Hot Docs 2009: Part IV

The following films are reviewed here:

  • Colours of Blood
  • Aka Ana
  • My Greatest Escape
  • Old Partner

Colours of Blood, directed by Uli Hesse

This short film by Uli Hesse explores the characters of several odd people she met in bars in North London.  All of them, one way or another have a fetish for blood.  Some are into piercings (including bites from a non-venemous pet snake), some use blood as a sexual turnon, one affects being a vampire.  It’s a quirky subculture, and one that is separate from self-abusers who cut for attention or from desperation.

One amusing goth used to do very fine cuttings with a former boyfriend who was a real expert, but her current partner might think her a bit weird, and so she has given it up.  “Weird” is a relative term.

This is a student work and obviously limited by time and budget, but I would love to have learned more of the back story for each person, about how they found their particular niche.

Aka Ana, directed by Antoine d’Agata

Every so often at a festival, you will run across a film where the program guide’s description is only tenuously linked to the actual work on the screen, and Aka Ana was one of those screenings.  The program describes the film as a depiction of the Japanese sexual underground and sex workers in particular in a non-judgemental way.  The women are in control.

No, they’re not.  Aka Ana is just bad hard-core porn masquerading as art with lots of poorly-lit, sometimes artfully blurry images.  All of the women take a submissive role, some are drug addicts.  A sense of desperation and disconnection from the world leading eventually to a death wish runs through the voice-over text.

Given the description, I could not help but be annoyed to see this material used for voyeurism and not as documentary. d’Agata is a widely published photographer and some of this film, his first feature, might be seen as compositions, as tableaux vivants, when the figures are not thrashing about, but the context destroys our ability to see them as “art”.

A much overrated film.

My Greatest Escape [Ne me liberez pas, je m’en charge], directed by Fabienne Godet

Michel Vaujour began his criminal career with a robbery.  That was 30 years ago and, of course, he was imprisoned.  But not for long.  One prison escape might be considered good luck, but five over the course of long sentences is truly impressive.  Indeed, one particularly daring stunt involved being plucked by helicopter from the roof of a prison in Paris.  While Vaujour was on the loose, there were more robberies, one of which involved a shooting, and Vaujour could have spent the remainder of his life locked up.

As things were, he served 27 years, 17 in solitary.  During his last recapture, Vaujour himself was shot in the head and lost the use of his legs, something he struggled to regain.  That experience gave Vaujour’s outlook a philosophical turn that’s almost amusing to hear in close quarters with tales of his past.

Thanks to a change in French parole laws, Vaujour was able to have 16 years lopped off of his sentence.  Fabienne Godet met Vaujour, who is something of a legendary figure, and conducted long interviews that form the heart of this documentary.  There are flashes of the “old” Michel Vaujour, the kind of man you really don’t want to know unless he’s on your side, mixed with a wistful recollection of his family and his friends, one of whom died during an escape attempt.

Now his focus is on life, something that is too precious to give up, on always moving forward despite what might happen.  Godet referred to the interview as a gift Vaujour gave to her, and in turn from her to the audience.  She gives us a portrait that, if not exactly an inspiration, is a recognition that characters can change and improve, that life will go on if the will is present.

Old Partner, directed by Chung-ryoul Lee

Choi is a Korean farmer, 80 years old, partly deaf and very stubborn.  His long-suffering wife is 76.  Between them is an ox that has toiled on their small farm for over 30 years, and it hasn’t much left to give.

Choi insists on doing everything the old way.  Hand ploughing by ox power.  Hand planting rice.  Hand picking of peppers.  No pesticides (the ox might eat them and die).  At first we might think he is out in the middle of nowhere, but as Old Partner goes along, we see that other modern farms are right next-door and a town not far down the road.

Choi’s hearing is selective.  His wife complains constantly about the ox, about how much better things could be without it, of how her life was ruined because she married the wrong man, and yet there’s clearly a strong link between the couple.  If, among the woe-is-me refrain, she mentions the ox, Choi is suddenly all ears.

Despite a childhood injury thanks to botched accupunture that left him partly lame, Choi does a lot of walking, at least when he’s not riding in the ox cart.

One day, he goes off to market to find a new animal.  People don’t sell work oxen any more and he returns with a cow, one already carrying a calf.  The old ox and the much younger cow regard each other suspiciously, and the cow routinely tries to push the ox away from the feed trough.  There’s poetic justice when her calf, once it’s walking around on its own, prefers the company of the ox to her.

Meanwhile the poor, old ox is still doing all the fieldwork, and continues almost until his death.

This is a delightful story, and the film is now the top-grossing documentary in Korea.  However, I can’t help wondering to what extent we are being manipulated by the filmmaker.  How much of this is documentary and how much is poetic license of good story telling?  The attraction is obvious:  an old couple carrying on a farming style that predates several current generations, a quaint memento of the past.  

I can forgive what may not be “documentary” for a good story.

Old Partner won the HBO Documentary Films Emerging Artist Award.