Focus on Festivals

Hot Docs Shorts: Sweet, Sour and Tangy

Films don’t have to be long to be artistic and emotionally engaging.

Packing up the Wagon (dirs. John Scoles and Mike Maryniuk, 2013) / Photo courtesy of Hot Docs

It’s hard to tell a good story in 60 minutes but it’s even trickier to tell a great one in five. Short films make an impact through their economy of words and images. Less can, indeed, be more, as the shorts in the Canadian programming demonstrate at the 2013 Hot Docs festival.

This year’s offering presents documentaries from around the country that feel both specific and universal. Packing up the Wagon: The Last Days of the Wagon Wheel Lunch, for example, sees Winnipeg filmmakers Mike Maryniuk and John Scoles tell a story that many Torontonians might find familiar. Wagon Wheel documents the final days of a Winnipeg institution, The Wagon Wheel Lunch, which was forced to close in order to make room for a fancy new parkade. With its Formica countertops and vinyl seats, which the filmmakers capture in a timeless blend of 8mm, 16mm and sparkling animation, The Wagon Wheel invited city dwellers into a friendly place with a small town feel. It’s the kind of diner where David Lynch might pair a fine cup of coffee with a slice of cherry pie.

The film serves a mouth-watering eulogy to the greasy spoon as it tells of the diner’s famous clubhouse sandwich that was built with the kind of care and quality that seems alien today. The key ingredients were thick slices of real turkey and a neighbourly vibe created by founder Louis Mathez. Maryniuk recalls a trip to the Wagon that sums up its importance to the city. He remembers a day in 2006 when he and some parties in a lawsuit resolved the matter over the Wagon’s acclaimed clubhouses. “The president of the broadcaster wiped mayo off the side of his face, grinned at us, and decided he simply was no longer mad at us. That he now understood us. The atmosphere and the food had taken over; he had been overcome with nostalgia, and for those few moments, he understood what it was to be a Winnipegger. All was forgiven.

“The restaurant was a place without ego or class systems. An aura of equality existed in that space,” he continues. “You had bankers in a booth beside a homeless man eating soup, all chatting about the weather and the playoff chances of the football team.” As Maryniuk and Scoles interview patrons and employees of the local diner that served comfort food for half a century, the story of the Wagon Wheel’s closure exposes a changing cityscape that doesn’t leave room for mom-and-pop establishments that provide a sense of community at working class prices.

Packing up the Wagon, however, finds a note of optimism in the face of Winnipeg’s gentrification. One interviewee in the film echoes Maryniuk’s sentiment and notes that it’s not the iconic buildings or sandwiches that define the greatness of a city; rather, it’s the spirit of what people do in their everyday acts that makes a community strong. “The Wagon Wheel and my filmmaking process are antiquated, working-class throwbacks that the modern world has left behind,” says Maryniuk, “but a few years after…and with a lot of hard work, charm and patience they become something special, unique and something that simply can’t be copied.” Thanks to its humble, down-to-earth look at the diner’s dying days, Wagon Wheel helps the spirit of the diner survive long after serving its final clubhouse.

Just as I Remember (dir. Andrew Moir, 2012) / Photo courtesy of Hot Docs

Two other human portraits from Canuck filmmakers are sure to be among the festival highlights thanks to their emotional force and artistic dexterity. Andrew Moir’s Just as I Remember, which comes to the festival after winning the 2012 prize for Best Student Film from the Toronto Film Critics Association, supplies Hot Docs with a poignant story as Moir revisits his memories of growing up while his father’s body deteriorated from ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, which atrophies all muscles, leaving the patient incapable of physical activity). Moir, a graduate of Ryerson University, astutely avoids restricting the focus to his own story and also follows another family, the Katzes, who are in a situation similar to his own.

The parallels between the Katzes and the Moirs are immediate. Brad, the father, is roughly the same age as Andrew’s father, Don, was when he was diagnosed with ALS. Both families have three children, too young to understand fully the process of ALS at the time of the diagnosis. Moir notes that the symmetry between Brad and his father goes beyond the superficial, which makes the Katzes’ story a compelling window through which he can revisit his own memories. “I found that Brad and my dad shared the same kind of values and are do-it-yourself people,” Moir says, noting that the Katzes were also looking for a videographer to capture some footage of Brad, his wife Deecla and their three kids. The stories, skilfully interconnected, show fathers losing the ability to interact with their children physically while watching them grow up.

Heartbreaking, yet without a false note of sentimentality, Just as I Remember is a revelatory film experience thanks to Moir’s frank and delicately handled look at the devastating effects of ALS. Moir admits that finding an emotional balance to the story was a difficult task. He says, “I tried to be as honest as I could. I wanted not to make a movie about death.” Moir adds that he hasn’t had a negative experience, since his own father has lived for over seventeen years since he was diagnosed. (People with ALS typically live two to five years after diagnosis.) Instead, Just as I Remember shows what it’s like to live with someone with a terminal illness. The juxtaposition between two families conveys the hope and optimism that survive when a home is filled with love.

Softening (dir. Kelly O’Brien, 2012) / Photo courtesy of Hot Docs

Moir’s Just as I Remember finds a fine colleague in Kelly O’Brien’s mid-length film Softening. Softening, too, presents an uplifting account of how illness transforms people. Looking back on the good memories, rather than the bad ones, the two films should have no trouble connecting with festival audiences thanks to their touchingly personal tales. In fact, Just as I Remember and Softening are such complementary films that they’re playing together, which surely makes them a sympatico double bill at the festival.

Softening offers an intimate portrait of O’Brien’s relationship with her son, Teddy. Born with severe disabilities, Teddy grows up in a way that leads O’Brien, her husband, Terence, and their daughter Emma to reimagine joyful family life. Softening challenges the concept of normalcy by using a kaleidoscopic collage of film form as O’Brien constructs a story using home movies, re-enactments, and experimental interludes captured through her Super 8. O’Brien even scratches the surfaces of the film and finds beauty in imperfection.

Softening is one of the more experimental Canadian shorts at the festival; it calls attention to the elusiveness of storytelling. This structurally innovative film uses evocative imagery to express what words cannot say. The film closes its tale with a provocative endnote by dancer Pina Bausch: “There are some situations that leave you utterly speechless. All you can do is hint at things.”

Softening’s feat of allusion is complemented by its partner, as Just as I Remember mixes observational footage of the Katz family with interactive segments and interviews, and then wraps itself in an affective frame that evokes an image of a memory Moir shared with his father. These two films are sure to leave viewers grasping for words as they find themselves swept up in their artful expressiveness.

The striking aesthetics of these films show how Hot Docs celebrates conceptual storytelling just as heartily as it does timely topics. Sam Decoste’s Mary & Myself, an NFB production, is an excellent example of artistic inspiration leading to emotional significance, as the film tells of two elderly Chinese-Canadian women who prepare to share their story as “comfort women” in a performance of The Vagina Monologues. Mary & Myself finds humour in the situation as the narrator, Jia Tsu, drolly recounts her ineptitude at live theatre. The voiceover is accompanied by stylish animation that accentuates the playfulness of her account. An evocative score by Judith Gruber-Stitzer guides Jia Tsu’s journey through the meta-performance of the animation and provides the film with one of the best soundtracks you’ll hear at the festival.

Mary & Myself takes a stunning dramatic turn as the visuals shift from vibrant animation to a series of black-and-white photographs. The narration, in turn, evolves into the larger story of the thousands of women who were forced into sex slavery by the Japanese military. The film resumes its animated design in the final act and recounts the success of the friends’ performance with a refreshingly cathartic sense of release. The brief interlude of realism within Mary & Myself reveals the different kinds of emotional authenticity a film can convey through the malleability of film form, for Decoste uses the mix of colourful animation and sober still photography to honour the different outlooks of the women depicted in the film’s clever history. Mary & Myself is a thoroughly original and imaginative film.

Another Canadian animated doc, Yellow Sticky Notes | Canadian Anijam, seems like such an anomaly among documentaries that it could have festival-goers redefining the term. Conceived by director Jeff Chiba Stearns as a follow-up to his 2007 film Yellow Sticky Notes and inspired by the 1984 collaborative film Anijam by Marv Newland, Canadian Anijam is a brilliant group effort from a collection of 15 independent Canadian filmmakers. Each filmmaker uses the same materials—a stack of 4×6 sticky notes and a black pen—to create a brief sketch of what they did on a given day.

Yellow Sticky Notes | Canadian Anijam (dir. Jeff Chiba Stearns, 2012) / Photo courtesy of Hot Docs

Canadian Anijam creatively re-conceptualizes how documentaries tell stories by mixing archival mining with artistic interpretation. Chiba Stearns explains that the effort of the collaboration is a resourceful technique for reflecting the world in a substantial, thoughtful way: “When I created Yellow Sticky Notes,” he says, “I coined the term ‘animation meditation’ as a way to self-reflect on the world around me using an animated stream of consciousness. I believe strongly that animation is a meditative process and I wanted to see how other animators approached this.” The sticky notes from the notable team—which includes animation legends such as Cordell Barker, Paul Driessen, Chris Hinton, Janet Perlman, and Oscar winners David Fine and Alison Snowden—shows the range of approaches that artists can have to a singular concept.

“Each sequence,” the director notes, “is a full representation of each of the animators’ drawing style, sense of humour, pacing and sensibility.” Some of the stickies share a note from bygone days, while others leave a message for the future. The notes, arranged chronologically, create a dramatic arc, deftly transporting the audience through humour, irony, inspiration and activism. “All revenue made by Yellow Sticky Notes | Canadian Anijam,” Chiba Stearns adds, “are going to start the Yellow Sticky Notes Foundation, which will help teach youth to classically animate on sticky notes as a way to self-reflect and express their creativity. All the anijam animators were really excited about this part of the project because they are all huge proponents of using classical animation in their own work and this is a great way to inspire a future generation of animators.” Canadian Anijam fuses art and activism, as all good documentaries should.

Sticky notes are also the first step in turning a festival experience into engagement. One size fits all, and the yellow notes offer a helpful bookmark for highlighting worthy films within the festival programme. The Canadian shorts playing at Hot Docs this year prove that documentaries, no matter their size, can inspire festival-goers through their substance, style and storytelling.