(Poland, 80 minutes)
Dir: Wojciech Klimala
Programme: World Showcase. (North American Premiere)
Hugo begins slowly, revealing itself at a leisurely pace despite the urgency of its content. A young boy between six and seven, the eponymous Hugo seems average: he loves Spiderman and ice cream, he plays football, and he seems blissfully unaware of his circumstances. His grandfather Dzidek, however, struggles to raise the boy, lacking the funds to do so while grappling with a difficult family history, as he grieves the loss of his daughter and navigates raising his grandson, whose real father is imprisoned in another country.
The documentary has some faults. Using a mix of home videos and shaky footage from the present, with washed out tones punctuated by the faded colours of the carnival Dzidek used to run, the overall look of Hugo is at best unappealing. The narrative ambiguity is a technique, which misses its mark, feeling like a gimmick to make the film seem more sophisticated and creative, without doing much to actually ensure that is the case. But the greatest problem is the overall energy of the film.
Watching the difficulties experienced by this small family on screen, Hugo comes off as exploitative. Over an extensive amount of time, we watch as Dzidek describes his financial difficulties, deals with child services, and fails to get any sort of aid from those around him. We witness him succumbing to stress, unable to adequately raise the child he treats like his own son while facing the threat that Hugo’s biological father, regardless of his fitness as a parent, will take the boy away once he is released from prison. Finally, in one disturbing scene, the filmmaker stands by passively and unobtrusively as Dzidek, angry and worn down, takes out his frustration upon a silent Hugo, telling his grandson that no one else wants him, and that he is a burden. And so, amidst the turmoil we have already seen, we watch the boy endure a harsh verbal attack.
Hugo starts off with an interesting premise. It contemplates what family means, and how bonds are build or broken. It questions the place of God and religion when faced with death. It confronts the ideas of mourning, recovery, and history. Ultimately, however, the film wallows in the melodrama of hardship, adding little value to its value as a documentary. Hugo had promise, but ended up as a spectacle of misery.
-Tues, May 1 at 8:45 PM at Innis Town Hall
-Wed, May 2 at 12:30 PM at Scotiabank
-Sun, May 6 at 8:30 PM at Scotiabank
Hot Docs runs April 26 to May 6. Please visit hotdocs.ca for more info.