So Hot It’s Cool

Hot Doc’s Canadian Spectrum is an eagerly anticipated survey of the current crop of Can-docs. Here’s the skinny.

20 mins read

We’re looking for a range of approaches,” says Lynne Fernie, the veteran Hot Docs programmer responsible for the festival’s 2012 Canadian Spectrum along with her colleagues Alex Rogalski and Michelle Latimer. “We have some beautiful observational cinema [this year], and there are also films that use more classical forms. It’s about having the right combination of things [in the programme]. It’s about issues, and it’s also about aesthetics.”

Looking at some of the titles showing in Canadian Spectrum validates Fernie’s assessment. While there are some obvious similarities between a few films—including a quartet of documentaries that deal with boxing and martial arts—the programme is very diverse overall. For example, there’s only one entry representing the omnipresent “eco-doc” genre that has dominated non-fiction film festivals for the better part of the last ten years.

Fortunately, it’s a good one. Smartly assembled by veteran director Charles Wilkinson, Peace Out is a focused, rigorous consideration of the literal and figurative cost of mortgaging an entire region’s natural resources—specifically, the industrial incursion on areas in northern British Columbia and Alberta. While Wilkinson’s underlying message is in line with the majority of left-leaning docs about energy consumption—namely that it’s out of control—he’s crafted an unusually balanced presentation. Where another film might have tried to negatively caricature Peace River’s massive Site C dam (and the interest behind it), Peace Out gives face time to people on both sides of the issue. And while its talking-head style is conventional, there are some striking images, like an expressionistic nighttime cityscape that illuminates the scope of a country’s (and a planet’s) addiction to electricity.

Eventually, Peace Out starts to feel like a direct appeal to the viewer (though less explicitly so than Jennifer Baichwal’s Payback). But not all of the Hot Docs standouts are so didactic. Rosie Dransfeld’s Who Cares? is troubling and memorable precisely because it’s so hard to tell what we’re supposed to do with it. The title is a play on an RCMP initiative in Edmonton called “KARE” designed to minimize the number of “high-risk missing persons,” a group that includes the city’s prostitutes and sex workers; the film splits its gaze between the women targeted by the plan and the officers who interact with them with a studied mix of compassion, familiarity and professional detachment. Scenes where prostitutes are invited into cars to give DNA samples so that in the event of their murder their next of kin can be notified have a tragic, absurd sense of comedy.

Dransfeld’s style is entirely observational, coming close to true cinema verité. We never hear the filmmaker’s voice, but her patience and persistence open up her subjects all the same. Crucially, there’s no sense of exploitation or pity for the people at its centre. In a key scene, Courtney, a former addict who managed to get off the street (and has the scars to show for it) vogues to Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way.” This affirmation of individuality follows an interview where Courtney talks about feeling trapped by her former vocation—“it’s like you’ve got the word written across your forehead.” It is less a case of a filmmaker trawling for inspirational juxtapositions than simply trying to do justice to the complexity of her characters. (It’s also telling that the scene is shot by Courtney herself, a case of the film literally being given over to its subject.) Who Cares? is harrowing and emotional, but it’s not prescriptive; its brilliant final sequence, which offers the first instance of visual beauty in a gritty film, can be read as either a new beginning or an infinite loop.

If Who Cares? stands as a successful example of raw, unmediated documentary filmmaking, Maya Gallus’ The Mystery of Mazo de la Roche is at the other end of the (Canadian) spectrum. Fernie calls it a “hybrid film,” which would seem to be the right term to describe its mixture of biography literary analysis and stylized drama. “I think it’s a dream of how its subjects’ lives might have been, rather than an attempt to reenact them,” says Fernie, and this speculative approach makes sense given the famously private nature of its eponymous heroine.

As an introduction to an author who helped to define Canadian literature in the early 20th century and became a trailblazer for female authors, the film is invaluable. For whatever reason, de la Roche’s ongoing family saga the Whiteoak Chronicles, which began with the wildly successful Jalna in 1927, has drifted out of the national canon. But Gallus also probes beyond de la Roche’s artistic legacy to examine her unconventional life, including her “Boston marriage” to her adopted cousin Caroline Clement, with whom she adopted two children.

Gallus employs an array of literary critics and former acquaintances to etch a portrait of a woman who gleefully misled the press about her backstory while coding her autobiography into her writing. She also uses clips from the various cinematic adaptations of the Jalna books, rhyming them against authentic archival photographs to show the influence of de la Roche’s personal experiences on her stories of impulsive, forbidden romance. The director’s boldest stroke, though, is employing actress Severn Thompson to play de la Roche in interstitial sequences that have been spliced into the overall presentation (Deborah Hay also appears as Caroline Clement). The result is a film that brings its subject into the present tense rather than simply relegating her to history.

There are other portrait films about more contemporary Canadian iconoclasts. French-Canadian actress Brigitte Poupart, who was so good opposite Mohamed Fellag in Philippe Falardeau’s Monsieur Lazhar, makes her documentary directorial debut with Over My Dead Body, an affectionate but unsentimental account of her friend, the Montreal-based dancer and choreographer Dave St. Pierre. “I thought this sort of thing only happened to other people—that’ll show me,” sighs St. Pierre over stark, forbidding images of hospital corridors and medical equipment; as the film opens, the 34-year-old is in the crippling grip of cystic fibrosis and in need of a lung transplant to save his life. Poupart’s MO is to toggle between the death-tinged reality of St. Pierre’s condition and the vital, affirmative spirit of his choreography, which favours powerful, expressive movements by provocatively stripped-down performers.

It’s a potent contrast, and Over My Dead Body is a powerful piece of work that communicates its subject’s artistic personality while also making a pretty good case for its director. Poupart understands that a little style can go a long way, and uses clean, striking split-screen graphics as a backdrop for scenes from St. Pierre’s shows; when she repeats the patterns underneath an interview with a doctor discussing the viability of potential organ donors, it’s a nice way of collapsing the distance between the story’s two worlds. Rhythmic editing and a moody, atmospheric score give Over My Dead Body the feeling of a complete, sustained aesthetic experience.

By contrast, Matt Embry’s Theo Fleury: Playing with Fire, about the former Calgary Flames standout, is a strictly TV-calibre documentary. Shot in the weeks and months after the infamous NHL all-star released his sensational best-selling 2009 autobiography, in which he accused his former junior coach Graham James of sexual abuse and detailed his subsequent struggles with alcohol and drugs, the film is kept from being a dutiful, standard-issue celebrity profile mostly by Fleury himself, who seems just as uncomfortable in the role of chastened fallen icon and university keynote speaker as he was as a husband, father and multi-millionaire professional athlete.

Conspicuously expensive soundtrack cuts by the Rolling Stones and Audioslave give the film a glossy sheen, but Fleury remains tetchy and obstinate. (His story of fighting with the judges on CBC’s Battle of the Blades, one of several comeback vehicles he landed after the release of his book, is quite revealing.) Even moments that feel contrived for maximum feel-good effect, like a run-in with the parking lot attendant at Madison Square Garden, where Fleury cut a swath of terror during his controversial, headline-grabbing tenure with the New York Rangers, are affected by his odd mix of egomania and insecurity.

If Embry finally errs on the side of trying to rehabilitate Fleury’s image by letting him croon a country song over the end credits, it’s more a case of the rise-fall-recovery format winning out than the filmmaker completely subordinating his curiosity or skepticism about a difficult subject. Playing with Fire’s slickness actually makes it sort of an odd film out in the mix: Fernie says that while she and her colleagues are not interested in punishing populist documentaries, they’re committed to finding slots for smaller films that don’t have the built-in hook of a household name or a famous face at their centre. “There are a lot of big films that we don’t select. We choose something like Herman’s House instead.”

Angad Bhalla’s film is tiny, indeed, a labour of love about a labour of love. It orbits around two unlikely friends: Herman Wallace, a former Black Panther and activist who has been in solitary confinement in Louisiana State Prison for nearly 40 years, and Jackie Sumell, an artist who became Wallace’s frequent correspondent and collaborator on a unique and ambitious art project. Astonished at the idea that a person could live in a tiny cell for 23 hours a day, Sumell asked Wallace what his dream house would look like and then tried to literally build it—first as a travelling gallery exhibition and then as a community youth space in his hometown of New Orleans.

There is a political dimension to Herman’s House, which calls attention to the fact that Wallace’s conviction was achieved with flimsy, circumstantial evidence, and mounts an implicit critique of a prison system that would seek to isolate so brutally any individual regardless of his transgressions. But its real subject is the gulf between imagination and realization: in other words, the process of making art.

“In your letter, you asked me what sort of house does a man who lives in a six by nine foot cell dream of,” says Wallace over the phone to Sumell. “I would like for guests to be able to smile and walk through flowers all day long.” CGI graphics give us a glimpse of Wallace’s utopian structure but while Sumell does brilliantly with her exhibition, which contains a miniature version of “Herman’s House” and scale-representations of Wallace’s cell, her attempt to raise money and secure land for the real thing doesn’t go nearly as smoothly. “You’re a white girl from New York,” says one of Wallace’s former Black Panther contacts, encapsulating the fish-out-of-water nature of Sumell’s quest.

There is a sense in which Herman’s House is also a piece of local reportage, showing everyday life in New Orleans several years after Hurricane Katrina. It’s interesting to see a Canadian documentary that deals with an American milieu, although as Fernie points out, that’s hardly anything new. “There’s a long history of Canadian documentarians going abroad to make films,” she says. “The difference in the last 10 years is that many of those Canadian filmmakers come from those countries, or it’s their parents’ heritage. It’s more of an inside look, in a way—a much more complex glimpse at a culture.”

A case in point would be Nisha Pahuja’s The World Before Her, which circles around the Miss India pageant. It uses a familiar structure—a group of beautiful young women competing in a beauty pageant—to address the complexities and contradictions of life in a country where some are trying to loosen the strictures of old traditions and others are wilfully binding themselves even tighter. Like so many festival-circuit documentaries, it features a staunch activist figure, but she’s hardly a conventionally identifiable protago-nist: introduced brandishing a wooden stick, 24-year-old Prachi sees herself as a cultural warrior, opposing the infiltration of Western attitudes and spectacle. She rabidly embraces old-world, non-progressive values and tries to indoctrinate other young women at a camp organized by the militant Hindu fundamentalist organization Durga Vahini that is half religious retreat, half military-style boot camp.

Prachi’s obvious desire to be a leader and a teacher is at odds with a belief system that will cast her in a subordinate role for all her life. Pahuja treats her with respect; if anything, the director has a sort of admiration for a young woman whose confidence in her worldview is tempered by a profound sense of dislocation (“While making me, God was in a different mood,” she says wistfully, reflecting on the fact that her father raised her like a son and daughter simultaneously.) And it’s not as if The World Before Her comes down that strongly on the side of the modernity that Prachi and her fellow fundamentalists claim is threatening the social fabric of their country. It has skepticism for the assembly-line attitudes of the people behind the Miss India pageant, never more so than in a remarkable scene where a group of contestants is paraded with white sheets covering their heads and bodies, the better to emphasize their bare legs. (The visual effect is somewhere between a burqa, a Klansman; and a ghost.) Pahuja never mocks the gorgeous girls as they’re put through their paces in preparation for the pageant. The film gives them the very depth and dimension that the photographers, stylists and fashion-industry tastemakers would deny them.

The World Before Her may well end up being one of the year’s major documentaries, although it’s not always easy to tell what films audiences will respond to. Fernie recalls that some Hot Docs viewers had trouble understanding At Night, They Dance, another examination of the clash between female sexuality and repressive religious attitudes, which has since won the Genie for Best Documentary Feature. “That was a challenging film,” she says, “and festivals need to include those kinds of films. That’s part of our job.” She says that as long as films generate strong responses, Hot Docs is doing its job. “The festival’s audience just keeps going up, and I think that shows a real relationship between the programmers and the audience. What we’ve tried to do is this: whether you like a film or not, you know that there’s a reason for it to be at the festival.”

Adam Nayman is a critic and teacher in Toronto. He writes for Cinema Scope, The Ringer, and other publications.

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