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Dispatch from Toronto | Hot Docs ’10: Secrets, Eclectics & Lands

Dispatch from Toronto | Hot Docs ’10: Secrets, Eclectics & Lands

Hot Docs, the largest documentary film festival in North America, wrapped up its 17th edition Sunday night after eleven days of programming (get the full list of winners of the fest here). Consistently one of the top doc events internationally, the festival continued to deliver strong selections in its second half, even as the weather unexpectedly took a nasty turn from warm early Spring to wet, cold, and windy pseudo-Winter (there was even a forecast of possible snow for Sunday morning!).

Because of the sheer volume of films in Hot Docs’ slate, and the diversity of titles – providing comprehensive coverage is not possible, so as in my previous dispatch covering the first part of the fest, below I’ll spotlight a selection of films that I was able to see here these past few days.

[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 past week.]

While wildly divergent, the eight films covered here all can be seen as portraits of sorts – of subjects with secrets, of eclectic protagonists, and, perhaps most loosely, of lands.

Perhaps the most experimental of the selections viewed at this year’s festival, Yuval Sagiv’s “How I Filmed the War” attempts to uncover the truth behind a classic documentary about WWI through a careful deconstruction of its creator’s autobiography, the film he made, and other, conflicting historical accounts. The film, having its world premiere here, alternates long sequences of text with footage from 1916 documentary/propaganda film “The Battle of the Somme,” creating an at times hypnotic effect that elevates what could have easily descended into a dry, one-note, academic exercise into a fascinating filmic essay.

A scene from John Zaritsky’s “Leave Them Laughing,” courtesy of Hot Docs.

“Anne Perry – Interiors,” by Dana Pinkiewicz, offers an intimate, studied look at the best-selling author of period crime dramas who was revealed to be one of the real life murderers depicted in the 1994 film “Heavenly Creatures.” The film establishes a slow, quiet pace, matching the estate where Perry writes with the assistance of her brother, secretary, and best friend, but the truth behind the murder in her past is always at the edge of the screen, and behind many of the interviews. Without indulging in sensationalism, Pinkiewicz draws out the difficult subject in a compelling and satisfying manner.

Lily Sheffy is just one of the titular figures in the film she’s made about her father, “Daddy’s Girls.” The others are the various women he’s been carrying around with, in some cases for decades, keeping each one secret from the next for as long as he can. Stuck between loving him and hating him for his inability to be truthful, Sheffy offers a nuanced, personal reflection of the complexity of her relationship to her lothario dad, even if most audiences might wish for his comeuppance. Hot Docs smartly paired the film with Amy Grappell’s acclaimed “Quadrangle,” by another daughter examining her parents’ alternative approach to relationships.

In contrast with “Daddy’s Girls,” the protagonist of George Tsioutsioulas’ world premiere “The Story of Furious Pete,” Pete Czerwinski, a one-time anorexic turned competitive eater, is eminently likeable. The doc is a crowd-pleaser, capitalizing more on Pete’s affability, strange backstory, and alternately fascinating/repulsive unusual talents than on the film itself, which borders too close to reality TV at times (do the filmmakers think the audience is so forgetful that they need to re-identify the same subjects, including the protagonist, every few minutes?) and ultimately lacks a satisfying story arc.

Another world premiere, “Leave them Laughing,” by John Zaritsky, also scores points for its protagonist, Carla Zilbersmith, a performer suffering from ALS. The foulmouthed and darkly comic subject and her wise-beyond-his-years teenage son are the heart of this doc, humorously charting Zilbersmith’s life dealing with a fatal disease. Despite being very rough around the edges in terms of structure and editing, by trading the maudlin for the irreverent, “Laughing” allows the audience to connect with its protagonist beyond a condescending pitying, creating a fuller sense of Zilbersmith’s personality and life.

Gordon Hempton, the subject of Nicholas Sherman’s “Soundtracker,” in contrast, holds back too much, offering audiences only the most narrow sense of his character. The beautifully shot film follows Hempton for a month as he obsessively tries to capture a specific sound recording in nature (sort of, since what he wants to capture is a meadowlark and a train together). But while there are hints that his eccentric avocation (it’s not clear how or if he supports himself doing this work) may have been a major factor in his marriage’s dissolution, the film never presses the question, focusing instead almost exclusively on his unusual quest/art.

A scene from Thorfinnur Gudnason and Andri Snaer Magnason’s “Dreamland,” courtesy of Hot Docs.

Thorfinnur Gudnason and Andri Snaer Magnason’s “Dreamland” looks at nature from another perspective – the ecological cost of Iceland’s economic growth via hydroelectric and geothermal energy exploitation. The filmmakers’ stunning aerial photography of the country’s terrain reminds us that, as these resources are tapped, virgin landscape is permanently altered, leading to the film’s thought-provoking consideration about how much progress might be too much.

A similar debate is taken up in Julian Pinder’s world premiere, “Land,” exploring Nicaragua and the efforts of gringo real estate developers to transform fishing villages into tourist resorts. Against the backdrop of a presidential election, and taking a multi-perspectival approach, Pinder speaks to seemingly culturally naive developers, to locals who have claims to the land that the developers have been swallowing up, and to a couple of expatriate wild cards who came to the country to escape the encroachment of capitalism in the first place.

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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