Donkeyote (UK/Germany, 2017): Finding documentaries that make you feel good about the human condition is often challenging. Donkeyote is one of them: Manolo, a septuagenarian farmer, enjoys days-long walkabouts across Southern Spain alongside his donkey, Gorrión. His dream is to one day walk the 2200-mile Trail of Tears in the US, but not only it’s expensive, bringing Gorrión is a whole other thing.
The film follows Manolo in his efforts to put the trip together, but the campaign is just an excuse to spend time with a compelling figure, an uncomplicated man who embraces life with gusto, but slowly realizes the world may have passed him by. Donkeyote could have used a sturdier structure (towards the end, the movie feels aimless), but it’s a guaranteed good time. 3/5 prairie dogs.
Ramen Heads (Japan, 2016): A man with a cause can be a powerful force, even if that cause is to create the best bowl of ramen eight dollars can buy. The figure in question is Osamu Tomita and he is as obsessive as a Michelin-anointed chef.
Tomita believes strong flavors can be balanced, so his broth is as thick as mud He is as picky with the noodles, the ingredients and the service. The outcome is memorable. I tasted it.
Ramen Heads doesn’t entirely focus on Tomita, but he is the star of the show. The film covers the history and entire process of making ramen in dynamic fashion. The utterly dry narration manages to add more flavor to an already well seasoned dish. 3.5/5 prairie dogs.
House of Z (USA/Canada, 2016): A problem with documentaries too closely linked to the individual being portrayed on screen is that the outcome may be too soft on the subject. It’s the case with the Zac Posen-centric House of Z, a recount of the rise and plateau of the fashion designer.
Posen, who was barely a teenager when he started making dresses for her friends (Paz de la Huerta, Jemima Kirke and other teen socialites), drafted his entire family and launched a haute-couture business, the aforementioned House of Z. Immediate success translated in growing demand. The stress plus Zac’s enfant-terrible persona caused serious tension within the Posen household, leading to a very public breakup.
Director Sandy Chronopoulos gets access to every member of the Posen clan and their video records. The story is intrinsically compelling and Chronopoulos is savvy enough to create suspense around the Posen’s Fall 2015 collection, billed as the designer’s make-it-or-break-it moment. That said, a more critical view would have been welcomed, particularly with a subject as controversial as Zac. 2.5/5 prairie dogs.
Becoming Bond (USA, 2017): There is something to be said about a doc that’s not stuffy or self-important. This George Lazenby-centric flick doesn’t have any other goal in mind than being fun and for the most part succeeds.
Lazenby was the only actor to portrait James Bond only once (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) and walk away from the franchise. The documentary covers the bizarre series of events that turned him from a car mechanic with no acting experience into Sean Connery’s replacement. The Australian’s happy-go-lucky attitude towards life is syndicated as the reason of his success and the cause of him leaving the saga (producers wanted to control most aspects of his life).
Here is the kicker: Most of Lazenby’s story (who is at hand to narrate the tale) is told through broad recreations starring a fairly recognizable cast, including Jeff Garlin, Jane Seymour and Dana Carvey. While very cartoonish, it beats archive footage. One caveat: In order to give the film a well-rounded ending, the film implies Lazenby never set foot on a set after quitting Bond. The truth is he went on having a lengthy career in B movies and TV shows. Feels disingenuous. 3/5 prairie dogs.
Hondros (USA, 2016): War photojournalist Chris Hondros died covering the Libyan civil war in 2011. He left behind a remarkable body of work, including a number of photographs imprinted in the collective subconscious.
Hondros does a remarkable job depicting the two-time Pulitzer finalist (the director is Chris’ best friend, Greg Campbell), but goes beyond that. It makes clear what makes a great war reporter. It’s not fearlessness (although it helps). It’s the ability to read the situation and place it in context. This film is likely to transcend the festival circuit. 4/5 prairie dogs.
PACmen (USA/Australia, 2017): Of the many dramatic threads to emerge from last year’s election in the US, Dr. Ben Carson provided one of the weirdest. On the strength of a single speech, Carson was jettisoned to the Republican presidential race and for a brief moment, the neurosurgeon gave Trump a run for his money… until he opened his mouth. Unsubstantiated claims about his childhood and bizarre statements (the pyramids were built for storage purposes!) quickly derailed his candidature.
PACman focuses on the two super-PACs formed to support his candidacy: “Run Ben Run” and “Extraordinary America”. As a man of faith, Carson attracted a number of Christian-conservatives who struggled to understand how other Republicans could fall for a rube like Trump. As Carson continued to fall on the polls, increasingly desperate supporters could only blame the media and find solace in prayer. Continue reading “HotDocs Film Festival – Day 6: PACmen, Integral Man, Recruiting for Jihad”
The Workers Cup (UK, 2017): Much has been said about the brutal conditions foreign workers must endure while building stadiums for the 2022 Qatar World Cup (high temperatures, excessive hours, disproportionately low wages). Their plight has seldom been documented: Press access to worksites is severely restricted.
Director Adam Sobel takes advantage of a PR move to gain access to the workforce. The embattled contractors have organized a soccer championship to show concern for the wellbeing of their employees: The Workers Cup. The overworked personnel fails to see the tournament as a publicity stunt and happily become involved.
The harsh realities of being a foreign worker in Qatar seep through the supposedly wholesome competition. Unsavory situations like being unable to leave camp at will, or a man getting stabbed by his roommate so he could be sent back home pepper the daily lives of the migrant workforce.
Much to the film’s credit, The Workers Cup treats its subjects as individuals with agency and not as victims, which makes their plight much more relatable. Their story has only started to unfold. 3.5/5 prairie dogs.
The Road Forward (Canada, 2016): A blend of musical and documentary too ambitious for its own good, The Road Forward attempts to tackle First Nations’ most significant struggles of the last century (the Native Brotherhood, the Constitution Express, residential schools, missing aboriginal women) via information and music. The outcome is so scattered, it’s hard to become fully immersed in the film.
As if recent history wasn’t enough, The Road Forward dedicates a fair amount of time to the performers’ own battles. Their stories are compelling in their own right, but become lost in a bombardment of minutiae, particularly in the top half. Five years ago, the stylistically similar The Art of Killing succeeded by limiting its scope.
The rise of Canada’s first indigenous newspaper -The Native Voice- gives the film a vague framing, but the outcome cries for structure. The music comes close to provide one (“Indian Man” is so catchy it should transcend the film), but the result is far from cohesive. 2/5 prairie dogs.
City of Ghosts (USA, 2016): Documentaries don’t get any timelier and pressing than director Matthew Heineman’s follow-up to Cartel Land. The filmmaker chronicles the struggle of a group of Syrians who, as a response to ISIS taking over their city, started the site called “Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently”, which would go on to win the Freedom of the Press Award.
Mermaids (Canada, 2016): A fascinating phenomenon per se, women who find personal fulfillment by becoming “mermaids” are a lot more common than expected. Mermaids focuses on three of them, each one going through a challenging journey: A transgender woman, a grieving sister and a bipolar Latina coming to terms with a history of abuse. Each one has discovered that rubber tails free them from all their burdens, however briefly.
Bee Nation (Canada, 2017): The definition of a crowd-pleaser to kick off this edition of HotDocs, Bee Nation revolves around an event with tension, drama and personal achievement ingrained in its DNA: The First Nations Provincial Spelling Bee competition. The first ever for aboriginal community.
It’s Documentary 101: Director Lana Slezic pics a handful of kids from different First Nations communities in Saskatchewan and shows their lives and how they prepare for the event. The approach allows some distressing information to seep through, like the fact schools in reserves receive considerable less money per student and, forcing administrators to make some hard decisions regarding their curriculum.
The children Slezic picks as main subjects are all overachievers, but they have a personality of their own (for William, failure is devastating; Savannah is a model of personal drive). In each case, their parental figures see education as a way out, a chance to see a world beyond the reserve. Heartbreak is unavoidable (the winners of the provincial chapter head to Toronto to compete against private school kids with tutors), but makes for great cinema.
Bee Nation is a bit stately (it’s presented under the CBC Docs banner), but is worth your attention.
3/5 prairie dogs. Bee Nation will premiere on CBC in September.
Bobby Sands: 66 Days (Ireland/UK, 2016): This sprawling documentary about IRA member Bobby Sands’ hunger strike not only covers every day of his protest, but also his background, the organization’s history, the political context and the deterioration of his body. It’s precisely the desire to cover every nook and cranny of Bobby Sands’ brief but remarkable existence that hinders the outcome.
Some context: In 1981, Sands led a hunger strike to complain against the elimination of the Special Category status in Northern Ireland prisons, a classification that separated IRA members from the general jail population. The Thatcher Government remained steadfast in their refusal to acknowledge them as political prisoners, despite public and international pressure.
There are many angles in Bobby Sands: 66 Days that could have become a documentary in their own right: Bobby’s election to Parliament in absentia, the historical relationship between Irish insurrection and hunger strikes, the physical effects of fasting are just a few. The film’s insistence in combining all these issues leads to an overstuffed product that bombards the audience with facts that fail to register. The recreation of Sands’ days in jail is borderline cheesy and adds little to nothing to the narrative. 2/5 prairie dogs.
Life, Animated (USA, 2015): An interesting approach at depicting autism without delving on the cause, Life, Animated is smart enough to limit its scope to one individual and avoid generalizations.
The documentary revolves around Owen Suskind, a 23-year old preparing to move on his own. Owen has a moderate autistic disorder and although functional, he is easily overwhelmed by his surroundings. As a child, Owen was on the verge of shutting down, but his parents noticed he used Disney movies to understand emotions and took advantage of it to open channels of communication with him.
Now an adult, Owen still pop animated features regularly, but more as a source of comfort than as a map of the world. As his reality grows more complex, the once reliable Disney movies don’t quite cut it and Owen find himself in uncharted territory.
Using the fly-on-the-wall strategy and animation (Owen came up with a script of his own, populated exclusively with Disney sidekicks), the documentary delivers a positive portrait of living with autism, a rarity as of late. It takes a village and loving parents, but the result justifies the effort. 3.5/5 prairie dogs.
Life, Animated will also play on Thursday, May 5th and Saturday, May 7th.
Under the Gun (USA, 2016): The Katie Couric-Stephanie Soechtig team seems hell-bent on exposing America’s malaises. In Fed Up (2014), they exposed the role of the food industry in the US obesity epidemic. Now they are going after a bigger fish (if possible): The gun lobby.
Using the many mass shootings down the border –particularly Sandy Hook and Aurora- as starting point, the documentary dissects the relationship between congressmen and the gun lobby, the NRA and weapons manufacturers, trade shows and crime, and gun owners and the organization that allegedly represents their interests.
There is nothing intrinsically new about American society’s trouble with guns, but the documentary presents the problem with remarkable clarity. Manufacturers develop close ties with the National Rifle Association; the NRA promotes a paranoid agenda (“the government is coming for your guns!” even though is legally unable to do such thing); people run to buy more weapons. The fact most gun owners would support background check legislation changes nothing. Or so it seems.
Not surprisingly, no NRA representatives, congressmen or gun-makers would speak on camera (to do so would be acknowledging there is a problem), but it doesn’t matter. Rationally, Under the Gun makes an ironclad case for the need of legislation. Too bad most people react emotionally to the matter. 4 ½ / 5 stars.
Under the Gun will also play Thursday, May 5th and Sunday, May 8th.
Ants on a Shrimp (Netherlands, 2016): Much like documentaries about climate change, after a while all food-centered docs start to look the same. There lies the brilliancy of filmmaker Maurice Dekkers, who cares more about discovering what makes his subject tick than cater to foodies.
Dekkers’ subject is a doozy: Chef René Redzepi, the man behind the best restaurant in the world, Noma. In 2015, Redzepi moved his entire team from Copenhagen to Tokyo for a few months to build an entire new menu and serve Japanese patrons for a few weeks. There were 58,000 people on the waiting list.
Far from the neurotic autocrats in most cooking shows (looking at you, Gordon Ramsay), Redzepi is soft-spoken and unflappable. How does he stay at the top of his craft? He challenges himself consistently. He doesn’t care for adapting Noma’s menu to Japan. Redzepi rather discover what’s unique about his new surroundings and turn it into a dish.
Redzepi’s capacity to think outside the box leads to spectacular discoveries (scallop fudge, deep fried fish sperm). More than a mere doc about food, Ants on a Shrimp presents us a genius at work at the peak of his powers. 4/5 prairie dogs.
Ants on a Shrimp will also play on Wednesday, May 4th.
De Palma (USA, 2015): For a movie about one of the most interesting American directors, made by two renown indie filmmakers –Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow-, De Palma is a letdown. Outside of voluminous amounts of trivia (the kind you could find in IMDb), there is little insight about what makes De Palma tick.
The documentary goes through De Palma’s filmography movie by movie. While it’s undeniably entertaining to find out that Sean Connery had to be begged to do another take of his death scene in The Untouchables, the fact De Palma barely pays lip service to his Hitchcock connection indicates Baumbach and Paltrow didn’t quite press the director into revealing more substantial information.
Without any other testimony, De Palma feels like a glorified interview, with top notch archive footage, but minimal production effort. Heck, even the framing is off. 2/5 prairie dogs.
De Palma will also play on Tuesday, May 3rd and Friday, May 6th.
Tower (USA, 2016): A gripping mix of animation and archive material, Tower is an oral recount of the events in Austin in 1966, in which a gunman killed 16 people and wounded over 30. Thanks to abundant footage (the shooting lasted over an hour and a half, allowing considerable coverage), director Keith Maitland reconstructs the entire standoff. Every blank is filled with animation, a strategy that translates into growing tension and uneasiness.
The film is anchored by a pregnant woman who was shot early on and left bleeding in plain sight. Nobody could approach her as the sniper would have had a clean shot of any good Samaritans. While every POV in Tower is riveting, this one in particular is the clincher. The parallels between the events from fifty years ago and today’s mass shootings are not lost on anybody. The “good guys with guns” trying to take down the shooter ended up endangering those with the skills to do it successfully. 4.5/5 prairie dogs.
Gulistan: Lands of Roses (Canada, 2016): Proof that a great subject doesn’t necessarily make for a good documentary, Gulistan, Land of Roses has numerous opportunities to rise above the genre and squanders them all. In theory, the film is about female Kurdish squads battling ISIS, but you never see any fighting taking place. This is not necessarily a problem if the portrait of the guerrilleras were fascinating enough. Unfortunately, director Zayne Akyol never comes close to discover what makes these women tick beyond boilerplate answers.
Some morsels of valuable information do come across: The battlefield helps the female fighters avoid their expected fate in Kurdish society (subservient, hopelessly dependent). Another source of motivation is that if ISIS soldiers are killed by a woman, they’ll never get to (their idea of) heaven. These valuable bits of info get lost among a lot of waiting around, training sequences and pointless dialogue. The virtual absence of a dramatic arch seals the deal: Gulistan: Land of Roses is a bore. 1/5 prairie dogs.
Gulistan Land of Roses will also play on Wednesday, May 4th, and Sunday, May 8th.
Spaceship Earth (Canada, 2016): The problem with climate change documentaries is that after a while, they all look the same. The “we are doomed” narrative has become so repetitive is not actually helping the cause any longer. Spaceship Earth tries to distinguish itself by using the Marshall McLuhan metaphor of the planet as a shuttle and us as the crew, but it’s not enough.
While the film covers a fair variety of issues (melting glaciers, water acidity, the Koch brothers), it all comes down to energy. Sustainable sources cover less than 2% of the population’s needs (coal is still 30%!) and lack of political will is stalling progress on this area. Spaceship Earth is filled with interesting data presented in a cohesive fashion and in a pretty package, yet it misses the “wow” factor that would have allowed the film to break from the pack. 3/5 prairie dogs.
Spaceship Earth will also play Sunday, May 1st, and Saturday, May 7th.
Weiner (USA, 2016): Right before the scandal that all but destroyed his career, Anthony Weiner was a force to reckon within the Democratic Party. Passionate and eloquent, there were more than a few who saw him as a presidential card.
This documentary covers Weiner’s run for Mayor of New York in 2013, after the photos of his junk hit Twitter, but before the sexting scandal. The film is a portrait of a smart, well-intentioned man with two fatal flaws: His libido and his ego. Instead of disappearing into the shadows after the original snafu, the politician went back to the trenches at the first opportunity, despite the fact his family was still reeling from his previous indiscretion.
Even more fascinating than Weiner is his wife, Hilary Clinton’s advisor Huma Abedin. A very compelling figure, here is a woman trying to save her husband career without jeopardizing hers. As for the marriage’s healthiness, the jury is out: Abedin may stand behind Weiner, but no gestures of genuine affection are captured on camera.
The access filmmakers Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg got is remarkable. There are plenty of profoundly uncomfortable moments on display. Credit to Anthony Weiner for allowing such scrutiny. He may have wronged his family and blown his career to smithereens, but there are plenty of public figures that have done much worse and gotten a free pass. 4/5 prairie dogs.
Weiner will also play on Saturday, April 30th, and Friday, May 6th.
For the next few days, I’ll be posting reviews of the most relevant films to be shown in the current edition of HotDocs, the Canadian international documentary festival taking place in Toronto between today and May 8th. The event is the biggest of its kind in North America and will include over 200 docs.
I may get to twenty.
Chasing Asylum (Australia, 2016): Compared even to USA and Eastern Europe, the treatment of refugees in Australia is shameful. Those captured in boats on their way to the subcontinent, never get to set a foot there. Most end up in camps in Papua New Guinea and Nauru without a procedure in place to apply for refugee status, or at least a return date. The Australian government pays these smaller island-nations to keep the prisoners there, but provides very little insight on what to do with them.
This relentlessly grim doc makes smart decisions allocating resources. Outside statements by the refugees, NGO volunteers and administrators, the film features secretly shot footage from inside the detention centers. It’s overwhelmingly depressing, but drives the point home.
Chasing Asylum does a good job balancing the emotional component with data-fueled context. As it often occurs in documentaries of this nature, a list of the authorities who refused to speak on camera bookends the movie. This is all well and good, but given how important would have been to comprehend their reasoning, merely mentioning them doesn’t cut it. Sometimes, there is value in door-stepping someone. 3/5 prairie dogs.
Chasing Asylum will also play on Friday, April 29th, and Sunday, May 8th.
Welcome to Leith (USA, 2015): In a foreboding corner of North Dakota you’ll find the town on Leith. The small, tight-knit community had no idea what was coming when a cantankerous, lonely man moved in. It wasn’t just a regular Joe trying to get away from it all, but militant white supremacist Craig Cobb, who soon enough started to buy land for his fellow neo-Nazis.
The excellent Welcome to Leith chronicles the legal battle that ensued between Leith inhabitants -who grew tired of Cobb’s antics very quickly- and the xenophobe himself, backed up by the NSM. Provocation was the name of the game for Cobb (who claimed his revolting hate speech was protected by the First Amendment), but miscalculated the endurance and commonality demonstrated by the townsfolk.
Many of the documentaries featured in HotDocs are bound to provoke a reaction from the audience, but Welcome to Leith was the first one that actually upset me. The tactics of Cobb and his fellow white supremacists are troubling, but since they have enough awareness to remain within the law, they get can get away with a lot (harassment, distress), more so in a place as isolated as Leith.
The film is a must watch. The storytelling is strong and the imagery will give you pause. Here is hoping for wide distribution. Four and a half prairie dogs.
The Bolivian Case (Bolivia/Australia, 2015): The story The Bolivian Case tries to cover is a fascinating one. Three Norwegian girls vacationing in the South American nation are caught trying to smuggle cocaine out of Bolivia. One escapes with the assistance of the Scandinavian consulate, the other two land in jail… until one of them becomes a celebrity of sorts in Norway and leaves the country with the assistance of a magazine while on bail (!). Furthermore, other members of the smuggling ring are on trial in the European country.
This is a story that oozes sex, race and media issues. Unfortunately, director Violeta Ayala chooses to address them directly instead of letting these wide and complex matters emerge organically from the narrative. Furthermore, The Bolivian Case has some structural issues in which the first half has all the strength and the second (focused on the dull judicial process in Norway) limps to the finish line. The material is there. The scenes inside the Cochabamba jail are fascinating: The place operates as a citadel, to the point the two incarcerated girls become pregnant during their stint in prison. Re-editing would benefit the film greatly. One and a half prairie dog.
Chuck Norris vs. Communism (Romania/USA, 2015): A usually successful strategy to make a documentary is to take a very specific phenomenon and see how it relates to a larger movement. The terrific doc Chuck Norris vs. Communism takes this approach and runs with it, with the added bonus of one fascinating subject.
During the Eighties, the only way to have access to American movies in Romania was through counterfeit VHS tapes. Western-made films were deemed detrimental to Ceausescu’s establishment and contradicted the Communist Manifesto. But the growing popularity of VCRs and a booming black market allowed the unhappy population access to Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Norris’ finest. Not only this trend undermined the oppressive regime, it may have played a part in the movement that toppled the government in 1989.
One of the bootleg chain links steals the movie: Irina Nistor. While maintaining a government day job, Nistor managed to translate over 3,000 movies (she didn’t dubbed them, just added an additional voice track to the original sound). Her voice became a staple for an entire generation of kids, who ended up associating it with the notions of insurgence and freedom.
Chuck Norris vs. Communism is canny enough to keep Nistor out of sight until the end and let those who lived through the events depicted in the film tell the story. This doc is a testament to the power of community. Four and a half prairie dogs.
War of Lies (Germany, 2014): Ever wondered about the origins of the materials Colin Powell presented to the UN in 2003, when making his case to invade Iraq? According to the official narrative, the source was Rafed Aljanabi, a chemical engineer who worked at a weapons manufacture facility in Iraq. Aljanabi wilfully collaborated with German intelligence and the CIA to give the US an excuse to bring down Saddam Hussein, or so most news sources declared.
According to War of Lies, there was more to the story, mostly that the engineer was more ambivalent about his role in the conspiracy, and that the information he provided (later demonstrated to be false) was at the specific request of his liaison with the intelligence services.
Director Matthias Bittner tracked down Aljanabi and convinced him to participate in a feature-length interview. While his tale is damning, Rafed comes across as self-serving and arrogant. By excusing his actions as “means to an end” (Saddam’s fall), he exhibits the same moral relativism than those who supposedly coerced him into lying.
Bittner in turn doesn’t try hard enough to poke holes into Aljanabi’s story (his testimony is the only one in the film), and his continuous efforts to get Rafed to reconsider the morality of his actions -which led to a war that has caused thousands of casualties- amount to very little. Two prairie dogs.
While this year’s HotDocs features plenty of hard-hitting, thought-provoking features, a couple of crowd-pleasers have made it into the line-up. Here are two of them.
Raiders! (USA, 2015): For most of their teenage years, three kids spent every summer filming a shot-by-shot recreation of Raiders of the Lost Ark. With no more resources than sheer will and gung-ho spirit, the boys succeeded for the most part: The adaptation became a cult film championed by the likes of Eli Roth and Harry Knowles. One scene was missing though: An expensive, complex action sequence at a landing pad involving Indy, three Nazi planes and a hulking henchman.
This hilarious coming-of-age doc Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made follows two of the boys, all grown-up, as they try to complete their magnum opus. The storyline (compelling in its own right) serves as a pretext to revisit the shooting of the rest of the movie. Children of the 80’s, Eric Zala, Chris Strompolos and Jayson Lamb come across as extremely ingenious and phenomenally irresponsible (some scenes involving stunts and fire will give you pause before cracking up).
Raiders! also offers glimpses of growing pains and dreams fading away, which only makes the movie more human and relatable. Four stars.
The Nightmare (USA, 2015): Three years ago, director Rodney Asher interviewed nine people to explore different deconstructions of the movie The Shining. The outcome became the doc Room 237, a tremendously entertaining exercise that gave the same tribune to legitimate readings (the massacre of Native Americans in Colorado as background) and crackpot theories (Stanley Kubrick’s atonement for faking the moon landing). Room 237 was more about cinema as an individual experience than about interpretations, but the outward layers gathered most of the attention.
The Nightmare is shaped similarly, but lacks the overarching undercurrent: A group of people of different backgrounds share a common condition: Sleep paralysis. Not only they awake in the middle of the night unable to move a muscle, every single one recalls a malevolent presence in the vicinity.
While the film creates at times moments of genuine dread, there is little interest in finding a reasonable explanation (or a consistent one, for that matter). Other than insinuating the possibility that mysterious entities covet the subjects’ souls, there is no method to this madness. The Nightmare is undeniably entertaining, but it’s just empty calories. Two stars.