Thursday, April 25, 2013

Hot Docs 2013: Reviews #1

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

15 Reasons to Live (Dir: Alan Zweig, 83 minutes, Canada)

Had I only been told the basic gist of this — a documentary made up of stories for each of the items on a list of reasons to live — I would have avoided it, given how that sounds like the essence of feelgood Oprah-esque pap. The fact that the list was written by Ray Robertson and the film made by Alan Zweig is what got me through the door. The list (subsequently turned into a book) was made by noteworthy local author Robertson after a debilitating battle with depression. For this film, Zweig takes it in his own direction, using it as a framework to stitch together fifteen stories.

In his emergence as a documentarian (in the "mirror trilogy" of Vinyl, I, Curmudgeon and Lovable), Zweig developed a self-reflective method that would quite literally turn the camera on himself. Zweig broke out of that pattern with 2009's somewhat-tentative A Hard Name, which did reveal that his sharp self-questioning skills could be turned outward. That comes into play again in this film, where, in several spots, Zweig asks the exact question that you wanted to hear being asked. There's a much broader canvas than in any of his previous films, and this series of short inquiries gives an opportunity to mix together some different styles, but at bottom, it's the strength of the stories that give the film its power.

Ranging from a free-thinking catholic school student ("Individuality") to a music blogger ("Praise") to whale watchers who become involuntary rescuers ("Duty"), the stories that go with each reason sometimes seem tangential at first ("Love", for example, tells us about a man who decided to drop out of his life to walk around the word — and the accepting forbearance afforded him by his wife) yet each illustrates how that core attribute has been a reason to live for the storyteller. Some of the stories here (such as G20 activist Adam Nobody and rock-balancing sculptor Peter Riedel) will be passingly familiar, and there are plenty of local landmarks to be seen, all of which helps situate these stories close to us.

Maybe it's because the list includes Reasons like Humour, Solitude, and Intoxication, or maybe it's just Zweig's aversion to easy mushiness, but the film is never cheesy yet remains emotionally poignant. (I won't lie — no less than four of these made me a little misty.) The segments are sometimes a little quick (several would be worthy of full documentaries on their own merits) but if you're someone who needs a reminder of the reasons to keep going — and we all have our days where we need one — this film will do you good.

Screens: Saturday, April 27, 6:30 PM @TIFF Lightbox 1; Monday, April 29, 1:30 PM @ Isabel Bader Theatre; Sunday, May 5, 1:30 PM @ TIFF Lightbox 3

Remote Area Medical (Dir: Jeff Reichert/Farihah Zaman), 79 minutes, USA

Stan Brock founded a MSF-style medical corps that was dedicated to setting up pop-up clinics in areas too remote to receive adequate regular access from medical professionals. Over time he realized, however, that there was an intense need for these same services not far from his home base. Thus, as the film opens, we see a massive operation setting up in the NASCAR stadium of Bristol, Tennessee. This beautiful and culturally-rich region is home to the crushing poverty that accompanies America's unequal distribution of wealth and many citizens simply cannot afford even the most basic medical, dental or visual care. And so we follow — mostly from the perspective of a variety of clients — the course of the weekend, from the days-long waits to be in line early enough to guarantee entry to prognosis and hopeful relief.

The film is largely observational and does a good job in conveying a sense of the place and the sudden hustle-bustle of the clinic. At one level, its strength is that it shows rather than tells, and lets the viewer realize on their own how these good people have been failed and how something has gone terribly wrong with health care in America.

I understand and respect why the film took this sort of approach, but I was left wanting more in the way of context and analysis of how this is situated in the greater American political struggle. In such a heavily Republican state, for example, is there an awareness among the clientele of how they have been voting against their own clear interests for decades? How do they feel about so-called Obamacare? Are they not in a state where they might realize that a little socialism would do them good? To operate on this level, of course, would make this a much more divisive and partisan film that could be ignored much more easily by the people who need to see it. As it stands, it a worthy and interesting film, if not, perhaps, the best on its topic. (The Waiting Room, a more accomplished film set in a more urban environment, performed a similar sort of non-didactic observation at last year's festival.)

Screens: Sunday, April 28, 9:30 PM @ The Royal; Tuesday, April 30, 11:00 AM @ Isabel Bader; Saturday, May 4, 4:00 PM @ S---------/Paramount 3

Rent a Family Inc. (Dir: Kaspar Astrup Schröder, 77 minutes, Denmark)

Ryuichi has several part-time jobs — one of which happens to be an enterprise called "I Want to Cheer You Up", where he will stand in for your father, husband or boss at weddings or other social occasions. This gives us a window to look in on the formalism and seemingly ubiquitous emotional distance built into even intimate relationships in Japan. Apparently, it's more important to have parents (even fake ones) at a wedding than to 'fess up to broken family links or other issues. This penchant for concealment (and avoidance of awkward questions from the relationship's other end) is also rather apparent in Ryuichi's home life, where his wife doesn't know what he does for a living, and he seems utterly alienated from everyone except his dog. While he dreams of that fantasy vacation to Hawaii, his life is falling apart around him as he plows ahead with his calling.

Schröder's doc has the benefit of this rather unique story, and the stoic Ryuichi is an intriguing protagonist, his life of quiet desperation masked by culturally-ingrained stoicism and obeisance to stratified patriarchal ideals. But while it constantly surprises and confounds, the film never quite takes off. If you're the type of doc-watcher who wonders over which parts are carefully-woven-in re-enactments, this film will have you on alert. (Could Ryuichi's family's TV-watching habits be so ironically on-point all the time?) But there is a lot of food for thought here in the relationship between concealment, tradition and saving face, and certainly enough to make this worth watching.

Screens: Sunday, April 28, 9:00 PM @ S---------/Paramount 4; Tuesday, April 30, 1:00 PM @ ROM; Sunday, May 5, 1:00 PM @ S---------/Paramount 3

NCR: Not Criminally Responsible (Dir: John Kastner, 95 minutes, Canada)

Sean Clifton seems like a pretty likeable guy. With his bemused expression and laconic manner, he looks like someone with a lot on his mind. He also has an illness, and once back in '99 it took hold of him and caused him to do something bad.

Director John Kastner has previously explored issues of criminality and its aftermath, but here the focus is on the related issue of mental illness and recovery. How should we treat people who do terrible things because of an illness and not an immoral choice? If they can become rehabilitated, how should we respect their right to autonomy while acknowledging they must remain subject to treatment for the good of themselves and society?

This is also a film about the terrible cost of victimhood and its relationship to healing and forgiveness. Julie Bouvier was going about her business, out shopping one night in '99 when she was viciously attacked and stabbed by Clifton, subjecting her to years of psychical pain and emotional turmoil. Certainly her and her family are right to want justice, to fear for their safety and to worry that her attacker might strike someone else.

Tracing this over several years, Kastner follows the story from both sides, interviewing both principals with his characteristic friendly sensitivity. The span of time allows us to see the changes in both — in the healing and growing strength of Bouvier and her family, and, rather strikingly, in Clifton's recovery and transformation. As he reaches a point where he understands the impact of his past actions and the power his illness hold over him we get a sense that his obligations to himself, his victim and society are best addressed by allowing him his freedom and dignity.

A powerful film, nimbly constructed to pull the viewer into the story, Kastner has allowed us to see past the terror of an awful deed to see how its echoes in time need not be fear and revenge. In a time where elements of our society want to impose an unthinking carceral regimen on any transgressors, this is a testament to a different path.

Screens: Sunday, April 28. 9:30 PM @ Isabel Bader; Tuesday, April 30, 3:30 PM @ S---------/Paramount 3; Sunday, May 5, 1:00 PM @ TIFF Lightbox 2

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