April 28–May 7, 2006

This is how it started. It was a most trivial event that was dramatised out of proportion. It happened many years ago, one early spring. You had not been to a festival in a while. Neither had you been to the pictures in months. So you knew what you were in for when you attended Hot Docs. This was a small event, small by the standards of bigger, hegemonic festivals, yet large enough in its own league to assert position given its North American anchor and programming bias. Its cute nickname was probably chosen to compensate for the tedious image documentaries tend to have – a prejudice apt to prove otherwise.

When you asked a Senses of Cinema editor if you could review the experience, she seemed enthusiastic. But communicating by text can be misleading, as you would discover much later. Although thrilled, she wondered if the format was “becoming stale and too influenced by politics”, though she added that this was not a bad thing because she loved watching political documentaries. This intrigued you. Was this contradictory? When you asked for clarification, she replied that she had used the word “politics” in haste because she had “just sat through hours of badly made docs”. It didn’t occur to you that this was something of a caveat. You wondered nevertheless: isn’t all documentary political by virtue of its dramatisation of reality? And shouldn’t skepticism be advanced even if truth is served on good faith? But you figured she was referring to politics of the corporeal kind, where the documentary medium is exploited as a soapbox.

At the end of ten days, it was clearer to you what one source of the editor’s fatigue might have been. You thought she was alluding to the indifference that could manifest from being overwhelmed by representations of human inequality, especially ones about lives disparate from a Euro-American reality. While you were certain that the docs you had seen were unfeigned, what you felt was the issue was the extent that such sincerity was influential. In their contemporary relevance, documentaries with socially conscious themes have been attempts at persuasion. A call for action – something, anything. Does influence fade with the price of admission? Typically. For many, a political plea will exist only in a cinematic vacuum, rarely extending beyond rudimentary knowledge of its subject. Naturally, there’s nothing wrong with nonpartisanship, for discrimination is crucial to getting by.

After sampling Hot Docs’ selections, you saw how easy it was for politics to entrap the medium, particularly ones outraged by miscarriages of humanity. Yet, although magnetic in feat, human rights were merely part of a broader political spectrum. Since there were diverse interpretations of the political in documentary, you thought this might form the basis of an interesting commentary, although you didn’t realise at the time that you were alone in this thinking. Your theory was irresistible: has Hot Docs become a space to remind night after night and year after year of guilty liberal audiences that the world is out of whack? That people in power aren’t learning the lessons they ought to? That some kind of sweet miracle of human rejuvenation might just ensure that future programming doesn’t brim with stories about the extent to which people will tear each other apart for cheap labour and oil?

Although the festival had piously exhibited docs that reflected the inequality of human existence, their inclusions were not surprising. Their collected testimonies professed importance, and you had no doubt that they needed airtime. But more interestingly, these stories were subtle reminders to the daily crowds of middle class creatures that it was their privilege to be able to judge as such – that being in such a position of power bolstered their comfort at the top of the food chain as they gazed upon underprivileged misery. Like compassionate vultures roving across the theatres, they scavenged with empathy on predicaments caused by capitalism, wherein the only tangible upshot of the global franchise was disenfranchisement.

Black Gold

It was there in Black Gold, which shamed coffee corporations and decaf hazelnut latte whores by showing how their collective caffeine fetishes and lies of fair trade were responsible for the wretchedness that families and communities of Ethiopian coffee growers had to endure. It was there in Total Denial, which told the intrigue of how two Euro-American oil corporations brokered a deal with Myanmar’s military junta to construct a gas pipeline in the jungles, a project which gave rise to civilian allegations of slavery and genocide, whose cases were crusaded by a lone Myanma vigilante in America. And it was there in OilCrash, a reminder that to take the planet’s energy supplies for granted is to provoke her vengeance. The future envisioned was bleak: as the residual trickle of global oil supply was growing fainter, emerging markets continued to be unyielding in their soaring demands, even as the tacit consequences of this unease were already simmering geopolitically.

There were many more such docs, but the pattern of indignation ran much the same. Warfare, the ultimate harbinger of suffering, was also an acknowledged attribute. In this world, some hostilities are more famous and therefore more equal than others. Even so, the resident Israeli-Palestinian entries were too perfunctory. Martyr Street told of a fabled Hebron lane leading to the tomb of some A-list prophet. Once populated by Arabs, it went on to be settled by Jews, and consequently, by Arab and Jewish body parts. Staged zealotry was its narrative thrust: title cards recounting biblical baloney punctuated profiles of Jewish and Muslim interviewees who spewed thick venom about each other. You felt Encounter Point was more commendable for focusing on the efforts of a grassroots community of bereaved Jews and Muslims to promote nonviolence, for it chose not to perversely highlight the differences between people, as was evident when two fathers who lost their daughters to suicide bombers showed how peace and unity could be secular preoccupations – albeit regrettably, only in retrospect.

Meanwhile, American and British terrorism in the Middle East instigated fertile perspectives. American Fugitive: The Truth About Hassan profiled an exiled American in Iran for claiming to have been ordered to assassinate an Iranian diplomat. Labelled a terrorist by America and treacherous by Iran, the doc opted for a middle ground portrayal, revealing a man sold out by the political orgies between two scheming bedfellows. On a more combative front, Shadow Company introduced the contemporary industry of mercenaries. Euphemistically known as “private security contractors”, these were itinerants who sold their combat abilities to the highest bidders, unmoved by patriotism. As with any kind of outsourcing, the ethical concerns were enormous. But surely, the more pressing controversy was that the wars of the age were as frequent as they were profitable.

The Last Communist

Although numbering much less, docs that were internally politicised – ones not overtly backing a humanitarian cause – had contrasted agreeably. These were cupcakes less concerned about subjects than about being subjective, ones more self-conscious about form and critical of the medium they inhabited. Your terse mention of such examples in your review could explain why the editor later reacted the way she did. She might have thought this indicated disfavour, but she would have been wrong. The inspirational Citadel worked as a retrospective travelogue of a family vacation, but was in fact an entertaining spin on verisimilitude and the documentary genre, and whose substance made you recall the Portuguese film, Um filme falado. Another essay, The Last Communist, examined the life of the former leader of Malaysia’s now-defunct communist party, active before and after independence. It explored this vicariously by plying his countryside haunts to summon his legacy through present-day inhabitants. This last man standing didn’t appear in the flesh, but his spirit did.

And then there was pleasure. A friend of yours had asked if he would see you at the screening of Mystic Ball. He had earlier mentioned this title to you, but it did not register. You had not planned to go but went, since he’d be there. After its standing ovation and post-screening discussion, you felt you had to thank him, and promptly did. His two other buddies who came along were more gifted at expressing gratitude. Once outside the theatre, they tossed around a tiny beanbag, raring to imitate the moves they had just witnessed. It was dark by then; the ground was unevenly paved and slightly inclined, all of which stifled any attempt at cool, to say nothing of their lack of skill.

The director was compelled to introduce Myanmar’s national sport of chinlone, which he felt underexposed. Although not competitive, it rivals the physical rigours of any mainstream sport, though its psychology is intimate, both in terms of space and solidarity. Veterans make play look easy, and while it isn’t, the paradox does much to generate appeal. Six players in a circle aim to keep a cane ball in the air with any part of their bodies except hands as they traverse the circumference. Simultaneously, one player enters the centre to expedite the passes. The point is how long players can keep the ball creatively airborne. Like martial arts, moves in chinlone are multifarious, with some catalogued by namesake; illustrations of some rendered in collage-effect slow motion made them, along with the live games, viewed through panoramic lenses, thrilling to witness.

What you hadn’t expected was this experience to be rife with politics. There was the game’s history: during colonial rule of Burma, the British had banned the game because it was fun – a point the director revealed with indignation. Next, his narrative set-up for introducing chinlone and his reception in Myanmar was prefaced with his upbringing in Canada. Growing up in foster homes, he said he neither felt as privileged as other kids, nor was he treated with dignity. Not the case in Myanmar apparently, where he finally found a sense of belonging. You had observed that his initial celebrity stemmed from being an exotic curio – the anthropologist who “went native” to the amusement of the indigenes, but who soon accorded him due respect.

Mystic Ball

A woman in the audience wanted to know if the director had considered highlighting Myanmar’s political situation. The military has ruled for decades. As with all oppressive regimes, they’ve crushed dissent. Textbook tyranny. Because of places like Myanmar, human rights lobbies think they have their work cut out for them. The woman might have been thinking: how can Myanma culture be celebrated without also highlighting how repressive life there is? The director replied as if he saw this coming. He defended his distance from politics coolly, arguing that had he chosen to comment, he could have been denied a return to Myanmar and his friends, and to the comfort of chinlone. The audience nattered, presumably in assent. But did he realise that he was in fact being political? If his silence was calculated, then he was voluntarily marching in line. After all, to dare to speak damning truths often involves very little art.

Relativism was the clincher in your view on political diversity. A Lion in the House was another doc you hadn’t planned to see, but two things had persuaded you. First, it ran about four hours (length presumes importance, does it not?), and second, it chronicled children battling cancer (a sober blockbuster spectacle?). Two spouses had convinced a handful of families to allow them to document their struggles over several years. The kids were young: some barely beyond formative years, others in adolescence and young adulthood. A few grew up over the course of the four hours. You wondered how trust was negotiated here. What had motivated the families to open up during such trying times? Were they sincere in wanting to share their pains with strangers, which included spectators like you? Might they have been curious about their trials in retrospect? – for such conviction must be more exceptional than routine.

Even though “lion” was a figure of speech, here was an exceptionally violent four hours. You were sure the filmmakers hadn’t intended this, but the collective impression you reaped from these struggles was how the idea of childhood was peculiar to the middle class experience. With some exception, all the families involved were suburban folk whose values and attitudes were eminently custodial. You felt the violence had arisen from showing these kids being torn apart by some of the worst cancer pathologies – in the process, arresting the fervour of an imagined immortality. Their will to live had made this point resonant; while some were too young to grasp the severity, others were admirably sanguine. But beyond this setting, childhood simply didn’t exist. The source of the doc’s power was its ability to universalise the consummate experience of childhood. Its standing ovation was therefore utterly foreseeable.

Uganda Rising

This was precisely why Uganda Rising and its gripping companion piece, In a Soldier’s Footsteps failed to receive standing ovations. Such approval should not be obligatory, but the ‘snubs’ revealed the fickle nature of sympathy, notwithstanding the different crowds in attendance. For central to both docs – one expressed factoid style and the other narrated as a solid thriller – was another harrowing truth about children abiding their lives in terror: young kids being abducted by both Uganda’s warring military and opposition forces over decades in the tens of thousands to be armed and trained to kill. Massacres were carried out in droves, sometimes against their families, while displacement and torture awaited the unlucky survivors – to say nothing of the attendant consequences of such instituted persecution. Were these fates not worthy of the same consideration that had been known to embrace the devastated lives of richer kids fighting another species of demons?

Now, this is the point where things took an unusual turn. When you sent the editor your review, she immediately expressed her misgivings because she did not appreciate the emphasis on politics. She might have been expecting something formalist since this was a film journal. Or maybe she hadn’t gotten over her “hours of badly made docs”, for wasn’t this the anxiety which you did not think merited serious attention? Of course, you were stunned at the rejection, but you defended your position, arguing that this schema on politics needed articulation, if for no other reason than to show that the notion of the political was not static.

However, this initial exchange preceded a more unpleasant dispute that soon arose, which really shouldn’t have, and which took both of you by surprise. Biting words filled both your inboxes. It all happened so fast that for a moment, you conceived that the two-way harangue might have been imagined, for this had never before happened. What had transpired from a bland exchange for opinions to escalate into something so wantonly dramatic, as if two actors were engaging in improvisation? The outcome was certainly not in your favour. Since the more powerful party was adamant, the review would not be published.

In a neat, ironic twist then, the political wrangling between the editor and you had become the plot of this afterthought. You needed an antidote for this episode, and felt that writing an account of what had happened would expel the bitterness. On hindsight, you needn’t have bothered regurgitating details of the festival here since the rejected review would have served that purpose. The only difference between them was of course the anecdote concerning the editor and you. Sometime before finishing the account, you had idly revisited the original piece. Reading it, you realised that your right cheekbone was reflexively raising itself several times. These could have been winces, but were just as likely to be smiles. You recalled what they were then, but if you cannot figure it out now, you must start from the top again.