Friday, April 26, 2013

Hot Docs 2013: Reviews #2

Reviews of screenings from the 2013 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, Toronto, Canada.

Cloudy Mountains (Dir: Zhu Yu, 85 minutes, China)

Well, among the lessons Hot Docs has taught me was that I never want to be a Mongolian gold miner, but it looks like being a Chinese asbestos miner is no cup of tea either. I might be striking anything in the extractive industries right off my career list altogether. Zhu's observational camera give us a slice of life in Western China, where the best wages can be found at the top of what at first looks to be a fog-enshrouded mountain. It's only once we're on the ground that we realize it's an omnipresent haze of dust from the busy mine. The terrain looks like a mountainous version of a salt flat, bleached out and terrifyingly imposing in its blankness. The humans in this colourless world live in makeshift huts (the most striking architectural feature seems to be plastic sheeting) and protect themselves against the not-so-invisible death lurking in the air around them with scarves or the flimsiest of masks.

We spend some time with the workers, especially following young Binbin and his father. One might think Binbin would be feeling regrets for dropping out of school to come work at the mine, but he wants to save up a stake to get married someday and seems blithely unconcerned about working conditions.

But with time, we get hints of the wear this takes on the workers. But there are also the moments where the human spirit rises above — a phone call home, a dance on a rainy day off from work, a night of drinking or a chance to rescue an injured bird. In what might a slightly forced bit of symbolism, near the end we get a shot of a straggly flower that has managed to push its way through the inhospitable ground: life finds a way.

The pace here is fairly measured, so anyone looking for a quick thrill should pass on this. It is recommended for concerned ecologists and those who are curious about the lives and work of people a world away who can withstand its muted tones and general grimness.

The Auctioneer (Dir: Hans Olson, 58 minutes, Canada)

The quiet space under the all-encompassing prairie sky is broken up by the auctioneer's barking call in this well-observed portrait. It's also a requiem for a disappearing way of life — you don't have a farm auction if you're not selling the farm. Maybe it's that aspect that makes it unsurprising that auctioneer Dale Manzak's other job is at the local funeral home. When not running an auction, he's quiet and good-humoured, helping people through one ending process or another. As a sign of a generational shift, we watch the lead-up to one particular auction, where the son in charge of winding down the family farm is clearly comfortable with trying to get an old combine to work but seems much happier dispensing tech support over the phone.

City folk might not get it, but I remember all of this: the excitement of parade day, never-ending conversations over what's going on with a neighbour's new fence and a lawn so huge that once you finish mowing it you basically head back to the beginning to start again. This film moves at a country pace — except for when Menzak is calling out for bids at a rapid clip. It might be too slow for some people, but there's a steady accretion of telling details and little rituals revealed that make it a rewarding experience. I liked this film quite a lot.

Screens with: Packing Up the Wagon: The Last Days of Wagon Wheel Lunch (Dir: John Scoles/Mike Maryniuk, 24 minutes, Canada), another prairie requiem. Here, we see the unhappy demise of a Winnipeg institution, a classic old-school diner specializing in clubhouses with an extra-thick layer of fresh-roasted turkey. In a story perhaps too-typical of Winnipeg, the restaurant's building is being levelled to make way for a parking lot and thus we see the regulars come in to try and grab one last meal in a setting that doesn't look to have changed much in a half-century of business. Besides the testimonials of common folk and local luminaries, the film uses some animation to signify the resonances remaining after objects are lost — but it's the closing shot of ghostly diners fading away to haunt the now-empty room that registers. Although this preserves a slice of local history and asks a few questions about the value of such an institution (can a humble diner make a city a better place? Can such a unique haven be a bulwark against homogeneity?) the film arguably stretches out a few more minutes than is required.

Big Men (Dir: Rachel Boynton, 99 minutes, USA/UK/Denmark)

Reputation is currency. Everyone wants to be known as a "Big Man", and everyone wants to have a life where they can enrich themselves and their family. This is as true in the boardrooms of Wall Street and Dallas as it is on the streets of Accra. A risk-seeking Texas oil company has just made the first big discovery off the shores of Ghana. They're a small dog in the oil world, and they need to convince investors to back them while at the same time negotiating with the local government on how the revenues should be split. With close access to the inside players on all sides, Boynton lets the story unfold in a manner that feels more like a thriller than a page from the business section of the paper.

It's complicated from every angle. The people of Ghana have seen gold and cocoa leave their country for more than a century, and yet the wealth has never trickled down. After an election, the new government talks about transparency and and ending corruption, but leaders have gotten so good for so long at talking the talk it's only fair to wonder why these ones will be any different. And back in America, there's the reverberations of the financial crisis to deal with, a new struggle to find money with the pool of investors suddenly running dry. And on top of that, there's the internecine boardroom conflicts for dominance — and, oh, that pesky investigation over the bribing of foreign officials.

And against this complicated backdrop, Boynton also introduces a third narrative strand, taking us to Nigeria, where the decades-long oil boom has brought no general prosperity, and is indeed fuelling uprisings by armed militias (we spend some time with the "Deadly Underdogs") who are using sabotage to force the Big Men to give them a bigger share of the wealth.

This is a complicated story and though some narrative corners are cut (how, for example, the situation in Nigeria is exacerbated by ethnic cleavages is barely addressed, for example) Boynton does an excellent job of carrying us through. Her other clear strength is being so close to the principals involved, who are unexpectedly candid at moments of stress and crisis. She also has a gift of holding the camera on them long enough for us to witness their body language, which is extremely telling at several points. (The Texas oilmens' reactions to hearing the Norwegian oil minister tell his Ghanaian counterparts that the oil belongs to the people, and that the extractors should be taxed to the very limit of their tolerance is rather priceless.) This is a glitzy, "big" film with high production values (there's a lot of wide-angle shots, even in the interviews) but the story here justifies it.

In such a high-stakes environment, alliances are made and former friends are betrayed. There's so much money involved that the parties can go from being litigants to strange bedfellows in quick succession. In the end, the oil is flowing and someone is making a profit. Whether Ghana will be able to make itself more like Norway than Nigeria is yet to be decided.

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