From April 28 to May 8 the Hot Docs Festival lit up Toronto with the best documentaries from all over the world.
This year I was lucky to score a couple of passes (thank you Balzac’s Coffee!) for the Husband and me.
The festival kicked off with Morgan Spurlock’s docu-comedy Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold at the Winter Theatre on Yonge Street. After the screening Morgan took questions from the audience (wearing a specially-made suit covered with the logos of all the sponsors of his film) . Most screenings had the director on hand to discuss their film.
And if to underscore the blurring of marketing and film making, Pom Wonderful was there handing out their pomegranate juice for theatre goers at the end of the screening. I tried it and it turns out Pom Wonderful is misnamed. It should be called Pom Kinda Crappy.
Over the next eleven days your humble blogger ran from venue to venue (luckily all were located near my home) and saw well over a dozen documentaries. And that’ s a lot of documentaries! Yes, I’ve been depressed/horrified/indignant/thrilled/inspired in about a dozen different languages.
Organizers for the festival announced that a record-high crowd took in this year’s Hot Docs festival. An estimated 151,000 audience members attended the 11-day event, which wrapped Sunday, marking an 11 per cent increase over last year. That resulted in a 24-per-cent boost in box-office revenue compared to last year.
It’s encouraging to know that Torontonians are interested in something other than superhero and 3D movies.
This year Somewhere Between won the Sundance Channel People’s Choice Award at the festival. Directed by Linda Goldstein Knowlton, the film follows four Chinese-born adoptees as they come of age between two cultures in the U.S. At the Edge of Russia by Michal Marczak won the Filmmakers Award, which is voted on by attending filmmakers with official selections at the festival. The portrait of six men who patrol an Arctic outpost also won the HBO documentary films emerging artist award at the festival last week.
So those are the official awards. However your humble blogger has his own personal festival favourites and has decided to present the first annual Gay Groom Awards for excellence in documentary film making:
The Gay Groom Hot Docs Awards
How to Die in Oregon: Winner of the Sundance Grand Jury Prize, this immensely moving film chronicles the right to die with dignity in Oregon, the first state to legalize physician-assisted suicide. Filmmaker Peter Richardson accompanies wife, proud mother and cancer patient Cody Curtis throughout her decision process. Powerful and poignant. The film will be premiering on HBO later this month.
Family Instinct: Zanda is a single mother in rural Latvia, living in squalor while brother Valdis, also father to her children, serves time in prison. The horrifying taboo of incest is just the tip of the iceberg in this bold observational portrait. Andris Gauja presents, with shocking intensity and uncomfortable closeness, a dismal existence that’s difficult to look at, yet stirring with emotional resonance. Though a difficult to watch – as the viewer takes a fly-on-the-wall view of Zanda making bad decision after bad decision, there are still has moments of humour in the tragedy (such as Zanda’s brother attempting to sell his mother’s rooster to get enough beer to help him over a hangover) – and perhaps a glimmer of hope.
In Heaven Underground – The Jewish Cemetery in Berlin-Weissensee: North of Berlin’s noisy city centre, tucked away in a residential area and surrounded by a jungle of trees and lush foliage, lies the peaceful and secluded 130-year-old Weißensee Jewish Cemetery, the oldest Jewish cemetery still in use in Europe. One hundred acres hold 115,000 graves and a meticulous archive record. The cemetery has never been closed, and was one of the few institutions to remain in Jewish hands under the Nazi regime. Beautifully filmed with a glorious soundtrack (how often do you hear someone praise a soundtrack when discussing a documentary?).
The Good Life: As the only child in an affluent family, Annemette wanted for nothing. Her life of seaside vacations, servants, dance and music lessons, and the finest clothing and food was basic training for a career as a socialite. Now in her 50s, the family fortune squandered, the harsh realities of life without wealth are too much for her to bear. A Portuguese Grey Gardens? Not quite. The story is too tragic to be a Grey Gardens. And seeing a wine-soaked Annemette verbally abusing her mother for not securing Annemette’s financial future, time after time, is difficult to watch – but hard to turn away from. A fascinating view into the mother/daughter dynamic during trying times.
Pit No. 8: Snizhne, a Ukrainian mining town that thrived during Soviet-era occupation, is today plagued by crushing poverty. For years, the town’s desperate residents have been illegally mining coal on their own, dangerously excavating abandoned mines, the basements of condemned buildings, the nearby woods, and even their own backyards. Since leaving his alcoholic mother’s home, 15-year-old Yura takes it upon himself to provide for his sisters the only way he knows how: by working the illegal pits. Yura shoulders familial responsibilities—parenting, shopping, cooking meals, making ends meet—in the absence of adults.
Eco Pirate: The Story of Paul Watson: Captain Paul Watson has been on a crusade to save the oceans for 40 years and he isn’t about to stop now. Through the life and convictions of this notorious activist, Trish Dolman crafts an epic tale of the birth of the modern environmental movement, and the founding of Greenpeace and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Part high-octane adventure, the film follows Watson and his crew as they hunt down a Japanese whaling fleet in the vast expanse and stunning beauty of Antarctica’s Southern Ocean, and seamlessly segues in and out of a wealth of archival footage from decades of confrontational activism around the world. I don’t agree with his position or tactics, but it is a beautifully filmed and fascinating documentary of a complicated man.
Love Always, Carolyn – A Film About Kerouac, Cassady and Me: Carolyn Cassady has spent half her life fighting a losing battle for the truth. Her constant visitors don’t come to hear about her, but to soak up the Beat mythology surrounding her famous husband, Neal Cassady, and her even more famous lover, Jack Kerouac. She’s just written a book, Off the Road, to set the record straight and hopefully satisfy the Beat fans, collectors, journalists and filmmakers who hound her. The drug-fuelled, self-destructive shenanigans that forever enshrined the men she loved in American culture don’t fit the memories she still cherishes of Neal as a (sometimes) good husband and loving father to their three children. Much better than the other film to feature Cassady, Magic Trip (also screened this year at Hot Docs).
Till next year, my fellow Doc Heads!
Jeffrey, The Gay Groom