Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Hot Docs 2013: Reviews #5

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

Salma (Dir: Kim Longinotto, 89 minutes, UK/India)

"If not today, then tomorrow. If not tomorrow, then another day. That's how life has always seemed since the dawning of memory." Even if this excellent new film from master documentarian Longinotto is more dreamy and less observational than most of her work, it follows from many of her previous themes (the power dynamics that affect the lives of girls and women) and her empathetic approach.

Here we are following Salma, who is returning to the Tamil village in southern India that she left years ago. It's a place of great sadness for her: like most girls in this Muslim community, upon reaching puberty she was pulled out of school and kept locked away from the world until she could be married off. In her case, with a wilful refusal to subordinate herself, she held out for nine years before agreeing to be married, and in the meantime, she did what she could to satisfy her desire for knowledge. Once married and in control of her in-laws, she began to secretly write poems about her experiences, which became a sensation (and a scandal) when they were published.

So, at one level, this is a triumphant story about one woman rising far beyond the shackles that were imposed on her, as her fame propelled her to the leadership of her village council and ultimately to a state-wide political position. On the other, it's an utterly tragic and heart-wrenching portrait of a social system that is very slow to change, leaving untold numbers of women still locked away and kept from control of their own lives. The women in this world smile most of the time, even when relating terrible events from their past. But when we see their wedding photos, it often looks like the saddest day of their lives.

As always, Longinotto doesn't settle for easy answers. We see here, for example, how it is the mothers-in-law and older women who are just as responsible for perpetuating the system. And beyond that, we also see how everyone's agenda is murky and conflicted when trying to apply general rules to specific persons — Salma's husband, for example, did his utmost to keep her "in her place" and stop her from expressing herself through her writing, but then would later encourage her to stand for office. Her own mother insisted on removing her from school and kept her locked up, but would later assist in smuggling her poems out of her matrimonial home. And so it goes, a complicated field of rules and exceptions.

Although the film observes this social milieu rather than calling for change, it's a strong feminist statement that's impossible to watch without feeling a powerful desire for action, and to hope that there will soon come a day that education for girls and women is no longer haram, and that marriage is choice and not an obligation.

Remaining screenings: Sunday, May 5, 3:30 PM @ ROM Theatre

Let the Fire Burn (Dir: Jason Osder, 93 minutes, USA)

In 1985, a long-simmering conflict between the Police and City of Philadelphia and a radical organization named MOVE came to a head in a confrontation that saw the police firebomb (and ultimately murder) a number of barricaded members of the group and — wittingly or not — incinerate an entire neighbourhood in the process. This shocking abuse of state power is not as widely remembered today as it might be, a situation rectified by this astounding work.

Masterful editing weaves together a wide variety of archival materials to create a vivid presentation of the 1985 incident. Recordings of a commission of inquiry held after the fact is used as the main framework here, enhanced with news footage and an account of one of the day's few survivors.

It now feels a bit strange to think that radical back-to-the-landers would establish a commune in an urban, residential environment, but the film gives us some context, tracing MOVE as an outgrowth of the black power movement of the 60's and 70's. Its particular culture was also imbued with the messianic outlook of a cult-like leader, and we see how far the group was from the mainstream of African-American culture at the time.

A fatal altercation and eviction in 1978 left the group even more frustrated an inward-looking, and they managed to alienate their new neighbours as they moved into a row house in a densely-populated working-class district. The neighbourhood's calls for action led to the city moving to evict the group, which precipitated the fatal standoff. Although MOVE comes off as severely oppositional, as the evidence mounts, it's revealed how disproportionate the police response was.

The ramifications of institutional racism and the militaristic police worldview reverberate still today, and there's layers upon layers of resonance that makes this more than an observation of a historical moment. This gripping film is completely compelling viewing, and an example of documentary film-making at its best. The best of the festival so far, this will surely be noted as one of the most important documentaries of the year.

Remaining screenings: Friday, May 3, 9:30 PM @ TIFF Lightbox 1

Live Cinema: Image/Sound Mixing Performance by Peter Mettler and Biosphere (Dir: Peter Mettler, 45 minutes, Canada/Norway)

This unique screening took part alongside the retrospective Focus On Peter Mettler programme, but it was something brand new. So new, in fact, that it was being created in front of the audiences' eyes. A collaboration between Mettler's images and Norwegian electronic musician Biosphere, the artists came to this with a rough map of how they expected the piece to proceed, but then improvised within that.

Mettler began with a quick demonstration of his visual mixing software. For someone who frequently compares his work to that of musicians, it was no surprise to see that the software was not at all unlike a musical mixing station, with four visual channels (each capable of being processed and treated) that could be mixed together in different ways.

The first sequence paired ambient tones with nature images — clouds drifting overhead which were soon mixed into images of trees and leaves. That led into a stretch with occult-y astrological images and planetary themes, and after that a space-rock-y musical response was accompanied by images of lava oozing down a mountainside. Then a more whimsical segment saw a weather forecaster (occasionally flipped over and visually doubled) pointing at a sac of dividing cells emerging through the weather map. The longest segment saw a recurring clockwork motif paired with a whirling dancer, who gave way to a variety of other dancers. This was the most absorbing visual poetry of the whole session, and after a couple more brief excursions, the whole thing ended with a comedown groove and a return to the drifting clouds from the beginning.

The extent to which this "worked" probably depends on your feelings about associational logic and dream-drift as authorial modus operandi. For those who don't buy in (and a few people bailed once they realized that's what they were getting) it can be seen as a sequence of "here's a thing, now here's another thing" moments. And there were, admittedly, a few places where this felt like a sort of high-concept Laser Floyd experience. But on the whole, this was a success, both as a technical demonstration (I couldn't have been the only one in the crowd thinking about how much fun it would be to sit down and have a go at Mettler's control panel) and as an act of artistic collaboration.

Eastern Avenue/Petropolis (Dir: Peter Mettler, 1985/2009, 55 minutes/43 minutes, Canada)

The oldest of the titles in the Mettler retrospective contained echoes of (or, more precisely, some of the seeds of) the method and aesthetic sensibility seen in the Live Cinema performance. His first attempt to wield the camera in the same way that an improvising musician would use an instrument, this is an impressionistic diary of a trip to Europe — a montage of faces, locations and visual textures.

As a record of a journey, there are many shots taken from moving cars or trains. But there is also the minutiae that build up alongside remembrances of monuments and landmarks — a concern as much with the curtains or windowframe as with what's beyond it. There was also a few instances of images being layered on top of each other in a way that prefigured the Live Cinema concept.

The music was also a key component here, as Mettler showed his images to some musician friends who improvised the accompanying soundtrack. That gives a few different sonic textures here, though a lot of it suggests the traveller's sense of dislocation. At a few places (like a trip to the Berlin Wall), it even suggests alienation, distance and loneliness.

By design, the main sensation here is one of drift. And while that's not everyone's bag, I found it to be pretty engaging stuff.

That film was intriguingly paired with another that presented a different sort of visual drift. A collaboration with Greenpeace, Petropolis is a visual spectacle that is summed up in its subtitle: "Aerial Perspectives on the Alberta Tar Sands". Taking a helicopter ride over the vast territory being transformed by the oil sands industry, this film eschews narrative or talking heads to simply act as a visual witness of a terrain that has become a central fact of our nation's economic and political discourse, but which has been seen by relatively few.

And thus, after some establishing time spent above the endless beauty of the great boreal forests, the helicopter-borne camera suddenly crosses an invisible line to what looks basically like Mordor. With stately, slow sweeps, we build a spacial map of the area. As we see industrial complexes, pit mines and tailing ponds, some sense of the enormity of the project begins to emerge. (Although it's hard to say which is more terrifying: the shots where the viewer gets a sudden sense of scale, or the ones where it seems unmeasurably immense.)

Like the large-format photography of Edward Burtynsky, there's a terrible beauty in these images of scarred earth and toxic sludge and though the film is deliberately non-didactic, the images still covey a sense of alarm and shock — all the more on having a chance to see this on the big screen where the giant scale is magnified even more.

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