hotdocs 2010 Part I

Yes, readers, it’s that time of the year again when this site veers away from transit (although not completely) and turns to film reviews.

The annual hotdocs festival ran from April 29 to May 9.  Despite competition from concerts, a rather hectic transit/political environment and a birthday party (not mine), I managed to stay in festival mode most of the time.   My reviews will appear over the coming week.

Reviewed here:

  • The Oath
  • Dish: Women, Waitressing & the Art of Service
  • And Everything Is Going Fine
  • Osadné
  • Flawed
  • Small Wonders
  • Matthew Remembered
  • The Player
  • Farewell

The Oath

Directed by Laura Poitras, USA/Yemen, 2010

Winner of the Special Jury Prize, International Feature at hotdocs

Laura Poitras is known to documentary watchers for her films Flag Wars (2003) and My Country, My Country (2007). The Oath adds to her coverage of a post 9/11 USA and the anti-terrorist campaigns. This isn’t a story filled with the “bang bang” so typical of much war coverage, but rather a view from a very personal level of two men who are part of that war.

Salim Hamdan spent many years at the US prison at Guantanamo Bay as a suspected terrorist. In fact, his work was to be Osama bin Laden’s driver. We meet Hamdan only through his letters, and we know that he spent years in solitary confinement.

Hamdan’s legal team fought hard to overturn charges against him, and succeeded in getting a Supreme Court ruling against actions of the US government. Congress promptly passed a new law to subvert the court’s decision, and Hamdan was charged with offences that did not exist when he was first interned.

Well into the film, we learn that Hamdan may have provided intelligence to the USA. Although he has now been released and reunited with his family in Yemen, he would not agree to be filmed for this documentary.

Abu Jandal (a nom-de-guerre), is a taxi driver in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital city. In a previous life, he was bin Laden’s bodyguard, and took other roles at a camp in Afghanistan including acting as a combination welcoming committee and security filter for newly arrived recruits. He likes to talk. A lot.

We ride around in his taxi through the streets of Sana’a while he talks about his experiences. We hear him chat with young, would-be jihadists. He has a curious mix of commitment to the cause of driving the USA out of the Muslim world, but fervour for doing so as a military, battlefield victory, not by war on civilians. It turns out that Abu Jandal spent time in a Yemeni prison after the USS Cole attack when many jihadists were rounded up, and he learned of the 9/11 attacks only by hearing news in an address from a nearby mosque.

He was released only after a re-education campaign (and possibly some considerable assistance to US interrogators). Advocating violent acts within Yemen will get him back in jail, and he is careful not to say anything that could be construed the wrong way.

Poignant scenes with Abu Jandal and his son show a different side of his life when he tries to teach the young boy the text of daily prayers. The boy mumbles responses while his father looks on, resigned to the difficulty, and concerned that the lad would rather watch cartoons on TV.

Although The Oath runs a tad long, its strength is that Abu Jandal is an unreliable narrator. How much of what he says is self-serving fiction? How much is a real view into the background of one who was close to bin Laden? Why has he not been assassinated if he left the very organization he swore to support? We are left to decide.

Abu Jandal lives with the tragedy that he recruited his brother-in-law, Salim Hamdan, as a driver. While Abu Jandal drove around in his taxi and gave interviews to journalists, Hamdan languished at Guantanamo. By the film’s end, Abu Jandal sells his taxi to pay debts, and finds he is unemployable. Has justice caught up with him at last?

I suspect that you will see The Oath on PBS sometime in the coming year.

Dish: Women, Waitressing & the Art of Service

Directed by Maya Gallus, Canada, 2010

What makes a good waitress? How do women fit into the restaurant business where men have all the best jobs — owner, manager, maître d’, waiter in high-end restos where the bills are larger and the tips better?

Maya Gallus looks at restaurants through the eyes of women who work there and, in a few cases, run the business and keep the wheels from falling off. The venues are quite an assortment: Toronto’s George Street Diner, Belleville’s Ten Acre Truckstop, Montreal sex restos (pasta with clothes on, beer with clothes off), fine dining at Taillevant in Paris (where even the website shows only male staff), “milk bars” in Tokyo with an assortment of “maids” and “school girls” serving the customers.

We see the ironies of service — good and bad customers, clients and regulars, women and men.  Why do people come to restaurants?  To eat, yes, but in many cases for a familiar face, a home away from home.

A doc about restaurants and waitressing could quickly become repetitive, but Gallus avoids that through clever camera work, editing, music, and a collection of subjects whose stories weave together.  Amazingly, the camera is a “fly on the wall” most of the time, acknowledged neither by the restaurant staff or customers, except when they are being interviewed.  We see through the waitresses’ eyes.

Watch for Dish on TVO this fall.  It’s among my early favourites.

And Everything is Going Fine

Directed by Steven Soderbergh, USA, 2010

Spalding Gray spent his life telling stories, monologues that sometimes rambled but always fascinated.  Much material was drawn from his own life, a life that ended with his suicide in 2004.

I cannot begin to describe Gray’s style, and this is, after all, commentary on a movie about Gray, not Gray himself.

And Everything Is Going Fine is an assembly of interviews, home movies, the staged monologues, all collected with seeming effortlessness into a story of Gray’s life.  Bits of the same episode may be told in comments years apart, and we hear themes echo through Gray’s words.

Gray’s demons are here too.  We learn of his emotional problems, his life behind the mask of the stage raconteur, and we see Gray near the end recovering from a near-fatal car crash in Ireland.  He was still trying to explain life by telling stories.

Soderbergh gives a tribute to Spalding Gray in the best way possible, with one last monologue.


Directed by Marko Škop, Slovakia, 2009

Osadné is a very small farming town on the eastern outskirts of Slovakia and the eastern boundary of the European Union. There are no prospects for young people, and they all move away to jobs elsewhere. The youngest people we meet in Osadné are the priest and his wife, with the local tavernkeeper next in line.

What is a town like this to do? How can it reinvent itself to attract interest from outsiders? How can it preserve its local culture? Might tourism be the answer?

Marko Škop gives us a wistful view of the end of small communities everywhere in three segments within his hour-long film. We begin in Osadné, meet its leaders, including the man who has been mayor for 36 years. The town is in the midst of an election, as if anyone doubted the result. The council doesn’t have much to do, but there is hope that with Slovakia’s membership in the European Union, money might be available. A local hiking trail could attract tourists. A Hall of Sorrows to memorialize the passing town. The mayor and councillors have hopes, but their faces betray a sense of futility.

A local representative from the EU parliament is invited from Brussels, and he arrives to survey the possibilities. Maybe something can be done, but, he says, come to Brussels.

The second segment takes us to the EU capital where the little delegation, including the priest, are wowed by the size of everything and particularly by Belgian beer. They meet an even more senior member of the government, a man who was, in his youth, the first Czechoslovak cosmonaut. His view of the world is at once more urban, and somewhat removed, having literally seen Earth from the outside.

In the final third, we are back in Osadné awaiting the arrival of visitors from Brussels who will come to discuss what might be done. A small statue, doubling as a future tourism information pillar, is erected. The delegation from Brussels does not arrive.

Meanwhile, the priest, whose wife gives birth to their first child, decides that there is no real reason for him to stay in Osadné. His church lives on donations from parishoners he visits regularly for blessings, and this clearly will not sustain his him or his new family.

Škop frames the arrivals and departures from the village elegantly with a long view of the road out of town, always from the same vantage point, but with changing light and seasons. How much of this documentary was filmed in real time, and how much was staged in retrospect, is hard to tell, but the story is well-told. Osadné, for all its charm, will disappear within a generation.


Directed by Andrea Dorfman, Canada, 2010

Most people see themselves as flawed in some way — they are too tall or short, their nose is too big, their ears stick out, they’re on the outside of the social circle.  What happens to a friendship between “misfits” is thrown askew by one of them having a nose job?  What happens when a Toronto artist with a rather large nose falls in love with a plastic surgeon in Halifax?

This short story about acceptance of yourself and of others is told in elegant but simple stop action animation.  A pair of hands at a table.  A box of paints, pens, water, a brush.  The hands take a sheet of paper and sketch a drawing, then colour in the highlights.  All of this is speeded up by omitting frames, or by shooting at a much lower rate than usual.  The view never moves from the table, but the story unfolds sketch by sketch. 

Small Wonders

Directed by Telly Abecassis, Canada, 2010

Old neighbourhoods everywhere have them — those little stores that seem to have been part of the street forever, stores that sell odd stuff, stores that don’t fit the modern corporate style — and then, one day, they vanish.

Telly Abecassis has photographed three stores in Montreal for a decade, and in Small Wonders she introduces the folks who kept these stores alive.

Peter is a watchmaker, a repairman whose small enterprise shares space with a barber shop, has the classic store full of junk.  Well, not junk exectly, but a vast hoard of spare parts for any clock someone might bring in for repairs.  Business isn’t what it once was.  People don’t get their timepieces fixed up any more, they just buy a new one.  Or their “watch” is part of their phone.  Peter’s eyesight is beginning to fail, and the handsome man who once charmed the ladies is himself on the point of divorce from his wife of many years.

Norman runs a photo studio with his assistant John.  This is old school photography.  Soft lighting.  Get the features just right.  Norman lavishes the same effort on a passport photo, his stock in trade between weddings, as he would on a formal portrait.  There’s too much competition from corner stores where anyone can get into the photo-id business.  Customers are not lined up in his waiting room.

Jae-Gil is a Korean immigrant, and she has a spotless hardware store packed with goods.  This is the business she grew up with, and she is proud of her shop.  Big box chains have their own plans, and half a dozen will open near her soon.

I’m lucky to live in a part of Toronto where shops like this still exist, but they’re disappearing, one by one.  The lucky sites at least stay as stores — restaurants, specialty coffee houses, the odd clothing store.  The unlucky ones become bix box drug marts, condos, or parking lots.

The strength of Telly Abecassis’ film is that she has followed all three shops and their proprietors for a decade.  Small Wonders isn’t just a quick run through photos of old neighbourhoods with reminiscences of what was, but a gentle appreciation of the decline of the neighbourhood store, the kind of place people knew about and came to on those odd occasions when they needed something special.

Dear Matthew

Directed by Keith O’Shea, Wales, 2009

In 1999, Matthew was an artist, a troubled young man of 29 who simply walked out of his parents’ home and vanished.  Since that day, his parents searched and hoped for his return.  On holidays and birthdays, they would write cards and well wishes to Matthew, wherever he was, cards that would accumulate in a drawer.  A sign tacked to the front door welcomes Matthew back, if ever he should arrive. 

Matthew’s father, now a widower and in his 60s at least, is a rumpled map with traces of his last meal on his shirt. He lives alone hoping for his son and remembering his wife.  That’s his life, or what’s left of it.  A poignant short story about loss and echoes of the past.

The Player (De Speler)
Directed by John Appel, The Netherlands, 2009
John Appel’s father was in real estate, or at least that’s what he did with his time officially, but his real, secret passion was the lure of winning big, of taking a chance.  Speculate on real estate.  Play the horses.  Drive down the road with your eyes closed.  It’s all about beating the odds.

When he died, the father’s advice to his son was a secret, foolproof way for success at the tables.  Bet.  If you lose, double your bet, then double again.  Eventually, you will win big!  It’s a hopeless scheme, of course, but that was Appel’s legacy. 

We meet a card player who is also a philosopher.  He understands his predicament, but cannot stop himself.  Appel gains access to an Italian casino, but the players are not the glamourous, graciously accented, evening-suit wearing folks one might see in a James Bond movie.  These are ordinary people simply trying to be more than they are, a mixture of hope, desperation, bravado and chest-thumping machismo when the big win happens.

We meet a bookmaker working the track in Belgium where the business is legal and taxes.  His gamble is the odds he offers on the horses, and the chance that a lucky bet could wipe him out.  On the side, he’s a stand-up comic.  The bookie would have worked the track where Appel’s dad bet, but didn’t know him.  Punters are a separate lot.

The most striking of the three is a con artist, a man days from leaving jail soon to get out, a man whose conversation, his “opening up” about his past is part of his rehabilitation.  The man is a complete liar, but we believe him, for a time.  In his cell, there’s an illegal mobile phone.  The con is running a scam from inside the prison, and this will cost three more years on his sentence.  He can’t help himself.  The thrill, the possibility of getting away with his schemes drives him even though outwardly he seems rather ordinary and boring.

There are five stories here, all interwoven — the three gamblers, Appel’s father, and Appel himself trying to find his father through others.  It’s a very good story, but a tad long. 


Directed by Ditteke Mensink, The Netherlands, 2009

In 1929, the Hearst newspaper chain sponsored a round-the-world flight by the Graf Zeppelin, a new airship and the pride of a Germany still emerging from World War I.  Lady Grace Drummond-Hay talked Hearst into sending her as a women’s correspondent on the flight and, in making the journey, she became the first woman to fly around the world.

Complicating her work, her focus on what was happening, was the fact that Hearst also sent a senior correspondent, Karl von Wiegand, on the same trip.  Hay and Wiegand had been lovers, but that had cooled in the months before the Zeppelin set off.

The real treat here is the archival footage of the journey and events of the time.  This is no modern “talking heads” film, but a documentary made entirely of material from the era, much of it shot onboard the Graf Zeppelin itself.  We see the airframe under construction in Friedrichshafen, and then the launch.  The ship, of course, is huge by comparison to the gondola holding the passengers and the wheelhouse.  The captain looks the part of an old salt who would be at home on the high seas, and the image is reinforced by the very naval instrumentation on the bridge.  Navigation by sextant was common, but it looks odd to see this while flying over the North Atlantic!

The narration for Farewell comes from Lady Hay’s diaries and articles, and if I have any complaint, it is that we hear rather more of her anguish over Wiegand than the story of the flight itself.  Yes, it gives a sub-plot, but this threatens to take over.  Just as Wiegand distracted Lady Hay, the story of this pair seems to distract the director, and the film feels over-long even though it’s only 90 minutes.

Farewell says more than a goodbye between that pair.  It was also the end of an era of high living.  The journey passed through Germany and pre-war Berlin, over remote parts of the Soviet Union (insulting Stalin by skipping Moscow which was too far out of the way), Tokyo, over San Francisco to Los Angeles, and then back to New York.  The Graf Zeppelin landed back at Lakehurst Naval Air Station on August 29, 1929.  The stock market crash and the great depression were only weeks away.

Updated:  There are some historical inaccuracies in this film which are discussed on a website devoted to airships.

2 thoughts on “hotdocs 2010 Part I

  1. Perhaps we can draw inspiration from the appearance of other fleets?

    Marseille has a cool design and there are lots of other examples here.

    I find the light coloured vehicles to appear sleek, more streamlined.


  2. Personally, I found Dish underwhelming. We learned waitresses find it annoying when the bring you a water only to be asked for a water for someone else. That they work for their tips. That men can be creepy towards them. I also thought it was a sexist contradiction to laud women working say at a truckstop who waitresed as a career when that’s all they grew up knowing how to do; yet women who chose to work in the Montreal “sexy” restaurant or the Hooters style club were portrayed less sympathetically for choosing to work in such an environment because the money was good.

    I would have been more interested in focusing specifically on the French restaurant with it’s very real glass ceiling for women to become head waiters and maitre d’s. The rather inflammatory statements by some of the male staff about a woman’s abilities would have been worth exploring with more context. (In that same scenario, following the one young male waiter around when he burned his hand on a plate was cheap and playing to the crowd.)

    But that’s just my opinion. I have a friend who is a professional film critic who completely disagrees with me.

    Steve: I had a sense that the film started out with only Canadian content, but didn’t have a broad enough focus, and then schlepped off to Paris and Tokyo. In the process of becoming international, the content became spottier. It’s well edited for what they have, but not a definitive view.


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