HotDocs 2021 Part I

HotDocs 2021 began on April 29 and runs officially to May 9. For the hard core doc fans, the unlimited access pass gives an extra 10 days to watch films stretching the online festival out to May 19. I will post reviews of films here from time to time over this period.

Most films are still available to ticket buyers until May 9. Even after that viewing period, the good films are worth watching for if they show up on streaming services, TV channels like TVO or PBS, or, when we can return to them, real live theatres.

The films reviewed here were screened on Thursday, April 29 through Saturday, May 1.

Apologies to those looking for transit articles. I’ve been at the movies!

Reviewed here:

Crack: Cocaine, Conspiracy & Corruption
Dir: Stanley Nelson
Netflix
****

My festival opened with a damning documentary about the US black community history, but the context leads to today’s rise of police power, the politics of fear, white supremacy and Trumpism. It begins with the appearance of crack, a cheap and hyper-addictive form of what had been a rich white man’s drug, in the black community. The “war on drugs” that followed in the streets was primarily against people already hurt by Reagan-era cutbacks. The devastating effects of crack were brutal.

Where did the drugs come from, why were they suddenly so cheap? The US government actively supported the export of drugs from Nicaragua by the anti-government “Contras” to finance a civil war without Congressional approval. The CIA’s role in this process did not come out until years later after the social damage was done.

The premise of a drug “epidemic”, a story the media happily echoed, set in motion the political need to be “tough on crime”. Sentences grew longer and mandatory fueling growth of the US prison system while the domestic “war” brought funding for and militarization of police forces.

Actually fixing the problem would work against a political industry based on criminalization, jail, and demonization of the non-white underclass. The arc that began in the early 1980s ends with the social divisions of the 2020s.

This story is told through a combination of modern-day interviews and archival footage that spares nobody. There was a media circus around a “drug epidemic”. A political culture, both Republican and Democrat, fed the need for a strong government and police, ironically the antithesis of what many Americans would want to see.

Watching this from the 2020s where the overwhelming “drug problem” is with prescription painkillers shows just how different the approach was and is to different communities.

Nelson’s film demands that you look beyond the edges. The poverty, the lazy media, the political exploitation are all there, but he does not dictate how the viewer should interpret them.

If I have any criticism, it is that the arc takes a while to establish while the first third of the film explores the devastation of crack on the poor, and the easy fortunes to be made. This could be because of my own political focus going back to the Watergate years. The Iran-Contra scandal and the machinations of the Reagan era are political events I know well. For some, this will be a revelation of the depth of and long-standing damage to US society by its own government.


Hysterical
Director: Andrea Nevins
FX Canada
***½

Women as comics were an oddity in the entertainment business, especially doing standup, in decades past. Hysterical shows us the careers of several, and their uphill battle for acceptance.

Working comedians had to fight for stage time, for acceptance both by club managers and by audiences. An woman could not be outspoken, men could not understand how a woman could be funny, and some oversize characters were the result. The comedy stage was very much a man’s world with stories and jokes very much oriented to a male audience.

Hysterical follows several women through the difficult era both to establish themselves as entertainers and to build a place for female comics on stage. Eventually they succeed and by the film’s end many have international careers, albeit less well-paid than their male counterparts. There is a feeling of community among the comics, that each is not alone, the only woman trying to get ahead in the business.

Although this doc presents one of many facets in the evolution of a “woman’s role” and is worth seeing, its presentation of the issue troubled me. The first third seems to concentrate on women who, without exception, came from insecure families. At home they used humour to be recognized or to defuse family quarrels, or at school as a class clown to gain acceptance.

There is a pervasive sense of “woman as victim” almost to the point of presenting this as a pre-requisite to be a comic. I found myself wondering “where will the next generation of comics” come from, although society as a whole is far from creating an entire generation of varied social backgrounds who all magically avoid troubled backgrounds.

Hysterical is interesting for the history, but I sense that more could have been told, especially the distinction between club and standup work, comedians on television, and the evolution of comic styles and presentation across media.


Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street
Director: Marilyn Agrelo
HBO
****

Street Gang is a heartwarming review of the history of Sesame Street, how it began, its unlooked-for early success, the highs and lows along the way. The major players are Joan Cooney, a producer tapped by the Carnegie Foundation to develop television for inner city children, and Jon Stone, a reluctant producer/director recruited by Cooney. There are of course Jim Henson, Frank Oz and The Muppets.

The real story here, however, is the family of artists and technicians who together made Sesame Street what it was.

It all began with studies in the 1960s showing that black children had much lower school achievement, and the question of whether television could be used to change this. In the 2020s, we bemoan the time children spend on their electronic devices, but sixty years ago, watching TV was already consuming 40-50 hours/week of their time, second only to sleeping.

Children watched so much television that they could sing beer commercials, and shows created for them were more vehicles for products their parents might buy than they were entertainment, let alone educational. Could the techniques of Madison Avenue be used to engage children and teach them something useful? Could the program “sell the alphabet”?

$8 million in startup money came from Carnegie Foundation, but the program’s major funder was the federal government. PBS, a public agency with a mandate for education, would be the broadcaster. The first show went out on November 10, 1969.

Typical television for children was set in an abstract world, somewhat fantastical, and very white. After seeing a tongue-in-cheek commercial encouraging people to visit inner city neighbourhoods, Stone realized that was where Sesame Street (which did not yet have that name) should be set – a real street with real people. Despite this being the opposite of the suburban milieu where many viewers might actually live, this context proved a hit with children from all backgrounds.

Stone wanted a show that would treat children as equals, not speak down to them. “We perform for short people” perfectly describes this.

Jim Henson came in while show was under development at a time when The Muppets were basically a novelty act on late night TV. In early versions of the show, The Muppets’ sequences were separate from the live action, but test screenings quickly showed that, for children, they were the big draw and it was time to merge the two streams. Sesame Street just happened to have an eight foot tall yellow bird wandering around, among many other denizens who could have characters as complex and, in some cases more outrageous, than any of the human actors.

Street Gang contains archival material galore with many favourite characters and moments.

To their great fortune, there was Victor DaNapoli, a crew member who shot “making of Sesame Street” footage that he never used. Decades later the ability to see the show from that first-hand point of view outdoes archival footage of the shows as broadcast and lets director Marilyn Agrelo show “the humanity behind Sesame Street“.

One clip for which the producers spent three years obtaining rights, shows a manager at a Mississippi PBS station trying to explain why they cannot air a mixed race program because it is too sensitive for his viewers. His position is quickly demolished by children who just want to watch their show.

Among the most touching episodes was the one made after the death of “Mr. Hooper”, the shopkeeper played by Will Lee.

Rather than paper over his disappearance with recasting or having a new character take over the store, Sesame Street chose to deal with death head on. The childlike Big Bird has just drawn a picture of Mr. Hooper and is excited to give it to his friend. Gently, other characters explain that Mr. Hooper is not coming back, ever, and that’s just how things are when someone dies. But Big Bird still has the picture and his memories.

The echoes of this scene in our current era are very powerful, as they are, too, from Jim Henson’s funeral when Big Bird sings It’s Not Easy Being Green, a song first sung by Kermit the frog, Henson’s signature character.

That song went beyond just “being green” and spoke to the challenges of not being like everyone else, especially for people of a different colour. Sesame Street tried to reach everyone in spite of their varied backgrounds and had integrated cast from its first days.

Street Gang is very much a story about a group of people, a family, making a new kind of television in an era of optimism despite political upheavals. Could it be made today when the USA’s media landscape is fragmented, and government support for education and the arts has ebbed. Probably not, but Street Gang shows what can happen when dedicated people have the chance.

Watch to the very end of the credits!


Come Back Anytime
Dir: John Daschbach
World Premier
*****
Website with stills and trailer

On the surface, Come Back Anytime is a film about food, specifically ramen which pour more or less without stop from the tiny kitchen of Masamoto Ueda in his tiny Tokyo restaurant Bizentei. Delicious as the food looks, the real stars are the chef, his wife Kazuko and regulars who have eaten there for years. They are an extended family united by their love both for food “just like Mom’s cooking”, and by the camaraderie.

When the Uedas were newly married (his parents thought that having a bride would settle him down), his initial venture into the restaurant business was not a success. But they persevered and he opened the first Bizentei in 1979. It seated 30. His dishes developed, but Masamoto had the good sense to keep the menu small and serve food he could consistently prepare well.

In 1991, they were evicted by land speculators, but opened a new (and the current) restaurant six months later. We spend a lot of time in or near the kitchen which is open to a short counter where many of the regulars eat. Masamoto perfected his broth a long time ago, and there is a sense that the stock pot has bubbled away in the corner forever.

On days off, the Uedas have a garden plot out in the country, and there are occasional forays into the woods for treats such as fresh bamboo shoots, wild yams and pears. Good friends/customers are invited along and treasure these excursions.

Come Back Anytime is organized in four seasons which mark time’s passing (more evident in the country than the city settings), but time bears on Masamoto who contemplates retirement. When he goes, Bizentei will close, and he will not pass on his recipes to anyone. But he doesn’t want to be bored, and now that there is a documentary, he has to stay open so that people can visit when the pandemic ends.

The location may be in the heart of a big city, but the feel of Come Back Anytime is very small scale. “My stomach knows the taste” is a sentiment anyone with a favourite restaurant will understand.


A River Runs, Turns, Erases, Replaces
Directed by Shengze Zhu
*

A River Runs … opens on a downtown street in Wuhan seen through a never moving, never blinking security camera during the winter 2020 lockdown. Occasionally the date skips forward a day, a week, marked by the timestamps on the images. A lone street sweeper is the only continuing character. Then a siren heralds the reopening and people come out of the buildings, take selfies, look around them. But there is little joy.

The underlying premise is solid: Life might be returning to the city, but there are gaps left by the people who are no longer there. A series of five letters presented as on screen Chinese and English text “speak” from someone still alive to someone now dead: a man to his wife, a man to his grandmother to whom he paid less attention than he should, a daughter studying in America to her father whose passion for ships and bridges she knew nothing of until after his death, a letter to a close friend who used to swim in the Yangtse river. That river and a new bridge crossing it are the thread linking all of the scenes and stories.

The HotDocs program describes A River Runs … as a “gorgeous cinematic letter from a film maker to her home town”, Wuhan. What should have been a 40 minute short stretches to 87 thanks to long, long shots dwelling on a single view for minutes at a time when almost nothing happens. This is a smoggy city with little beauty in what we see beyond night-time illuminations that turn the pervading gray to something the city cannot be by day.

Near the end, the arc of the letters becomes clear as the role of the river, the bridge, a ferry, people swimming all tie into the story, but one must stick with the film to discover that. I have to admit that I bailed roughly half way through, then came back and skipped through the rest to see if it resolved. Had I been in a theatre, I would not have this choice.


The Caviar Connection
Directed by Benoît Bringer
***

This film is a two-part documentary presented as a single screening for HotDocs.

Western Asia, and specifically the countries around the Caspian Sea, are not noted for their open, democratic governments. They are oil rich, and this gives an “in” with western governments who might otherwise have little interest. Caviar is another product from that sea, and the giving of “gifts” takes on a more sinister tone under the title of The Caviar Connection.

Much of the story concerns a journalist, Khadija Ismayilova, who works fearlessly to expose corruption in Azerbaijan and its ruling family, the Aliyevs. Through a web of linked companies owned by the family and their associates, state wealth is siphoned off for personal use. The regimes buy Western approval in ways that are obvious if seemingly benign: hosting major sports events, flying in big-name entertainers. This brings a veneer of approval and respectability to avoid difficult questions about the regime’s primary business.

“You can’t buy love, but you can buy pop stars” is an observation that throws the likes of Lady Gaga into a very different light. Money can buy anyone.

It turns out that the problem goes much, much deeper and reaches beyond state borders.

A basic premise of the Council of Europe is that its member states respect at least some democratic norms, notably that they do not have political prisoners. Azerbaijan did not appear to meet this criterion, and the Council launched an investigation in 2013. It found, no surprise to anyone, that, yes, there are political prisoners. But when the report came to a vote in the Council, it was defeated by a wide margin with Council members from many states denouncing the findings.

How did this happen? Simple: with a slush fund of €30m, votes were bought outright, often among the more conservative members of the Council. All things considered, it was a cheap investment. With the Council endorsing the Azerbaijan government, they simply arrested their political and media opponents claiming they were hooligans, or disturbed people or opponents of the nation. Does this sound familiar?

Ismayilova herself was arrested in December 2014 and remained in jail until her parole in May 2016. With amazing courage, she resumed her investigative work.

One diplomat, the former ambassador to the European Council, saw the bribery and how it had reached into other state governments such as Italy, Germany and France. He is now living in exile.

The difficult question for viewers in supposedly liberal democracies like Canada is this: if a relatively small Caspian Sea state can buy control of the European Council, how much bigger is the unseen influence of major players like Russia and China? If the price of a vote is only a few million, tops, they could simply buy the influence they want out of small change. How deeply embedded is foreign influence already?

In a denouement, we learn that several of the western politicians have been prosecuted. A new review of political prisoners was approved by the Council and some were released, but the regime is still in power and no doubt is now simply more careful about how it exercises foreign influence.

At the end there is a hopeful, if naïve observation, that “Silencing journalists will be a waste of time because there will be too many of us”.


The Last Forest
Directed by Luiz Bolognesi
Written by Luiz Bolognesi and Davi Kopenawa Yanomami
***

Director Luiz Bolognesi set out to document a place where shamans are still strong among an indigenous people. The Yanomami live deep in the Brazilian rain forest and can be reached only after a difficult journey by air, water and overland. Despite this isolation their territory, and especially their water, have been poisoned with mercury by gold prospectors who ran rampant. There were massacres of Yanomami by hunters.

Davi, himself a shaman, fought for indigenous rights. Under the previous government, the Yanomami land was declared as their own, and prospecting was halted. However the Bolsanaro regime reversed these gains in 2019. The prospectors are back in force, and they have brought Covid with them.

Davi wanted the Yanomami’s way of life shown, and what would be lost if their culture was destroyed. He doubled as co-screenwriter helping to decide which stories to tell.

Part of the film is pure documentary, but part is a dramatization of the Yanomami mythology. For this people, dreams and myths are real, and they explain what is happening.

Bolognesi and his small crew spent five weeks learning the culture and filming both ordinary day-to-day life, as well as rituals and staged versions of the mythology. The film is part a call for cultural and environmental conscience, part documentation of a threatened culture. An extended shamanic ceremony is performed entirely without subtitles leaving us to simply watch and absorb.

Davi did not want to make a film that shows the Yanomami as weak. He argues that white society is ill because it does not listen to its spirits, and just wants more material things. For the Yanomami, the land is fertile.

Now they face an invasion of 20,000 gold miners. Who knows what will happen when/if Bolsonaro is deposed or defeated, and post-Covid when travel resumes.

The Last Forest is most definitely not a film about “noble savages”, but of ordinary, proud people in what to many viewers will be a primitive setting. It gives a rare glimpse into a culture warning how commercial and political interests can wreck something that can never be rebuilt.

My rating for this film is only three stars because much of what I learned about its background came from the question and answer session, something that would not be available to most viewers. This could easily have been fixed with some voiceovers or intertitles providing context.


Taming The Garden
Directed by Salomé Jashi
***
Website

Imagine that you have a vast amount of money, a property on the Black Sea, and you want a garden. Not just any garden, but a full grown mature forest.

If you happen to be a billionaire and the former Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, you set up a park and move 200 trees over land and sea. These are no ordinary trees, but century-or-more specimens. Watching the excavation around their existing roots, construction of the carrying rig, and the damage wrought to trim their crowns to fit through obstacles enroute, this is physically painful and deeply offensive to anyone who loves trees.

In the process local landscapes are ruined, roads are damaged, and the character of the former tree locations, places that had been landmarks for decades, lose a defining presence.

The new “Dendrological Park” looks wonderful, but one wonders how this forest, every tree guyed to prevent its falling over, will survive the loss of so much of its root system.

The trees all came from poor areas where a payment of $50,000 is a fortune, and tree owners are easily bought off.

Now there is a beautiful park, although most people will only ever see the gaps in the towns where trees used to stand, now only a memory.

Utter vandalism.

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