Hot Docs 2009: Part V

The films reviewed here are:

  • The Cove
  • Graphic Sexual Horror
  • End of the Line
  • Sergio
  • We Live in Public
  • The Yes Men Fix the World

The Cove, directed by Louie Psihoyos

The Cove shows what can happen when activists are funded on the same level as the interests they seek to oppose.  This film has all the earmarks of a high-tech research/spy mission, but in the service of an environmental cause.

Ever since the TV series Flipper, those ever so cute trained dolphins have been the mainstay of water parks all over the world.  Come an pet the dolphins!  Watch them do clever tricks!  But where do these dolphins come from, and what happens to those that don’t make it through the casting call?

Taiji, Japan, is the world centre for dolphin capture, but neither the local nor the national government want anyone to know what actually happens there.  Dolphins are herded into a bay by the thousands using underwater noisemakers to frighten them and confuse their sonar.  Once in that bay, the prime animals are selected for park use, but most of the catch is left over.  Where does it go?  The animals are dragged into a nearby cove, out of sight, in preparation for slaughter overnight.

Dolphin meat shows up in stores packaged as if it were from more expensive mammals, and there was even an attempt by Taiji to have dolphin included in the lunch meals for all schools, meals that students are required to eat.  There is one small problem — the animals are toxic thanks to mercury buildup in the food chain — but that didn’t seem to concern people who were only looking for a market.

The Cove includes extended interviews with Richard O’Barry, trainer of the original Flipper dolphins, who now works tirelessly against keeping such animals for show.  He is known to and not well-liked by Japanese security services and by the dolphin industry.  He and other team members put together a scheme to photograph the secret slaughter by installing high-tech monitoring gear — HD cameras disguised in fake rocks — around the cove in the middle of the night.  What they obtain — images of a slaughter that turns the water red — leaves no doubt about what is really going on.

The Oceanic Preservation Society organized a cloak-and-dagger mission to document what is actually happening in Taiji.  Their goal is to raise international pressure and embarrass Japan into stopping the practice.  Whether they will succeed is another matter.  The whaling/fishing industry is heavily subsidized and politically well-connected.  When activists from North America show up to investigate, they are harrassed by the police.  Some in Japan try to portray whaling as a cultural issue and any attempts to block it as an affront to national honour.

Japan manipulates the International Whaling Commission to its own advantage, and is well on its way to wiping out marine life.  Indeed, a water Japanese park in one port that used to have dolphins must now go to Taiji because the local population has disappeared.

This is an important documentary that deserves to be seen as yet another example of the triumph of greed over environmental stewardship.  It will open later this year in Canada.  This film was chosen as the audience favourite for 2009.

Website for The Cove

Graphic Sexual Horror, directed by Anna Lorentzon & Barbara Bell

Disclaimer and warning:  This documentary, one which is unlikely to appear at your local Cineplex, deals with elements of advanced BDSM play that may not be suitable for all audiences.  As someone who is part of the Toronto leather community, I want to see how that life is portrayed whenever a major documentary featuring it comes out.  This is not a film about mainstream BDSM, but about the fantasy world of online pornography, and the corrupting influence of easy money. 

Brent Scott, aka “pd”, had sexual fantasies as a child — Wonder Woman was an early inspiration — and these became more complex as he grew older.  The first outlet was his art, dark images of complex bondage, dark enough that a career as a professor at Carnegie-Mellon was cut short.  At that point, pd discovered the Internet as a venue for making his fantasies real.  His primary fetish lies in reducing subjects (all female) to a state where he controls their physical and pyschological responses.  The Internet allowed pd to build and live in his own fantasy, make money from it and sustain his “art”, but something more took hold.

pd’s participants come to his studio as willing models, some seeking the thrill of very edgy sex/BDSM play.  There is always the premise that they can use a “safeword” to end whatever is happening.  Sounds good — that’s standard protocol for “normal” play — but here the goal was always to push the envelope.  How much further will someone let themselves be tormented because they will earn a bigger fee?  How much is pd’s ego fed by knowing his subjects are always at, if not beyond, the point where they should call a halt?  Things really got out of hand with marathon “live feed” sessions where the fee a model would get depended on the degree to which she, or what was done to her, pleased the audience.

Eventually, pd was shut down using the anti-terrorism laws and pressure on credit card agencies to block commerce to his site.  A casual romp through the Internet will tell anyone that porn and credit cards are living happily together, and that particular effort was singularly unsuccessful.

pb’s fantasy world is one of male tops and female bottoms, and he is not a particularly attractive example of the former.  This may bring criticism of the film, or at least of pb’s work, as female exploitation.  What happens, however, if the sex roles are reversed?  What if the players are same sex?  Audiences need to sort their reaction to the play that they see from sexual stereotypes.  That’s a great topic for a post screening discussion in a cafe or bar.

Graphic Sexual Horror challenges audiences to think just how far they would go if the price were right.  Some sequences and equipment are very hot to look at, some are dauntingly severe, but anyone who has played or fantasized in this area would certainly be tempted.  The issue, as always when safe play is involved, is not how the equipment looks, but how it is used and whether the play is truly consensual.

(For a view of another fantasy environment built by a controlling ego, see We Live in Public later in this set of reviews.)

The film’s website contains further information including background on the cast.

End of the Line, directed by Rupert Murray

Yes, it’s another film about overfishing.  By contrast with The Cove reviewed above, End of the Line features portentious music, and editing that really made me feel I was seeing at best a one hour documentary stretched to feature length.  The Cove had the advantage of targeting a specific problem at one location, and my viewing of End of the Line probably suffered by seeing both films close together.

Anyone who is vaguely aware of environmental issues knows that there is overfishing, but Japan isn’t the only culprit, and I sensed that Rupert Murray preferred to aim at an easy target rather than going after the industry as a whole.  After all, it was the Europeans who fished out much of the Atlantic coast.  We get to see a lot of fish caught by very big ships.  Fish are not as cute as dolphins, but more to the point, the view would be exactly the same if fish were being caught in responsible numbers.  The business end of a cattle or chicken farm isn’t very pretty either, and I don’t think the filmmakers made enough of a distinction between catching thousands of fish, and catching fish that should have stayed in the ocean.

There is a lot of generalization here, and it’s not always consistent.  To the question “what can we do”, the answer seems to be, variously, stop eating fish or buy your fish from a sustainable source.  The problem is that we have no control over the huge world population who depend on fish as a primary food source, and who will be lucky to get any fish, raised and caught sustainably or not.  The industry is dominated by governments and corporations who don’t care, and they are powerful enough that even an environmentally responsible nation is not going to get into a major diplomatic spat, let alone go to war, over fish.

There are ocean reserves where fish thrive, but these are less than .7 percent of the world’s ocean.  Species can make a comeback on a small scale, but this won’t feed the planet.  In a worst case scenario, there will be few fish left to catch in 40 years, and the point of no return is maybe 20 years away.  This is a major world issue, and better documentation of which countries are responsible, which species, what are their timetables and where will the effects hit first as fish stocks disappear would have been welcome.

Sergio, directed by Greg Barker

Sergio Viera de Mello was a great man, a diplomat born in Brazil who dedicated his life to the United Nations.  Had Greg Barker simply made a loving biography, Sergio would have been a mildly interesting film about a sad casualty of the Iraq occupation.  Instead, Barker, a veteran documentary filmmaker, tells us not just about the man and those around him, but of the heroic attempt to save him from the ruins of his bombed UN office in Baghdad.  The mixture of history, rescue drama, personal admiration and friendship made Sergio one of my favourites in Hotdocs.

Sergio (known to everyone by his first name) was born into a diplomatic family and studied at the Sorbonne during the period of political unrest in late 1960s France.  At the UN, his career moved from one difficult situation to another.  Sergio gained a reputation as someone who actually listened to both sides and tried to forge agreement based on what local groups wanted and could accept.  In Cambodia, he was the first to meet directly with the Khmer Rouge; in East Timor, he was for a time the de facto head of the government but always with the agreement and co-operation of the local population and their leaders.  By his mid-50s, he was planning to remarry and retire, but he could not refuse a mission to Baghdad as Special Envoy of the Secretary General during the early days of the US occupation.

Barker mixes historical footage of Sergio’s life with interviews of friends, co-workers and fiancée.  The admiration, love and loss come through these interviews without being maudlin.  I was drawn into their tragedy without feeling manipulated or put off by soap opera masquerading as documentary.

The heart of Sergio  lies in a dramatised recreation of the attempt to rescue Sergio and Gil Loescher who were burried in the rubble of the collapsed Canal Hotel where the UN had its offices.  Two soldiers, Bill von Zehle and Andre Valentine, worked for hours in a dangerous space between two floor slabs trying to extricate the men.  Both are firefighters and paramedics in their civilian lives, and Barker contrasts their expertise with the chaos of the US occupying forces who had not prepared for the possibility of a major attack.  Meanwhile, the utterly ineffectual Paul Bremer, head of the US mission in Baghdad at the time, stands around the bomb site, a personification of the naïve, unprepared government of occupation.

Both men acted in the recreation, and their description of the events shows both their own bravery and the drama, and ultimate tragedy of the two trapped men.  Loescher could only be extracted with a double leg amputation, while Sergio died in the ruins.  Right to the end, he was more concerned with the safety and survival of those in his mission than with himself.

On August 19, 2003, the world lost one of its best on-the-ground diplomats, a man sent to handle the most complex of disputes and humanitarian tragedies.  That date is now marked as World Humanitarian Day by the UN.

Sergio will screen later this year on HBO.  It was inspired by Samantha Power’s biography Chasing the Flame:  Sergio Viera de Mello and the Fight to Save the World.

We Live in Public, directed by Ondi Timoner

Josh Harris started life as a technology marketer, but quickly became internet nerd/guru before the net really existed.  He understood the future of an online society and, at the height of the frenzy, created, a site that hosted multiple web-only TV channels, chat rooms, advertising and online shopping bundled all as a package.  Josh wasn’t the most well-adjusted person socially, and he almost lived “in” the net as an alternative reality.

As a boy, Harris’ father was absent, and his mother left him watching TV as a babysitter.  From this came a fetish for Gilligan’s Island.  I am not kidding.  This makes perfect sense for someone who wants to escape to a simple, warm, bright, happy place.  As an adult, an alter-ego, Luvvy the Clown, was much darker, a desperate call for help that, instead, simply put off associates and investors.  Josh was pushed out the door with a handsome payout.

With that money, Josh Harris created “Quiet: We Live in Public”, a place that was certainly public but definitely not quiet.  This was an experiment in online living — a bunker, the basement of an old New York building where everyone lived in small pods, free food, drink and drugs, and video everywhere.  Residents could tune into any channel to see what was happening elsewhere in their little town.

In December 1999, Harris recruited people to live in “Quiet” for a month, but wasn’t content to sit back and watch.  Harris had an ant colony and he wanted to see what would happen if he disturbed it.  Pod locations were reassigned without notice.  Residents were subjected to prying interrogations that brought out their inner secrets.  Everything was in public and on tape.  This was a totalitarian fantasy masquerading as a behavioural experiment passed off as art.  On January 1, 2000, the police and fire department closed down “Quiet” for numerous code violations.  They thought it was a Millenium Doomsday Cult.  A cult, yes, but a different sort of doomsday.

Director Ondi Timoner was one of the residents at Quiet, and she was paid by Harris to document his social experiments.  This gave her access to thousands of hours of recorded material from Quiet and from Josh’s next project, “We Live in Public”.

To everyone’s amazement, Josh Harris found a girlfriend, and they moved into a home together.  It’s an odd sort of place.  Not many windows, but video everywhere.  Josh set up a web channel where viewers could see whatever they were doing 7×24 and even interact by sending in comments.  He literally gave up his life to the web, and found that he didn’t like it one bit.  Being the lab rat is much different from owning the cage.  The couple became estranged often performing and competing for their online audience rather than concentrating on each other.

Josh moved to a farm, yes, with real apples on real trees, a rural Gilligan’s Island, and then to Ethiopia to escape his creditors. 

I could not help comparing the situation here to the porn doc Graphic Sexual Horror reviewed above.  Which group gave up more control?  How much interference in their lives would Quiet inmates put up with to be part of that community, to feel wanted?  What will people do for money, fleeting fame and supposed friendship?

Ondi Timoner concludes with a look at the world of social networking, of the widely linked information about users of shopping sites, of the huge databases to which we all happily contribute every time we do anything online.  She leaves us with two questions:  will the databases be a force for evil, for social control, and will the online world become a separate, damaging reality?  If I have anything to quibble about here, it is that Timoner does not distinguish between the two.  Whether Josh Harris’ dystopian fantasy will take over the world remains to be seen.

We Live in Public won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Festival.

The Yes Men Fix the World, directed by Andy Bichlbaum, Mike Bonanno & Kurt Engfehr

When we last saw The Yes Men in Toronto, they were here for their 2004 debut movie The Yes Men where, among other things, they fobbed themselves off as reps for the World Trade Organization and proposed a novel recycling method for Big Macs.  Their organization lures unsuspecting media and business organizations through fake websites, sitting back until someone mistakes them for the real thing, invites them to comment on world affairs or even present at a conference.  Their aim is to expose and embarrass those who profit irresponsibly from society.

The stunts this time around have upped the ante both for daring and, in one case, bad taste.  You can read about these on their website, but here’s a brief list:

  • Dow Chemical announces a full payout for the victims of the Bhopal disaster caused by Union Carbide (a firm now owned by Dow)
  • Exxon and the National Petroleum Council announce “Vivoleum”, a product made from deceased humans, the victims of global warming
  • Haliburton Corporation creates the “Survivaball”, a device to protect its wearer from any sort of disaster; some development funding required
  • Housing and Urban Development (USA) announces that housing blocks closed since Hurricane Katrina will be renovated rather than demolished for replacement with new, more expensive dwellings
  • A New York Times edition announces an end to US war overseas and many other long-hoped-for news in a special issue dated July 4, 2009.  The news as it should be.

While The Yes Men can be a barrel of laughs at times, I found their second outing to be less satisfying than the first.  Maybe it was the problem of topping a hilarious debut, maybe after eight years of George Bush, the laugh is on us, or at least those societies who supported Bush and his ilk.  Fun, but darker.  You won’t fall off your chair laughing quite so often.

One thought on “Hot Docs 2009: Part V

  1. Thanks for these interesting reviews, Steve.

    Re Sergio:
    The man was clearly an egotist but also a talented peacemaker who, as you suggest, wanted to bring out the best in both sides. But that isn’t always possible. I understand there are doubts about his role in Kosovo (the culmination of NATO’s splintering of Yugoslavia). And I found the portrayal of his role in East Timor too imbued with celebrity worship, given that the real hero (Xanana Gusmao, ET’s Nelson Mandela, who I think spent more than a decade behind bars for persistently opposing Indonesia’s brutal occupation) is barely named and is treated as a visual sidekick. Also, Sergio’s administration was probably more successful to Western eyes than East Timorese, as Australia illegitimately got some off-shore oil concessions and Indonesian paramilitaries slaughtered hundreds of people depending on UN/Australian troops for security.

    In the doc, Sergio is taking over a UN mission that is clearly providing cover for an illegal and disastrous U.S. invasion and occupation. I felt the filmmaker gave short shrift to this all-important context, implicitly riding Sergio’s charismatic coattails on his quixotic attempt to pull off a miracle. The film notes that he was going to issue a major statement critical of the U.S. & Bremer, but minimizes its suppression.

    That said, the drama of the failed rescue is depicted effectively and movingly. And if we take it as a microcosm of the occupation, revealingly. Though the bomb went off directly under Sergio’s office at the UN mission (not U.S. as you state), the U.S. military responsible for its security and thus rescue apparently never wondered why the boss hadn’t walked out of the rubble. So equipment and rescuers were never supplied where they were most needed — just a few metres from where the odious Paul Bremer was standing.

    So it was left, as you say, to two valiant U.S. soldiers/firefighters trying to rescue their government’s failure virtually on their own (using a woman’s purse with curtain string!). Perhaps it was only fitting that one of them was such a nutbar Christian (probably fundamentalist, though I don’t think it was stated) that he tried to impose his narrow religion on Sergio pinned by fallen walls. And fitting that Sergio, even near his end and dependent on these Americans, defended his own beliefs and integrity.

    Lessons from this film might usefully be applied to Afghanistan, I think.

    Steve: Sorry about the reference to a “US” mission. That’s a typo, and I will fix it in the review.


Comments are closed.