One of the striking things about the menu of films selected for Hot Docs is the number of films already tackling the subject. Double award-winner Street Fight is about a mayoral election campaign. Min Sook Lee’s Hogtown: The Politics of Policing, winner of Best Canadian Feature Documentary, follows Toronto City Hall meetings for six months; while winner of Best Canadian Short, Nadja Drost’s first film Between Midnight and the Rooster’s Crow is all about corporate social responsibility, revealing the nefarious deeds of a Canadian oil company and climaxing in a shareholders’ meeting.
Rob Vanalkemade’s short Preacher with an Unknown God shows a storming of the Republican Party National Convention by a campaign of anti-shopping, gospel singers. Ellen Perry’s The Fall of Fujimori is a political biopic of the disgraced ex-president of Peru (featuring a delightful sequence about the time Fujimori’s own wife ran against him in a presidential election – he confesses it got a bit tense when the two candidates shared dinners together in the Presidential Palace). Democracy and its discontents are clearly a rich seam to mine.
Which brings me neatly to the The Devil’s Miner, the story of Bolivian children working the exhausted seams of Cero Rico’s silver mines (directed by Keif Davidson and Richard Ladkani, a German/US coproduction). It was one of my favourite films at Hot Docs-and I’m not alone in this -“The Devil’s Miner” won the International Federation of Film Critics’ Best First Documentary Award, an Honourable Mention in the Best International Documentary category and was among the top five in the audience vote. Davidson and Ladkani pull off the fiendishly difficult task of making a beautiful piece of cinema-from an aesthetic and craft point of view-without ever minimising the human element. See it, if you get the chance. The story of the boy miners is a sad one, but it’s not a gloomy film.
I have a few bones to pick with the Hot Docs programmers-some selections puzzled me. Outstandingly odd was the NHK special HD showcase screening of Media Jihad, a plodding, deeply dubious and sensationalised report on Al Qaeda’s DVD output. It also seemed strange to choose Heysel ’85, Requiem for a Cup Final as the closing night’s film, reminding us of the 39 dead in the terraces 20 years ago-just the thing to put us all in the mood for the closing night party scheduled immediately afterwards. However, I appreciate that picking festival films from some 1,400 entries is an unenviable task, so who am I to quibble?
Two outstanding Latin American films were the Colombian La Sierra and the Mexican-Canadian Wetback. Shot over the period of a year by first-time filmmakers Margarita Martinez and Scott Dalton, sneaking time from their day-jobs as reporters for the Press Association, La Sierra is a raw, tough movie about young paramilitaries in a barrio of Medellin. To give you a taste, the film begins with a graphic scene-setting sequence of a mutilated dead body in a ditch. Violence is never far away: the paramilitary commander who gave the team access to this story was shot dead soon afterwards (which turned out to be ghoulishly handy from a production point of view, as the dead man never asked for a editorial control or rough-cut viewing).
During on-screen shoot-outs you can hear the paramilitaries shouting to the cameraman “Get down, gringo!” Scott commented after the screening that the benefit of using a DV PD150 is that “it’s small and light so you can run really fast with it.” The central character is Edinson, a 22-year-old playboy and urban guerrilla. There were audible gasps in the cinema as captions revealed the ages of his five pregnant girlfriends, from sixteen to fourteen years old. Don’t count on all the characters making it to the last reel alive.
Wetback, directed by Arturo Perez Torres follows migrants from Central America on the dangerous trek north and across the Rio Grande, in search of the American Dream. Every day an estimated 3,000 people try to enter the USA like this; fewer than 300 of them make it. The film shows the perils along the way – not only the dreaded ‘Migra’ (US migration police) you’d expect to see, but also truly scary freelance vigilantes in Texas. Said one of them lurking on the banks of the Rio Grande with a shotgun (recalling the recurring theme of democracy) “We’re citizens assisting the government. We won’t stand for what’s happening. Mexicans are coming here and doing anything they want. Voting and everything.” Corrupt cops in Mexico are another hazard along the route. Arturo explained after the screening that in Mexico if you are seen helping illegal migrants in any way, you can get thrown in jail as quickly as if you had been caught trying to cross the border yourself.
So by being there with a film crew, he was exposing himself to the same danger as the men and women he was filming. I felt the film was a bit weighed down by ‘expert’ interviews, but the observational sequences are great. Despite the tricky conditions of the shoot, the cinematography is excellent, as you’d expect (Arturo is by trade an art director of commercials, making his first documentary film). The soundtrack is particularly memorable, using local ‘corrido’ bands singing ballads of emigration. The musicians appear on-screen, singing their hearts out at strategic border posts along the way, as the film’s characters pass through the frame in front of them. Arturo told me his original motivation for using live music on-screen was to avoid paying sync fees for pre-recorded music; but the visual effect is masterful.
If, like me, you thought you’d already seen enough lesbian coming-out films to last a lifetime, don’t miss Ilil Alexander’s Keep Not Silent, a portrait of three Israeli ‘Ortho-dykes’. The director, though not gay herself, was inspired to make the film when 16 orthodox Jews were killed by a suicide bomber on a bus, and one of the bodies was never claimed. It turned out the dead woman had been gay and, thus, entirely rejected by her community. Ilil Alexander finds a sensitive and creative solution to concealing the identities of two of the women in her film. There’s a riveting interview with the husband of one of them. They have ten children. He knew about the lesbian lover she had been seeing twice a week and admits that lesbianism is frowned on by the Torah but says it’s not as bad as some things she could have done, like leaving her hair uncovered.
Another film made directly with a campaigning organisation is Bunso – The Youngest by Ditsi Carolino and Nana Buxani. Bunso follows the lives of three spirited children in a prison outside Manila. In the Philippines, youngsters as young as nine are incarcerated in adult jails. This powerful and moving documentary is a tool for changing that. The film has already been screened for congressmen and women in the Philippines, and the audience the filmmakers care most about, above film-festival audiences, is the president herself. Filmmakers often ask ourselves whether a film can really make an impact on the world. In this case, without comprising its artistic integrity, the film is targeted campaign material for advocating changes in the Philippine penal system. The filmmakers’ access on the shoot was extraordinary. Ditsi explained after the screening that even the prison authorities are unhappy about holding young kids along with adult criminals and keen for the story to get out. She and co-director Nana manage to get the characters to open their lives and hearts on screen, no holds barred-not only the children but also the families at home-it’s so intimate, it’s almost excruciating. The environment is bleak, both in the jail and in the kids’ homes; even the happier sequences have a dark side -like the children’s joy when it rains. The rainwater pouring into the prison compound means they get a chance to wash their clothes for a change.
On a lighter note, a made-in-heaven double-bill was the pairing of Lifelike and Perfect Fake. The way these two wonderful Canadian films complement each other is a programmer’s wet dream. One is about stuffed animals, the other is about sex dolls. Lifelike is the only film I know that is dedicated exclusively to taxidermists. In Canada, where hunting is a big deal, stuffing game to hang on the wall is a big business. Tally Abecassis’ charming film is an observational portrait of ambitious, competitive taxidermists that is effortlessly funny without sinking to ridicule. Marc de Guerre’s Perfect Fake opens as an intellectual essay, with classical allusions, on the historical male craving to create the perfect woman. Fortunately it then gets to grips, via clips of Japanese cyber-porn, with the shockumentary nitty-gritty of sex dolls. We meet both designers and proud owners, culminating in a guided tour of one enthusiast’s collection of 40 dolls. He ran out of space at home, so he bought an apartment for them. He reassures us that none of them feel left out, because he’s careful to take turns having sex with them-from the latest high-tech models with mechanical parts, to the first blow-up doll he bought with his pocket money as a frustrated schoolboy.
From voting booths to latex vaginas, is there any area of life that Hot Docs leaves untouched?