hotdocs 2008 (part 3)

Included in this set of reviews:

  • Head Wind
  • Beyond Our Ken
  • White Vans
  • Carts of Darkness
  • Triage
  • Man on Wire

Monday. April 21

Head Wind (Mohammed Rasoulof, Iran)

Iran is a country full of contradictions.  Despite government attempts to control society and censor what people see, hear and read, there is a thriving industry in videos and satellite dishes.  They are everywhere.

A video repairman drives off to visit rural herdsmen.  Dishes are in small towns and major cities.  Police only have the right to inspect public areas, and routinely visit roofs of apartment blocks.  As quickly as they leave with the equipment, it is replaced.

A video dubber has every movie imaginable, but he makes a point of editing out the naughty bits and reclothing the women to suit local sensibilities.  At least in the officially available versions of his films.  We even see films being dubbed into Farsi in an amateur studio.

A former journalist now operates a roadside cafe serving newspapers with tea.  He scans the internet for news, always playing games with authorities via proxy sites that spring up faster than they can be blocked.

Throughout Head Wind, I could not help thinking of The Lives of Others, the vast expenditure and waste of totalitarian states enforcing correct political thought and morals, and the constant inventiveness of people to circumvent state control. 

We sense the Iranians’ frustration with the current regime, a hope for better days, and a resignation from long experience to their country’s absurdity. 

Beyond Our Ken (Luke Walker, Melissa Maclean, Australia)

In 1982, Ken Dyers and Jan Hamilton (Ken’s wife) founded an organization called Kenja dedicated to “spiritual enlightenment”.  Luke Walker was, for a time, a member, and this gave him unusually close access to the principals in his documentary.

Kenja is a classic self-help group, a cult for superficially well-adjusted, middle class people who are simply looking for meaning in their lives and a sense that they can be better.  It extracts large sums of money for the group’s activities, and members are encouraged to leave behind those friends and family who are outside the group.  If this were just a case of “a fool and his money are soon parted”, there wouldn’t be much of a documentary beyond proving the gullibility of many who should know better.

However, as we learn more about Kenja, we find that some members who didn’t fit suffered serious psychological damage for their “failure” and from direct attack on their worth by the organizers.  Such people also served as object lessons — fail to toe the line and we, your new family, will shun you leaving you with no friends or self-confidence. 

Ex-members were the hardest to contact, but in time, they started to talk and darker tales came out of sexual “consultations” where nudity and more between members and Ken Dyers would occur.  Dyers was charged, but most of the cases failed on evidence, and one conviction was thrown out because of inappropriate instructions to the jury.

In an astounding sequence, Ken Dyers completely loses control on camera and rants about charges he sexually interfered with people.  His rant covers many topics including the decline and fall of Australian society as he sees it.  Throughout this, we see a young Kenja member, clearly an acolyte, part of his trusted circle, who is in thrall to her father figure.  Nothing else needs to be said. 

Only when a later case, involving the daughter of a long term Kenja couple, came to light, did the true extent of the problem surface and Dyers was arrested again.  He committed suicide in jail before the case came to trial.

Kenja is still in operation, and a representative was handing out literature in the lineup before the film.

So Where’s The Transit Story You Ask

Those of you who have been reading probably are wondering what all this has to do with transportation, my normal topic.  Fear not — here is a marvellous double bill about bicycles and shopping carts.

White Vans (Aren Hansen, Canada, 2007)

As a young lad, Aren Hansen’s bike was stolen.  Someone saw it loaded into a white van, and ever since, Hansen has dreamed of getting even for that first great loss of his childhood.

White Vans is a short fantasia on bike theft.  Part is a nightmare vision — uncaring vandals who troll the streets for unguarded bikes, throw them mercilessly into the back of waiting vans, and spirit them off to a chop shop where the parts are worth more than whole bikes.  These men do not care about bicycles, only money.

What could he do if he caught them?  The only way to know is to stake out a high crime area, plant a bike that looks good but doesn’t cost much, and wait.  The bike is rigged so that it can’t just be driven away (no deterent to the white van men, but at least to someone on foot),  and the director sits in a grungy hotel across the street waiting … and waiting.

Eventually, at 3 am, someone comes by and ties to take the bike, but he’s no organized theif with a van, he’s one of Vancouver’s many street people.  After fruitless attempts to ride it, he tosses the nobbled bike away.  This is not the scene Hansen hoped for — retribution swooping down on hardened criminals, and the optics of a middle class guy pulling a sting on a street person leave a lot to be desired.

At the end of the film, Hansen’s bike (the real one) is stolen again, and the thief leaves in its place a blue woman’s bike.  Assuming that it was stolen too, Hansen puts up ads and a website searching for the owner, but so far, there are no takers.

A great short film, and a wonderful setup to the feature that followed.

Carts of Darkness (Murray Siple, Canada)

Murray Siple lives in North Vancouver and, until ten years ago, was an avid snow boarder and filmmaker.  Then a car accident rendered him quadriplegic and he has only limited use of his arms.

Over three years, Siple befriended a group of bottle pickers in North Van, men who lived rough, but supported themselves by collecting anything that has a deposit on it from the garbage of people who couldn’t be bothered taking it to the recycling depot.  Their vehicle of choice is a shopping cart, and when they are not collecting bottles, they are racing down the city’s steep hills.

Not all shopping carts are created equal.  Some have lousy wheels.  Some have key-and-deposit locks right in the middle of the handlebar where they press into the guts of cart riders.  But carts from Safeway are just right!

Racing shopping carts on steep hills is not for the faint of heart as speeds can reach 60 km/h with the only brake being the sole of a rider’s (preferably new) running shoe. 

What really makes Carts of Darkness a great doc is that we see three separate stories all interwoven.  There’s the bottle pickers as people we meet, warts and all, really a decent bunch even if they’re living on the margins of society.  There’s the search for an ever bigger hill to race carts down.  Finally, there’s Murray Siple himself who, through this film, comes to grips with his condition.

At the end, although it took six weeks to talk him into it, Murray is riding in a cart driven by “Big Al”, the best of the racers and getting the same thrills he had years ago flying down the hills.

Tuesday, April 22

Triage:  Dr. James Orbinski”s Humanitarian Dilemma (Patrick Reed, Canada)

James Orbinski was a volunteer with, and later head of, Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders).  He served in major theatres of war and crisis, notably Rwanda and Somalia, and now is working on low cost AIDS drug delivery in Africa.  He accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of MSF.

Patrick Reed worked as a camerman with producer Peter Raymont on Shake Hands With the Devil, and Triage mines a lot of the same territory.

This will sound curmudgeonly.  Maybe I am suffering “disaster fatigue”, but I couldn’t help feeling this film was not up to scratch.  We spend far too much time with talking heads, including a few in Canada who tell us how wonder Orbinski is, rather than on the general problems of Africa and the world’s willful ignorance. 

Meanwhile it’s a nice ad for Orbinski’s recently published book.

I don’t want to underrate the horrors of the genocides in Africa, and the difficulty of deciding who, out of a crowd of sick and injured will be treated and who can only be left as comfortably as possible to die.  The violence is not news, sad and disgusting though it may be.

Triage is too much a hagiography, too little a documentary.

Wednesday, April 23

Man on Wire (James Marsh, UK, 2007)

Philippe Petit astounded everyone on August 7, 1974, when he crossed between the roofs of the World Trade Center towers on a high wire.  Man on Wire is a fascinating, at times breathtaking, bio of Petit and an hommage to the lost towers.

James Marsh set out to document not just Petit’s feat in New York, but his life’s background as a wire walker and the company of friends and co-conspirators who assisted in his “coups”.  Marsh also shows us a simpler time, as he said at the Q&A, when the towers were going up rather than coming down.  Watching the archival footage of their construction, we see the pit and foundation not as an international site of mourning, but as the beginning of a great project in a great city.  We know what will come, and this gives a poignancy to the images.

Petit was fascinated with climbing as a child and taught himself wire walking at a young age.  Photos and movies of his early years show a combination of possession and absolute concentration as he effortlessly walks with or without a balance bar.  His friends and admirerers, including a long suffering girlfriend, shy but utterly devoted, help as his stunts move from practice at a country house to street theatre to his first great coup:  Notre Dame in Paris.  One morning, the city awakes to find Philippe walking back and forth between the two turrets of the cathedral.  Another coup takes us to Sydney, Australia where he stages a walk between the towers of the Harbour Bridge.

Interleaved with historical footage and stills, Marsh gives us interviews with Petit’s former collaborators.  These were relationships full of stress, a need for absolute trust, and a strange combination of admiration with the thrill and challenge of pulling off ever bigger walks.

By the time we reach the World Trade Center, Marsh needs to make up for the absence of documentary material on several parts of the event.  For this, he stages quite credible material shot in black and white to look archival, and obviously not shot in the real WTC towers that no longer exist.  Cutting between original stills and movie footage (Petit documented everything he did), interviews and the restaged preparations and building entry, Marsh gives us a seamless feel for being in on one of history’s great capers.

Watching how Petit and his friends obtained building plans, forged identfication and delivery papers to get themselves and their gear into the building, one can’t help thinking of modern-day security issues and how easily, still, one could mount a much less benign “coup”. 

The walk, when it comes, is amazing.  Petit crossed between the towers eight times.  On occasion, he kneels and gives a gesture in salute to his audience just like any circus performer.  On another, he lies down on the wire, flat on his back, gazing up into the sky.  He was on the wire for nearly an hour.  Even the police who arrested him could not help admiring what he had done, and in time he was given a permanent pass to the observation gallery.

Philippe Petit is still alive and still wire walking in France.

James Marsh won both the Jury and Audience awards for Man on Wire at Sundance 2008, and I expect that we will see it in theatres fairly soon.