hotdocs 2010 Part II

Reviewed here:

  • Operacíon Diablo
  • His & Hers
  • Budrus
  • Dreamland
  • 12th & Delaware
  • The Canal Street Madam

The Devil Operation / Operacíon Diablo

Directed by Stephanie Boyd, Canada/Peru, 2010

Canadians tend to think of the mining industry as one of our basic, upstanding pillars of our resource economy, a vital but corporately responsible industry.  Overseas, further from journalists and with the open support of local governments, the industry is not so pretty.

Operacíon Diablo shows us how ruthless things can get in Peru where the industry does more or less what it wants –intimidation of people living on land the mines claim for their own, mining with no regard for pollution or safety.  The title comes from the code name assigned to Father Marco Arana by a security firm for the Yanacocha gold mine.  In an operation worthy of a spy thriller, but with somewhat less sophistication, Father Arana and his associates are followed everywhere.

The strength of this documentary comes from the first-hand footage, some shot by the participants but, amazingly, a trove of video from the very security forces who so ruthlessly protect the mines’ interests.  We see the abduction and torture of activists mixed with the swagger of beer-drinking soldiers.

After the fall of the Fujimori government in Peru, the state security apparatus was dismantled, but it quickly rebuilt into a private security industry.  The government may have changed, but the tactics have not.  Mining is central to Peru’s economy, critical journalists are silenced with bribes and intimidation, and activist networks operate with difficulty.

Despite the industry’s abuse, the Church is wary of Father Arana’s activities and warns him off, to little effect.  In the Q&A after the screening, Father Arana observed that his work is the sort of thing the Church should be known for.  The comment brought warm applause.

Equally telling was the comment from the audience about the tainted profits from mining that allow respected men to buy a place for their family name in academia.

The Devil Operation shows a very dark side of international commerce, one that deserves exposure but rarely gets it.

His & Hers

Directed by Ken Wardrop, Ireland, 2009

Ken Wardrop moves from short films to his first feature with His & Hers, but his love for the short form shapes the style of his first “long” film brilliantly.

The premise is simple.  Take 70 women in the Irish Midlands, one of them Wardrop’s own bother, and make a short film about each capturing a mood, their similarities, their contrasts, and arrange them in order by age.  This could be a total disaster, but we’re in good hands.  From the opening shot, a baby gazing up at the camera — who are you, what is that thing you’re pointing at me, I’m getting bored and my foot is more interesting — to the final view of a 90-year old gazing out the window of an old folks’ home — bored, pensive, disconnected from life — the vignettes have a style, a consistency, links that make them seem like a single film.  We see young girls, adolescents, the discovery of boys, marriage, pregnancy, loss of a partner, feisty independent old age.  In some ways, they are all one.

At Sundance, His & Hers won a well-deserved World Cinematography Award.  Often we are in cramped spaces, inside houses where the rooms could look far too much alike over 80 minutes.  The solution?  Shoot through archways, windows, doors.  Change the aspect ratio.  Give a sense, at times, of a scene overheard.  At times the end of one scene leads imperceptibly to the next without a direct clue.  Early in production, the director and cinematographers decided on a common framing technique and lighting style, choices that simplified continuity in the editing that would tie the scenes together.

This was a low budget film, and Wardrop, shooting on Super 16mm, could only afford 7 minutes of footage with each subject.  There was an ironic chuckle from the audience at the Q&A at the constraints imposed by the vanishing medium of film.  Wardrop wanted his subjects to talk in a relaxed manner, but every time the stories got interesting and he started his (relatively noisy) camera, they might say “oh, you’re shooting now” and lose the thread or change the subject.

Why “His & Hers”? when the only man appears on screen in the background of the last scene?  So much of the story is about another person, the one who is not there.  Partly it’s a marketing decision to make the title sound less like a “woman’s film” and bring in couples.  Sigh.

His & Hers deserves to be seen beyond the limited market of Irish cinema, and I hope it travels across the pond someday.  It ties with Views on Vermeer, itself a collection of shorts, as my favourite of hotdocs 2010.


Directed by Julia Bacha, USA/Palestine/Israel, 2010

The creation of a security barrier around Israel arouses passionate debate and much confrontation in the Middle East. Israelis refer to it as a “fence” while Palestinians call it a “wall”.

The barrier does not follow the “green line”, the unofficial boundary of Palestinian lands, but wanders through Palestinian areas cutting villages off from the agricultural lands around them.  One such village is Budrus.

This film follows Ayed Morrar, local leader and former member of the Hamas administration, as he attempts a non-violent protest against Israeli actions.

Running through the film is the undercurrent of misunderstanding of “the other”.  Israeli and international activists, many with cameras, join the protests, and the army is faced with ongoing documentation of what is happening.  Even on the Palestinian side, there is the divide between Fatah and Hamas.  They co-operated for this project, but only with Morrar’s urging.  For some Palestinians, this is their first meeting with an Israeli who is sympathetic to their cause.

The Israeli side is represented by Doron Spielman, a spokesman for the military, and Yasmine Levy who, at the time, was the border Captain in Budrus.  Spielman gives us the official story that the wall is essential for protection of Israelis.  Levy does her duty with its escalating need to impose control on the villagers, but her troops are clearly uncomfortable with their actions.

Some interview footage was shot after Levy left the army, and her comments have an odd air coming from an attractive woman with makeup and lighting to match.  The contrast to Palestinian women protesting to save their land and olive groves is quite striking, but somewhat artificial. 

I could not help seeing echoes of Operacíon Diablo in the amount of footage shot by participants.  The army would expel one photographer, but another would take their place.  Many scenes of confrontation were assembled from the work of many amateur photographers.

In the end, Isreal backed down and relocated their barrier further from the village, but not after ripping up an olive grove in preparation for construction.  Why was the original design necessary?

Morrar wants to bring non-violent protest to the Palestinian struggle as a standard resistance technique, and couple this with support from sympathetic Israelis.  Although the hope for peaceful dealings at the ending of Budrus may seem naïve, this is a strong film about one village’s small struggle in a much wider war.


Directed by Thorfinnur Gudnason & Andri Snær Magnason, Iceland, 2009

Tiny Iceland has a population of 500k, and a big economic problem.  When the story begins, times are good, but they could be better.  As the world knows now, Iceland’s economy collapsed, and we watch Dreamland wondering how this will colour the outcome.

Development, industry, investment — that’s what the government needed even before the crash.  They advertise to industry that 30 terawatts (yes, TW) of clean power can be had, dirt cheap, and Iceland is open for business.  One of the most power hungry industries is aluminum refining, and that will be Iceland’s future.

There is a small problem.  30 tw is 10 times the total current power demand in the country, and Iceland would have to dam every river it has to generate that much power.  Beautiful valleys would fill with water and ecosystems would be destroyed, but it’s all jobs, jobs, jobs and the environmentalists be damned.

Here Dreamland really loses its focus.  I have actually presented it out of sequence to skip over the rather lengthy setup.  We see many beauty shots of wilderness, waterfalls and wildlife, but little context.  Even a map showing the affected areas related to each sequence would put the landscape in context, but there is a presumption of local knowledge we, a Toronto audience, don’t have.  The portentious and overused music don’t help much either.

A vanishing lifestyle, farming, is a thread through the film, but we never learn whether this is a real environmental issue, or the inevitable loss of the rural, independent farmlife seen in many countries.  Are we seeing the romance of the farm, or a real national threat?

The big story here is the economy.  Iceland seeks to be a company town on a grand scale.  The economy collapsed due to unsustainable lending, all the banks failed, and what prosperity remains may be due to construction, not to the eventual ongoing smelter operations.

The political story is a familiar one.  Industry finds a location on hard times, willing to do anything to restore prosperity.  Chat up the politicians, get them onside, and let them sell their town, their country.

Dreamland suffers from being too full of its sense of mission, too much a film for the already-converted.  It would have done better at 60 minutes (rather than 89) with more focus on the politics and less on the scenery.

12th & Delaware

Directed by Rachael Grady & Heidi Ewing, USA, 2009

Abortion clinics are the front line in the battle between pro-life and pro-choice advocates throughout the United States.  Legal conditions and local sympathies vary from place to place, and both camps adapt their strategies to their setting.  One pro-life tactic is to set up pregancy counselling centres close to abortion clinics.  These can act as a base of protest, as a convenient locale for alternate advice to would-be mothers, and as honey pots to snare clients destined for the abortion clinic, but unsure of its exact location.

12th & Delaware is a very ordinary intersection in Fort Pierce, Florida, but for the presence of an abortion clinic and a pro-life centre directly across the street from each other.  Directors Grady and Ewing gained the trust of both, and their film show each group without a strident polemic on either side of the argument (even though the directors are clearly pro-choice judging by their comments in the Q&A after the screening).

We begin on the street where pro-life pickets arrive before dawn to ensure anyone who arrives at the clinic gets their message.  Later we move into the counselling centre, and meet Anne, a woman whose mission is clearly to talk pregnant women out of abortions any way she can.  Her manner is friendly and helpful, but rather calculating once she is out of earshot of her clients.  Ensuring that women keep their babies is her goal regardless of the family, emotional or financial problems this may bring to the client.

Meanwhile at the clinic, arriving and departing clients run a gauntlet of pickets brandishing gruesome pictures and taunting the women with stories of the horrors abortion can bring.  Some of the pickets are rather sad in their largely unsuccessful attempts, but they celebrate the few cases where a woman changes her mind (or at least appears to).  The clinic itself is simply a house adapted for its purpose.  Clients are screened to determine they are both appropriate (Florida law restricts when abortions can be performed) and that they freely consent.

The dark side of the pro-life activities emerge later in the film.  “Counselling” usually includes an ultrasound to show the mother her fetus, such as that is possible at its young age, and the estimated life of the fetus may be exaggerated to place the mother closer to a decision point where, legally, she must either have an abortion or carry the child.  The hope is that the indecisive women will leave the decision “too late” and think that abortion is no longer an option.  The accuracy of some pro-life literature and the offers of support made to pregnant women add to the difficulty.

Most troubling are the hard core pro-lifers, one of whom takes a quasi-police attitude born, I suspect, of too much television.  His mission is to track doctors who are anonymously ferried from the clinic to a pick-up location and determine their identities.

Watching 12th & Delaware from the comfort of downtown Toronto in a country where abortion is legal (although conservatives hope this will eventually be reversed) reminds me of the comparatively placid nature of Canadian politics.  We are lucky to avoid vigilante “justice”, so far.

The Canal Street Madam

Directed by Cameron Yates, USA, 2009

Imagine a brothel as a family operation with Grandma, Mom and Daughter all in the business.  Happy clients and staff, a well-known operation that flourished on New Orleans’ Canal Street for years, at least until the FBI finally closed them down in 2001.

This is the story of Jeanette Maier, a sex worker with a mission not just to fight the legal system, but to expose the double-standard allowing powerful men, clients, to escape identification and prosecution while sex workers are branded as felons and lose their ability to conduct normal lives.

Such a documentary could easily become little more than talking heads and voice-overs with stock footage but for director Cameron Yates’ good fortune on two counts.  First, the FBI wiretapped Maier’s phone, and the recordings provide running comments both on business and routine family life while the house was under investigation.  Second, Maier’s family had a film camera during her youth, and historical footage allows us to see a much younger Maier as she evolved.

Why was the FBI so interested?  Who were they really after?  Did the FBI really “solve” anything with their prosecution, or was this just a right-wing inspired way to show the law “doing something” about a city where loose morals had been a fact of life for centuries?  Had they stumbled onto a hotbed of organized crime, or simply a well-run family business?

The client list never did become public — exposing the rich and powerful was not the sort of thing the prosecutors had in mind — but Maier continues to suggest she might name names.

The Canal Street Madam is amusing in part showing us the rather banal side of the world’s oldest profession, but the real story is the damage state power can do in the hands of those who would save our morality while enhancing their political reputations.

One thought on “hotdocs 2010 Part II

  1. I don’t think the “rich and famous” would care one bit if Maier names names. It’s the religious right that should worry…


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