With 129 documentaries in 10 days, Toronto’s Hot Docs is North America’s well-established answer to IDFA. DOX’s reporter checked out two of the winners.

Ben Kempas
In 2014 Ben Kempas founded Film & Campaign Ltd., dedicated to building campaigns around films, and to making films about campaigns.

War/Dance

The simple recipes often work best. With a terrible conflict as a backdrop, an ambitious social project for children turns despair into hope. There will be a somewhat happy ending, followed by a title card pointing you to the appropriate charity.

“War/Dance” falls into this category of documentaries, which makes it a bit predictable. But while the film follows this simple recipe, the ingredients are incredibly powerful. The conflict is the civil war in Northern Uganda, where rebel forces of the “Lord’s Resistance Army” terrorise the local Acholi tribe. Children have been abducted and forced to become soldiers, and many have lost their parents. Now living in a refugee camp, their big project is to learn the traditional dances and songs of their people. For the first time, their school takes part in a nationwide music competition in the far-away capital. Nobody expects the kids from the war-torn region to win, but in the end, they take home awards.

It is impossible to imagine what these children went through. The protagonists are Rose (13) who witnessed the murder of her parents, Nancy (12) who hid in the bush with her young siblings after rebels had kidnapped her mother and killed her father, and Dominic (14) who, as a child soldier, even had to kill people himself. Making music becomes a healing process, or at least a distraction.

During the first half of the film, “War/Dance” interweaves simple observational scenes of the kids practicing for the contest with a carefully set-up second level that illustrates the tragic background through interviews with the children and truly powerful, rather abstract visuals. Thunder and lighting at night, details of eyes, locations of horror. Intense confessions to the camera make us feel incredibly close to the children, but never exploitative. However, this strong storyline is abandoned in the second half of the film. When the children travel to Kampala to take part in the competition, the film just switches to plain vérité and starts to feel long. There are no real surprises. Most of the interaction just happens between teachers or instructors and the students. We don’t really get to see the children dealing with each other.

Having said this, “War/Dance” is a well-crafted piece of filmmaking. Earlier this year, Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine received the Best Documentary Director award at Sundance. Their film comes without narration and with a sophisticated soundtrack. A few intertitles tell us the basics. This way, we don’t learn much about the political background of the civil war-but we really don’t need to. This conflict is incomprehensible anyway-to us as well as to the children.

To a critical viewer, a simple story can easily feel too simplistic. But for the festival audience at Hot Docs, this film worked incredibly well. “War/Dance” won the Audience Award.

Losers and Winners

When Chinese industriousness clashes with German health and safety laws, it makes for hilarious scenes in an otherwise rather melancholic documentary. “Losers and Winners” is a long-term observation of the dismantling of a huge coking plant in Germany for re-assembly (and cloning) in China.

loosers-and-winners_web1In 1992, “Kaiserstuhl” opened in Dortmund as the most advanced facility of its kind. Only eight years later, as coke prices dwindled on the world market, the plant was shut down. A few employees remained to guard the mothballed factory, including two electricians featured in the documentary. The massive plant is still their home territory when 400 highly-motivated Chinese workers descend on Kaiserstuhl to dismantle it.

Two mindsets collide. Rainer Kruska and Werner Vogt, both in their fifties, appear particularly German in that they know exactly how things have to be done just because they’ve always done them in a certain way. Chinese improvisation does not comply with their rules. On one of his patrols, Kruska sees a makeshift ladder used by deconstruction workers to reach a platform. Kruska sees it as his duty to take the dangerous ladder away-even though the Chinese workers are still up on the platform. Is he desperately trying to stop a global trend? Scenes like this are little gems.

We’re close to a number of key people, but it’s difficult to truly identify with any of them. While the Germans are patronising and dismissive in the beginning, they eventually have to admit defeat-and this is not just because the Chinese work twice as much.

Although “Losers and Winners” is mostly observational, the camera doesn’t really submerge in a scene, doesn’t organically react to what’s happening. So it often feels slightly stiff, and it looks a bit pieced together in the editing. Fair enough, as language problems are a likely cause. Still, it’s a warm-hearted film and over time the Chinese workers also warm up to the camera, sharing their dreams and their lives in the small Portakabins far from home.

Careful now, here comes a spoiler: the real irony of this story is revealed in the credits at the end. We learn that in the meantime the demand for steel has exploded and coke prices have risen from USD 30 to USD 550 a tonne since the closure of Kaiserstuhl. The Germans made a huge mistake in abandoning their best plant.

At Hot Docs, Ulrike Franke and Michael Loeken received the award in the Best International Feature Documentary category.

 


© EDN/ModernTimes (previously published in DOX Magazine).
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