Unlike that other film festival, Hot Docs doesn’t rely on star power to sell its films. That doesn’t mean there aren’t celebrities attached to the movies, often providing voice-over narration.
But a couple of films at this year’s Hot Docs feature celebs in different ways. Paging through the program book, I thought I recognized Tilda Swinton’s (Orlando, Adaptation) high-cheekboned self in the entry for the film Strange Culture. Surely, I thought, some ordinary person can’t have the evil Queen of Narnia’s cold porcelain beauty.
Swinton, it turns out, plays one of the film’s real characters in a series of dramatic recreations. Her character is part of an art collective who deal with genetically modified foods. She police discover petri dishes and chemicals in her home, they suspect the artists are bioterrorists. It’s a fascinating, disturbing look at post-9/11 paranoia and artistic freedom, and Swinton’s participation speaks volumes.
What’s fascinating is that we also get to see Swinton and the other actors as themselves commenting on the film and its issues. At times it’s almost as confusing – and entertaining – as watching Adaptation. Except this is real.
Another film that might get some buzz because of the starry names attached to it is Nanking, a which tells the story of the Japanese occupation of Nanking mostly through the eyes of a group of Westerners living there at the time.
Actors like Mariel Hemingway, Woody Harrelson, Jurgen Prochnow and John Getz read letters and diary entries directly to the camera. At first, the technique is off-putting. But gradually it gives the film texture and the lives immediacy. The most vivid entries, however, remain those of the people who actually survived the raping and pillaging of their city.
I wonder how long it’ll be before someone creates a lavish historical drama about Nanking, based on the material that directors Dan Sturman and Bill Guttentag dug up.
Minnie Vautrin’s (played by Hemingway) story is particularly poignant. She singlehandedly ran a school for girls and helped protect them and other civilians from Japanese brutality. She survived the war, but her end is tragic.
Laura Linney would be perfect in the role.
Strange Culture screens April 25 at 6:30 pm at the Bloor and April 28 at 9 pm at the Royal. Nanking screens April 26 at 7 pm and April 28 at 9:30 pm, both at the Isabel Bader.