Saturday, April 27, 2013

Hot Docs 2013: Reviews #3

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

Terms And Conditions May Apply (Dir: Cullen Hoback, 79 minutes, USA)

Tracking a shocking legislative failure of consumer protection, this suggests, if not a shadowy conspiracy, that there's at least a marriage of convenience between internet businesses and the American security complex. Contemporary "social" internet usage involves the collection of large amounts of personal data, which creates unparalleled advertising opportunities for the corporate sector and a virtual panopticon for the government.

None of this is surprising to anyone that reads the news (and shame on those who don't). There is some value is having this all collected together to serve as a reminder of how much of our privacy has been chipped away so quickly. There's also an interesting approach with the documentary's angle, entering via those ubiquitous end-user licence agreements that govern our relationships with the information services we use, and that we allegedly attourn to when we click "agree" when we sign up.

Over time, these have gotten more vague and broad, removing all sorts of limitations. When information slides freely from corporation to government, the scale of potential civil rights violations balloons. Some of the more troubling stories the film relates are in the grey area of corporate disclosures (without court oversight) to governments in the case of "potential" unlawful behaviour — here we meet protesters who were pre-emptively confined for having discussed and planned protests against the British Royal wedding, raising concerns of a slide to dystopian Philip K. Dick-style "precrime" enforcement. Besides the brazen privacy violations this entails, entrusting security to data-mining algorithms leads to tragically absurd episodes where the innocent who are too careless (or clever) with their words are swept up.

There is a lot of information here, and it's presented with enough levity to keep it from being a slog. But at the end of the day, this is a talking heads doc about online behaviour. It would probably go down as well on a monitor screen as on a theatre at Hod Docs, in which case you can also keep busy checking your privacy settings in another window while you watch.

Remaining screenings: Sunday, April 28, 6:00 PM @ ROM Theatre; Friday, May 3, 2:00 PM @ Hart House Theatre

The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne (Dir: Matthew Pond/Kirk Marcolina, 73 minutes, USA)

"Diamond" Doris Payne has led an unrepentant life of crime — a fact that we are inclined to overlook somewhat, given her charming manner and advanced years. As we meet the 80-year-old, she's on trial for stealing a ring from a department store, and from here we flash back to learn her life story. Her brassy self-assurance was the ticket out of a bad marriage in the segregated South, giving her the ability to join the high-living jet set, if only through the avails of theft.

Being able to hear Payne tell her story in her own words gives this film its spark; it's less interesting in some of the surrounding material. Tossing an academic on screen to talk about how her life situates her in the tradition of trickster figures in African-American literature is interesting, but doesn't feel completely organic here. And cutting from Payne telling her story to the screenwriter working on an upcoming Hollywood fictionalization of her life moves everything from biographical progression to three act character arcs and lends the whole thing the feel of being an eventual DVD extra.

Still, I enjoyed this as a chance to spend time with Payne, as well as her most excellent longtime friend Jean Herbert, whose straight-talking manner never hid her unwavering support. I could have done with more time spent just hanging out with the pair of them.

Remaining screenings: Sunday, April 28, 4:00 PM @ ROM Theatre; Wednesday, May 1, 1:30 PM @ S---------/Paramount 4

William and the Windmill (Dir: Ben Nabors, 92 minutes, USA)

By the time he was fourteen, the economic straits of William Kamkwamba's family forced him to drop out of school. He put his curious mind to work in the village library, and upon finding a book about wind power, built a working windmill from scavenged parts, bringing electricity to his Malawian village for the first time.

It's an inspiring tale, but this is not the story of the Boy Who Built a Windmill. Instead, it's about the windmill's shadow, about what happened when his brilliance opened the doors to new opportunities beyond his village. He was "discovered" at a TED talk by Tom Rielly, who was moved to build a support system that would take Kamkwamba from his village to an elite African prep school, around the world on a book tour, and ultimately to college in the United States.

Besides all the feel-good elements here, there's a lot of themes at play in this work: how can outsiders support Africa in a manner beyond the chauvinistic colonialism of the past? Does an inventive mind in one sphere translate into others? How will Kamkwamba deal with intense pressures from being thrown into a high-flying environment while having to be the who "made it" to support his family and village?

As he grows up and becomes more sophisticated, we watch Kamkwamba soaking up everything around him. He's often a man of few words, and the film takes care not to gloss over the power dynamics in his relationship with his American mentors. Moving from dusty red dirt villages to the Ivy League, we get some hints that as much as a handyman figuring out practical solutions to problems in Africa, Kamkwamba might be becoming interested in tackling the problem of harnessing the ingenuity of other children like him who might not be getting a chance at an education. The film doesn't try to tie everything up with a pat resolution, but its open-endedness is one more part of his celebratory story. Some day soon there will be a fictionalized version that will probably come with the requisite Hollywood ending. This feels like a real life, and this is the one you should see.

Remaining screenings: Sunday, April 28, 11:00 AM @ Isabel Bader; Friday, May 3, 7:00 PM @ Fox Theatre

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