Monday, May 6, 2013

Hot Docs 2013: Reviews #10

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

The Women and the Passenger (Dir: Patricia Correa/Valentina Mac-Pherson, 45 minutes, Chile)

The "Passengers" in this film are the clients of a Chilean hotel that specializes as a rendezvous for illicit encounters, and the women are the employees who clean the rooms and serve the clientele. Filled with a variety of themed suites, this is the sort of hotel that rents rooms by the hour — but it's also classy enough to be diligent about cleaning them up after. And so, we follow a trio of the cleaners on the duties, as they make up the beds and wipe off the stripper poles.

A few low-angle shots of passing feet give us a slight taste of the "passengers", but the focus is squarely on the employees, who offer to the camera their frank thoughts on love and sex (one of the more uninhibited cleaners shows an unbridled curiosity about one room's complicated sex chair). Some see what's going on around them as cautionary tales, and some as instructional opportunities to spice up their own relationships. Cutting across fundamental categories of work and love that affect us to the core, this achieves a wise and witty sense of intimacy with its subjects.

Screens with: Dear Valued Guests (Dir: Jarred Alterman/Paul Sturtz, 15 minutes, USA), another hotel-themed piece. Focusing on the last days of The Regency Motel in Columbia, Missouri, this short features some elegant shots of the hotel, barren of guests as anything valuable is being stripped away. That evokes a sense of melancholy and emptiness, while interviews with some of the staff (and the hotel's lone permanent resident) arouse a sense of nostalgia. A troupe of artists is allowed to take over one the hotel's floors before it's torn down, and they transform the space with vibrant installations and throw one last party before the wrecking ball arrives. Life's entropic transience will always forestall permanence, but memories — including this engaging film — will remain.

This Ain't No Mouse Music! (Dir: Chris Simon/Maureen Gosling, 92 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. That's probably why I'd originally passed by this in the listings with hardly a second thought. But after I encountered Chris Simon and Maureen Gosling holding a warm and engaging Q+A after the first set of Les Blank shorts, I was clawing for my schedule when they mentioned they also had a film of their own at the festival.

Both of them worked with Blank for many years, and it's no surprise that some of his joy and close engagement carried over to this project. The links go deeper as well, as subject Chris Strachwitz also collaborated with Blank of several of his music-themed documentaries. Those films would provide some of the archival material filling in the background, but most of what we have here is a contemporary overview of a striking individual.

Strachwitz is the founder of Arhoolie Records, which has specialized for fifty years in recording and presenting "down home" music in many styles, from Appalachian old-timey music to Cajun to Tejano. Starting with a backroads Texas trip to find bluesman Mance Lipscomb, Strachwitz has specialized in recording musicians in situ, cutting albums in living rooms and back porches, eschewing studio perfection for that in-the-moment spark. In so doing, he's preserved vast swathes of America's regional cultures.

His immigrant roots gave him an outsider's view to see the value in the culture that takes place off the main drags, and the film tracks his story and gives us a sense of Strachwitz's personality and quirks, right from the title on down. (He uses "mouse music" dismissively, in the same way you might call something "Mickey Mouse" — a catch-all for everything that's chintzy and ersatz.)

And so the film is a celebration of both the communities that make this music possible as well as how one exceptional individual can play a key role in spreading it to the wider world. In so doing, it presents the audience with an immense sense of joy. I dug the film for my own reasons, feeling good to think that one person with a recorder could be doing something important, but this was received with the loudest and most enthusiastic applause of anything I saw at the festival, so I think I can say the sense of uplift hit everyone. I assume that this will be making it back into theatres somewhere down the line, and it gets a highest recommendation.

Blood Relative (Dir: Nimisha Mukerji, 73 minutes, Canada)

Thalassemia may not by well-known on this side of the planet, but the world's most common genetic disease affects thousands of children wordwide. Sufferers require frequent blood transfusions to survive, but those transfusions also cause iron buildup in the body. Without chelation treatment, the iron will first stunt growth and ultimately be fatal. The disease is widespread in India, where treatment can be prohibitively expensive.

This film introduces us to some sufferers, including Imran, a gregarious Eminem fan who at twenty-four looks a decade younger. He is working to pay for his treatments and support his family, but is in a precarious position when his health begins to worsen. We also meet Divya, whose family has been unable to afford chelation therapy — and who believe that faith healers might be a better option.

Watching over them and many other sufferers is Vinay Shetty, a dedicated activist who works at an NGO to help provide care for those with Thalassemia. He labours night and day to find donors to pay for treatments while also lobbying the government for a long-term solution. Several times we see him bump up against ingrained cultural attitudes that would wear down a lesser man, but he always seems to be able to dig deeper to find more energy and fight on.

Mukerji's film is an admirably unfussy presentation that never resorts to easy sentimentality to manipulate the audience's emotions, instead showing us how this is a complicated problem both at the individual and societal level. In the end, it's the dignity and perseverance we see from the sufferers and from Shetty that register, and the hints that things are slowly improving that provide some optimism.

Les Blank Program 2: Well Spent Lives

Usually the celebration of an artist's body of work, this year's Outstanding Achievement Award Retrospective was given a sombre cast with Les Blank's recent passing. However, given the recurrent themes of celebration, gentleness and the good things in life, his body of work almost insists that we keep our spirits up — and here shows us some examples of other lives worth celebrating.

An offshoot of the tribute to Appalachian culture Sprout Wings and Fly, Julie: Old Time Tales of the Blue Ridge (Dir: Les Blank, 1991, 11 minutes, USA) is a character sketch of Julie Lyon, who remains feisty and lively at eighty years of age. Still willing to sing a song or hop up for a dance, she's as sharp as a tack as she shares her vivid memories. Keeping the camera close enough to catch the twinkle in her eye, this is a wonderful testament to a long and happy life.

Marc & Ann (Dir: Les Blank, 1991, 27 minutes, USA) takes us back to a happy couple at an earlier stage of their lives, building a family on a farm filled with happiness, good food and good music. Marc and Ann Savoy are both dedicated to preserving the Cajun cultural traditions, through formal means (Marc builds accordions the old fashioned way; Ann has written a book about Cajun music) but also through their lived daily experience. They're not reactionaries trying to turn back the clock, but they see the value of the old ways — and their bounteous lives seem to show that they're on to something. It's also a captivating love story and a successful account of passing family traditions along. (In fact, their son Wilson can be seen carrying the torch a generation later in This Ain't No Mouse Music.)

Returning to the same Texas terrain as the first programme's sketch of Lightnin' Hopkins, A Well Spent Life (Dir: Les Blank, 1971, 44 minutes, USA) gives us a portrait of Mance Liscomb. The bluesman was unrecorded until "discovered" by Chris Strachwitz at age sixty-five but has since become a member of the pantheon. A sharecropper for most of his years, Liscomb has lived some hard times, but with his wife at his side, he seems more grateful than worn-down. A much less incendiary presence than Hopkins, he's reflective as he looks back, dispensing advice on life and love — but he could still play a mean guitar. This is the sort of portrait that makes one want to head from the theatre to the record store to grab some of his stuff.

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