The Documentary Blog’s Hot Docs 2009 Recap

It might be a week late, but I finally managed to sit down and write an overview of some of the films I caught at last weeks Hot Docs film festival. Last year I was lucky enough to catch The English Surgeon and Man on Wire among other great films, and this year there were definitely some gems in the mix. Here’s a quick overview of some of the films I saw:

SWEETY. THE FRIENDS, BETRAYAL AND MURDER OF MAJA BRADARIC
Directed by Menna Laura Meijer
Netherlands

Sweety

Official Hot Docs Synopsis:

A girl is seen from behind … The wind whips her hair around her neck in a silent frenzy of tightening knots … Everything happens behind her back. On November 17, 2003, Maja Bradaric was strangled by three of her friends. She was just 16. Maja’s intimates ask themselves why none of them saw it coming. Gorgeous cinematography sets a sullen, otherworldly mood; the soundtrack speaks for the dead. Sweety innovates by combining actual home video with re-enactments so stylish they feel interchangeably real. Cell phone footage could be archival or artificial-it doesn’t matter. Adolescence is a dream, a fantasy without responsibility. Maja and her friends are typical teens: out of control, grasping, testing, and posturing. But the power dynamic of their clique is less typical. The love/hate turbulence in this peer group is extreme, with frenemies plotting, planning, and concealing a murder. Angie Driscoll.

Beautifully photographed and stylishly told, Sweety manages to recreate the events surrounding the murder of a teenage girl at the hands of three of her best friends. Interviews with the subjects, including one of the suspects, lay out the frame work of the story, giving us a perspective of the events through the eyes of the teenagers. Director Menna Laura Meijer seems clearly influenced by the work of Sophia Coppola – both visually and sonically, making good use of a handful of music tracks found in previous Coppola films — and does a great job capturing the essence of teenage melodrama with sense of sincerity and admiration. The film is as much interested in exploring the inner-workings of teenage social circles as it is the details of this shocking murder.

ASCENSION
Directed by Pavel Medvedev
Russia

Ascension

Official Hot Docs Synopsis:

A surreal, cosmic trip compiled primarily from the previously unseen archives of the Soviet space program, Ascension is a hypnotic montage of remarkable beauty, discovery, and weirdness. Where else can you see early rocket launches, footage of training tests, and experiments and artifacts from a bygone era of space exploration intercut with experimental animation films and archival images of China’s rise from agricultural society to industrial neophyte? Comprised almost entirely of found footage, Ascension paints an alternately amusing, beguiling, and chilling portrait of the things mankind was willing to do to launch into the stratosphere. Compulsory viewing for cinephiles and retro sci-fi geeks.

Fans of old school sci fi and space footage will have their minds blown – in zero gravity, no less — by this pretty amazing collage of stock footage of experiments and space race footage – some previously unseen — assembled by director Pavel Medvedev. Ascension manages to form some sort of loose narrative, aligning its dream-like images into a wonderful tribute to sheer human ingenuity and aspiration. The first 20 minutes or so give us some interesting insight into the use of animals in space – they put Laika the dog to sleep in her capsule in space! Wireless euthanasia! – likely to elicit a wave of “That’s sooo meeeaaannnn!!!!” comments from throughout the audience. On the other hand, the human experiments are both awesome and entertaining, if not for the somewhat primitive methods. Ascension is a great tribute to man’s crazy, stubborn and sometimes cruel ambitions to discover new life and seek out new civilizations.

REPORTER
Directed by Eric Daniel Metzgar
USA

Reporter

Official Hot Docs Synopsis:

The job of the print journalist in this day of media saturation is doubly hard as two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof knows all too well. Kristof, whose writing has drawn international attention to humanitarian atrocities in places like Darfur and China, not only has to negotiate dangerous characters and life-threatening situations in order to accurately report events, but must also ensure his story will galvanize an increasingly jaded reader. Reporter follows Kristof on a trek through the ravaged villages of the Democratic Republic of Congo, a disaster zone where 5.4 million have died in the last decade as a result of unceasing warfare over territory, resources, and tribal hatred. Eric Daniel Metzgar’s account of Kristof’s mission results in a fascinating profile of a driven reporter and a poignant reflection on the state of humanitarianism. Shannon Abel.

There’s a great energy to Eric Daniel Metzgar’s ‘Reporter’. The film puts you right in the middle of the Democratic Republic of Congo, trailing alongside Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof as he searches for the best possible candidates for the worst possible story in the war-torn, genocidal countries he visits. His techniques are at times blunt and seemingly insensitive, but its his insistence to cover only the worst of the worst that makes his articles – and this film – and interesting exploration on what it takes to finally make the jaded readers back home step up and do something about global atrocities. Kristof is completely fearless in his attempts to get to the heart of a story, even if it means setting up a dinner meeting with one of the countries most notorious warlords. The scene plays out wonderfully with a great sense of tension; Kristof and his crew – including two contest winners, a teacher and a student, joining him on his trip – have been instructed to be back to their hotels before night fall. When asked to stay for dinner, they’re faced with the problem of offending their host or driving home after sun set. At any point I was expecting Kristof to kill the mad man with a machete, The Doors blasting on the soundtrack. Reporter is a great mix of ideas and visceral, in-the-moment tension.

THE SOUND OF INSECTS: RECORD OF A MUMMY
Directed by Peter Liechti
Switzerland

The Sound of Insects

Official Hot Docs Synopsis:

A hunter in a remote and idyllic forest stumbles on a make-shift tent fashioned from sheets of plastic and containing the mummified remains of a corpse. A detailed journal found on site reveals the man committed suicide by self-imposed starvation. Who was this man? Why did he kill himself in such a manner? Inspired by this true event and by the novella Until I Am a Mummy by Shimada Masahiko, Insects sensuously evokes the mysterious man’s last days. Director Peter Liechti, known for using experimental and impressionistic elements in his documentaries, layers lush images and sounds from the forest with sudden cacophonous flashes from an anonymous urban setting to draw us into the mummy’s experience. Driving the story is narration-affectingly performed by Canadian filmmaker Peter Mettler-from the mummy’s journal entries. Insects is a hypnotic, mesmerizing affirmation of life from one man’s radical renunciation of it. Shannon Abel.

As much as the story surrounding ‘The Sound of Insects’ had potential, I can’t fully get behind this film. A narrator recites the words found in the journal of a mummified man found inside of a plastic tent in the wetlands. Director Peter Liechti decideds to approach the film as a borderline experimental collage of images, accompanying the writings of the unknown man as read by Canadian filmmaker Peter Mettler. The visuals are interesting enough for the most part, but I just wasn’t as captivated by this story as I thought I would be. The depressing, sometimes poetic but occasionally overwrought writings of this man, intent on starving himself to death, seem to become caught in a cycle. As he waits to die, the audience is shown images of the forest surrounding him and the rain drops on his clear plastic tent, over and over again. The deliberate pacing may perfectly compliment this man’s long and lonely journey, but that doesn’t mean it’s something I necessarily want to watch. I guess this was a case where I would’ve liked a more conventional approach and possibly more perspectives on this mans death, other than his own.

THE YES MEN FIX THE WORLD
Directed by Andy Bichlbaum, Mike Bonanno, Kurt Engfehr
France, UK, USA

The Yes Men Fix the World

Official Hot Docs Synopsis:

In December 2004, BBC World viewers tuned in to receive the surprising but welcome news that Dow Chemical was fully accepting responsibility for the 1984 Bhopal disaster, a toxic gas leak in which 18,000 people were killed. Even better, Dow spokesman ‘Jude Finisterra’ announced a $12-billion aid package for the people of Bhopal. The broadcast was seen by millions. The Yes Men had struck again. Gonzo journalists, media pranksters, Swiftian satirists, the Yes Men are Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno. They pose as corporate spokespersons, make uncanny replicas of company websites, and infamously published a spot-on parody of the New York Times. Among the headlines: “Iraq War Ends” and “Nation Sets Its Sights On Building Sane Economy.” It’s screwball nonfiction with a pointed purpose. Can they find a way to defeat the cult of greed and save civilization from its excesses? Yes, they can. Sean Farnel.

Although The Yes Men Fix the World is equally as entertaining as its predecessor, The Yes Men – Directed by Chris Smith (of American Movie fame) Sarah Price and Dan Ollman – I found its shift in perspective less interesting than the original. In the first film, we were given an objective glimpse at Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno as people, not simply spokesman. In this follow up, we find the subjects of the first film directing, making The Yes Men Fix the World feel more like a Michael Moore style message doc with a political agenda rather than a character piece. I suppose it’s not really a bad thing per se; the information is equally as interesting/scary and the ‘pranks’ are just as entertaining. I just get the same feeling I would if Mike Schank directed a follow up to American Movie; it just seems too self-aware at times. Either way, I still loved the sense of suspense and tension as these guys prepare for their next big television appearance or conference. The Yes Men Fix the World is worth checking out.

MY GREATEST ESCAPE
Directed by Fabienne Godet
France

My Greatest Escape

Official Hot Docs Synopsis:

Former thief and mobster Michel Vaujour always chose freedom over a life behind bars, adventure over a life of submission. He spent 27 years in prison, including 17 in solitary confinement. He succeeded in carrying out amazing escapes-five in total-worthy of a Hollywood script, the most notorious of which involved a firearm made out of soap and a daring helicopter break-out organized by his wife. Vaujour also experienced some of the most challenging conditions the penal system can inflict, an isolation that continuously forced him to confront himself and his demons. The reward has been self-enlightenment and an enviable understanding of life. By turns dramatic, tender, and philosophical, Fabienne Godet’s film is an uplifting and universal story of a remarkable transformation. Vaujour’s greatest escape was not from jail but from himself: the liberation of the mind and ultimately, the soul.

I felt that director Fabienne Godet’s approach to My Greatest Escape sort of missed the mark. Although the films subject is an great speaker and has led a very interesting life, the movie itself was quite unremarkable. I can appreciate the simplicity of presenting an interview in its raw form, allowing the story to speak for itself; Errol Morris did this quite well with his First Person tv series. However, the ‘interview in a kitchen, cut to landscapes shot out of a car window, back to interview in a kitchen, back to landscapes’ routine grew somewhat tiresome after a while. Once Michel Vaujour starts getting into the details of his escape, the audience seemed to perk up (especially the dude in front of me who was quite audibly sighing throughout the entire film, even resorting to pulling out a newspaper). Unfortunately, Godet seemed to think that fetishizing the details of Vaujour’s escape might detract from the story, which I think hurt the film in the long run. This could’ve been as exciting and engaging as Man on Wire, but it’s just not that film. It’s extremely contemplative, to a fault I would say. With a running time of 107 minutes, I would’ve liked a little more variety in the storytelling. Michel Vaujour is an interesting man, but I feel I got to know the interior of his kitchen just as well as his life story.

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