Sunday, April 28, 2013

Hot Docs 2013: Reviews #4

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

Bà nội (Dir: Khoa Lê, 85 minutes, Canada)

At 93 years of age, Khoa Lê's grandma — his bà nội — is caught between two worlds. Her imprecations to pray to the ancestors are less than metaphysical, as they seem to be all around her, as is her beloved husband who died more than thirty years ago. Montréaler Lê's Lunar New Year's trip to his ancestral homeland gives us some vivid sights of Vietnam which make this intriguing on a basic level as a personal travelogue. Watching the hunt for street vendor horoscopes and familial games of chance put a bit of magic in day-to-day life, and that's expanded upon as some sequences slip into mystical dream-drifts — a night-time graveyard visit is especially effective at melding the earthly and ghostly realms.

The film was a bit slow at first, and I thought it might just be a close-up character study of his grandmother. But it slowly radiates outward, building up layers and resonances into a rich and dreamy experience. Not heavy on incident or "plot", the film succeeds in conveying a mood and sense of place.

Lê's fond portrait of his bà nội is clearly his way of honouring his beloved elder. Frail but feisty, betel-stained teeth usually busily nibbling at a snack, her not-so-veiled commands and kinder imprecations — "please get married while I'm still alive", alternated with "I just want you to be happy" — would be familiar to many grandchildren of any culture. Lê is himself caught between two worlds, and a different sort of ethereal spectre (in the form of unanswered voicemails from half a world away) give us hints at the dissociations that a younger, global generation are facing.

No remaining screenings at the festival.

Valentine Road (Dir: Marta Cunningham, 87 minutes, USA)

A playground game for Valentine's: a dare where you have to go up to the one you like and tell them you want to be their valentine. In a California schoolyard, to titters and teasing a young boy steels his resolve and publicly states that his Valentine is another boy. The next day, the second boy shoots the first dead in class. Valentine Road is a heartbreaking story of young lives destroyed, of hate and homophobia in an America still in the middle of a seismic shift in social norms towards queerness.

Cunningham's film is a biography of two boys, united in the abusive childhoods they endured, but otherwise very different. After a turbulent life, including time spent in a group home, Larry King was beginning to negotiate the complexities of his identity, both mixed race and, as he was beginning to explore, somewhere between the fixed poles of gender. In heels and makeup, King was openly challenging all sorts of norms. Brandon McInerney subcultural niche placed a higher value on various purities — not just straight-and-narrow homophobia, but also so-called "white pride". In the adolescent powderkeg with race and class and sexuality all bound up in intense wads of peer pressure, when Larry and Brandon crossed paths, the outcome was fatal. (How this situation was exacerbated by America's easy access to guns is, sadly, an issue that was not addressed in this film.)

The film is also about the ripples outward and the people affected by this tragedy. Fellow students were caught in a tug of war between factions of teachers who wanted to support Larry and those that wanted him to suppress his identity in public. One teacher, who seemed to show the most encouragement for Larry, was simply fired soon after the event.

Adding further layers to the complexity, the film also tracks Brandon's progress through the justice system, which renders him as something less than a pure villain. Is it right that a fourteen-year-old child should be tried as an adult, and consigned to jail for life? (Anyone who wants to think further on the notion of rehabilitation should check out John Kastner's NCR, also playing at this year's festival.)

This is a hard film to take. But it's also essential viewing, moving beyond lurid headlines to present this story in all its awkward and complicated dimensions. Cunningham comes at the story from several angles. Brandon, who would otherwise be reduced to a handful of stories and still photographs, is brought to life through animated sequences, while interviews with classmates, teachers, lawyers and even — strikingly — jurors from Brandon's trial gives us several different viewpoints on the story. Laws change slowly, and the social attitudes that underpin them evolve (uneasily, unevenly) at an even slower pace. We can only hope that this snapshot will someday serve as a look back at a moment where the hate and prejudice that allowed this crime to happen seems quaint and alien. But for now, this is a must-see.

Remaining screenings: Sunday, April 28, 9:00 PM @ TIFF Lightbox 1; Saturday, May 4, 8:00 PM @ Hart House Theatre

The Defector: Escape from North Korea (Dir: Ann Shin, 71 minutes, Canada)

North Korea is a place you'd want to leave. In this film, we get a few snatches of video smuggled out of the Hermit Kingdom, showing us the abject misery of daily life there — a nightmare of political repression and famine. It's no surprise that so many would feel like they have nothing to lose and would risk their lives to escape. Crossing the Tumen River into China is only the first step, however, and to make it to South Korea or elsewhere in the world then involves a second escape.

It is said that there are many routes for would-be defectors, from the northern route through the Gobi desert to a modern-day Underground Railroad sponsored by Christian churches, but this film follows a group being smuggled southward to reach Thailand via Laos. The escape is organized by the mysterious Dragon, himself a former North Korean soldier who now makes a risky living co-coordinating escapes for others. His motivations are murky, and though he talks about an ethical imperative to help others fleeing from the North, he's also very much in it for the money. In fact, more than once we see him in shakedown mode — and as someone who's entire career is steeped in illegality, it's always an open question what he might do to save his own skin if the need ever arose.

Add to this an undercover film crew documenting the journey and the elements are in place for a fairly tense roadtrip. Director Shin befriends Sook-Ja and Yong-Hee, members of the small group in Dragon's latest convoy, and they become our main window into the story. Careful planning takes place next to taking risks as the group take the long journey by train, bus and ultimately on foot over the frontier. And for context, we also spend some time with Mr. Heo, a former escapee who is now trying to make a life for his family in Toronto.

Instead of trying to tell a comprehensive story about the plight of North Koreans, or even of the entirety of the defector experience, the film smartly keeps its focus on this particular group. It's also done with some stylistic flair, with artful cuts and animations taking us seamlessly from Toronto to China to inside North Korea. There is also a lot of footage of blurred faces here — unavoidable in the circumstances — but these are alao well-rendered, making it less jarring than it might have been. For those interested in the mysteries of North Korea, this film adds a unique strand to the larger narrative.

Remaining screenings: Monday, April 29, 3:30 PM @ S---------/Paramount 3; Saturday, May 4, 6:30 PM @ The Regent

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