Hot Docs 2009: Part VI

Films reviewed here are:

  • Outrage
  • Ali Shan
  • 65_Redroses
  • Fig Trees
  • Love at the Twilight Motel
  • Statistics
  • Cat Ladies

With this set of reviews, I come to the end of my Hot Docs coverage for 2009.

Outrage, directed by Kirby Dick

Kirby Dick is a documentary maker with a history of taking on difficult subjects both at the individual level (the self-destructive in Sick) and society in general (clerical sex abuse in Twist of Faith).  Here, in Outrage, he tackles the world of gay politicians who court the homophobic right-wingers for electoral support while voting and campaigning against legislation aimed at improving gay rights.  Dick is not gay himself, but feels strongly that anti-gay rhetoric and politics are a destructive force forcing far too many to hide their true sexuality.

Blogger and activist Michael Rogers is the link through much of Outrage in his ongoing quest to expose politicians who vote one way and play another.  His targets included Dan Gurley, National Field Director for the Republican National Committee, and, most recently, Florida Governor Charlie Crist.  Needless to say, most of Rogers’ targets are Republican, a party far too dependent on knuckle-draggers to whom an openly gay politician would be utterly unacceptable.

Some scandals have been bigger than others.  Representative Mark Foley (R. Fla) was forced to resign his seat after online messages between him and a former congressional page were revealed.  Foley is now living openly as a gay man.  Senator Larry Craig (R. Idaho) managed to hide his interests until he was picked up in a washroom at Minneapolis-St. Paul airport.  That sting itself may have been police entrapment, but Craig didn’t fight it opting for a guilty plea to a lesser charge.

Since it opened, Outrage received substantial coverage in the media, and this story is almost as interesting as the film itself.  Some outlets name names in their articles, while others take the safer road and simply mention the thrust of the documentary.  This echoes the reticence of media in general to talk about the private lives of the powerful, even when public statements conflict with private indiscretions.

Dick and Rogers don’t want to expose gays per se, but argue that political hypocrisy must be exposed.  I couldn’t agree more, and bulldozing those particular closet doors is well-deserved.  Having said this, I was less than satisfied with Outrage as a documentary.

Maybe I’ve never expected much of the right-wing who in so many ways talk one line while reserving a different set of standards for their own activities.  Maybe it’s the post-Bush world where I can actually hope for social dialogues to move away from fear and hatred while the USA (and Canada, for that matter) concentrates on rebuilding its economy and political society.  Either way, the film’s attack on Gov. Crist, a would-be Senator and possible Presidential candidate, may raise questions, but doesn’t land a fatal blow.  Crist deserves to be brought down if the allegations are true, but the Republican party has plenty of red-blooded, straight bigots to replace him.  The closet gays may be exposed, but that will only strengthen the hand of those who would deny rights to gays of any party.

Another view of the real sex lives of some Americans can be found in Love at the Twilight Motel reviewed below.

An interview with Kirby Dick is online in Filmmaker Magazine.

Ali Shan, directed by Yung Chang

The title of this short refers to a mountain in Taiwan where there is a particularly spectacular sunrise.  Visitors trek up a hillside to view the sun breaking over the distant mountain.

This started out with a commission for a short TV commercial, but Yung Chang (who is best known for Up the Yangtze)  just couldn’t fit his tale into that format.  The sunrise is spectacular, but the anticipation, the effort of the climb to the outlook change a postcard into tiny story of love for place. 

65_Redroses, directed by Philip Lyall & Nimish Mukerji

A friend of mine refers to certain films as “three hanky movies”.  65_Redroses certainly rates two.

This is the story of three young women with cystic fibrosis.  Each deals with her illness in a different way — acceptance, combat, denial — and each has a different supporting groups of friends and family.  Two are in the USA and one is in Canada, although to the filmmakers’ credit, the difference in the medical systems does not enter into this story.  Lyall and Mukerji concentrate on the people and the struggle with their disease.

Eva Markvoort, 23, lives near Vancouver, and she adapts the online handle 65_Redroses in reaching out to others in the CF community.  They share hopes and frustrations, Eva waiting for the call for a lung transplant, Kina dealing with chronic rejection of her new lungs, and Meg who simply won’t take care of herself.

One day, Eva’s pager goes off, and it’s time for her surgery.  A planned routine outing is turned upside down as she and her family must get to Vancouver General Hospital for a life-saving operation, but it’s not a sure thing.  Recovery does not go well at first, but Eva pulls through.

This is a first feature for the directors who succeed with the drama and hopes of their subjects, and by extension of all who struggle with life-threatening diseases, without manipulating the audience.   There’s enough right there in the lives they are filming, and they have the good sense just to let us watch.

65_Redroses will air on CBC’s The Lens in the fall of 2009.

Fig Trees, directed by John Greyson

Where should I begin?  Fig Trees stands alone in this year’s screenings with its mix of humour, outrage, wordplay, music, fantasy and simple, straight documentary.  It started out as an installation in an Oakville gallery back in 2001, but has evolved to much, much more.

The subject is AIDS and the long fight for access to drugs that would save lives, access not just for the rich, but for people all over the world.  The pharmaceutical companies could make a fortune because AIDS was something “other people”, queers, drug addicts, got in North America.  In South Africa, the madness of HIV-denial by the head of government prevented proper treatment from reaching the population.  If AIDS had been a sickness of the straight, white population, treatment would never have been an issue, but successive governments and the Catholic Church, more inspired by right-wing homophobia than by enlightened concern for an epidemic, pushed AIDS treatment and prevention to the back burner.

Two long-time activists for access to anti-AIDS drugs, Toronto’s Tim McKaskell and South Africa’s Zackie Achmat, show the long campaign each fought.  Stephen Lewis, former UN Special Envoy, launches bitter attacks on the world’s stupidity and delay in addressing the disease.  But this is not just an angry documentary.

It’s an opera.  Yes, an opera, with a special dedication from Greyson at the screening to Zachie who “doesn’t like opera”.  Fragments of Gertrude Stein’s and Virgil Thompson’s Four Saints in Three Acts adapted as the story of Tim and Zackie, appear, along with some of the top 100 anti-AIDS hitlist, music videos with a twist.  The Queen West albino squirrel even makes an appearance as a cherubic presence, the incarnation of St. Martin.

There is play with palindromes (sentences and music that read the same way forwards and back), and with messages hidden inside other texts, messages that change by repeated translation.  Often the screen is split into two or more images, and the rare full-screen appearances are the more striking for this.  For an example, please view the Barcelona Aria on Vimeo.

In the end, there is a message of hope, but hope that came after years of needless battles against greed and ignorance.

This is by far my favourite film for Hot Docs 2009.  It won the Teddy Award for Best Documentary at the Berlin Film Festival.

A long article in Xtra gives more background to the film, its inspiration and structure,

Love at the Twilight Motel [originally Love at the Starlite Motel], directed by Alison Rose

Director Alison Rose was in Florida working on another film when a friend gave her a tour of the motel district in Miami.  These are not tourist havens, but rent-by-the-hour locales for all sorts of trysts.  Noontime trysts.  Men needing a spot to meet prostitutes.  Women looking for a good time.  All the comforts of home with good beds, clean sheets and a private entrance.

Just the sort of place for a documentary about an unseen slice of American life.  What could be simpler?  Leave cards in the rooms saying “Hi!  I’m working for the National Film Board of Canada, and I want to make a film about the people who come to this motel.”  Business disappeared overnight (it took three months to recover), and a different approach was needed.

In time, Rose found her subjects, and they’re a varied lot.  One is a woman just looking for something she doesn’t get at home; one is a drug addict who needs a place to get away; a few are prostitutes with strong, poignant stories of their own backgrounds; one is a man who is on offer to any woman who comes along.

The strength of Love at the Twilight Motel lies in the editing.  A series of talking heads would be oh so dull, and audiences would quickly demand to get most of them off of the screen.  Instead, Rose cuts back and forth, and we come to know each person individually as they open up to her camera.  (The interviews were done in a single session for each person with only the director and cinematographer in the room.)  These are average people from a cross-section of social backgrounds, and amazingly they love to talk.  They are all articulate and, helped by good editing, tell their stories of love and why they’re at the motel.  Some are funny, almost buffoonish, while others reveal a sad history of physical and mental abuse by their families.

The original title used the actual name of the motel, and this was changed to a generic name for distribution.  However, the real motel, neon sign and all, can be found on many websites that have reviewed this film.

There is no release or broadcast date yet, but as an NFB production, it will likely show up sometime in the next season.  Well worth watching when it does.

Statistics, directed by Solweig Melkeraaen

Have you ever wondered about the people who pester you with questions about products you will never buy or politicians you would never dream of voting for?  Statistics takes us to a call centre in Norway and the varied collection of people behind those voices on the phone.

They’re an interesting lot with distinct groupings and histories.  Some are long-term callers.  They’ve worked the phones for years and they know how to pace themselves through the day.  The world will not end if they take a break from incessant calling.  Some are brand new and very nervous.  This is a business with a lot of turnover, and the hiring interview is not exactly challenging.  Some have a love-hate relationship to their work, kvetching about the clients and the atmosphere, but staying late to make sure the day’s calls are finished.

The dynamics are recognizable from many work environments right up to the remote, uncaring proprietor and the ineffectual staff-management relationship.  At the end of the day, everyone goes home or off to the bar.

Statistics is an amusing, short sketch of people who talk to others for a living, but never actually connect.  They call, work through their questions and move on. 

Cat Ladies, directed by Christie Callan-Jones

One of the side-effects of attending a documentary festival is that you see a lot of films about people.  They come in all shapes, sizes and dispositions, and their quirks are usually the subject — how many films have you seen lately about completely normal, whatever that may be, boring people?

In Cat Ladies, we meet four women with many cats ranging from three up to well over one hundred.  Some have lives beyond their cats, although we don’t see much of that.  One has a job, but can’t take a vacation because that would leave her cats without care.  One has retired from a professional life to a full-time job as a cat minder.  Each of them is sad, in her way, but the disappointment for me is that Cat Ladies shows us only the end state.  We have to guess at what brought each woman to build her world around cats.

Lurking in this film is the question of just where the line might be between someone having pets, taking consolation from their presence, and losing the desire or ability to interact with people.  

The title and credit sequences are upbeat with cute, healthy cats that bring chuckles from the audience.  What will follow is darker, a look at women whose cats, to one degree or another, have become their lives.  The trailer (linked through the Hot Docs catalog) is more in keeping with the tone of the film.