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Dispatch from Toronto | Hot Docs ’10: Family Ties & Common Bonds

Dispatch from Toronto | Hot Docs ’10: Family Ties & Common Bonds

With one week of its 17th edition completed, the 2010 Hot Docs Canadian International Film Festival, which continues through this Sunday, has screened about three-quarters of its overall programming. As in previous years, the festival presents close to 200 films over its eleven-day run, consisting of new and retrospective non-fiction work from around the world. The event, which is the largest documentary festival in North America, draws national and international film industry attendees, visiting filmmakers, and the famed Toronto public audience, regularly filling screenings to capacity.

Director of Programming Sean Farnel and his team have once again put together an impressive program, which balances a wide selection of new work with some of the best recent work that has shone at other major film festivals, such as IDFA (highlights screened so far include, among others, “Enemies of the People,” “The Inventions of Dr NakaMats,” “The Peddler”), Sundance (“My Perestroika,” “The Oath,” “Gasland,” “Waste Land,” “A Small Act,” and “12th & Delaware”), SXSW (“Marwencol,” “The People vs George Lucas”), and elsewhere (“The Mirror,” “Into Eternity”).

[Full Disclosure: A film I co-produced, “The Canal Street Madam,” which world premiered at SXSW, also had its international premiere at Hot Docs this week.]

With so many titles in its slate, Hot Docs offers a diversity of documentary experiences and approaches. In this festival dispatch and a follow up early next week, I’ll briefly comment on a number of titles that I’ve screened here for the first time. A separate dispatch will take a closer look at the two-day Toronto Documentary Forum, where selected filmmakers have the opportunity to pitch their projects to broadcasters and funders.

The six films highlighted here might be loosely grouped together under two semi-related categories: family bonds and common experiences.

World Premieres “Life With Murder” and “The House of Suh” both recount the tragic and complicated tales of homicide within the family, while “This Way of Life” focuses in many ways on fatherhood and authority. John Kastner’s “Life With Murder” profiles Mason Jenkins, who was found guilty of murdering his sister Jennifer, and his parents, who hold on to the belief that he is, as he claims for years, innocent. Even when the cracks in his story give way to a flood of difficult and disturbing truths, his parents can’t help but stand by their son. While Kastner unwisely makes unnecessary and disruptive use of an offscreen interviewer’s voice (presumably his own), the film makes an impact in its honest exploration of unconditional parental love.

Iris K Shim’s “The House of Suh” aims to uncover the truth behind the sensationalism of a murder involving a pair of Korean-American siblings that has already been adapted into a made-for-TV film (though with the protagonists made Caucasian!). Andrew Suh pleads guilty to the murder of his sister Catherine’s boyfriend, while Catherine runs from the law, eventually found after an appearance on “America’s Most Wanted.” But Shim finds that there’s much more to the story, relating to immigrant identity, rebellion against authority, and the unsolved brutal murder of the Suhs’ mother. The result is compulsively watchable and surprising.

While murder doesn’t enter the picture in Thomas Burstyn’s “This Way of Life,” a central thread involves the seemingly monomaniacal drive of the protagonist’s father to destroy his son’s life and livelihood, leading to arson, horse thievery, and threats of bodily harm. Rugged horse trainer Peter Karena lives with his wife Colleen and brood of six adorable kids, largely off the grid in the mountains. He shows affection for his offspring, but takes a largely hands-off approach to child-rearing, letting them figure out their own path. But an argument with his father escalates throughout the film, threatening the peaceful life Peter has worked for. Frustratingly, Burstyn, for whatever reason, never provides enough detail about what happened between Peter and his father – only very late in the film including some provocative footage of the latter. While this leaves a feeling of missed opportunity, the film still provides a unique look at fatherhood in the quiet but strong will of its protagonist.

Another trio of titles screened here this week may not be tied directly by family, but focus on unique relationships based on shared experiences. In Marcus Lindeen’s “Regretters,” two men meet and discuss their unusual life stories – both were biological men who transitioned to women only to decide to transition back to being men again. Talking to one another, watching slideshows of their former lives, and giving one-on-one interviews to the camera, Mikaeal (AKA Mikaela) and Orlando (AKA Isadora) speak plainly and effectively about their reasons for transitioning and why they regretted their decisions, making fascinating, complex subjects.

Three women scarred by war relate their struggles as forced combatants in Uganda in “Grace, Milly, Lucy… Child Soldiers.” With the goal of giving voice to girl child soldiers, usually absent from the discussion of this horrific practice, director Raymonde Provencher tells the stories of now-grown ex-soldiers – who were abducted, threatened with death, trained, and forced to commit murders and to bear the children of their captors – and their efforts to create a dialogue about the experiences and to combat the stigma many in their position face after escaping captivity. While the film suffers at times from repetition and an overall workmanlike approach, the women’s stories are heartbreaking and captivating.

Finally, “Freetime Machos,” which also screened at Tribeca, surprisingly explores the boundaries of male identity in its portrait of one of Finland’s worst rugby teams. While a number of players are profiled in Mika Ronkainen’s verité film, its stars are best friends Matti and Mikko who always seem just one beer away from turning their homosocial, fraternal bond into the homosexual. While Mikko struggles to balance being a father to four kids with his commitment to his team, Matti tries to resist growing up and marrying his girlfriend. They get to let loose on the pitch and especially in their frequent sauna parties, but find that the demands of life outside of rugby threatens their sport and their bond. Ronkainen impressively captures intimacy between men, the complexity of their conceptions of masculinity and of their roles and responsibilities, and the limits they place on themselves.

ABOUT THE WRITER: Basil Tsiokos is a Programming Associate, Documentary Features for Sundance, consults with documentary filmmakers and festivals, guest curates the Out at the Movies film series at the Jacob Burns Film Center, and recently co-produced Cameron Yates’ feature documentary “The Canal Street Madam.” Follow him on Twitter: @1basil1 @CanalStMadamDoc

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