hotdocs 2008 (Part 1)

In the midst of transit almost-strikes, Regional Plans, TTC meeting agendas and the day to day trivia of my life, comes the hotdocs 2008 festival.  This year, instead of trying to fit in the screenings around work, I have taken the week off.

Documentaries are not the sort of thing that shows up on every street corner (or in every video store) the way that many films from the main festival in September, but you may encounter these here and there on CBC, TVO, PBS or even occasionally a commercial network.

As usual, I will post these reviews/comments in blocks with one or two days’ screenings at a time.

Included in this group are:

  • Chiefs
  • The Chair
  • Air India 182
  • Behind the Glass
  • Daddy Tran: A Life in 3-D

The reviews are in the order I attended the screenings

Friday, April 18

This year, hotdocs is honouring Richard Leacock with a retrospective of his documentaries.  Leacock is respected as a maker of cinema verité “you are there” style documentaries of a form we are quite used to today thanks to small, unobtrusive video equipment, but in an era where cameras and sound gear were not easy to tote around.

Chiefs (Leacock, USA, 1969)

We’re in Honolulu in 1968 at the Police Chiefs’ Convention.  The audience is uniformly filled with white men and the jock image projected by men among men.

A keynote speaker talks about people who thing that anarchy is the way to solve problems and how “we will show them”.  This is the era of the Viet Nam war protests and the Chicago police riot.  Religion as a foundation of social order is taken for granted.

A hardware vendor gives a “boys and their toys” presentation.  Mace was relatively new, and it came in a variety of dispensers each with an appropriate technique.   Want to instill fear in a crowd?  Use a smoke generator (that can also dispense tear gas) that makes a menacing sound and looks like an oversized weapon.

This was a very different time.

The Chair (Robert Drew, Richard Leacock as Cinematographer and Editor, USA, 1962)

Paul Crump was a black man condemned to death by electrocution for a murderer during a bank robbery in Chicago when he was about 20.  When The Chair begins, it’s nine years later, and the execution is days away.  Crump’s lawyer, Don Moore, the most ordinary of people and certainly no Perry Mason, is convinced that he is a reformed man and clemency should be granted.  In this, he is supported by the Warden and many staff of Cook County prison.

To aid in the legal fight, Moore brings in Louis Nizer, a famed trial lawyer and defender of civil rights from New York.  They mount a case at the Parole Board who must recommend to the Governor whether to grant clemency.  That board has one black member, and he is one of the few black faces we see of officialdom in this film.

Although the print we saw was grainy, distressed black and white, it has a style we take for granted today.  Leacock’s camera follows everyone and we see first hand how various participants feel about this landmark case.

The prosecutor, a young, confident lawyer, dwells on the violence of the original crime while the appelants focus on how Crump is a change man.  He is a model of what the prison system is supposed to do — to instill reform, not simply to take vengeance.

Leacock spent a lot of time in Moore’s office as he wrestles with preparations for the case, and later as he awaits the ruling.  His long-suffering office staff give us knowing looks about the combination of dedication and focus on the case, and I couldn’t help hoping there were other lawyers and other cases bringing in money to keep the firm alive while Moore took this work pro bono.

Even though we know the outcome in advance — the first commutation in USA history on the basis of prisoner reform — The Chair still draws us into the events and illuminates the debate about the value of capital punishment.

Air India 182 (Sturla Gunnarsson, Canada, 2008) 

On July 22, 1985, Canada experienced an act of terrorism that was not to be matched until 9/11 and other related events when Air India flight 182 was bombed by Sikh extremists and fell into the Irish Sea.  Nearly 400 people were killed in that attack.

Sturla Gunnarsson has, for years, felt that the victims and their families deserved an account of this event, the investigations and the trial that led to only one conviction — the admitted bomb-maker — but none of his co-conspirators.

Air India 182 is a mixture of re-enactment, interview and archival footage.  Stories of the foul-ups in monitoring the Sikh independence movement by the RCMP and CSIS in the 1980s are heartbreaking, and pressage what we would see years later in the events leading up to 9/11.

The plot itself was straightforward.  Place bombs in checked luggage that is through-booked to a connecting Air India flight.  We see how getting planes into the air was more important than security checks, how bags were scanned with “sniffer” wands that were known to be useless when the X-ray unit at Toronto broke down.  The bomb on flight 182 exploded with the plane in the air, but a second bomb went off in the baggage area of Narita airport leaving behind the forensic evidence needed to link the device to its maker.  Only because flights ran late and the bag was not already in the air was this evidence available.

The story is told out of sequence with the events of the day running parallel to historical footage and interviews.  All threads merge at the explosion and the story then continues linearly.  This structure allows us to see some of the cause-end-effect links between early events and what came later without feeling that the story drags at any point.

Gunnarsson made Air India 182 as a memorial and tribute, and the film contains moving interviews with families, members of the intelligence community, police and emergency workers.  All were deeply touched by these events. 

Speaking at the Q&A, Gunnarsson was outraged that a mass murder like this on Canadian soil of “blue eyed blondes” would have been a big, long running story, but it rated barely one news cycle at the time. The tragedy was seen as something foreign, with people who didn’t rate attention.  Prime Minister Mulroney extended sympathies to the government and people of India even though 2/3 of the victims were Canadian citizens.

CBC will screen this film uncut and without commercials on the anniversary of the event this summer.

Behind the Glass (Gabriel Rhodes, USA, 2007)

In this short film, Gabriel Rhodes tells us about projectionists, a vanishing breed in this era of multi-screen cinemas and digital media.  What was once dangerous and physically tiring work (nitrate film stock, hand cranked projectors), the vital last step between the movie makers and the audience, is now reduced more or less to pressing “start” on a DVD player.

We meet two avid projectionists who keep the tradition alive with drive-ins in Baltimore and Chicago.  One leads a hand-to-mouth existence with equipment that always needs repair, while the other has parlayed his business into outdoor exhibitions generally.  We also see a beautiful theatre — the Lowe’s Jersey — under restoration (it is now operating as a cinema and for other events).  This building, so loved by people in Jersey City, reminds us of the treasures we still have in Toronto.

Rhodes took a long time to make a short film partly because is took a diversion into collecting films.

Daddy Tran: A Life in 3-D (Siu Ta, Canada, 2008)

Siu Ta is familiar to some Canadian viewers as a rather aggressive, young lawyer in the CBC series This is Wonderland.  She and her family moved from Viet Nam when she was 7.  She is now pursuing her interest in direction.

Her father-in-law, “Daddy Tran”, his wife and children, arrived in Calgary by way of a transit camp in Hong Kong, and this is a loving portrait of him and his passion for photography.  When they left Hanoi in a leaky boat with a trunk full of photos and cameras, they were unsure if they would get to HK.  One of the cameras paid for the final part of the trip.

After arriving in Canada, Daddy Tran continued his passion for buying cameras, often cutting a big hole in the family’s budget, but eventually opened a classic camera store.  This store was a mecca for camera collectors until it closed in 2006, but meanwhile there would be one new-found passion — 3-D (stereoscopic) photography.  Daddy Tran fell in love with this medium and, of course, started buying cameras.  His subjects ranged from still-life closeups to landscapes to wild animals roaming the mountain roads in western Canada.

Nothing really “happens” in this film, but the film sped by leaving me wishing I could see more. 

The screening was the sort of event that only happens at festivals.  Daddy Tran was showing off his photos in the lobby (I didn’t get to see any as I arrived close to the start of the screening).  When the film started, the aspect ratio was set incorrectly on the projector, and so we started again.  Then, it turned out that the copy at the theatre didn’t have subtitles for the Vietnamese text. 

Siu Ta was aghast.  Her husband rushed off in a cab to retrieve the correct disc from home while she apologized profusely and hoped we would all come to a repeat screening.  The audience would have none of it and said “just give us translations”.  At that point her phone rang.  It was her husband and she said “come back, come back”, and the film proceeded with Ta doing voice overs as necessary.  Big applause at the end, well deserved.