This Thing Called Hot Docs
No, it isn't Hot Dogs. For the hundredth time, I did not rush in a manic stupor from the outer fringes of the of the city to stand in line for some delicious street meat, but I could see how some of the engaging documentaries that screened at Toronto's premier doc-fest are analogous to such a tasty snack. For a good week and two days I braved the rainy weather, grey skies, and endless transit rides to see slices of life. Though the informed reader might contest such a remark ("reality can never truly be captured by celluloid!" you might say), I feel as though I have learned to appreciate certain elements of life more than I ever would have before attending.
As my peers on this here blog have already iterated, documentaries are very hit or miss. A single documentary has the ability to split viewers almost completely in half, where one side might consider it enlightening while the other groans and complains about how much of a bore it really is. I was fortunate enough to see a number of documentaries that I enjoyed and, while some were mediocre or not my cup of tea, I did not see any that made me want to sucker punch a director. Based on my trajectory during the week, I feel confident that the programmers have their wits about them enough to choose docs that really make a difference. In the following paragraphs, I review two of the roughly twenty or so pictures I saw over the course of the festival. I am also attaching three capsule reviews I conducted on another website at the beginning of the fest. I have many more notes to pore over, so expect more reviews to come.
Beauty Day - Jay Cheel
North of Toronto in St. Catharines, Ontario, a hometown alt-hero exists by the name of Ralph Zavadil. Appearing during the early 90s on public access television under the guise of Cap'n Video, Zavadil willfully (and gleefully) endangered himself by performing a number of zany skits and stunts in the presence of a video camera and a tripod. A one man show who gained an increasing amount of notoriety as his stunts became more and more reckless, the young Canadian is known by many as the first Jackass. Predating the Johnny Knoxville crew by a good five years, Zavadil and his Stooge-like slapstick made a brief impact before burning out after a wrongful stunt (including puppies and chocolate sauce) found him being canceled and prosecuted by big network executives. Beauty Day, its likeness taken from a token line of dialogue often shouted by Zavadil's alter-ego, is an interesting mixture of talking heads, archival footage shot by Zavadil and his ex-wife, footage from the actual public access show, and the documentation of footage shot for the 20th anniversary reunion show back in 2009. It is all standard fare for current documentary filmmaking, but the film really takes off because of its subject. Zavadil is one of the most outgoing and charismatic characters I have ever seen, and as he curses, chain smokes, and describes his life to you between constant swigs of Sleeman Honey Brown, you begin to understand why he did what he did. When Cap'n Video fell off a ladder and broke his neck in three places, you can understand why it needed to happen. When he crunches his way through a television set in a sort of reverse 'birthing' and cuts his fingers up, you are given a peak at an artist's release. Zavadil's life has simply been too eventful not to share, and his devil may care attitude, with its balance of tenderness and warmness, likens him to some of the funniest and most loving characters in our lives. I'd like to think we've all had a crazy uncle or wonky television personality that we've identified and connected with, and Zavadil is sure to become one of them. As a simple slice of life, director Jay Cheel was very lucky to capture someone a little more complex than 'standard fare.'
Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey - Constance Marks
To interject some anecdotal referencing here, I was beyond excited for Sundance favourite Being Elmo. A documentary following the path taken by Kevin Clash, the mastermind behind the exploding popularity of the Sesame Street character during the 1990s, I didn't care if the proceedings were light, heavy, or even dishonest; All I knew was that the furry red three-year-old monster is as beloved to me now as he was when I was ticking him as an infant. Going in with this mindset, I admit that I set the bar pretty low for this doc, lest I become hurt and turn my back and leave this beloved character in the past to exist only with my child self. I was pleasantly surprised, however, by a solidly constructed, evenly-paced, and interesting documentary that, though it did not expose anything per se, managed to shine a light on an often unregarded element of what has made this Muppet so well-known and accessible. I'm speaking, of course, about the human element. The audience is guided through Clash's life, from his life as a child making puppets from the inner lining of his father's trench coat to his apprenticeship under muppet designer Kermit Love, his first meeting with Jim Henson to his big break as the elmo puppet quite literally was tossed onto his lap. Narrated both by its subject and Whoopie Goldberg, the film feels good, looks good, and plays it safe. Clash was raised by loving parents, he had a fortunate string of opportunities presented to him and, even though he is divorced, he is portrayed as a quiet, fun, and loving father. Even though the doc is a little fluffy (and really, who expected it not to be?), it is very difficult finding anything to hate about this one. Being Elmo is a nice, light documentary that is better suited to ABC than it is to a multiplex near you. And while this isn't a bad thing, the film certainly had the potential to take its content even further.
The following three capsule reviews were initially submitted to Hearwax Media. Seeing as We Bleed Movies is a film-centric blog, I have decided to use them here with my other reviews.
Fightville – Petra Epperlein & Michael Tucker (USA)
In Fightville, directors Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker’s documentary that takes a microscope to the world of Mixed Martial Arts fighting, issues of honour and respect overshadow any negative connotations Ontario’s newest sport often receives. Beginning in Lafayette, Louisiana, Epperlein and Tucker (the latter of whom doubles as cinematographer) record the progress of two fighters, their trainer, and a Louisiana MMA promoter as their hard work and commitment thrust them closer toward the major fighting leagues. Though at first this may sound similar to a film such as 1994′s Hoop Dreams (Steve James, Frederick Marx, & Peter Gilbert), where two young basketball hopefuls are followed from high school into university, this ‘ville’ contains a wholly different beast. “How many whiny athletes do you see in every other sport?” Tim Credeur, trainer and Jiu Jitsu fighter asks me in a pre-screening interview. “This is a different type of sport, something respectful that boils you down to the purest form.” As Credeur explains fighting’s primal resonance alongside Dustin Poirier, his protégé and star of the documentary, both explicitly reference the importance of honour. The film takes great lengths to illustrate the appeal of mixed martial arts, the inherent dangers within (of which, compared to boxing, there are few), and fighting’s unique ability to train and create a disciplined and respectful person. Stylishly photographed with moody lighting, amusing title cards, and quick-paced editing, the picture is as entertaining as it is informative. The film sets out to demystify an oft-attacked sport, and this demystification is justified through the eloquence of the subjects, the cohesion of the editing, and the raw beauty of seeing human instinct at its most primal form. This is more than mindless aggression, and every character certainly proves this. “I know you don’t want to hear this,” Credeur warns me, “but we like to listen to a lot of southern rap.” “We actually spar in the movie to ‘Rock Me Amadeus!’” Poirier laughs. And that convinces me. Never judge a book by its cover.
Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold – Morgan Spurlock (USA)
With his 2003 smash hit Super Size Me, Morgan Spurlock ushered in a new form of documentary satire. Just steps behind Michael Moore’s rise to prominence with the Academy Award winning Bowling For Columbine (2001), Spurlock too made a name for himself by featuring himself in a decisively manipulative satire of globalized commercialism. By committing to the ingestion of no less than three McDonald’s meals a day for a month, the success of the picture virtually guaranteed that the first letter of his first name would forever be designed with golden arches. Taking cue from this bondage to the multinationalism he tried to demystify and expose, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is Spurlock’s shift from biting satire into satirical reflexivity. The premise is simple: Spurlock hopes to make a film entirely funded by corporate sponsorship, and in the process of accruing these connections he will reveal the latent consumer ideology just below (and sometimes blatantly above) the surface of every message. It’s a zany concept, but it works. Exploring the world of branding and product placement by reaching out to a cast of very real characters in a very tongue-in-cheek way, Spurlock creates a meta-documentary about the creation of a documentary. His characteristic humour abounds (Noam Chomsky and Ralph Nader prove that they have perfect comedic timing), and there is much factual information to contemplate and savour. Utilizing traditions (or clichés) inherent in television advertisements and broadcast media, Spurlock has managed to create the funniest, most entertaining, and certainly eye-opening exposé of an industry since he broke apart McDonald’s’ arches eight years ago. It’s a surreal experience, but reality hits hard when, just outside the theater doors, beautiful women are handing you 100% pomegranate juice.
The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 – Göran Hugo Olsson (Sweden)
The Black Power Mixtape, with the exception of some opening shots of an old device used to edit film, is entirely comprised of footage shot by Swedish journalists during the Black Power movement in the United States. Akin to the documentaries shot by Canadian National Film Board mainstays like Arthur Elton and Tanya Ballantyne, the footage rests a speculative eye on the lives of African Americans, revolutionary or otherwise, and attempts to understand the boiling distress surrounding Civil Rights, equal opportunities, and the war in Vietnam. Juxtaposing footage of radicals such as Stokely Carmichael, Bobby Seale (of the Black Panther party), and Angela Davis with contemporary voiceover commentary by Talib Kwali, an older Davis, and a number of other poets, actors, and individuals who lived through the experience. The film is well paced, absorbing, and somber. The footage is radiant and crystal clear, a marvel in archiving that has allowed audiences over to learn from their past. Though the film is decidedly bleak, it does hold its virtues in positive change for a better tomorrow. While the film is not particularly outstanding in its field, it is enlightening, and that is more than one could ask for in a documentary picture.