Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Hot Docs 2013: Reviews #6

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

Unplugged (Dir: Mladen Kovacevic, 51 minutes, Serbia/Finland)

Anyone who's sat under a tree and listened to the wind knows that there's music all around us. And with our headphones and portable devices it's easy to ignore centuries — millennia — of older ways, of deep technology.

"We're all mute now," says Pera, who gets along in the old ways on his Serbian farm. His music is always near at hand, never further than the nearest tree. Like a declining few, his instrument is a leaf held to his lips and used as an elemental reed. Free-spirited Vera, a former industrial detective who might decide to set off some fireworks if she wakes up in the middle of the night, is also always surrounded by music, whether singing an old song or nimbly trilling with a leaf. Josip is an amateur ethnomusicologist and master of two dozen instruments, many of which he crafted himself. Yet despite his efforts, the mastery of this most basic one eludes him.

In this midlength work, we spend some time with folks whose sense of harmony with nature is a musical one. Josip is our intermediary, visiting old farmers to try and glean some techniques and looking for just the right sort of leaf (or industrial substitute) to harness that sound. A gentle ramble, mostly through the Serbian countryside, this modest charmer serves as a reminder that you can strip things back way further than we tend to think if you want to make some DIY music.

Screens with: Vegas (Dir: Lukasz Konopa, 24 minutes, UK), a short meditation on life on the margins of the glitz of America's desert dream factory. A homeless man living in a storm drain pines for his missing cat; a cop on the eviction beat tries to perform his duties with some amount of decency; an aspiring lounge singer tries to delude himself into believing in the American dream of grit and elbow grease — none of these are the faces that Las Vegas wants us to associate with their city, but this nicely-observed piece reminds us that they're as much part of that melancholy dream as the high rollers.

Remaining screenings: Sunday, May 5, 8:30 PM @ TIFF Lightbox 4

Searching for Bill (Dir: Jonas Poher Rasmussen, 75 minutes, Denmark)

Bob Maseris is heading from New Orleans to Detroit to reclaim the car that was stolen by the mysterious Bill. In that city, a drug-dealer-turned street-preacher prepares for a trip to the West Coast. Lou, a boxcar riding drifter and itinerant musician, is hitching for a ride and searching for some balm for her shattered soul. Bob discovers a notebook with the details of Bill's cross-country crime spree and decides to head west to try and confront him, while we meet a couple other of Bill's victims.

With a cast like this, the story seems set to unfold almost like an Elmore Leonard caper, complete with "character" moments for minor walk-ons who have no role in the plot. There's a few stranger-than-fiction moments here — a heartfelt graveside beard-trimming, say, or a parrot-loving cat — that give this the energy of real-life rushing off in unanticipated directions. But when the director 'fesses up that "[w]e have added a very simple fictional structure about Bill the conman who everybody is looking for," the fact that the entire "plot" is a contrivance seems to undermine the premise that "[e]verything is based on real persons and authentic incidents."

The entire "Bill" throughline, then, can be seen as a commentary about the fading American dream in the face of the economic crisis (as we are reminded about in occasional news radio flashes). Using a fictional frame to achieve a greater truth might be good art, but may also spoil anyone coming to this expecting the veracity of documentary practice. As it is, it's an enjoyable little roadtrip that should be approached as a quirky indie road movie with some documentary elements ruffled around the edges — a pleasant ride, even if the resolution is as uncertain as the characters' economic prospects.

Screens with: Leonardo (Dir: Jeffrey Zablotny, 8 minutes, Canada) which reveals that sometimes our lost childhoods can be found right under our noses, as long as you have the right tools. A charming and laugh-out-loud testament to suburban adventures and childhood imagination, where of course a home's ductwork could be a surrogate for a Ninja Turtle's sewer habitat.

Remaining screenings: Wednesday, May 1, 4:30 PM @ TIFF Lightbox 4; Thursday, May 2, 1:00 PM @ TIFF Lightbox 3

Hill of Pleasures (Dir: Maria Ramos, 90 minutes, Netherlands/Brazil)

Maria Ramos has previously made a pair of films detailing the inner workings Brazilian justice system, but here completes her trilogy by finding a cause for optimism in a wider view of the social system. After a thirty year absence, it's time for the polícia to once again to reclaim the physical and moral high ground in a poor favela in Rio de Janeiro that had been all but abandoned to lawlessness for a generation. Morro dos Prazeres is a 3-D tetris puzzle of a community, homes tightly packed nearly one on top of another on the steep hillside, and connected by a maze of tunnels and stairways.

It's into this environment that the Pacification Police (UPP) have been sent. Not just the smash-and-grab SWAT teams of the older paramilitary system of asserting the state's presence, the UPP is here in force to stay, a constant presence in the neighbourhood whose M.O. falls somewhere between occupation and social work, sending the message to drug gangs and other criminals that they can no longer operate with impunity. The cultural shift is immense and both police and civilians are still feeling things out — and in the meantime, we have a particular brand of "community policing" where the UPP can often be found prowling the neighbourhood, guns drawn, politely saying "obrigado" after stopping to frisk seemingly anyone under thirty.

In feeling out the real-world ramifications, Ramos spends some time with a variety of folks in the neighbourhood: the police captain, a likeable stickler for discipline who understands that the police need to win hearts and minds while still projecting strength; a teenage ex-drug dealer who wants to stay out of prison but has a lifetime of suspicion toward the police; the local mailman, the friendly face of social order, who urges positivity to kids as their football coach; a Bakunin-reading worker who isn't sure that the "new" police are any less of a tool of repression.

As we go inside these peoples' lives and homes, a few scenes run a little long, but on the whole this is very interesting stuff. It's also filled with striking visual images of this beautiful and unlikely community, the steep hillside looking out over the rich-folks part of the city and the sea beyond. Ramos takes us on a neighbourhood tour that outsiders would never otherwise see — that, plus the running rumination on how the trust that underlies the rule of law can become re-established make this worth seeing.

Remaining screenings: Saturday, May 4, 6:30 PM @ Isabel Bader Theatre

Caucus (Dir: AJ Schnack, 109 minutes, USA)

in a public display of popular democracy, the citizens of Iowa meet up in caucuses, "gatherings of neighbours", to select their delegates in choosing their leaders. Because it comes first in the primary season — and because of the hands-on, meet-the-people response it demands of politicians — it takes an outsize role as an early bellwether of the American Presidential campaign. This film follows the early lead-up to the 2012 election, as Republican hopefuls vie to become the standard-bearer against Barack Obama.

On the scene early and sticking with the story as it unfolds, the film-makers gain access to one of the more memorable electoral battles in recent history. The field is generally acknowledged to be split between an "establishment" front-runner (eventual nominee Mitt Romney) as well as a gaggle of opponents vying to become the voice of the party's extremist "Tea Party" faction. As the candidates visit the state, their fortunes wax and wane: the high-heeled charm offensive of Michele Bachmann (and her thumb-wrestling husband), whose imperious haughtiness implies she already considers herself the president; goofy uncle Herman Cain, who's a howl to hang out with (at least at first); grand-dad Newt Gingrich with a demented sparkle in his eye. And at the back of the pack, sad-sack anal stain Rick Santorum, who has all but moved to the state, and is criss-crossing all ninety-nine counties in an attempt to convince voters one-on-one.

Under the weird pressure cooker of the modern media glare, the candidates have to smile, shake hands and answer the questions, whether reasonable, hostile, or just outright insane. The film follows them, verité style, and though it touches on some of the issues (including the weird Republican fascination with fetuses and heterosexual pair-bonding) we mostly observe how the candidates react to their environment. Unsurprisingly, most come off plastic and scripted. The real revelation here is Santorum, who comes across as genuinely likeable on a human level. As his numbers take off in the campaign's home stretch, it's hard not to cheer for him a little.

The film-makers understand the genre of fly-on-the-wall political docs they are working in (a list of thank-yous in the credits is like a timeline of their forerunners) and they marshal their material into a compelling film that follows the dips and crests of this strange spectacle. With plenty of laughs and jaw-dropping moments, this probably isn't going to change anyone's minds about the Republican party's positions, but the occasional glimpses of humanity under the glare of the cameras gives us a bit of a taste of the candidates' character underneath the veneer.

Remaining screenings: Thursday, May 2, 11:00 AM @ Isabel Bader Theatre

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