-male barracks in Iraq rather than with her peers. When she was gang raped by the men, she was unable to legally hold her employees responsible due to the mandatory arbitration contract she had to sign which prevented her from taking the case to court. Another matter shows a family who couldn't hold a doctor responsible for the disability of their son because of the cap on damages placed by their state legislation. Hot Coffee uncovers with clear precision the way corporations have proliferated the myth of "frivolous lawsuits" to stir indignation among those who define themselves solely as taxpayers rather than citizens.

I'll have more Festival reviews later next week.

Note: On Saturday, May 7th, Hot Docs will have a special screening of Restrepo in honour of its co-director Tim Hetherington who was killed in Libya earlier this month. It will take place at the Bell Lightbox and will be attended by surviving co-director Sebastian Junger. He will be paying tribute to his friend and collaborator with a Q & A after the screening.

Proceeds will be donated to the charitable organization to be chosen by the Hetherington family to honour Tim's life and work. See the Hot Docs site for more information.

-- Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. Courrier continues his lecture series on Film Noir (Roads to Perdition) this Tuesday at the Revue Cinema in Toronto at 7pm. His five-part lecture series, Forbidden Desires: The Films of Alfred Hitchcock and Brian De Palma, continues at the JCC Prosserman on Wednesdays from 1pm-3pm.

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