Focus on Festivals

Breaking the Law on Film

True-crime stories made their mark at Hot Docs 2013

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer (dirs. Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin, 2013) / courtesy Hot Docs


FROM 1930S GANGSTER PICTURES like Little Caesar through film noir to current TV series like Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan’s crazed epic about an ordinary man who crosses over into living way beyond the law, fantasy outlaws act out the anarchic impulses and existential dilemmas lurking in everyone’s soul. Storytellers like Gilligan, Tarantino and, of course, Hitchcock play on this link to lure audiences into morally queasy identifications with the criminals they depict.

In the realm of serious documentary filmmaking, crime stories were few and far between until Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line and Nick Broomfield’s bios of serial killer Aileen Wuornos began to change expectations among directors and audiences. Morris had planned a film about Ed Gein, the Wisconsin homicidal maniac and human flesh couturier whose activities inspired the creation of numerous fictional maniacs beginning with Psycho’s Norman Bates. Morris abandoned the project when he interviewed Gein and was bored senseless by the pathetically inarticulate monster. Too bad. An Errol Morris film about a boring monster whose horrific antics are deeply embedded in popular culture would have been something to behold.

Perhaps influenced by the public’s insatiable appetite for fictional and real-life crime stories, documentarians have been increasingly venturing into the underworld, making movies about either hardcore lawbreakers or risk-taking transgressors. Werner Herzog hit the crime beat with somber docs (Into the Abyss, his face-to-face with vacant teenage killers) and pulpy features like the Michael Shannon starrer My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? Last fall, Herzog and Morris co-produced the devastating doc The Act of Killing, directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, in which Indonesian mass murderers and torturers recreate the crimes they committed in preposterous gangster-picture scenarios served up for our delectation.

Herzog, Morris and Oppenheimer are far from the only directors taking real-life wrongdoing beyond the TV tabloids. Hot Docs 2013 displayed evidence of this trend with a rogue’s gallery that included a legendary 82-year-old jewel thief, the leader of a South African gang of drug dealers, uber-scammer Bernard Madoff, Baltimore dirt bikers who antagonize cops with risky street stunts, and Mexican musicians who glorify drug cartel violence. In some of the fest’s selections, outlaws are presented as rebels with a cause, breaking laws to strike out for liberty.

The Life and Times of Doris Payne (dirs. Kirk Marcolina and Matthew Pond, 2013) / courtesy Kirk Marcolina, Matthew Pond and the Milwaukee, Wisconsin police archives

The most seductive of the Hot Docs lawbreakers was the protagonist of Kirk Marcolina and Matthew Pond’s The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne. Over a period of 50 years, the exploits of the film’s African-American anti-heroine earned her a reputation as one of the world’s great jewel thieves. The film wants us to fall in love with Payne’s charming elegance and her mischievous pride in her skill at boosting gems from upscale shops. “My methodology of stealing jewellery took me around the world,” she smiles, and we bond with her, even as we are aware of the way she slides away from tough questions and shows little concern for people affected by her larceny. Towards the end of the film, she faces a trial for theft, and a judge points out that she is a hardened pro with numerous aliases, passports and social security numbers. The movie itself never moralizes.

Payne’s story, scheduled to be a dramatic feature with Halle Berry appropriately cast as a beautiful woman whose refined sense of style were assets she exploited to the hilt, is all about shifting perceptions and illusions. Payne grew up dirt poor in West Virginia, the victim of a wife-beating father and red-state racism, “I felt that I was just nothing,” she says, recalling how she played a solitary game that turned her into “Miss Lady,” the invented identity that took her out of her miserable situation and evolved into her criminal persona.

Payne tells us that she “plays the part” while on a “campaign.” Like Tarantino’s crime stories, The Life and Times of Doris Payne sees criminality as performance, emphasized by montages of Payne dressing and applying her makeup. Her character is not only smoother and smarter than everybody else, Payne sees her as a kind of avenging angel, exacting comeuppance on the white world that treats black people as if they don’t exist.

Throughout the doc, Payne cackles and giggles about her stunning boosts and prison breaks. But a shadow that hangs over the story eventually darkens. Despite her charm, her age and the fact that she’s been a relatively loving parent, Payne ends up in prison, much to the anguished concern of her best friend. In the finale, she’s still laughing, but now she seems less like a beautiful trickster relishing the memory of her adventures than an elderly lady who’s a little cracked.

The Devil’s Lair (dir. Riaan Hendricks, 2013) / courtesy Hot Docs

Like The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne, South African filmmaker’s Riaan Hendricks’ The Devil’s Lair moves in close to its criminal protagonist, offering a non-judgmental picture of a complex man. The beautifully composed opening shows a little boy wearing toy devil’s horns that glow red in a darkened room. The boy’s dad, Braaim, moves around in the distance, getting ready for some kind of action with a gun in his hand. The image plays into the film’s ending and encapsulates its theme: the co-existence of innocence and evil in the world of the protagonist, leader of a drug-dealing posse called the NTK (Nice To Kill).

Braaim’s cropped gray hair and his sober manner underline his patriarchal authority as a father, husband and gang boss, roles that overlap each other. While Doris Payne is a graceful, amused woman who would be perfectly happy to scam your pants off, Braaim comes across as a devoted family man who gets high with his crew, calmly bags crack and plans the murder of a rival gang member.

Some viewers at Hot Docs had qualms about doc-makers filming subjects who are plotting a kill. Producer Neil Brandt told me via an email interview, “This is a risky film, and some people may believe that we are pushing boundaries and ethical limits, but without doing this, I don’t believe you can make a compelling documentary that makes people really feel or really understand what is going on.”

In fact, for Brandt, there are moral problems with any documentary shoot, which is “by its very nature unethical. By virtue of just turning the camera on, you are exerting violence not only on your characters and your audiences, but also on yourselves as filmmakers. This is the burden you have to take responsibility for when your films go into the public domain and you lose control of how they are perceived. If you cannot take that responsibility, do not make films.”

Riaan Hendricks responds to the qualms about his film by wondering if documentaries really do portray reality. “Although it’s real people I film, and although I make exhaustive efforts not to influence my characters on what to say, or even where to stand for a particular shot, I truly do not believe that the resulting cinematic work is reality. It is cinematic truth. But not ‘truth’ enough to be factual. The very objective of film language is to work with subjective reality that can be consumed as entertainment. It might not be easy for a documentary filmmaker who dreams of changing the world to acknowledge that their work falls in the category of entertainment. But that is the truth.” Henricks continues, “The only responsibility I have to the scenes constructed in my film is my responsibility towards my audiences and maintaining their suspension of disbelief.” If the audience reacts by “objecting to the film on a moral ground, well then I have done a good job.”

Throughout The Devil’s Lair, Braaim soliloquizes in interviews and voiceover about how he longs to be the ordinary family guy we see in the movie’s finale. But his turmoil is at least partly a role he knows he’s supposed to play when he’s on camera. We couldn’t really connect with a man capable of murder unless we shared basic human values with him. Braaim says he worries about his children breaking bad, but is he unconsciously revealing a dark truth when he puts those toy devil’s horns on his head to amuse his sweet little daughter? Or is the gesture the improvisation of an actor looking for a way to cap a scene?

In God We Trust (dirs. Derek Anderson and Victor Kubicek, 2013) / courtesy Hot Docs

Opening on the glamour of the Manhattan skyline, Derek Anderson and Victor Kubicek’s In God We Trust offers an insider’s look at one of the most venal criminals of our time. Unlike Doris Payne and The Devil’s Lair, it doesn’t get intimate with its subject. Anderson tells me that he and Kubicek never considered filming Bernard Madoff, whose Ponzi schemes and money-laundering operations destroyed innumerable lives.

Madoff’s story is told from the point of view of his personal secretary of 25 years, Eleanor Squillari, whose history of being betrayed climaxed when she discovered that her beloved boss and surrogate father was actually a morally vacant crook. Devastated, Squillari decided to help investigators accumulate evidence that helped to put Madoff in jail for life. Through riveting explanations of how the intricate scam worked, interviews with victims, and the engaging Squillari’s insights, the doc offers what is probably the most satisfyingly complete version of the story. But although we are exposed to an onslaught of information about Madoff, he appears only at a distance in familiar TV news clips. He remains an enigma. The devil—an evil sociopath, according to Anderson—never gets a chance to seduce us.

TPB AFK: The Pirate Bay Away From Keyboard (dir. Simon Klose, 2013) / courtesy Hot Docs

Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin’s Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer is a richly textured, fluidly assembled advocacy film that portrays the outlaws it depicts as good guys, conscientious objectors against the abuses and hypocrisies of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. As in Swedish filmmaker Simon Klose’s TPB AFK: The Pirate Bay Away From Keyboard, which tracks the three young founders of the illegal download site Pirate Bay, the villain is authoritarian power, not the protagonists. Russian punk band Pussy Riot are rebellious young women up against tyrannical officials, religious fanatics and right-wing thugs who threatened them because they donned their clownish punk band persona and performed briefly on the altar of St. Christ Church in Moscow. The band members were mocking Putin’s tight relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church.

The band’s choice of costume—balaclavas and mini-dresses—distresses the straight world by merging sexual provocation with fear. We’re sexy terrorists, honey, they imply, as they bang out a cacophonous racket that makes Sid Vicious seem like a Beatle. In a story that drew international headlines around the world and caught the eye of sympathizers from political leaders to Madonna, the women were slammed with charges that included “hooliganism and disrespect for society.” True Christian believers were traumatized by their “desecration” of the altar, absurdly equating their rude street theatre with the Bolsheviks’ attacks on religion. A church thug says that in the 10th century the band members would have been burned at the stake, snarling, “[T]he main one is a demon with a brain.”

Lerner and Pozdorovkin structured their film around events that preceded and came after the provocation in the cathedral. We get the members’ backstories, learn what their parents think of their shock activism and follow their trial. When these fearless and eloquent young women, often seen in a courtroom cage, get condemned to a preposterous three-year sentence in a penal colony, they take on the aura of contemporary Joans of Arc.

12 O’Clock Boys (dir. Lofty Nathan, 2013) / courtesy Hot Docs

Lofty Nathan’s debut film, 12 O’Clock Boys, which took the HBO Documentary Films Emerging Artist Award at Hot Docs, plunges viewers into a deprived Baltimore ’hood where a 13-year-old boy called Pug dreams about joining a gang of dirt bikers who ride city streets performing risky tricks. Barreling a dirt bike along an upscale urban thoroughfare is itself an infraction. The boys’ seemingly choreographed maneuvers drive the police nuts, but they don’t pursue them for fear of triggering accidents, which happen anyway. Like Pussy Riot, the 12 O’Clockers are social rebels, though they don’t verbally articulate what their rebellion is about.

12 O’Clock Boys is a raw film, reminiscent of the great TV series The Wire, and it is shot through with moments of poetry. Pug energizes himself with visions of dirt bike glory, the only semblance of grace on his mean streets. When the boys ride 12 o’clock, we see them in slow motion, their front wheels pointed straight up at the sky. At those moments, what seems like an absurd ambition turns into a full-fledged longing for transcendence, and Pug recalls the child heroine of Beasts of the Southern Wild. Unfortunately, as he moves toward adulthood, his actions suggest, despite his mother’s hopes for him, that this self-proclaimed “grown-ass man” could be heading toward a life of trouble with the law. The film ends on this uncertainty about one of most engaging, charismatic protagonists on screen at Hot Docs 2013.

Maurie Alioff writes about movies for publications off- and on-line, and is a screenwriter currently collaborating on a documentary featuring Bob Marley’s granddaughter while researching other Jamaica-related projects, including a magical-realist crime story drawing on stories he hears on the island. He has written for radio, journals and TV, taught screenwriting and been a contributing editor to various magazines.

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