hotdocs 2008 (Part 2)

Now that the TTC upheavals are over for a while, here is the second installment in my hotdocs review.  Included here are:

  • The True Meaning of Pictures:  Shelby Lee Adams’ Appalachia
  • La Corona
  • Searching for Sandeep
  • The Last Continent
  • All Together Now

Saturday, April 19

The True Meaning of Pictures:  Shelby Lee Adams’ Appalachia (Jennifer Baichwal, Canada, screened in a retrospective of the director’s work)

If we pick up a coffee table book of photographs or browse a show in a gallery with striking images of people living in the backwoods, most of us look at them with urban eyes.  We see these people as the photographer has chosen to present them.

Are the images real?  Are they staged?  Are they representative?  Do they reinforce our sterotypes of “that sort of people”?

Jennifer Baichwal shows us Shelby Lee Adams, a genteel man who grew up in the hills of Kentucky.  Several of his subjects show, or appear to show, clear signs of the ill effects of inbreeding.  Adams is trusted by these people, and they allow him to pose them for best effect in his striking and sympathetic shots.  Everything he has published was approved by the people in the photographs. 

Are they exploited?  Is their life and surroundings misrepresented?  Are they menacing simply because they are odd and extremely forthright in addressing the camera, wear no makeup and have difficult, weathered faces?

At point, we see pictures of a hog slaughter, and learn that Adams bought the hog expressly so that he could photograph the process.  His answer to critics?  Hogs were slaughtered and butchered like this commonly when he was young, but nowadays the cost of a whole animal is beyond the means of most families.  Adams wanted to document this while there were still people who knew how it was done.  It’s not pretty, but it’s real.

Baichwal gives us an excellent view from both sides of the question, and if anything, the way she has edited the film gives a slight hint that she may be on Adams’ side.  Some critics are well-dressed and excude the air of knowing what’s best for us, the untutored audience.

All the same, by the end, we are left wondering just what constitutes a valid representation of people whose lives we cannot easily judge for ourselves.

After the screening, there was a brisk exchange of opinions in the Q&A with audience members taking both sides of the debate.

The True Meaning of Pictures airs on TVO on Thursday, May 8 at 10:00 pm, and repeats on Monday, May 12 at 1:30 am.

La Corona (The Crown) (Amanda Micheli, Isabel Vega, USA, 2008)

In Columbia, beauty is everything, it’s a national obsession.  With that background, there’s little surprise to find a beauty context in a women’s prison outside of Bogata.  It’s a diversion, a way to relieve stress and for some of the inmates to better their self image and dream of a better life outside the walls.

Each cellblock chooses a representative, and the whole process becomes the focus of the prison for the month leading up to that contest.  The women have all manner of backgrounds, some criminal, some political, and their rivalries lie not just in their home cellblocks, but in the social and racial divisions between them.

Judges for the contest itself come from outside the prison, popular figures from the entertainment world, and the whole event is videoed for broadcast.  The women strut their stuff and the odds-on favourite is sailing along until she runs into an oral question for which she has an empty, politically correct answer, rather than one from the heart.  She comes in second, and is devastated by the event.

Meanwhile, the prison warden is none too happy about all this frivolity in her prison, but the authorities higher up support it, and she winds up as a surrogate mother to all of her inmates, praising the winners and comforting the losers.

Our winner is paroled near the end of the film, and walks away from the prison into an unknown, and as it turned out, short future.  She was murdered less than six months later.  Meanwhile her rival, the runner up, has a four-year contract on a TV show.

Directors Micheli and Vega (who is Columbian) had extraordinary access to the prison, throughout the events leading to the final contest.  Some of this is the luck of being in the right place at the right time, but we see enough of the contestants and their fellow inmates to get a good feel for them as people despite the surroundings.

Like Adams’ film above, an obvious question is whether the beauty contest allows us to see the prison at its best.  Are we seeing life as it is, or a fantasy of what looks good?  Is such a contest the “right” way to encourage women to reform and prepare for the outside world?  Do we look at the events through North American eyes where beauty contests are seen as exploitation?

Searching 4 Sandeep (Poppy Stockell, Australia, 2007)

Long distance romances have their problems, but all the moreso when that’s how the would-be friends and lovers start out.  This is the age of the Internet, and your true love may be on the other side of the planet.

Poppy (both the director and one of two main characters) is on the rebound from her last affair with another woman.  She says “I’m gonna get with the times and try this Internet thing”, and goes trolling for just the right girl.  She’s a documentary filmmaker who has no trouble talking about her own experiences and feelings, and so begins her film.

We don’t see much of the process, but it doesn’t take long for her to find Sandeep Virda, a lovely lesbian living in the English Midlands.  They burn up a lot of internet time, text message traffic and phone conversations, both are middle class, but Poppy is very out, and Sandeep is very much in the closet.  Her family, at least her parents and brother would be outraged to think she was gay.

How to meet?  How to find out whether this is just a long-distance infatuation, or the real thing?  A holiday in Bankok, of course.  After finding each other in the airport (and with a friend of Poppy’s as camera), they start to meet each  other for real.  The friend is dispatched back to Sydney in a few days.

Oh yes, I almost forgot to mention.  Sandeep agrees to film from her end before they even meet and we get a sense of her personal and family dynamics before she even leaves England.  “Hi.  I’m a hot filmmaker from Sydney, and I want you to be my girlfriend, and I want you to film it all, ok?”  A rare, and possibly a bit naive woman, our Sandeep.

The vacation in Bankok must end, and the now-lovers part wondering how they will ever survive on their own.  Fear not.  Poppy moves to London, and in time Sandeep moves in with her.  By now, we know her sisters are supportive, and her mother’s coming around to accept the situation, but we never meet the male members of Sandeep’s family. 

At the Q&A, we learned that they are still together and moving to Australia.

This is a funny, well put together doc, but its premise is rather fantastical, almost an update of some unlikely Victorian romance where the ideal couple find themselves together despite the best efforts of society and parents.  Like a good Victorian romance, the protagonists don’t seem to lack the means to their end.  Yes, I work in IT and I know that the Internet exists, but it’s hard to believe this is a real story.

The Last Continent (Jean Lemire, Canada)

Jean Lemire is known for The White Planet, a journey to the arctic, and now he turns his camera on Antarctica.  This expedition, by a crew from Quebec, has many goals — document the Antarctic winter, show the effects of global warming, and evaluate the psychological problems of a small group living together for an extended period. 

The Last Continent concentrates on the personal stories, but the effects of global warming are impossible to miss.  The weather is far too warm.  Plans to lock in the boat with an ice pack fall apart when the ice never forms.  When a storm comes up, the boat, anchored in a bay where it should have been frozen in place, must be moved during the storm to open water and then to a more sheltered location. 

Finally the ice forms, but it has taken a long time.  This affects not only the crew, but the animals who depend on the ice as a platform for mating and reproduction.  Much of the nature film was shot for the program The Nature of Things, but we get a good taste of it here.

This is a beautiful film, but it’s about 30 minutes too long.  An extended sequence with a mother seal and its pup, birthed on the icepack but abandoned to die, is just maudlin, even though after the requisite two-hanky sobbing, the mother returns, we have lost the environmental arc of the film.

Opens commercially in May 2008.

All Together Now (Adrian Wills, Canada)

Yes, it’s another “making of” Cirque du Soleil film.  This time, the music is by none other than the Beatles, and the show is a new Cirque spectacular staged for a purpose-built theatre in Las Vegas.  This is a long way from hte blue and yellow bigtop.

The music is wonderful, what we get of it, because the tracks are all remixed and presented in glorious digital sound, in my case on the not too shabby system at the Bloor Cinema.  The show behind the sound, however, is another matter.  It’s as much dance musical as cirque, and I can’t help wondering how much the audiences will leave more thrilled by the music than what’s on stage.

The remix is done by George Martin who produced all of the Beatles records and knows all of the available tracks intimately.  His son, Gabriel, sat in on the process and, speaking at the Q&A after the screening, said how pleased he was do undertake such an important project with his dad.

There’s a nice collection of archival footage to pad out the material.

We have the usual Cirque “making of” crisis on the creative side where nothing seems to be coming together, but at least we are spared the angst of performers wondering whether they are in or out of the show.  That special torture is reserved for the creative team who must get past two very protective widows and, later, Sir Paul.  Ringo is a breeze because he’s a big Cirque fan.  We never actually see the whole show, but the opening gets a standing ovation from the invited crowd.  You would expect anything else?

In the end, All Together Now strikes me as a good film about an indifferent product, but the DVD should sell like hotcackes after the show in Vegas.