April 22–May 1, 2005
The festival’s publicity posters are modest but striking, and volunteer a definition of “documentary”. Like Mark Rothko tableaus, thin blocks of text hang over dominating fields of white above smaller margins of greens and grays. Imitating snappy synopsis pitches, the words delineate what is commonly imagined to be fact from fiction. One of several abstracts reads: “President of the United States, unclear on who has attacked the nation, declares war and enlists a wise cracking pilot who captures an alien spacecraft and destroys the invaders.” However, in an obvious marketing strategy, the fictitious latter portion is scored out.
In its 12th edition, Hot Docs positions itself as North America’s largest and most exclusive showcase for documentaries. Emerging as one of Toronto’s first film events in the spring, it is also one of the city’s more prominent film festival brands owing to the wealth of corporate endorsement it receives, which in turn ensures the trappings of a blockbuster: a repertoire comprising smaller, thematically-curated programs; a 3-figure title tally; an endless entourage of prize-bestowing juries and industry awards; forum and dialogue sessions; opening and closing ceremonies; as well as a commercial marketplace for buying, selling and deal-making. Hot Docs’ latter component, called the Toronto Documentary Forum, has come to be regarded as an exclusive bazaar for industry folks intimate with the business of trading in documentaries, wherein filmmakers pitch ideas to a global entourage of producers, broadcasters and commissioning editors to arouse interest and financial support.
The perception that documentaries aim to approximate an appreciation of non-fiction – that they gravitate more “reliably” towards reality unlike fiction films’ choice of drama as representation – may be persuasive in order to distinguish itself as a genre, but someone like Frederick Wiseman would eagerly denounce them as singular purveyors of objectivity. For him, no form of cinematic representation is above compromise. Yet, even Wiseman’s wisdom – that cinema’s desire for fact is not an alibi for verity but rather is as partial as the next form of creative expression – will not explain the marginalisation of docs in the global contingent of fiction-obsessed film festivals and theatrical markets. That similar spaces for docs are limiting may be indicative of the illusion that they are a harder sell in the theatre than on television, despite evidence to the contrary. Until the playing field is leveled, each rare doc fest incarnation remains a welcome prospect to sample the kinds of down-to-earth experiences that even fictional epics find hard to match, or else dare not express.
101 docs from 23 countries represented this year’s official selection at Hot Docs; in tandem was an exceptional hit rate for filmmakers in attendance to introduce and discuss their works. Apart from the Canadian Spectrum and International Showcase mainstays, sidebar highlights included RealKids, RealTeens, a program of youth-interest docs; Show Me Yours: Sex and Documentary, a retrospective of recent international docs on sexual behaviour; Spotlight on Israel, the year’s national cinema spotlight; Last Call, the festival’s “midnight madness” program; and filmmaker retrospectives of American Errol Morris and Canadian Larry Weinstein. All this, choked into a fast and furious ten days over a drizzly final week in April.
Stories about sporting triumphs and tragedies bookended the festival. Opening doc, Murderball (2004) by Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro, charts three parallel lives indexed by the accelerated tag game of quadriplegic rugby (also called “wheelchair rugby” or “quad rugby”). Originally created in Canada and called “Murderball” due to its cutthroat nature, the game has since been redeveloped to resemble a cross between basketball and rugby. Fought out on a basketball court, players with varying degrees of lower-body impairment are strategically grouped to form a treacherous combination against their rivals. Crashing against one another in reformatted wheelchairs, the objective, as in rugby, is to ground the ball over the opponent’s goal line. To call players of quad rugby “disabled” is a misnomer when one witnesses the nature of their offensives; Murderball’s alpha male hero, Mark Zupan of the US Men’s team for instance, impresses through verbal and body language that he is tougher than the abled. On screen are also some of the game’s most enthusiastic North American proponents whose mettles are tracked as they prepare for a slew of tournaments which culminate in the 2004 Athens Paralympics. Part myth-buster, part feel-good popcorn spectacle, but also part educational eye-opener, Murderball is as close to a crowd pleaser as one can get.
Closing doc, Heysel ’85, Requiem for a Final Cup (2005) by Lode Desmet, recalls a 20 year-old tragedy resulting from hooliganism, bungling security, crumbling architecture, and questionable sportsmanship. Hours before the European Cup final between soccer giants Liverpool and Juventus began on 29 May 1985 in Brussels’ Heysel Stadium, rising fervour led Liverpool fans to stampede towards rival fans. A zone in the grandstand for neutral supporters collapsed under the weight of the ensuing panic as a result, killing 39 and wounding hundreds. Fearing a match call-off could potentially escalate the already violent mobs, authorities controversially gave the green light for kick-off. Juventus later won on a second half penalty. Goaded by the relative oblivion of the incident over time, Desmet says he decided to document the misadventure in retrospect on account of its enduring imagery among soccer-obsessed Europeans. His treatment replays scores of ‘80s amateur video on the pitch while reuniting on screen bereaved families, bodyguards, bystanders, fans, officials, players, and even those convicted of inciting the violence. While some assemble on the site of the rebuilt stadium to reminisce, others whose decisions shaped this piece of history are also given space to defend their actions. No sides are taken in this poignant and neutral experiment, its overcast narrative compounded by the clouds of regret that hang over each recollection.
With only 26 titles selected from over 300 submissions for the Canadian Spectrum program, it is irresistible to ponder what the rejected entries had in store. Within the shortlist however, the range of content reflected anticipated multiethnic strands. Tahani Rached’s Soraida, A Woman of Palestine (2004) sketches the quotidian domestic affairs of Soraida, a charming and intelligent Ramallah woman who uses wit and wisdom to conquer the agonising rituals of Israeli occupation and oppression that she and her loved ones have to bear. A second portrait, Helene Klodawsky’s No More Tears Sister: Anatomy of Hope and Betrayal (2004) re-enacts the life of the late Dr Rajani Thiranagama based on her eloquent missives to her family as well as on recollections from her elder sister. An erudite Tamil who married a Sinhalese activist and who briefly supported minority Tamil militants in their quest for an independent state in Sri Lanka, Thiranagama was gunned down in her prime after an enduring struggle as a human rights activist during the country’s protracted ethnic strife.
Winner of the Best (Feature Length) Canadian Documentary, Hogtown: The Politics of Policing (2005) is Lee Min Sook’s primer to city politics in Toronto, with a focus on the unpleasant task of policing the city’s police, a grassroots initiative of the Police Services Board. In Hogtown – a reference to Toronto’s 19th century livestock industry – the equally important question to ask besides “Who will guard the guards themselves?” is “But are the guards fit to guard?” Already trying to iron out a budget deficit of $344 million during the annual budget season, the city then has to deal with two conflicting requests: one from the Chief of Police for twice that amount for operational expenses, but also a counter by the Police Services Board to cut police funding. The more parties involved contest for greater latitude, the more mud is slung, whereupon communication breakdowns, calumny, catfights, and cluelessness emerge alongside ruthlessly orchaestrated scandals as symptoms of rogue leadership. Spliced from footage excerpted primarily from City Hall meetings to achieve what the filmmakers designate a “vérité-driven documentary”, Hogtown is a compelling insight into the rudiments of power structures in the administration of Canada’s largest and most culturally diverse city. A hoot for political owls.
The most engaging Canadian title for me, Vendetta Song (2004) by Eylem Kaftan, crafts a most commanding tale in under an hour. In it, the ethnic Kurd investigates the murder of her father’s sister 30 years ago in an honour killing, but also sheds light on the dismal lives of women who are denied education and muzzled by baneful traditions. Relying on a photo showing her aunt Guzide and her child both flanked by her two brothers-in-law, plus an accompanying rumour that one of these men had killed her, Kaftan ventures to her ancestral homeland in the Kurdish settlements of eastern Turkey on a mission for the truth. There, villagers and relatives warmly recall Guzide and her remarkable height, but also her catastrophic life which has since become interwoven with the village’s oral history and folklore. At 15, the mayor’s son of a neighbouring village paid a high bride price for Guzide’s hand but was later gunned down in a blood feud. During this time, she also lost her five children: four during childbirth and a fifth tot who drowned. As Kaftan’s probe amplifies, she becomes convinced that her aunt was slain because she had resisted her tribe’s custom of arranged marriage by eloping with one of her brothers-in-law. Honour killing, prevalent in many regions of the non-western world but peculiar to the Middle East, is carried out when a female relative is adjudged to have dishonoured her unit by transgressing patriarchal codes governing sexuality. When Kaftan asks a male villager what the penalty of such an action would be today, he candidly replies: “She will be writing her death sentence with her own hands.” Indeed, his words may also have served as a subtle warning. During the doc’s post-screening discussion, Kaftan remarked that she had remained in fear during her month-long shoot, wondering if her investigation would endanger her crew and possibly cost her a fate similar to her aunt’s. To her credit however, having emerged unharmed with her story was decisive, but having recounted the intrigues with brevity has been nothing short of a coup.
American and European titles dominated the International Showcase, in which exposés of white-collar crime and political scandals were popular themes of the day. These were out in full force in docs like the festival’s special presentation of Alex Gibney’s Enron: The Smartest in the Room (2005), a slick recount of how a gang of entrepreneurs managed to hoodwink America into believing that their Texas-based energy business was in the black despite plotting waves of unprincipled business decisions intended to sabotage the markets and liven up their riches. Having cooked one book too many, the spectacular freefall of Enron’s chefs was inevitable. Yet, as the defendants at the centre of the scandal await trial, what remains to be seen beyond the doc’s scope is whether justice is truly blind, or if avarice, capitalism’s angel of death, will instead laugh last. Similarly, in The Fall of Fujimori (2005) Ellen Perry secures a rare interview with self-exiled former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori, the man whom Peruvians nickname El Chino. Although a hero among Peru’s rural population for instilling economic stability and suppressing terrorism, the human rights-conscious would single out tyranny as his lone infamy. After rising allegations of corruption during his ten-year office – the harshest from no less than former First Lady and failed presidential rival, his ex-wife, Fujimori absconded to Japan and into the arms of loyalist right-wing politicians who saw him as their ace. According to Perry, despite Fujimori’s fugitive status, investigations to date have been unable to find evidence to incriminate him for numerous charges, particularly for embezzlement. Dubious as it may seem then, Fujimori closes the doc by not only making a case for his ability to lead, but also of his desire to run for president in 2006.
A Decent Factory by Thomas Balmès (2004) unravels the politics behind the familiar “Made in China” slogan by trailing an ethics expedition commissioned by cell phone icon Nokia to audit labour matters in a Shenzhen factory, one of the world’s many oysters, for Euro-American multinational outsourcings. Headed by consultants called Ethics and Environment Specialists, Nokia’s team investigates if factories are in compliance with local wage and welfare guidelines. An intrusive camera follows a team of indignant managers guiding the consultants through the premises while simultaneously capturing accounting, safety and welfare breaches so flagrant that any attempt to conceal them would be pointless. In one incident, a consultant observes the proximity of toxic chemicals to a pantry where drinking water is supplied. When brought to the attention of one of the managers, he orders – on camera – the poisons to be transferred to the kitchen. Yet, the doc is less about the lives of exploited workers than it is an observant rendering of how corporate efforts to manage ethical issues in outsourcing are utterly insincere. Although such initiatives appear dignified in theory, in reality, as Balmès shows, there isn’t much Nokia’s consultants can do except to recommend ways of propriety; penalties for breaches involve mere wrist-taps, like how an adult coaxes a child not to play with her food.
A standout doc, Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man (2004) reconstructs the numbered days of American Timothy Treadwell, a man so besotted with the white grizzlies of the Alaskan Peninsula that he chose to live among them over 13 summers and in so doing, knowingly or naively sealed his mortal fate. Found with his girlfriend, both torn to bits inside the belly of a bear, the only clues Treadwell left to their ends were his obsessive video recordings showing him cozying up to the bears, or else delivering a series of soliloquies and tantrums about his life, as if he could trust no one to listen to his problems. Over a diagnostic self-narration, Herzog fashions his unique eulogy for the environmental activist whose compassion for nature was certain but whose approach and understanding of it was hugely suspect. Between strands of footage, speculations on Treadwell’s disposition anchor the doc. Although Treadwell and his defenders believe he was the self-appointed protector of the species and guardian of their wilderness, others like bear biologists and preservationists argue that he was a reckless vigilante who was stubbornly in denial of how his actions were endangering the mammals. “Treadwell wanted to be a bear,” says one bear biologist, even though he came off more as a cream puff than an ursine figure. Another critic remarks tellingly: “He was acting like he was with people wearing bear costumes.” Herzog’s own take on Treadwell remains respectful, where he maintains an equitable tone on the man despite his petulant outbursts – even as they raise doubts on his sense of maturity and self-possession. Ultimately, he defends Treadwell as a filmmaker by noting over select sequences of his footage that he was able to capture images even professionals would be incapable of producing. One expects this remark is praise for a doc-in-progress that Treadwell never got to make.
Imagine this then. The filmmaker responsible for Herzog’s ingestion of a shoe 25 years ago because of a failed bet that he would not realise a film called Gates of Heaven (1978), Errol Morris was recipient of Hot Docs’ annual Outstanding Achievement Award, an accolade which also featured a retrospective titled “In Search of Individuality: Charm and Eccentricity in the World of Errol Morris”. Organised collaboratively as a timeline of Morris’ feature docs, Toronto’s Cinémathèque Ontario screened Gates of Heaven and The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003) as part of their Spring program, with the festival presenting the rest: Vernon, Florida (1981), The Thin Blue Line (1988), A Brief History of Time (1991), Fast, Cheap & Out of Control (1997), and Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (1999). Both also co-hosted An Evening with Errol Morris, a dialogue session between Morris and Boston Phoenix film critic pal Gerald Peary which, beyond a discussion of Morris’ docs, also showcased commercials he directed for companies such as Quaker and Miller, as well as a series of Democrat campaign spots for US Senator John Kerry during the lead up to the country’s presidential elections last year.
Witnessing Morris live has the effect of animating the expressive persona he develops when interviewing his subjects on screen. A former private investigator, this robust figure wears the same impishly cherubic mien in person as he does in publicity photos, a quirk that perhaps implicates his penchant for the aberrant. Then there are his spirited oratories which bear hints of his philosophical schooling. When fielding questions, he resists any attempt to cut him off, taking his time instead to formulate his replies before arguing them boldly – a quality out of place in the time-constrained settings he often found himself in. Revisiting his docs have also been rewarding. Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr., one of Morris’ stronger works, is a diptych portrait of its eponymous hero, first as an innovative engineer who built a career out of smartening up Death Row killing devices because he felt its antecedents were not “humane” enough, and second, as a failed authority of pseudoscience whose clandestine scavenges in the crematoriums of Auschwitz at the request of neo-Nazi Ernst Zündel inevitably led to accusations of abetment in disavowing the second world war’s infamous genocide. On second viewing, the doc remains creditably fresh and engaging. Here is Morris’ quizzical portrait of a man whose love of science and matching streak of innovation and creativity might have been well-meaning, but who foolishly misjudged the power of the Jewish lobby despite claiming he was free of anti-semitism.
Nevertheless, it is The Thin Blue Line that has come to be regarded as Morris’ most feted doc because it not only acknowledges his detective past through his three-year independent investigation into a crime, but also because the completed work was used to exonerate a man wrongfully accused of murder. Otherwise a talking-heads experience that invites a variety of witnesses to recount the 1976 murder of a Dallas cop, the doc’s centrepiece is Morris’ reconstruction of the crime’s pivotal moment in chronically tedious fashion. Although the style is dated, both critics and Morris alike have credited this method of dramatic re-enactment as groundbreaking by noting the prevalence of its reincarnations. At Hot Docs, Morris referred to The Thin Blue Line at one point as “a triumph over vérité” and at another, as “anti-vérité”. What I think he means is that since he acted on his conviction that the police had the wrong man, his ensuing investigations ought not be acquiesced to as the final word on the case. In other words, he does not intend his version of the story to be the truth. Yet, the truth of the matter is that it did just that and more. The impact of Morris’ evidence felt so “real” that the accused was given a retrial and subsequently released after spending 11 years in prison. On account of non-fiction being considerably stranger than fiction, one of Hot Docs’ publicity abstracts might also have read: “Documentary filmmaker, convinced that wrongfully accused man is innocent, makes investigative documentary whose impact overturns conviction, but who is later sued by man for profiteering.”