hot docs: canadian international documentary festival opens Friday (April 28) and runs to May 7, various locations. Single screenings $10, festival pass (10 tickets) $75, premium pass $140, stu/srs free for all daytime screenings (before 6 pm), screenings after 11 pm all free. 416-588-8362, www.hotdocs.ca. For complete Hot Docs schedule, click here. Rating: NNNNN
DEAR PYONGYANG (Yonghi Yang, Japan). 107 minutes. Subtitled. Friday (April 28), 6:30 pm, and Monday (May 1), 1:45 pm, ROM. Rating: NNNNN
Yonghi Yang grew up in Japan in a Korean family headed by a man who believed his spiritual and political homeland was North Korea. When her three older brothers were in their teens, their father sent them there to live out his dream. When Yang later visited them and witnessed their poverty and limited lives, she began to question the patriarch's choice - and wondered if he did, too. That's the backdrop of this astonishingly moving and original look at family loyalties and dashed political ideals. Yang artfully interweaves footage from her earlier trips to Pyongyang with a series of recent talks with her father. It all leads up to a big family reunion to celebrate the dad's 70th birthday.
Yang's decision to be behind the video camera and comment (usually afterwards) on what we're seeing is never self-indulgent. Her narration helps anchor the film, and she knows when to let the camera record what words can't communicate.
Her father provides an exuberant, playful subject whose difficult choices remain at the heart of the film. Yang's supportive mother does a lot to hold her family together, too. The film's denouement is an emotional roller coaster unlike anything you'll see this year.
WALKING TO WERNER (Linas Phillips, U.S.). 95 minutes. Friday (April 28), 7:30 pm, Bloor; Sunday (April 30), 11:30 am, ROM. Rating: NNN
In Walking To Werner, Linas Phillips documents his journey on foot from Seattle to Los Angeles to visit his spiritual mentor, filmmaker (and known walker) Werner Herzog. Apart from getting a subject for his first film, it's never clear why Phillips - who claims he's not a stalker - is doing this. He has little insight into Herzog's work or life, and admits he doesn't know what else to do with his life.
Initially, that's not enough to compel us. But once he sets out on his photogenic journey, camcorder in hand, and meets a number of eccentrics - among them a violent drunk, a formerly suicidal student nurse and, most movingly, a man who's walking across the U.S. after his family was murdered - his pilgrimage takes on texture.
Phillips borrows liberally from Herzog's interview for the Criterion edition of Burden Of Dreams, yet has little to say himself apart from the occasional curse. He's a cipher, less charismatic than most of Herzog's own documentary subjects, but no less obsessive.
The Railroad All Stars (Chema Rodriguez, Spain). 91 minutes. Subtitled. Friday (April 28), 9:30 pm, Isabel Bader. Rating: NNN
Street hookers who hustle $3 tricks in the stricken ghetto of La Linea, Guatemala City, form a competitive soccer team to bring attention to extreme dangers they face on the job. A lively hand-held shooting style, original music score and a cast of kind-hearted and prickly hookers complement the engaging concept.
The spirited film follows prostitutes on the field as they talk about their wretched lives and steadily gain media coverage to propel their cause. The All Stars play against bar strippers and the police, but sadly, after a game with street prostitutes in El Salvador, things take a turn. Rather than revelling in the victory the film has set up, we are left to ponder, by ourselves, difficulties the prostitutes face in making real change in their lives.
BLACK GOLD (Nick Francis, Marc Francis, U.S.). 78 minutes. Some subtitles. Saturday (April 29), 1:30 pm, Bloor; Monday (May 1), 9:30 pm, Innis. Rating: NN
It's ironic that a film about coffee fails to keep you awake. But Nick Francis and brother Marc Francis give us too much information, jet us to too many places and clutter the screen with too many numbers for us to properly swallow the situation of the unfair trading practices surrounding the world's favourite caffeinated beverage. That's too bad, because along with the easy shots at perky Starbucks employees and one silly barista competition, there are powerful glimpses of poverty in Ethiopia, where a tiny drop in the NYSE coffee trading price can affect whether a village will eat or not.
The Francis brothers fail to find a compelling and consistent human hook for the film. Ethiopian coffee farmers' co-op representative Tadesse Meskela comes close, but the directors haven't shaped his story effectively. On the heels of the film's success at Sundance, this comes as a bitter disappointment.
LET'S TALK ABOUT IT (Deepa Mehta, Canada). 47 minutes. Some subtitles. Saturday (April 29), 1:30 pm, Innis; May 6, 4 pm, NFB. Rating: NNN
What sets Deepa Mehta's film apart from other powerful documentaries about domestic violence is the diversity of its subjects and the open-spirited approach hinted at in the title. Focusing on four families, Mehta interweaves interviews she conducts with those of children questioning and videotaping their parents (three abused mothers, one abusive dad).
It's a gamble, but it pays off. Emboldened by the authority of the camera, the kids ask intimate but essential questions, revealing the complicated psychology of abusive behaviour and the special problems facing new immigrants. The result is illuminating, both for the subjects and the audience. A terrific resource, and a solid entry in the fest's Reel Teens series.
WHAT REMAINS (Steven Cantor, U.S.). 80 minutes. Saturday (April 29), 2 pm, Isabel Bader; Sunday (April 30), 6:30 pm, Innis. Rating: NNNN
In What Remains, director Stephen Cantor returns to the life and work of photographer Sally Mann, the subject of his Oscar-nominated 1993 short, Blood Ties. Back then, Mann had achieved notoriety for her controversial series of family photographs, many of them nudes of her children. More than a decade later, she's had to deal with the death of her eccentric father and her husband's debilitating illness, events that have affected her artistic evolution.
Cantor gives us a moving, sensitive portrait of the artist as a middle-aged woman. Mann's strong family life and the gorgeous setting of her home in the American South are enviable, but we also witness the ruthlessness and moral enquiry needed to create lasting art. Mann is an articulate, clear-eyed commentator on her own work.
The second half of the film builds to a natural climax as Mann discovers the theme for her latest exhibit, a look at mortality that includes photographs of decaying corpses. Naturally, it's controversial. Who knew that the lead-up to a photo exhibition could be so tension-packed?
ALIMENTATION GeNERALE (Chantal Briet, France). 84 minues. Subtitled. Saturday (April 29), 2:30 pm, and Tuesday (May 2), 3:45 pm, ROM. Rating: NNN
In the depressed area surrounding a general store in the Parisian suburb of Epinay-sur-Seine, 638 apartments house people of 25 nationalities. With an incredibly unobtrusive camera, director Chantal Briet tracks the comings and goings of these ordinary people as they buy their groceries then stay and gossip with the film's unsung hero, store owner Ali, an amateur singer who helps bridge the various communities.
Apart from the question of whether Ali's rundown store will get renovated, there's not much drama in the film. But there's a quiet, cumulative power in the people's petty grievances and prejudices and the occasional victory.
Incidentally, the suburb was the scene of riots last fall, but the film was made before they broke out. Considering the tension simmering beneath the surface of this film, it's not difficult to see why they occurred.
ALL ABOARD! ROSIE'S FAMILY CRUISE (Shari Cookson, U.S.). 91 minutes. Saturday (April 29), 3:45 pm, Bloor. Rating: NN
There's definitely a reason to dock yourself at this look at Rosie O'Donnell and her partner Kelli's gay-and-lesbian-family-friendly cruise ship as it leaves Manhattan and travels down the coast. It's especially relevant now, when gay marriage is under attack both here and in the U.S. and the whole "family values" issue is rearing its conservative head again.
Too bad the trip is so dull - and long. After we learn about how several couples conceived their kids, sit in on an adoption seminar and yawn through innumerable show tunes performed in the ship's massive theatre, there's not much else to see.
The only conflict comes when the boat approaches the Bahamas and we learn there will be protestors. O'Donnell refuses on principle to disembark, but others leave and engage with the Bible-thumpers. Nothing new there, except the image of the ship's minister singing along with the protestors in a gesture of Christian peace.
The most moving sequence involves a forum where teen children of same-sex couples talk about their lives.
Sadly, even when O'Donnell takes to the mic onstage, she's not very funny. Maybe becoming a parent has dulled her comic edge. A scary thought.
Hiphop's bad rap
BEYOND BEATS (Byron Hurt, U.S.). 60 minutes. Saturday (April 29), 4:45 pm, ROM; May 6, 1:30 pm, NFB. Rating: NNN
Beyond Beats is a bit of a no-brainer, but still worth a look. Writer/director Byron Hurt explores the depiction of masculinity in his beloved hiphop culture, discovering a ton of aggression, violence, misogyny and homophobia. Hurt's inexperience as a filmmaker - he's a former college quarterback - shows in his reliance on talking heads, especially academic ones. Some of his Gonzo-style interviews are hilariously naive, but his openness and enthusiasm give the film some energy.
Rightly, Hurt spends a lot of time deconstructing Nelly's controversial video for Tip Drill, which prompts one campus group to protest the musician's appearance there - a missed dramatic opportunity for the film.
Hurt's most illuminating observations come from exploring homophobia and African-American culture. When Busta Rhymes leaves an interview in disgust when the issue comes up, you know the problem is still rampant.
ABDUCTION: THE MEGUMI YOKOTA STORY (Chris Sheridan, Patty Kim, Japan/U.S.). 85 minutes. Subtitled. Saturday (April 29), 6:30 pm, Bloor; Monday (May 1), 9:45 pm, Al Green. Rating: NNNN
This unusual doc feels like a kickass episode of Unsolved Mysteries: Japan. Chris Sheridan and Patty Kim trace the story of Megumi Yokota, a 13-year-old Japanese schoolgirl who disappeared in 1977. Twenty years after she vanished, the case is reopened - along with those of several other mysterious disappearances - and connected to espionage in North Korea. Yokota's parents persevere and lobby their government until they find some answers. When they discover holes in those answers, they demand others.
Dramatic taiko drumming adds a cheesy melodramatic feel to the film's early moments, but as the plot thickens and the search for Megumi and the other abductees becomes a huge national concern, the film takes on the weight of a Sophoclean play.
What emerges most of all is a moving portrait of Yokota's elderly parents, resolutely pursuing the truth with dignity (others aren't so tactful) and trying to achieve some closure.
MOZARTBALLS (Larry Weinstein, Canada). 55 minutes. Some subtitles. Saturday (April 29), 7 pm, and Tuesday (May 2), 1:30 pm, Isabel Bader. Rating: NNN
W.A. Mozart himself would chuckle at the eccentric - to put it kindly - characters obsessed with him in Larry Weinstein's amusing doc. One Oklahoma woman believes she's the composer's reincarnation, while a California tech geek insists that his cello concerto, generated by his computer to be in "the Mozart style," is as artful as anything by the master.
Weinstein's detached perspective lets his subjects compose their own Requiems For A Nutbar, but he does have a good eye for high kitsch, especially once he hits Vienna and sees an entire city infected by Mozart mania.
A couple of sequences involving an astronaut who listened to The Magic Flute when he was in space achieve profundity, but Weinstein is more interested in life on earth. The funniest line comes from a cellist who says Mozart would rather have been poisoned by Salieri than have written an awkward passage from the computer concerto.
Thankfully, the composer's glorious music wafts beneath the film's less intriguing pronouncements.
Thin is full
THIN (Lauren Greenfield, U.S.). 105 minutes. Saturday (April 29), 7 pm, and Monday (May 1), 11 am, ROM. Rating: NNNN
Filmed with the candid vulnerability of Nan Goldin's snapshots of drag queens and junkies, photographer Lauren Greenfield's documentary debut follows the lives of girls and women wasting away inside a private eating disorder treatment centre in Florida. Thin never resorts to the sensationalized scare tactics or simplified cause-effect explanations employed by most eating disorder PSA projects. Instead, Greenfield lets her characters - from a desperately bubbly mother of two to a 15-year-old with smudged eyeliner and a death wish - illustrate the range and repercussions of the disease. She lets the same subtle codes she captured in her superlative book of photo essays, Girl Culture - a weighted stare across cafeteria tables, catty banter on a smoke break - create gritty, heartbreaking portraits, and even slips in implicit critiques of the classism and shortcomings of the medical model of treatment.
While you occasionally wish for more of the patients' backstories, the fact that women who can barely look at themselves in the mirror have allowed Greenfield such intimate access is remarkable.
THE DUCKLING (Sayaka Ono, Japan). 75 minutes. Subtitled. Saturday (April 29), 8:45 pm, Innis; Monday (May 1), 11 pm, Bloor. Rating: NNN
When Sayaka Ono was five, she was sent away by her parents to live and work for a year in an institution, where she was treated badly by the head teachers. Years later, her older brother sexually abused her one afternoon, and her own sister told her not to talk about it. Now 20 and crippled by poor self-esteem, Ono directs the camera at herself, her seemingly content Japanese family and other former schoolgirls from the institution.
The rawness and intensity of this confessional diary occasionally make it hard to watch - Ono's emotional turmoil as she confronts her ghosts is obviously genuine. The English subtitles are crudely translated, and there's a shift in focus near the end that's not exactly artful.
But this is a compelling glimpse into Japanese repression, the nature of memory and the need to reopen wounds to heal them. An essential document about the lasting effects of child abuse.
How Many Roads (Jos de Putter, the Netherlands). 76 minutes. Saturday (April 29), 9 pm, Bloor; Monday (May 1), 1 pm, Isabel Bader. Rating: NNNN
You don't have to be a Bob Dylan fan to appreciate this movie's look at how the singer's gravelly voice and lyrics spoke to people around the world. But those who are couldn't find a better tribute to Dylan's lasting power than this haunting, beautiful film. Travelling across the United States, Jos de Putter finds Dylan admirers in all walks of life. More than just ardent concert-goers, these are people who have used his music to re-examine their own existence, like the woman who wanted to see more than her backyard when she looked out the window, or the young soldier in Iraq who used Dylan's words to quell his fears.
There's no narration, and until the end we don't even really know who we're meeting, but don't mistake that for lack of polish. This is exactly the kind of poetic, laid-back, interpret-for-yourself style Dylan himself champions.
American Fugitive: The Truth About Hassan (Jean-Daniel Lafond, Canada). 75 minutes. Saturday (April 29), 9:15 pm, Isabel Bader; Tuesday (May 2), 1:15 pm, ROM. Rating: NNN
"There's life after America," says Hassan Abdulrahman, a black power veteran and member of the Nation of Islam who fled to Iran in 1980 after murdering a former Iranian diplomat in Washington. Conspiracy theories abound as to who ordered the hit - the film hints at everyone from Ayatollah Khomeini to the Carter administration - but the evidence is circumstantial.
The filmmakers capture Abdulrahman's circumscribed life in Tehran by shooting largely in his sparse underground apartment, and on video, which always looks bleaker than film. The doc is sympathetic, but even its subject admits his crime means eternal damnation, and it did nothing to advance the cause of blacks in the U.S.
There may be life after America, but it's too bad Hassan Abdulrahman didn't stay there to fight his own battles instead of joining someone else's.
EYE ON THE GUY: ALAN B. STONE & THE AGE OF BEEFCAKE (Philip Lewis, Jean-François Monette, Canada). 49 minutes. Some subtitles. Saturday (April 29), 9:45 pm, and Wednesday (May 3), 4:30 pm, ROM. Rating: NNNN
Alan B. Stone was a sickly, introverted man who took beefcake pictures of scantily clad young male athletes in the 1950s. From the basement of his suburban Montreal home, which he shared with his mother and aunt, he ran a thriving international mail-order business directed mostly at gay men, before the term "gay" was widely known. Enjoying a subject that practically films itself, directors Philip Lewis and Jean-François Monette bulk it up by placing the beefcake boom in a historical context. They effectively capture the feel of post-war Montreal, and show how Stone's time in the Boy Scouts - which ironically provided his first professional photography gig - contributed to his aesthetic. They also make a good case for Stone as a serious photographer, especially after the rise of porn in the late 60s forced him to find new subjects. One interviewee compares his later work to Cartier-Bresson's.
As a bonus, the directors have tracked down several of Stone's models, who relate their first-hand stories and poignantly show the results of time on bodies and egos.
A full House
My Grandmother's House (Adan Aliaga, Spain). 80 minutes. Subtitled. Sunday (April 30), 2 pm, ROM; Tuesday (May 2), 3:30 pm, Isabel Bader. Rating: NNNN
Adan Aliaga employs pure fly-on-the-wall cinéma vérité with an eccentric charm akin to the Maysles Brothers' in Grey Gardens to bear witness to 75-year-old Marita as she bids farewell to the crumbling house she's occupied for 52 years in the small Spanish village of San Vincente. Aliaga captures the range of her emotions - from sadness and anxiety to joy and acceptance - with beautifully framed intimate closeups that reflect the trust he gained. Marita's precocious six-year-old granddaughter Marina frustrates her with quips like "This house is a mess and so are you, Grandma."
But ultimately, the love between this rebellious child and formidable old woman bridges the gap between what is being lost and what is gained as they solemnly watch the house being demolished.
THE BEACH BOYS (Honi Hameagel, Israel). 82 minutes. Subtitled. Monday (May 1), 7 pm, ROM; Wednesday (May 3), 4:15 pm, Isabel Bader. Rating: N
If the Israeli tourist board sees this film, it'll be livid. Honi Hameagel has spent 30 years making a movie that makes his country look like the pickup bar from hell.
From 1975 on, he followed his creepy, mostly jobless, womanizing buddies ( Ronnie, David and G-String ) at the beach as they harassed female tourists and discussed impotence, race issues and, oh yeah, how much they like to fuck.
I forgive Hameagel for thinking, like most guys do, that his friends are characters, but that doesn't mean everything they do is worth watching. Do we need to see them in the shower, on the toilet and doing (don't ask) naked pull-ups? This is a painful home movie that never ends.
OUR OWN PRIVaTE BIN LADEN (Samira Goetschel). 63 minutes. Some subtitles. Monday (May 1), 7 pm, Isabel Bader; May 5, 9:30 pm, Innis. Rating: NN
Iranian-born director Samira Goetschel set out after September 11, 2001, to understand for herself the root causes of Islamist terrorism and anti-Americanism. She gets a lot of bigwigs - including Benazir Bhutto and Jimmy Carter's national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski - to talk to her, but the film is frustrating because it reveals so little new information. Who doesn't know that the West swallows propaganda in the form of "news" or that the U.S. armed Osama bin Laden's compatriots in the 80s? Goetschel's main thesis - that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan changed world politics and warfare forever - is an interesting and important one, but given this film's likely audience, she's preaching to the converted.
THE CHANCES OF THE WORLD CHANGING (Eric Daniel Metzgar, U.S.). 99 minutes. Tuesday (May 2), 6:45 pm, ROM; May 6, 1 pm, Isabel Bader. Rating: NNN
Compulsive personalities are great subjects for docs, and Eric Daniel Metzgar found a doozy in Richard Ogust, a writer who became so obsessed with saving the world's endangered turtles and tortoises that he housed 1,200 of them in his Manhattan apartment. Metzgar chronicles Ogust's attempt, after he's evicted and ends up living in a tent in New Jersey, to form an education/research institute where he can house the turtles. The journey includes cold cargo rooms where illegally shipped turtles are confiscated, visits to other "collectors" and numerous shots of the creatures themselves, who (in Metzgar's observant camera) look fearful or happy depending on the film's tone.
Ogust is a tough subject, with a stony, worried expression. Look for the one telling moment when he muses on the possible psychological basis of his actions. What's odd is that we don't learn much about the turtles themselves. This entertaining film is really about the dangers of obsession - of hiding your head, as it were, in a protective shell.
Actuality: The Art and Life of Allan King (John Haslett Cuff, Canada). 51 minutes. Tuesday (May 2), 7 pm, Isabel Bader; May 5, 1:30 pm, ROM. Rating: NNNN
The irony in making a film about a documentary film genius is that you're unlikely to be as skilled as your subject. Noted filmmaker and journalist John Haslett Cuff comes close. A fluid, intimate portrayal of Allan King as both artist and man, Cuff's movie reveals King's work as a form of therapy on film.
When King talks about business and money woes, there's a clip of his unemployment film A Matter of Pride. He contemplates his past and present wives, and the film includes the most telling scenes from his film A Married Couple.
Most moving are glimpses of King at work on last year's powerful dementia study, Memory For Max, Claire, Ida And Company, giving a first-hand look at how he finds honest emotion without ever exploiting his subjects.
For audiences familiar with King's prolific career, Cuff's film is an engaging tribute that showcases the master's integrity. King's not out to prove a point or be famous; he just wants to explore life's greatest mysteries.
Bombay Calling (Ben Addelman, Samir Mallal, Canada). 72 minutes. Subtitled. Tuesday (May 2), 9 pm, Bloor; May 5, 1 pm, Isabel Bader. Rating: NNN
Welcome to Epicentre, a call centre that outsources to Indians in Bombay. Here you'll learn accent coaching to sound less ethnic, enjoy culture lessons that feature a viewing of Crocodile Dundee and discover that if you can keep the customer on the phone to say no six times, you've almost got your sale. Watching the highs and lows of the business is compelling, as is the look at Western consumer values corrupting Indian youth. But the heart of the film comes from meeting Epicentre employees like Alex, the American team leader who rules with a gentle hand, or Wendy, who just wants to make her father proud.
Kudos to directors Ben Addelman and Samir Mallal. It's quite a feat to get the audience to sympathize with telemarketers.
SO MUCH SO FAST (Steven Ascher, Jeanne Jordan, U.S.). 87 minutes. Tuesday (May 2), 9:15 pm, Isabel Bader; May 5, 11 am, ROM. Rating: NNN
When golden boy Stephen Heywood gets diagnosed with ALS (aka Lou Gehrig's disease), his brother Jamie devotes his life to finding a cure, becoming a guerrilla scientist and establishing a multi-million-dollar foundation to fast-track the research. The doc's chronicle of Heywood's race against the clock (most ALS patients have a two-to-five-year life expectancy) is predictably affecting.
Narrator/co-director Steven Ascher captures Heywood's physical deterioration without sentimentality. The cast of characters includes Heywood's new wife and their son, and the most moving scene in the film comes when father and infant son play, neither able to properly use their limbs.
What's most original about the film is how technology shapes Heywood's life. There's also a subtle look at the passage of time and the importance of considering ordinary people's feelings, even when life and death are at stake.
IRAQ IN FRAGMENTS (James Longley, US). 94 minutes. Subtitled. Wednesday (May 3), 6:45 pm, Bloor; May 5, 3 pm, Isabel Bader. Rating: NNNN
Director James Longley's amazing access to war-ravaged Iraq makes this a visually stunning and necessary document. The clever title refers to three sections, one dealing with the hellish life of an illiterate 11-year-old Baghdad urchin, the next a look at rising Shiite militants and the final an elegiac look at the plight of the country's Kurds. Shooting in vérité style, Longley has a poet's eye and a humanist's heart. In the first and third sections, he shows great sympathy for children. In the second, he successfully manoeuvres among the Shiite power brokers and includes a disturbing attack on a market, where men are rounded up and interrogated (someone compares their treatment to life under Saddam) for selling alcohol.
More than any of the films I've seen at this festival, this Sundance Fest award winner demands to be seen on a big screen to be fully appreciated.
THE WORLD ACCORDING TO SESAME STREET (Linda Goldstein Knowlton, Linda Hawkins Costigan, U.S.). 100 minutes. May 4, 6:45 pm, Bloor. Rating: NNNN
Can Sesame Street, that most American and urban of shows, travel into poor, rural, non-English-speaking countries? According to this lovely doc, yes. The filmmakers follow several "translations," including the introduction of an HIV-positive Muppet in South Africa, tension-filled production meetings between Serb and Albanian Kosovars and the show's inaugural broadcast in Bangladesh.
Jim Henson's shows were always miles ahead of adult programming in terms of tolerance and inclusiveness, and directors Linda Goldstein Knowlton and Linda Hawkins Costigan show how Sesame Street's current guardians emphasize local talent and culture with each new production. If the nostalgia attendant on snippets from the original series doesn't warm your cold, dead heart, watching one of the Bangladeshi show-runners weep over her creation will.