hotdocs 2011 part i

Yes, folks, it’s that time of year when a transit blogger burrows into dark theatres to watch documentaries for eleven days.  Our regular programming will resume in due course.

This year’s hotdocs has 199 films and the most dedicated won’t see even half of them.  Me?  I manage two or three a day with the odd foray to other events such as concerts and even the occasional political/transit meeting.  Hard to break old habits.

This post covers days 1-3 of hotdocs and includes reviews of:

  • POM Wonderful Presents:  The Greatest Movie Ever Sold ***
  • A Hard Name ***
  • How to Make a Book with Steidl **½
  • That’s Life ***
  • Our Persian Rug ***
  • Mighty Jerome ***½
  • Battle for Brooklyn ****
  • The National Parks Project *½

POM Wonderful Presents:  The Greatest Movie Ever Sold ***

Directed by Morgan Spurlock, USA

In his documentary, Supersize Me, Morgan Spurlock took on the fast food industry, the declining health and expanding waistlines of consumers.  In Pom Wonderful Presents …, he turns to the advertising industry and its effect on the movie business.

Modern society is all about advertising with billboards everywhere, but in entertainment, the process is insidious with product placement, cross licensing and endorsements, a process whose sole aim is to make us buy what we need to make our lives complete.

Spurlock sets out to make a film financed entirely by sponsors.  Getting this project off the ground wasn’t easy.  Hundreds of cold calls reached companies who didn’t want to talk to him, didn’t care for the premise, or knew his reputation, and didn’t want anything to do with it.  But one by one he gets bites from companies who think an association with this doc might help them.

The really big name spot, going for $1m, is above the title “Brand X presents”, and hence POM Wonderful (yes, that really is a company name, and their product is pomegranate juice) gets a mention every time someone, including me, mentions the film.  Two lesser sponsors, Hyatt and Jet Blue, sit at a lower tier, but they still get mock commercials right in the film.  A lawyer who might bill at $770/hour appears pro bono because it’s good advertising.  Mane ‘n Tail shampoo — a crossover product for horses and their owners — were happy to appear, but wouldn’t pay as they don’t do that sort of thing.  Other products have their roles right down to what is at best a commercial walk on.

The competition doesn’t fare well — a juice drink containing only trace amounts of pomegranate is scorned.  Seven Austin Minis loaned to the production spend a lot of time on camera, but there’s never a kind word for Volkswagen, who turned Spurlock down.

The first third of Pom Wonderful Presents … sets up the premise and the chase for sponsors.  Once Spurlock has hooked a few, we don’t need to see the gory details for the rest.  Then we get lots of talking heads on the subject of the creeping presence of commercials.  We hear from Noam Chomsky, Ralph Nader and Donald Trump who certainly don’t agree on the subject. We learn that Quentin Tarantino hung out at Denny’s as a teenager, and wanted to use a real one as the location for scenes in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction.  Denny’s was not amused.

Finally, the wrap.  The film is nearly done, and we’re coming into its own promotion phase.  Spurlock looks for advertising opportunities of his own, including Broward County School District (Fort Lauderdale, Florida) with banners on playing field and ads on delivery vans.  The desperately underfunded public sector takes revenue anywhere they can find it.

Pom Wonderful Presents … starts to drag at the 1 hr mark, but recovers for the finish and its launch at the Sundance festival.

Leaving the Wintergarden, the audience received sampler bottles of POM complete with cross-promotion of the film.  No consideration (other than the contents which I have not yet consumed) was received, and no, I don’t take ads on this site.


Sony Pictures Classics is the distributor (Mongrel Media in Canada).  Opens Friday May 7 in Toronto.

A Hard Name ***

Directed by Alan Zweig, Canada

Alan Zweig’s most recent film looks at ex-convicts, men and women who have spent a good part of their lives in prison, but who are trying to live normal lives, such as they can.  The title, A Hard Name, comes from the need to present a hard, violent if necessary, exterior while in prison simply to survive.  Zweig’s subjects, men and women, have a mix of characters and are forthright about their past, but there’s a wide range from “this is who I am” bravado to the insecurity of someone who doesn’t really know how to deal with life outside of jail.

Talking heads can quickly bore, but the skill here is both Zweig’s choice of subjects and the cutting between stories so that they become almost a conversation.  Why did these people get involved in crime, how are they managing to stay out of trouble now, what do they regret.  Almost all of them share a background of abuse as children, a distrust or open hostility to authority.  Prison was a place they fitted in with its danger and need for a hard reputation.

Zweig does not try to make us feel sorry for these men and women, or to excuse their behaviour by their background, but their common themes are hard to ignore.  The saddest footage comes right at the end when we see Mike Walsh, whose guitar music and songs ran through the film, as a young man.  It’s a doc (probably from the CBC) about boys at an orphanage, the now-notorious Mt. Cashel.  As the teenage Walsh plays, the camera cuts to other boys in the audience.  None is smiling, and there’s a wary, distrustful look to their eyes.  What would they become?  Zweig leaves that for us to ponder as the lights come up.

A Hard Name screened recently on TVO and will probably show up in the inevitable reruns.

How to Make a Book with Steidl **½

Directed by Jörg Adolph and Gereon Wetzel, Germany.

Gerhard Steidl is a book publisher, designer and printer in Göttingen with an obsession for quality work.  Many clients seek him out, and projects are booked a few years in advance.  They range from small, backwoods artists to middle-eastern nobility with the common desire to see their work presented well.  The big commercial clients subsidize the smaller artistic publications.  Some may be vanity productions, but the presentation of art, its translation onto the printed page, effectively a portable gallery, is the common desire.

If this were a doc just about design and printing, would there be a film?  The mechanics are interesting to those who care, but how do you convey the smell of ink, the subtleties of colour, the texture of paper, the heft of an oversize bound volume?

It turns out that Steidl is an oddly obsessive character born just down the road from his printing shop.  He never takes days off, and travels only to consult on projects, preferably in batches.  Making a book with him is an exercise in competing artistic wills, not just technical skill, and that’s what makes an intriguing doc worth watching.

We dive into his life with works in progress, and only actually see one finished: Joel Sternfeld’s idubai.  The making of this one book binds the film together, bridging episodes with many other clients.

Steidl is a perfectionist always tweaking the look of a book in progress.  He loves paper and ink, and rhapsodizes about smells now lost to standard printing processes.  When a client is indecisive about their work, Steidl will bully them toward a design he prefers because he’s in a hurry to finish the job.  Out of earshot, he may be less than complimentary.

Unfortunately, there are too many snatches of works and clients, some only a name with little to show for product (Karl Lagerfeld, for example), and conspicuous consumption is almost a subtext.  Steidl may look like a vanity press, and yet some works are very special such as B&W prints by Robert Adams that require special printing techniques to present the images to best effect.  We hear about this, but we don’t see it.

Making a Book … introduces us to an artist who does good work for his clients in spite of his obsessions, but oddly we see little of it at a scale where we can really appreciate it.  The craftsman becomes more important than the craft.


That’s Life ***

Directed by Daniel Zielinski, Poland

In this touching short film about old age, families and caregivers, we meet Daniel Zielinski’s father and grandmother who live in a small Polish village.  He is a man in his 60s who spends almost all his time looking after Grandma.  She is still fairly alert, but talks with difficulty, and spends a lot of time in bed.  The relationship between mother and son alternates between love and toleration.

Daniel wants his father to talk about his frustrations, what goes wrong, but it takes a while for Dad to open up.  Grandma has been his task, his life, for years and respites come more from neighbours’ visits than from family.

One day, the family arrives — other sons, a brother, a sister in law.  Postcards of vacations may “stay in touch”, but they also remind Grandma and Dad where they can’t go.  Conversations that start with Granny in frame gradually move away leaving her in the corner, talked about as if she’s not there.

The family leaves, Grandma waves and sings, and Dad closes the gate.

Our Persian Rug ***

Directed by Massoud Bakhshi, Iran

Our Persian Rug is a story about the Iran that was before the revolution, even before the Shah deposed by that revolution, of a long-vanished Iran.

This was a well-established family of rug makers and traders, but the only remnant is a rug woven by the unseen narrator’s grandmother.

After his father’s disappearance and murder, the narrator spent over two years in his apartment surviving on sleeping pills and escaping into memory.   His mother now does little else but pray.  An uncle, probably an adopted child, joined the military years ago and has been stripping the family’s assets.  He was probably responsible for his brother’s murder.  The uncle shows up with two cousins, young girls who are now orphans thanks to another murder, and he also brings the rug.  That rug triggers more memories, but brings a comfort of something real from the past.  Might it fly him to paradise?  (In a wry observation, even there the Iranian movies have “technical difficulties” when they touch on delicate subjects.)

Uncle calls to say he is taking the girls, innocent kids for whom religious teachings are a vague concept, and the rug.  The narrator vows this time not to let his uncle win.  What will happen?

Our Persian Rug is a haunting view of a man and a generation trapped in memory.  What does this say about those for whom there is no “past”?

Mighty Jerome ***½

Directed by Charles Officer, Canada

Harry Jerome was a Canadian runner who held many speed records through the 1960s, and was Canada’s first black track star.  (Read the details on Wikipedia.)

Mighty Jerome as a documentary mixes archival footage, contemporary interviews and recreations to tell tell Jerome’s story.  This isn’t just a recitation of stats, a compilation of final moments in races, but a real portrait of a man who happened to be a great athlete.  Regardless of where the material comes from, it fits together and the recreations work because they stand in for events without trying to exactly duplicate them.

Jerome was born in Prince Albert, moved to Vancouver at 12, and went to the University of Oregon where he met his future wife.  She was white, and Oregon’s laws against mixed race relationships then in effect made their lives difficult.  Even back in North Vancouver, they were not welcome.  This personal history, as well as Jerome’s record-breaking runs, plays out against the politics of race relations in the 1960s and the fight for racial equity.

By age 18, he was setting speed records, and was expected to be a winner for Canada at the 1960 Rome Olympics.  However, Jerome pulled out of the race because of a weakness in one leg, brought on in part by having to race to the stadium from a cab stuck in traffic.  For this, he was labelled a “quitter” by the white sports press.

This didn’t stop Jerome, and he continued to race until the 1962 Perth Commonwealth Games where he completely tore a quadricep muscle just above the knee.  Finally, the press understood what was happening.  Astoundingly, after reconstructive surgery and intense rehab work, Jerome raced again and continued to set world records.

By 1968, Jerome was slowing down, and after placing 7th at the Olympics, he retired.  Fourteen years later, at age 42, he died (the film gives two possible explanations, and neither agrees with Wikipedia).

Harry Jerome’s name now graces various athletic facilities and annual awards given by the Black Business and Professionals Association.

In an age of larger-than-life sports celebrities and egos, this biography shows us a man who was simply a very good athlete and a reserved, decent individual much admired and loved by those around him.

This is an NFB production and will turn up on Canadian TV, if not theatrically, probably in the coming year.  It is not yet available on the NFB’s website.

Battle for Brooklyn ****

Directed by Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley, USA

Living in a city whose government was recently taken over by politicians whose recipe for success is to sell everything in sight, I just had to see Battle for Brooklyn. This film follows a 7-year battle by residents and businesses against redevelopment to make way for a new basketball stadium and many, many condos.

Atlantic Yards, an old disused rail yard in Brooklyn, and the land around it was covetted by a developer, Forest City Ratner, whose owner wanted to buy and relocate the New Jersey Nets team to a new stadium.  This would be financed by a huge development on the railway and surrounding lands, but assembling them would not be easy without help from city and state governments.

The pattern here is distressingly familiar:  a sports complex, a team of dubious value, a developer who needs government help to achieve his goals, governments that are more interested in money and good news than in preserving neighbourhoods.  The legal and political issue at the heart of the story is the abuse of powers of “eminent domain”, or as they are known in Canada, “expropriation”.  If the state uses its power to force the sale of land for any purpose, then no neighbourhood is safe from intervention on behalf of a developer whose project is deemed “a public good”, and the opportunities for corruption are obvious.

Forest City Ratner, a Cleveland-based company, is used to getting its way, and they pitch this project to maximize the supposed benefit and to pick off opposition one group at a time.  The architect will be Frank Gehry, a big name to give a massive scheme the allure of an architectural masterpiece.  Jobs, jobs, jobs (15,000 of them!) would come to a neighbourhood reeling from recession and decline in construction trades.  Taxes galore would come to the city.

The communuity split along social and racial lines thanks both to the lure of a basketball stadium, but also by fake “community groups” set up and funded by the developer to support his project.

Through the seven years, we watch Daniel Goldstein who bought an apartment in what was to be his ideal neighbourhood, only to find it would soon be demolished.  He fought with those around him for years, and was the last to move out when everything around his building had been leveled, and courts ruled that the use of eminent domain was valid.

When the economy tanked, the financial house of cards that was the real estate industry collapsed.  Ratner sold the poor-performing Nets to a Russian oligarch, dumped Ghery’s designs as too expensive, and started construction on only the stadium.

Battle for Brooklyn is a cautionary tale about the results of  government and private interests conspiring together against the public.  This film, at a neighbourhood scale, is a fitting complement to Hot Coffee (on the systematic limitation of corporate liability) which I saw later in the festival.

The National Parks Project

13 Provinces and Territories, 13 parks, 13 directors, 127 mins

For the centennial of Parks Canada, someone got the bright idea of sending a director, small crew and a few musicians to each of 13 parks selected to represent Canada and see what happens.  Sounds promising enough, and there’s certainly lots of scenery to go around.  Must be a sure fire hit!

Well, no.  Compendiums are always a challenge, not least because each team brings a different eye and different assumptions to their project.  Here, however, there seems to be no overarching direction, no sense that the parks are the subject, not the director, not the musicians, and the quality varies immensely.

A few segments — Haida lands in BC, the Mingan Archipelago in Quebec, the frozen Northwest Territories — are beautiful contemplations of landscape.  One director places coloured plastic spheres in the landscape, both an art installation, a presence of something totally artificial, and a commentary on the contrast between them, but this fleeting idea isn’t developed.  Far too many segments are self indulgent, simplistic in concept and show us more of director’s ego than the parks where they are nominally set.  In poor Saskatchewan where we see a park illuminated in flashes by night while a child’s voice talks about fear of the dark.  It could have been shot in the director’s back yard for all we know.

Worst of all is Ontario with miles of driving through woods in the Bruce with a camera pointed up into the trees, a voice-over of mindless, possibly beer-inspired, drivel not to mention an even more mindless text conversation scrolling up the screen.  The final line “man r u messed up” says all we need to know.

A consistent problem is people.  Most sequences with them are grafted on with a “gee whiz” feeling, not part of their environment.  Indeed, an important thing about parks is that they tend to not have people in them, and a busload of tourists, guides in hand, is hardly a fitting complement to a natural wonder.

This was supposed to be a celebration of 100 years of Parks Canada, but it turned into a terrible waste, and we can only be thankful to have 13 provinces and territories, not 50.

I left before the Q&A, but heard later that the first question challenged the filmmakers about the authorization and financing for this project.  This is the perfect example the anti-arts, anti-soft services folks on the political right can use to show how public funds are wasted on self-indulgent drivel.