Hot Docs 2009: Part I

The annual Hot Docs film festival started Thursday evening (two days ago), although I was off absorbing culture of another flavour (the Tokyo Quartet playing Beethoven) and didn’t attend the Opening Night Gala.  My festival started on Friday, and I made a full day of it.  The number of titles looks daunting, but most were not feature-length.

Reviewed here:

  • Paul Tomkowicz, Street Railway Switchman
  • Corral
  • Nails
  • The Back-Breaking Leaf
  • Nobody Waved Goodbye
  • Paris, 1919
  • Clubland
  • Jackpot

The first two screenings were part of a National Film Board retrospective at Hot Docs in recognition of the NFB’s 70th birthday.  Although some films date back to the 50s, all were presented in new digital prints and sound — we saw them as they were intended, not through the hiss and scratches of an archival copy.  Documentaries viewed at a distance show us not only their own story, but the unintended contrast to “today” and our knowledge of what has happened since the films were made.

Hotlinks from the titles take you to the Hotdocs website page for each film.

Yes, trust me to start off a film festival with a doc involving streetcars.  This was the first in a quartet of NFB films, very much products of their time, looking at ordinary people in various lines of work.  The festival programmers dubbed this their “labour program”.

Paul Tomkowicz, Street Railway Switchman, directed by Norman Kroitor, 1953

Tomkowicz has a simple job on the Winnipeg street railway system.  He sweeps snow, ice and dirt out of track switches and pours in salt to keep them from freezing up.  In his voice-over, he reminisces about his family in Poland (many killed by invading Russians), his summers and his coming retirement due both to age (he is almost 65) and the impending replacement of streetcars by trolley buses.

Corral, directed by Colin Low, 1954

A cowboy ropes a horse, saddles it up for the first time, and rides off across the Alberta landscape.  This is the west as everyone would like to believe it — a man, a horse, the open sky, and guitars on the sound track.  I found this the weakest of the films in this group because it told far more about the romatic imagery of “the west” than it did about the horseman.

Nails, directed by Philip Borsos, 1979

Borsos gives us a contrast in technologies — hand-made nails in a smithy, machine-made nails in an early 20th century factory, and full-scale production from a then-modern plant spitting out uncountable product.  This doc, the only of the four in colour, dwells as much on the sounds and the rhythms of the production mills as it does on the product itself.

By the end, the early machines are rusting in a field, but only we the audience know that Hamilton, Ontario, shown in the 70s, is not the steel town it once was.  The smith making antique nails remains, but only as an artisanal curiosity.

Back-Breaking Leaf , directed by Terrence Macartney-Filgate, 1959

The tobacco industry was the mainstay of farming in southwestern Ontario because the soil isn’t much good for growing anything else.  Every summer, Delhi in Norfolk County hosts migrant workers from Canada and the USA to bring in the tobacco crop.  Some are regulars, old hands at tobacco, while others hope to make good money in a short time.  It’s hard work, and some don’t last more than a day or two.  For the farmers, it’s critical because the picking and curing run on a tight schedule.

The time is the late 1950s, and there’s a labour boom in Canada.  Pickers are hard to get — they must be well paid and well fed for their work.  Most striking, however, is that everyone is white.  The accents are North American and European — one generation of immigrants owning and managing the farms, another generation working as pickers.

Nobody Waved Goodbye, directed by Don Owen, filmed in 1962, released in 1964

This was the first feature-length NFB film, in a way a docudrama, but really a completely invented story.

Peter (Peter Kastner) plays an 18-year old boy living in that idyllic Toronto suburb of Etobicoke when it was all new houses and middle class families, the original suburban dream.  He’s not a model student, and spends his days wandering the city with his girlfriend Julie (Julie Biggs).  We see glimpses of Toronto as it was — the island, a much newer and cleaner Yonge subway, even Charles Street just a block away from the theatre where this was screened.  Peter’s troubles start when he “borrows” his father’s car, actually a demonstrator from the dealership he works at, and is nicked for various traffic infractions on a much-smaller 401 than we know today.  Peter works at a series of odd jobs and then, with another stolen car, tries to run away with Julie.  We know it won’t work, and Peter is going to jail for his troubles.

Don Owen was hired by the NFB in 1961 in the Montreal office, and was sent to Toronto to make a short about parole officers.  Very quickly, that became a docudrama (before the term had really been invented), and the other characters really took over.  The entire film was improvised and shot in sequence.  It had to be — Owen was inventing the story as he went along.  For a documentary, the shooting ratio was immense, probably 20:1, but nobody at the NFB seemed to notice.  Later, they wanted to fire him, but only he knew how to put it all together.  There are continuity problems brought on by the lack of planning, but the story holds together thanks to the skills of the acting company.

Nobody Waved Goodbye was poorly received in Canada, but went on to win awards elsewhere as the beginning of a new wave of realistic cinema.

Paris, 1919, directed by Paul Cowan, based on the book by Margaret MacMillan

After two screenings from the past, I turned to a new film about a 90-year old event, the negotiations leading to the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I.  Cowan weaves re-enacted scenes of world leaders and their unsung armies of supporting staff together with historical footage to tell the story of “peace” negotiations gone horribly wrong, of good intentions mixed with national vendettas and simple greed, that set the stage notonly for World War II but much that followed.

Cowan’s motto in all this is that it is much harder to make peace than to make war, and by extension we are still in a continuation of a century-old history.  The story is familiar.  After five years battling Germany, France is devastated.  President Clémenceau wants nothing less than the economic anhiliation of Germany whose cities remain intact.  British PM Lloyd-George was elected on the promise to wrest a vast sum from Germany even though the economists working on reparations doubt anywhere near that much is available.  US President Wilson frets as much about his League of Nations as a permanent solution to war, and worries that being too harsh on Germany could backfire.  Dozens of other states, peoples and would-be potentates queue up for their pieces of the pie, and many leave badly disappointed if not outright hostile to their treatment.

We are left with a treaty the Germans don’t really accept and sign only for show and to keep their enemies from invading.  The Italian government has already collapsed, and Mussolini is in power.

While the dramatization and the use of both old and new footage makes for a good film technically, I am less convinced of it as a great work.  As a drama, the story is constrained by what Cowan can actually have the principal characters say as so much went on unrecorded.  As history, there’s not much new here, and I was left wanting at least an epilogue in the “where are they now” mode to complete the links through World War II and beyond.

Clubland, directed by Eric Geringas

Toronto’s club district is an ordinary, fairly quiet part of the city, blocks of old offices and warehouses sandwiched between the shops of Queen Street West and the theatre district on King.  Most of the time.  However, on weekends, especially when the weather is good, 50,000 “club kids” descend on the dance clubs in these buildings.  The clubs are noisy (disclaimer:  I have been personally kept awake long into the night when visiting a friend’s apartment nearby), and the crowds spilling onto the streets after last call are a constant problem for the police.

Clubland suffers from one basic problem:  the people we meet are not very nice.  The club owners are out to make money, and all they care about is building the biggest, hottest spaces to extract money from their patrons.  The club kids fall into two main camps.  The guys show up to spend money, to attract the babes by springing for the VIP lounge where booze sells by the bottle at $240 a pop.  The girls show up dressed to pull in the guys.  Conspicuous consumption as a mating dance.  Meaningful relationships are not their goal.  The stereotypes are too obvious, and I couldn’t help wondering what these people do in their “real” lives.

We meet Boris the bouncer, a 30-year veteran of the district, who has seen it all; Adam Vaughan, city councillor, whose consituents want the clubs controlled if not completely shut down; one club owner who is moving into real estate, and another who, oozing sleaze, simply feels he should be able to provide what the market wants.   

The Toronto club district got its start with the idea that dance clubs should be concentrated in a single area, the old garment district west of downtown.  That might have worked when the clubs were smaller, when the local population who might complain had little political power.  What really has power is money — busy clubs in underused buildings are good, but condos are better — and the clubs may vanish into the night.

I couldn’t help feeling I was watching an overly long piece by the local “breaking news” station, itself sitting in the heart of the club district, with overly serious narration and superficial coverage.  We see what is there, or at least the money and the violence, but we don’t learn much about the context of the neighbourhood.

Jackpot, directed by Alan Black

Jackpot followed Clubland on a double bill, and I was warmed to meet the regulars at Delta Bingo, interesting, real people.  This is their “local”, a place to be with friends while nursing a hope they will win big.  They have their quirks, their obsessions (their table, their card dabbers, their lucky charms), but the bingo players are much more sympathetic than the club kids.

In an interview on CBC, I heard producer Michelle Latimer talk about the year-long effort to gain the trust of the regulars.  They played a lot of bingo, they got to know their future subjects, and that paid off on the screen.

I couldn’t help thinking of parallels between the bingo hall and the clubs.  How much do both types of business depend on cheap space in deindustrialized neighbourhoods?  Delta Bingo sits at Old Weston Road and St. Clair on the edge of the former meat packing district on land ripe for development.  This won’t happen overnight, but eventually a bingo hall won’t be the most profitable use for the land.  Where will the hall and its regulars move?

One thought on “Hot Docs 2009: Part I

  1. I believe the actress who played Julie was played by Julie Biggs, not Julie Gibbs. I wonder why it took two years to actually release the movie. One Canadian movie I’d love like hell to see again is The Heat Wave Lasted Four Days. Great movie if I do say so myself. And don’t forget The Luck of Ginger Coffey. Another great flick.

    Steve: Sorry about that. As you can see, I flipped the consonants around. I will correct this in the main post.

    The reason for delay in releasing the film, according to Don Owen who spoke at the screening, was that he had miles of footage, but only he knew how it was all supposed to go together. That was the only thing that saved him from being fired at NFB. After much editing (and this explains some of the continuity problems), there was a finished story and the film could be released.


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