Today is day five of Hot Docs 2012 and unlike last year, a lethal combination of meetings, movies and meanderings have kept me from a daily tally here at Art Threat. No mind, I intend to make up for it in the remaining five days of the fest, beginning with this round-up post. At some point I will also publish my suggestions for an improved festival – improvements that would contribute to a better more fulfilled experience for the documentary genre and community, and are very easy to implement. For now, the goods on the films I’ve seen so far.
From nearly twenty screened films I’ve been truly only blown away by two documentaries half way through the festival (later in the post). A handful of others are, however, certainly solid works deserving of mention. Svetla Turnin and I are here at Hot Docs looking for political docs for Cinema Politica, so we tend to only seek out that kind of programming, but we also stumble upon other works. Of the “non-political” variety that we’ve seen big props must go to the intense and nearly flawless El Huaso (pictured at left) by Carlo Guillermo Proto. An exquisitely shot (kudos to cinematographer Benjamin R. Taylor), and skilfully directed & edited story of a Chilean-Canadian coming to terms with his father’s unwavering wish to end his own life, El Huaso pulls us in so close to a family grappling with potential loss we feel the dual intensity of familial love and anxiety like a long tight hug that won’t let go. But let’s get to the political stuff.
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry opened the festival and impressed on all levels, especially considering this is a feature doc by a first time director. The film follows the trials, tribulations and general muckraking by the now famous Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei. Director Alison Klayman managed to strike gold by accessing this marvellous artist and activist early on in 2007, and as such we get to peek behind the headlines and the art installations, and witness the creative process as it combines and collides with the political. In terms of form, the film is very standard, and although I was hoping for an art film in the lines of Breaking the Frame (directed by Marielle Nitoslawska), it’s a solid documentary that anyone familiar with Weiwei or interested in the intersection of art and activism will want to pursue.
Shadows of Liberty, a UK production directed by Quebec-born filmmaker Jean-Phillippe Tremblay is a slick, masterful political essay on the degradation of contemporary journalism. This topic has indeed been covered umpteen times in so many docs before (including the classic Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media) but SoL rises above its contemporary counterparts by concentrating on convincing and compelling evidence. The film, with its outstanding cinematography and top-notch animation, argues that American media has been usurped by capitalism, and a once-diverse system has been distilled into the corporate-pleasing, superficial output of five multinational conglomerates. This might not be news to you or your neighbour, but SoL takes time to walk through such irrefutable and fascinating case studies of corporate media malfeasance that any shred of uncertainty around big business and big government interference in information and truth dissemination will be quickly quashed. One criticism of the film is that the documentary rests its hope on net neutrality and misses sharing with audiences the vast and incredibly rich universe of alternative media currently in production and distribution. Let’s hope they make up for it on the website.
The Invisible War is a hard-hitting, emotionally devastating new doc from American filmmaker Kirby Dick. This time the “outing” director exposes the disgusting and criminal acceptance of an ongoing rape epidemic in the US military, interviewing victims, military spokespeople and experts. The film is in fact, almost entirely talking heads, and the fact that I didn’t notice that while watching is a testament to the compelling content but also to the impressive editing and direction. Rape in the military is at astronomically higher rates than among the civilian population, and goes overwhelmingly unexamined and unpunished, thanks to a crony system that is internal, non-transparent, and controlled by rapists and friends of rapists themselves.
Shocking, disturbing and revealing, this film really has the chance to effect positive change in the US, especially if it is shown to politicians. The one aspect that I did find missing, however, was the sociopolitical perspective: the doc relies mostly on understandably emotional testimony combined with explanatory commentary of experts, but doesn’t dig beneath the surface of the DNA of a society that lives with and among such a massive military culture. For every subject that told us she joined the military to “give back to my country” or for other patriotic reasons, I wondered if they weren’t keeping something back, such as the power dynamic in the US that sees lower and working class people serve, but not the rich.McCullin is a documentary with a huge problem: at 90 minutes, it’s simply too short. My only complaint about this deep and moving film about the life and work (mostly the work) of documentary photographer Don McCullin is I didn’t want it to end. Director Jacqui Morris, an old and trusted friend of the famous “war photographer” who resisted other documentarians, largely it seems, because of his humble wish to not be glorified in cinema, has not let McCullin or the audience down. McCullin is a deep and intellectual conversation about art, responsibility, suffering, communication, compassion and politics that is as exhausting as it is exhilarating. Despite not wanting the conversation with McCullen to end, the film is also intensely hard on the heart and eyes, with many of McCullin’s brutally graphic and haunting photographs of war, poverty and human suffering shown throughout. Still, an impeccable film that refuses to be a hagiography, nor biography, nor glorified war correspondent story. Instead McCullin is an understated yet bold essay about the life work of an incomparably talented and deeply humanist artist.
One Fine Day could be a pretty great political documentary, but it needs, desperately, to make one major change: kill the narration. A Dutch doc by Klaas Bense, OFD is an assemblage of six uneven vignettes about six individuals who have, through their individual political acts, effected positive change in the world. I say uneven because we spend considerable time with some subjects (John Carlos who bravely and boldly gave the Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics) and hardly any time with others (Nic from China who defies the government by putting classified and socially important information back on line after it’s been removed).
Finely shot and edited, the unevenness of these interesting and sometimes inspiring vignettes is forgivable, but the narration that bookends and interrupts the segments is not. A Voice of God British man telling us how to feel and think about the images we are about to see or have seen is offensive in a documentary in 2012 and my esteemed partner in crime thinks that this creative and structural wreckage might have something to do with one of the film’s funders, National Geographic. It is unneeded, unwarranted and intermittently rips an otherwise intriguing and inspired narrative out from under the audience.
The two best political docs at Hot Docs so far
For films with a really strong political backbone, the kind that don’t gaze into the deep pools of their subjects for so long that the politics are lost, and the kind that show a deep commitment to exposing and fighting oppression in the world, have been in short supply so far at this year’s Hot Docs (clearly there’s more to be seen still in the program, so I’ll reserve final judgement for my festival autopsy).
That said, two documentaries have stood out above the rest as incredibly inspiring works that combine the personal with the political, that explore the emotional while connecting the intricate points of socio-cultural context, and that unflinchingly take a stand when so many stay seated in the middle aisle.
Five Broken Cameras follows the incredibly awe-inspiring and altogether difficult to believe story of Emad Bernat, a Palestinian journalist in the small village of Bil’in. The title refers to the fate of Bernat’s video cameras, as they are, over time, destroyed as a result of his efforts to document the brutal tactics by fanatic settlers and confused, violent and young IDF soldiers. Bernat survives many tear gas canisters, bullets, a terrible car accident and humiliation at the hands of occupying forces, but many of his closest friends do not.
The film is co-directed by Israeli filmmaker and activist Guy Davidi, and the collaborative efforts between the unstoppable journalist and an experienced filmmaker result in a gripping, devastating, and inspiring film that is equal parts brutality and bravery, courage and candour, creativity and commitment.
The ways in which Davidi and Bernat weave together the personal-political narrative of Bernat and his village’s struggle to stop the occupation and destruction of their land (and the assault on their people), as well as the many more humble moments of courage and positivity in the face of death, harm and destruction, make for a film that yanks at one’s soul while provoking one’s politics.
Five Broken Cameras is one of the strongest, most stirring films I have seen on non-violent resistance, on perseverance against tyranny, and on the resistance to the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestine. The fact that the film screening was co-sponsored by the Israeli consulate, will of course, be the subject of a later Art Threat Hot Docs article on the perils of PR, festival funding, and the cultural politics of documentary.
Last but certainly not least is Anand Patwardhan’s newest Magnus Opus, Jai Bhim Comrade (image at top), a fantastic film of vast breadth and dizzying depth. A three hour sociopolitical and cultural exploration of the caste struggles in India, JBC stitches together, over fourteen years, the political struggle of the Dalits, India’s lowest Caste, to overcome oppression, to organize for their rights, and to resist higher caste groups’ and the government’s brutalities.
Intensely dense with dozens and dozens of subjects, organizations, movements, histories and narratives (followed by Patwardhan for decades) this film is best viewed twice. For those embracing McLuhan’s edict that the future of the book will be the blurb, fear not, this film’s three hours sail by thanks to the brilliant combination of Patwardhan’s skillful storytelling, explanatory talents, wisdom in seeking out the obfuscated details, and his commitment to resistance and progressive change.
A powerhouse of a documentary, this film has been and is likely to be criminally overlooked by critics and reviewers. Don’t fall into the liberal log jam of contemporary documentary, and do yourself a favour (at Hot Docs or later when the film is released on DVD) and see an incredibly important and illuminating documentary made by one of the world’s masters of the form and genre.