Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Hot Docs 2013: Reviews #12

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

Les Blank Program 3: Pleasures

(Dir: Sean McAllister, 69 minutes, UK)

The final set of selections in the Outstanding Achievement Award Retrospective were collected around the themes of "pleasures", and two of them did that by continuing to spotlight culture through food, song and ritual. Dry Wood (Dir: Les Blank, 1973, 37 minutes, USA) travels through Creole country to celebrate Mardi Gras with the rural African American population. Here we see some of the familiar traditions, like masks and costumes, in a simpler, more down-home version, but they still lead to a whoop-up party. Zydeco music abounds as we watch men and women performing their respective tasks in preparation for the feast (and warning to the squeamish: this involves slaughtering their dinner). With a big pot of gumbo and a joyful dance, one gets the sense here of Mardi Gras as part of a living, shared culture, and not as a tourism ploy.

You can see that commercialism starting to creep in a bit in Always for Pleasure (Dir: Les Blank, 1978, 58 minutes, USA), which immerses us into the grand Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans. Of course, from what we gather here, any occasion is worthy of a parade (including the unique Cajun/Irish fusion of NOLA's St. Paddy's Day!) and the residents do love a good party. Hanging out with The Wild Tchopitoulas (one of the many "Indian" tribes that take part in the celebration) we get to see the traditions, including the elaborate costumes that take over the streets. (Bury the Hatchet, whch screened at the festival a couple years ago borrowed some footage from this film and also showed how these traditions were enduring a generation later, before and after Katrina.)

Also on display here in all its glory is the music that soundtracks everything, and we hear Professor Longhair and others saturating the city. The film is as cluttered and vibrant as the celebrations, but they never feel claustrophobic or less than welcoming. A pretty powerful cultural artifact.

Gap-Toothed Women (Dir: Les Blank/Maureen Gosling/Chris Simon/Susan Kell, 1987, 31 minutes, USA) was the exception here in terms of form and content. More interview-based than Blank's usual style, this still demonstrated his whimsical worldview in choosing to focus on something that most of us might not think twice about. As it turns out, however, gap-toothed women have long been a topic of consideration — it was a codeword for promiscuousness ever since Chaucer's tale of the gap-toothed Wife of Bath ("The remedies of love she knew, perchance"). We then meet a series of gap-toothed women (including Lauren Hutton), each who have found their own way to love their "gap". Warm and witty throughout, this tackles topics like beauty standards and self-acceptance without losing its charm.

The Unbelievers (Dir: The Unbelievers, 76 minutes, USA)

A glib and glossy documentation of a book tour, where we see celebrity authors being flown from city to city to address throngs of adoring fans. With that rock'n'roll iconography, this film can never quite get past the merely superficial as it follows Lawrence Krauss and Richard Dawkins around. Advocating for science and reason has put religion in each of their crosshairs, and while this is an essential debate in a world sliding into "truthiness" as a political cognitive check and "faith-based" governance, this film is more of a preaching-to-the-choir victory lap than the slogging work of challenging their viewpoints' opponents. (And as to the tricky problem of selling reason to irrationalists, the film is largely silent.)

It's a bit more successful (though still superficial) as a character sketch of its protagonists, giving us a bit of a feel for Dawkins and Krauss as prototypical American and British academics (stiff upper lip formality vs. slightly-slouchy sneaker-wearing casualness, respectively). It also tantalizingly hints at how each of their academic disciplines (Dawkins' evolutionary biology and Krauss' theoretical physics) informed their worldview and their need to publicly joust with their opponents, but it's done mostly in a way to appeal to people who have already read their books.

While I'm entirely sympathetic to everything they raise, in the end the film is a bit of a paradox: a smug aren't-we-clever back-patting session about people whose intellectual stance says we should be constantly challenging received wisdom. Given how strongly these issues need to be confronted (see below), something more is required.

God Loves Uganda (Dir: Roger Ross Williams, 83 minutes, USA)

In Uganda, it is far from socially acceptable to be gay — and efforts are underway to push that further into outright illegality, a crime punishable by death. This film examines how attitudes towards gays and lesbians in Uganda have been shaped by so-called Christians, tracing the path back to radical fundamentalist churches in the United States. Going inside a bizarre sect known as the "International House of Prayer" — one of many American churches involved in missionary activity in Uganda — we see the fervour put into exporting a puritanical political ideology that would be unviable (if not veering on criminally hateful) in their home country.

Along the way, we meet such figures as the cheerful theocrat Lou Engle (previously seen in Jesus Camp), who delivers his judgmental Old Testament views with a smile and a chuckle, as well as Reverend Kapya Kaoma, a refugee from Uganda now in America after trying to preach against the rising ride of homophobia. We also spend time on the ground in Uganda with various Americans spreading their version of the "good news", from the terrifying fringe extremist Scott Lively to a team of fresh-faced young missionaries. And though it's all cloaked in layers of plausible deniability, we see the connections and how this filters down to Ugandan preachers who are fomenting unadulterated hate among their flocks. In a country with a massive demographic imbalance tilting to the young, what's being taught now could well linger for generations.

We see how this works out "on the ground" in meeting gay activist David Kato (who would be murdered) and Bishop Christopher Senyonjo (who would be excommunicated). This part of the story was more fully addressed in last year's excellent Call Me Kuchu, which approached these issues more closely from Kato's point of view. That powerful film was more emotionally devastating, but foregrounding the role of the American fundamentalists is a valuable service as well.

The film's greatest weakness, however, is how these instruments of control are not called by their proper name: colonialism. The fact that this word is not used during this documentary implies there might be something of a blind spot in its American creators. That said, the film also has to be applauded for its admirable even-handedness — it shows both sides involved with this issue and largely lets us draw our own conclusions. A viewer sympathetic to the fundamentalist worldview could conceivably find much to like here, as the Christians are allowed to speak for themselves as we see them at their work. For the rest of us, it's a call to arms and a reminder that the quest for fundamental human rights and equality is nowhere near complete.

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