Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Hot Docs 2013: Reviews #11

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

Here One Day (Dir: Kathy Leichter, 76 minutes, USA)

Near the outset of this intensely-personal documentary, we see director Kathy Leichter staring pensively out a window for a lingering moment. And I tensed up, thinking to myself this was going to be one of those sorts of movies, filled with heavy-handed symbolism.

But I was wrong. Rather than some sort of metaphor for absence or mourning, that window held a very real meaning, for it was the one from which her mother Nina jumped to her death. Immediately after that moment of reflection, Leichter told her father, cooking dinner at the stove beside the window, that it was finally time to replace it. The rest of the movie is about the process that allows that sort of letting go and moving on.

After her mother's suicide, Leichter took over the family's New York City apartment — partially to remain close to some part of her. And for the years after that, some of her mother's possessions lingered in closets and other crannies, too painful to part with or even to go through. It was finally the demands of her own growing family that led her to realize it was time to part ways with those traces. Noteworthy among them were a series of audio recordings that her mother made, often while at the crests and troughs of her manic-depressive cycle.

And so Leichter set out to document her search for closure, while allowing for the presence of her mother to remain as much as possible. As we learn the family's backstory, Nina's voice imparts some of her personality. Although coping with depression, she was a poet and a free-spirited activist who spoke with a true New Yorker's sardonic edge. We hear her talk about her prescriptions and self-evaluations, as well as her frustrations with her husband Franz, a state senator, as she chose to subordinate her own ambitions to the needs of her family. We also hear her struggling with her own realization that her condition is worsening, but it all seems under control — until it isn't.

We also spend time with Franz, as well as Kathy's brother, spending time to dig back and untangle the aftermath. Complicated relationships (as pretty much any family is) were stretched in new ways by Nina's death, and even sixteen years later, we can see the raw edges in some of their exchanges. But at the end, cleaning out the closets seems to be healthy for everyone, and as the film closes, we see the window being replaced.

Honest and forthright, there were heavy moments throughout, but in not flinching at the memory of her mother, Leichter crafts a resonant story, with strands recognizable to any family that has dealt with mourning and loss (as pretty much any family does).

Seventeen (Dir: Joel DeMott/Jeff Kreines, 1985, 118 minutes, USA)

Screening in the festival's retrospective "Redux" program, Seventeen intrigues on several levels. Originally commissioned by PBS as part of a larger documentary series called Middletown, it's perhaps unsurprising that this verité portrait of high-school seniors in Muncie, Indiana was deemed unsuitable for the American airwaves. Even in this age of omnipresent oversharing and teens-behaving-badly, it manages to feel unusually raw and intense.

Although we encounter a variety of subjects, the film's main character is Lynn, who faces her teachers with foul-mouthed indifference, far more concerned about scoring pot, hanging out with her boyfriend and arguing with her parents. The camera never really pulls back to examine the wider world, but the Reagean-esque shadow of deindustrialization and looming nuclear apocalypse feels ever present — what the fuck is there to grow up for? Even Lynn's parents seem to be disillusioned, waiting for the weekend's party as much as her. "Issues" are omnipresent, but the inter-racial relationships (and the racist reactions they provoke), teen pregnancy, drinking and drug abuse never feel like moments from a "very special episode" — they're simply instances of day-to-day shittiness to be dealt with or avoided.

The time-capsule graininess of the images (which alone make this worth watching for those who want an unfiltered burst of the analog 80's) leave them begging to be "read" in certain ways. Even as we can feel the turbulent emotions provoked by, say, one teen's friend being killed in a car wreck, the cathartic beer guzzling and shirtless weeping when the radio plays his request for "Against the Wind" also registers at the level of trashy camp. And similarly, as I watched Lynn break pretty much every rule she came up against, I kept waiting for a Jason/Michael/Freddy-esque slasher figure to arise from the shadows to give her her moral comeuppance. I suppose ultimately, the only real punishment that these teens had to face was the prospect of living the rest of their lives. That ultimate bit of "reality" stinging underneath everything trumps the campy resonances and is what made this a memorable experience.

Finding the Funk (Dir: Nelson George, 78 minutes, USA)

I tend to avoid the music docs at the festival, not only because I tend to get a lot of music every other week of the year, but also because it's hard to tell which ones will be mere gussied-up puff pieces. This doc would serve as a validation of that wariness. Featuring a glib, soulless superficiality befitting something commissioned by VH-1, this is not a comprehensive overview of the funk genre so much as the most complete story that could be wrangled out of the footage the filmmakers assembled.

Whether it was a deliberate choice or a constraint in attaining the rights, there was a paucity of archival performance or interview footage (save for some interview fragments with an amusingly incomprehensible James Brown), so the film was forced to rely on older, mumbly versions of the story's heros. Contemporary interviews with George Clinton and Sly Stone are front and centre here and while they're fascinating in their own way (especially seeing the long-reclusive Stone), they do little to get across how powerful their music is. (Bootsy Collins, on the other hand, remains amusingly expressive.)

And sadly, the music isn't here to do the talking for them. Sometimes we'd get a snippet of it as played by their acolytes reproducing it (on bass, drums, or guitar) to demonstrate their innovations, but while that wasn't totally uninteresting in its own way, it does little to present the power of the original recordings. But hey! We can always cut to D'Angelo to see what he thinks! (The segment on Prince was especially barren and patched together and felt enormously incomplete, getting no closer to him or his music than an interview with one of his tour managers telling us how good he was.)

Ultimately, this will take its place as filler in the thousand-channel universe, something that you'll linger on for a moment while flipping channels and be vaguely entertained by until the next commercial break. This film couldn't render its topic totally uninteresting, but it's just nowhere as special as it could have been. Overall, you'd be better off to just pull out your records and shake your booty.

Anita (Dir: Freida Mock, 84 minutes, USA)

This film believes Anita Hill. While some documentaries work to present the complicated lives and milieus of their subjects, this is more of a celebration of the life's work of the Oklahoma law professor that created a stir when called to testify at the American Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.

"Sexual harassment" was less talked about in 1991, and the hostile grilling that Thomas faced ("are you a scorned woman?") created the lingering cultural impression that she was on some manner of crusade or that her credibility was on trial instead of the fact that the was a subpoenaed witness. That testimony would alter the trajectory of her life, pushing her from an obscure career teaching contract law onto the path of becoming an activist. Presented here as a sort of sacrifice who helped bring a cultural change and open a new conversational space, we can get some sense of how far we have come on these issues in the last twenty years, and how much work there is to be done.

These are hugely important issues, and the work that Hill has done should be celebrated. And while this was a well-assembled and reasonably interesting documentary, I must confess, however, that some contrarian urge in me rendered it less celebratory than it wants to present itself. Preaching to the converted, which seems to be this film's fate, isn't particularly good at challenging assumptions. I suppose anything that veers this close to hagiography leaves me with a mildly hinky feeling, even when it's something I'm sympathetic to.

No comments:

Post a Comment