Focus on Festivals

Hot Docs 2012: Relating to films and filmmakers

Surveying Toronto’s major documentary event

Co-director Emad Burnat with his five broken cameras from 5 Broken Cameras (2011) / Courtesy of Kino Lorber, Inc.

In previous festival coverage for POV I’ve generally led up to how I rapidly lost track of time, abandoned well-thought-out plans and became incredibly inspired. While the same was true of my Hot Docs 2012 experience, I wanted to put that on the table up front and focus on another aspect of the festival experience: relationships.

This time around, I ignored conventional wisdom and brought nothing to pitch and left all aspirations of forwarding specific projects at home. My rationale was to remove emphasis from the short term and consider the long view.

One of the great pleasures of being at festivals is the opportunity to meet filmmakers. They can teach and inspire you. Take Guy Davidi, director of 5 Broken Cameras, the film that moved me most at Hot Docs. It’s a collaboration between Davidi, an Israeli, and Palestinian resident Emad Burnat. Throughout filming, the Israeli encroachment into the occupied West Bank village of Bil’in is shown through the eyes of Burnat. He films the bulldozers razing his village farmland. We see entire groves of olive trees, the Palestinians’ livelihood and connection to the earth, set on fire. Burnat shows very young looking boys being hauled from their families and driven away in armoured military vehicles. And then there’s the funeral of a close friend. Poignantly narrated by Burnat, we hear his ruminations about the future of his youngest son. Having witnessed the impact on his older children, he wonders how this boy will be affected by the specific circumstances of this unique point in time.

Davidi is very casual, especially for one who’s already won major prizes with his film at Sundance and IDFA. I intuit that part of his confidence comes from knowing that he’s done something worthwhile by supporting this Palestinian story. Then he shares something fascinating with me about his film. A brazenly intelligent move. One that strikes to the very heart of the humanity of the film, so very apparent in one way and totally invisible in another. Burnat’s earnestly eloquent narration was written by none other than Davidi. I’ve often heard documentary filmmakers state that they want to provide a voice for the voiceless, but this is the first time I’ve seen it done so literally and so well.

Soldier/Citizen, dir. Silvina Landsmann (2012) / Courtesy of Hot Docs

Soldier/Citizen is Silvina Landsmann’s film showing a group of Israeli soldiers, about to be decommissioned attending a civics class while pursuing their high school diplomas. The obvious question—why would the Israeli government create such a programme—was soon displaced with the feeling of disbelief that I could be witnessing something so absurd. The soldiers are patiently introduced to the concept that Palestinians have basic human rights. Fresh off duty and about to be reintegrated to civilian life, many of the soldiers simply refuse to accept the principle as valid. My sentiment, while watching this film, was that I was seeing something of historical significance. For a North American, the parallels that come to mind would be to see inside a segregated classroom in the ’60s U.S. South, or something shot in support of the children inside a Canadian Native residential school. Landsmann’s ability to capture the natural arrogance of the soldiers without drawing attention to herself is a tribute to her sense of when and how to film.

I open the interview with an observation about the complexity and paradoxes of Israeli culture as illustrated in documentaries. How on the one hand there exists a contentious security fence and on the other, scathing scrutiny—both supported by their own government. Landsmann’s eyes twinkle. She’s more interested in knowing what I think about her film than telling me about it. For her it seems more about dialogue than persuasion.

Bumping into Kathleen Mullen, artistic director of Planet in Focus, was a joy. Teaching summer programmes for North America’s premier environmental film festival has been my privilege for the past several years, so catching up with her outside of the pressures of the usual contexts is refreshing. Kathleen’s friend Jim Hubbard joins us and conversation turns to his film, United in Anger: a History of ACT UP.

Mark Fotopoulos (1956-1991) holding his iconic sign from _United in Anger: a History of ACT UP (2010) / Courtesy of Hot Docs

For an activist, Hubbard is very gentle and soft-spoken in person. He carries with him a centredness that I interpret as coming from having finally completed a film 25 years in the making—and gone through the dramatic journey, too. ACT UP is an AIDS activist organisation, born in New York City in reaction to both the disease and all the misunderstandings surrounding it. Using dramatic, attention-grabbing tactics, ACT UP activists fought for fair access to treatment in the face of complacency and negligence. That a group, probably best described in today’s terms as LGBT, fought so hard against stigma and inertia to gain access to medical treatment for a disease that is now recognised as global and indifferent to demographics is a testament to the heroism of ACT UP. Perhaps that is part of why Hubbard is so confident. Now the proof is consolidated in one documentary.

Shadows of Liberty, dir. Jean-Philippe Tremblay (2012) / Courtesy of Zeynep Yildiz, Docfactory, and Hot Docs

Drawing attention to social injustices and highlighting important places to look in the present are certainly common traditions amongst documentary filmmakers. Shadows of Liberty is a scary film because it warns of an issue so invisible to the majority of people, yet so relevant: Internet neutrality. Standing on an expertly crafted story about an intricate web of corporate betrayals of the general public’s best interests, Jean-Philippe Tremblay argues that the rights of the average person have been significantly and consistently eroded. More importantly, he warns that, unless we become more aware, the worst is yet to come. The real shocker in this film is the revelation that corporate interests are relying on the general public’s lack of awareness of their push to distinguish wireless delivery of Internet services as a distinctly different medium, subject to new and vastly different regulations and fees. Scary? Sure thing—especially if you combine the industry push towards having wireless everywhere and the lack of real transparency in regulation (especially in the U.S.).

The Hot Docs Forum was frustrating this year because of particular complaints from the commissioning editors at the table. I didn’t know whether to be more disappointed or disturbed about the common comment that projects were too serious. I wonder what they would have said about Invisible War (which screened this year), about systemic rape in the U.S. military system? Would it be: “We all agree that it’s an important story to tell but I’m wondering if there’s a way you could show the lighter side of it? It just feels really heavy to me.”

Having recently watched Shadows of Liberty, which implicated The New York Times in the erosion of U.S. civil liberties, witnessing the fawning inauguration of the newspaper’s digital division to the Forum and its open pursuit of entertaining stories was something to see.

Good Pitch, a former component of the Forum where serious documentary makers were matched with likeminded funders (Tribeca Fund, The Ford Foundation and the Sundance Institute) and potential third-sector partners, is sorely missed.

Something else odd also occurred to me while watching the Forum. It seemed just plain strange that the majority of people being pitched to were television commissioning editors, many of whom openly questioned filmmakers’ choice of the feature format. Wouldn’t it make sense to include some distributors and sales agents at the table too?

Daphne Vaz of High Fidelity HDTV, umbrella for four specialty channels, was a notable exception at the Forum. Of the Canadian programmers at the table, Vaz was the most enthusiastic. The projects she heaped praise on overlapped significantly with my choices. Hearing her warm invitations to follow up with filmmakers was a very fresh breath of air in a terribly stagnant room. While its resources are modest at the moment, High Fidelity is a player to watch in the future.

The day after she pitched her project Merkato solo at the Forum, I bumped into director Sosena Solomon. Merkato will document a day in the life of a market in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The beautifully shot trailer had been heavily criticized at the Forum for its approach, which is central to the film. Solomon graciously accepted the criticism and kept smiling. Later, I had one eye out for her because I felt the criticisms were totally unfounded. Having enjoyed Life in a Day, a recent film that took a similar approach, I wanted to provide some counter balance. Solomon was relieved to hear my encouragement and we moved into talking cinematography. She shoots her own projects solo, as do I. Talk evolved into the latest camera technology and I was able to introduce her to Sarah Moffat, who writes a tech blog for the Canadian Society of Cinematographers. Coincidentally, Moffat was about to do a demo, facilitated by Cinequip White, of the very camera (Canon C300) that Solomon and I would love to use.

Theo Fleury: Playing with Fire, dir. Matt Embry (2012) / Courtesy of Pyramid Productions Inc.

Meeting Larry Day, director of Playing with Fire, was a personal highlight of the festival. The subject of that doc, Theo Fleury, is a Canadian hero and not only because of his Stanley Cup ring. In fact, I’m not a hockey fan. Why I really wanted to meet Fleury was to thank him in person for writing the book. I read it recently and his simple message, “Tell the truth,” resonated deeply with me. I took his advice and made a police report against an assistant scout leader who abused me in the ’70s. One of the best things I’ve ever done. Fleury wasn’t able to attend because he’s taking a much-needed break. Power to him. The film is really well made and rocks, especially because of the brave message of awareness it carries: the wounds of childhood sexual abuse run deep but there is hope for men who live with it.

The Micro Meeting series never disappoints. It is a great way to get the latest intelligence on what broadcasters are saying. But for face time? Not so great. I did manage to squeeze in and say hello to TVO’s CE Jane Jankovic. I have a fairly good e-mail rapport with her but had never met in person, so thought I would cross that T. She graciously took my card, made a quick note on it and had one eye on the door. Timing is everything. I did however bump into Jane’s colleague Linda Fong over coffee one morning. Arriving early pays. We sat for a half hour and mused about nature and architecture. Bingo.

Of all the extra-curricular events, the one I anticipated the most was the EyeSteel party, partly because I wanted to blow off some steam and partly because it was within walking distance of home. Getting in the front door was a challenge though because I bumped into John Walker (Drummer’s Dream, River of Life, Men of the Deeps). I had met John in the food line at the DOC AGM a few days before, and in return for some good old Toronto sarcasm he gave me some down-east warm-hearted attention. Nothing like a little needling from a new friend.

Filmmakers need to make fast bonds and rely on the people around them not only for inspiration and company but in the long run, survival. I am left profoundly grateful for the community of amazing filmmakers that I meet and get to know through festivals like Hot Docs.

Fredrik Gertten’s Big Boys Gone Bananas! at Hot Docs

The year Swedish doc-maker Fredrik Gertten’s career was almost destroyed by the Dole Food Company, he began planning a follow-up to his 2009 film Bananas!, an exposé of Dole’s one-time use of a dangerous pesticide on Nicaraguan banana plantations. Reacting to Bananas!, which tracked the story of 12 workers who sued Dole, the giant multinational threatened paralyzing legal action against Gertten’s tiny production company. Dole claimed, among other assertions, that the flamboyant lawyer Juan “Accidentes” Dominguez representing the workers was scamming the system.

In the aftermath of his film’s notoriety, Gertten moved on to a doc about “freedom of speech by recounting what happened to us.” For the filmmaker, mega-companies like Dole deploy whatever means necessary to silence brand tarnishing truths. Any doc-maker who challenges the Big Boys is at risk.

Gertten’s new film, Big Boys Gone Bananas!, was one of Hot Docs 2012’s biggest crowd-pleasers. Scary, at times darkly comic, the movie offers a riveting depiction of 21st-century information-control mechanisms. But rather than paint the audience into a corner of helpless outrage and cynical despair, Big Boys does what only a non-fiction film can do: show that in real life, good guys sometimes triumph.

Appearing throughout his own movie as an embattled, somewhat quixotic figure, Gertten meets up with professionals who explain why a huge corporation would be so hot to smother a Swedish documentary with limited audience reach. “The spin makes you confused,” says Gertten. You get especially confused when you make a documentary about victimized banana plantation workers and a pro-Dole journalist compares it to Nazi hate propaganda.

Big Boys Gone Bananas! would be less effective if Gertten was a smug ideologue or wannabe crusading saint. Instead, he comes across as a regular guy who acts to protect himself and those close to him, a compelling mix of self-confident certainty about what he’s doing and vulnerability, even occasional goofiness.

Following the Canadian premiere of Big Boys at Hot Docs, “the very engaged audiences” delighted Gertten. As for his long-time nemesis, “We know that Dole attended the IDFA premiere. But they haven’t talked to us. If Dole really wants to underline that they are bad people, they will attack a film on free speech. My hope is that they will leave us alone. It’s no fun having them all over you.”

- Maurie Alioff

Kevin Macdonald’s Marley

Long drawn to reggae music, professionally and emotionally tuned into Jamaica, for me Hot Docs 2012’s hottest ticket was Kevin Macdonald’s meant-to-be definitive biography of Bob Marley. The latest film about the genius singer-songwriter, warrior against injustice and Jah-struck Rastafarai prophet took years to reach completion and engaged two directors before Macdonald (Touching the Void) took over from Jonathan Demme, himself preceded by Martin Scorsese.

The first bio authorized by the Marley family takes viewers from Bob’s early childhood to his sadly premature death at age 36. Born in 1945 in Nine Mile, a beautiful but poverty-stricken village in the Jamaican parish of St. Ann, Marley’s mother, Cedella, was a teenage country girl, his father, Norval, a white, sixty-something military man. The film points out how the mixed heritage made Bob’s youth tricky.

Enamoured of its protagonist, Marley love-bombs you with archival material and concert footage, some of it ramped up, interviews with intimates like friend and collaborator Bunny Wailer; son Ziggy (one of the doc’s producers); embittered daughter Cedelia; and Jamaican-bred entrepreneur Chris Blackwell, who put Marley on the international map and is another of the film’s producers. Looming over everyone else, Bob’s wife, Rita, laughs that she became a “guardian angel” with responsibilities that included removing distracting groupies from the superstar’s dressing room.

Some complain that Marley is rigidly linear, ticking off story points in a familiar narrative. Critic Ankhobia Carvalho is not alone when she argues that Marley bleaches out a man whose rebel music challenged the established order everywhere in the world. The film’s Bob is less revolutionary, less Rastafari, to make him more palatable to a mainstream audience, she says.

But even if you agree with this point of view and you know all the beats in the story, the man, his music and nimble dance moves, the eloquent lift and lilt of his songs, would be irresistible even in a picture less well made. Running 144 minutes, Macdonald’s doc offers an expansive presentation that makes Bob Marley’s story seem bigger, brighter and packed with unprecedented detail.

Marley offers many blessings, including footage of Jamaica that ranges from funky to sublime. Aerial shots of the island’s shimmering, uncannily green hills become a motif, invoking everything that that is beautiful, loving, spiritual and creatively fertile about an island still tragically plagued by the deprivation and violence that haunted Bob Marley all his life.

- Maurie Alioff