We’re enormous fans of documentary film here at Toronto Screen Shots. In fact, this very blog grew out of the many reviews we were writing for the annual Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival. Our coverage now extends well beyond Hot Docs to include documentaries in other festivals, on DVD, on television and even films in development.
For the second year running, I’ve compiled a special edition of the CAST Awards, just based on what people saw during Hot Docs. Here are the CAST Top 10 based on the votes of 14 submitted ballots. Voters ranked up to 10 films on their ballot from top to bottom, with first choices receiving 10 points, second choices 9, etc. The Points column lists the total score for each film, Mentions indicates how many voters included it in their Top Ten, Average is the average point score, and Firsts shows how many voters chose it as their favourite Hot Docs film.
In the case of points ties, the film with the higher number of first-place votes is listed first, then by highest average score. Because our sample size is quite small, these “rankings” don’t actually mean much, but I thought it would give a good idea of what this particular group of festivalgoers enjoyed this year. I’m curious to see how many of these show up in our regular year-end CAST ballot and how they do.
Girls Don’t Fly (Director: Monika Grassl): When British expat Jonathan Porter appears onscreen for the first time wearing a t-shirt that says “I AM NOT A WHITE MAN,” you know you’re in for a bumpy flight. You see, Jonathan is the stereotypical white man and a cringeworthy reminder of Britain’s colonial past. Porter runs an NGO in Ghana that purports to train young women to be pilots. Along with his Ghanaian wife, Patricia, he tries to instil a very Western style of discipline and organization in his students, mostly girls from rural backgrounds. Although director Grassl introduces the girls by name with her title cards, Porter’s program assigns each one a number and forbids them from using their own names (or speaking any other language than English). What starts off looking like discipline very quickly begins to look like abuse and degradation.
These young women are used to listening to white men tell them what to do. Even though Ghana achieved its independence from Britain in 1957, there is still a sense that white people should be respected and even obeyed. That sad situation is what allows a creep like Jonathan Porter to thrive. His wife Patricia, a former student, gained her pilot’s licence on her own merits and is a strong woman, but she clearly has hitched her wagon to Jonathan’s scheme and believes in his methods. In one scene, she muses that maybe Ghana achieved its independence too soon, and that they still have a lot to learn from their former colonial masters. Instead of encouraging her students to think for themselves, she becomes an enabler of Jonathan’s most misogynistic traits. He shouts at the girls, he tells them to smile, he dishes out meaningless punishments, and after weeks at the school, nobody’s seen the inside of a plane. Instead, he puts them to work mowing the grass on the runway, or assembling trinkets in the metal shop. The program is four years long, though he tells the camera that in Europe it would probably be two. He claims to be an African and yet he has no respect for the Ghanaian culture and actually tells the girls their names would confuse outsiders. The girls have names like Esther and Lydia.
Speaking of Lydia, she’s been turned into a sort of prize. As a result of an infection after an insect bite, her arm is shrivelled and has limited range of movement. But her determination to fly has turned her into one of the earlier classes star pupils. She says she’s been there 3.5 years and is almost ready to gain her licence, but she must have more surgery in Germany on her arm. Porter’s NGO has paid for the surgery and pays all the “tuition” and accommodation costs for the girls, although they appear to gain nothing from the experience. Lydia is used shamelessly in the NGO’s materials to keep the donations pouring in from around the world. She is incredibly charismatic and the newer girls love her, but after a while, the students confide to the filmmaker that they’re unhappy. Esther is one of the better students and she takes a leadership role in their brewing revolt.
Girls Don’t Fly turns the feel-good story of charitable organizations helping the less fortunate on its ear. When culturally insensitive and just plain nasty people like Jonathan Porter can support themselves “teaching” while their students get no closer to their dreams, something is wrong. When he can actively discourage them from going back to traditional schooling to continue his program, something must be done. Although Grassl’s film effectively turns over a rock and finds nasty things wriggling, one has to wonder how many other NGOs are operating in a similar fashion.
The Irish Pub (Director: Alex Fegan): I was born in Ireland and although my parents brought me to Canada when I was just a toddler, I’ve been back more than a dozen times in my lifetime, and have some great memories of time spent in traditional Irish pubs. So it wasn’t too difficult to convince me to watch this new documentary about these unique places. Director Fegan takes his camera around Ireland and spends most of his time in country towns where the pubs have often done double duty as grocery stores (and in one case, even as an undertaker’s). That should give you an idea of how essential these places have been in the history of the country. Far more than just a place to drink, the pub has been at the centre of social life for the community, including the arts for which Ireland has become famous. It seems that every pub in this film is filled with storytellers and musicians. In one case, a publican became a rather well-known playwright even as his customers knew that most of the plots had been lifted almost directly from the conversations he’d overheard through the years.
The film allows many of the pub’s owners and customers to relate some of the stories that have made each one unique. In a few places, there are (largely unnecessary) subtitles. Many of the pubs are set in postcard gorgeous settings. The camera lingers lovingly on items of bric-a-brac, and on faces. It’s a leisurely-paced film with no real structure, and no grand thesis. Instead, it simply aims to document people and places that seem in danger of disappearing forever. As such, it’s a pleasant experience, although surely a bit romanticized. I’d have liked to hear how the pubs were also hives of political resistance and activism during the years of English rule. Or hear more about the pub’s relationship with that other institution of Irish life, the Catholic Church. Alcoholism and oppressive religion and economic despair are also a huge part of Irish history, and the pub could be a divisive as well as a unifying force.
That being said, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy this film a lot. To hear the sort of stories told in darkened pubs in a variety of charming brogues would put a smile on anyone’s face. And you’ll meet a whole cast of charming characters, from Athy to Ballylongford, from Clonakilty to Dingle, and beyond.
Lately, I’ve been watching a reality television show called Bar Rescue, in which a brash consultant tries to “turn around” failing bars in a few days. Often he berates bar owners for not changing their decor, or not upselling customers to more expensive drinks. This film, and its namesake the traditional Irish pub, is just about the complete opposite of the new ideal for bars and pubs. But I’d argue that it’s what the Irish call “the craic” that people are looking for when they walk into a bar. This film gives that difficult to define term a bit more substance, and makes for a healthy corrective to the relentless cynicism of reality TV.
Alfred & Jakobine (Director: Jonathan Howells): After meeting and falling in love in Japan in 1955, American Alfred Hobbs and Danish artist Jakobine Schou impulsively married, with their mutually adventurous spirits taking them to Casablanca shortly thereafter. Here, the newlyweds purchased a beat-up London taxi built in 1934 and spent the next four years driving it on an epic global road trip, where the couple’s passion for each other never waned and their exploits brought them minor celebrity. When their journey was over, Alfred and Jakobine (pronounced “Yauk-o-beena”) set down roots in New York state. Not long after, Alfred unexpectedly walked out on Jakobine, leaving her shattered. The couple reconnected at a party a few years later, conceived a son, and Alfred soon exited Jakobine’s life once again. 40 years later, an 84-year-old Alfred confronting his mortality decides to fix up that same taxi, travel across America with the son he’s never really known, and surprise the woman whose heart he broke by offering her “one last ride,” as he describes it.
Director Jonathan Howells is the benefactor of this rich source material and has produced a reflective and moving film about the beauty and pain of love. The filmmaker entwines the past and present with an effective balance of first-person recollections and visual aids (taken from the couple’s archives made up of 3,000 photographs and numerous hours of their well-crafted 8mm and 16mm film footage), and the documenting of both the difficult restoration process of the taxi and the 2,400 mile trip in September 2009 that Alfred and his son Niels took in it from Taos, New Mexico to Jakobine’s home in Oneida, New York. Adding to the intrigue encompassing the modern-day trip are the distant relationship between Niels and Alfred, the arduous toll of the trek upon their delicate vehicle, and the fact the unsuspecting Jakobine (who appears to have never gotten over Alfred) has been happily remarried for decades to a likeable chap named Rusty, who actually helped coordinate the reunion.
Alfred & Jakobine‘s only real fault is that it doesn’t go deeply enough into the many fascinating layers of this story due to the all-too-brief 73-minute running time (presumably due to business considerations involving running times for theatrical screenings and television broadcast, not creative reasons). Specifically, Alfred’s mysterious reason for leaving Jakobine never feels explained to satisfaction and the scenes involving the Taos-to-Oneida journey seem scant in comparison to the four weeks it took to complete the trip. Additionally, the lack of stories involving Alfred and Jakobine’s adventures in the 50s is disappointing. The film’s press kit references one story not included in the documentary that found them “captured by armed guerrillas in (Africa’s) Atlas Mountains and…thrown into a desert prison, where they thought they would most certainly die”. It’s a testament to Alfred & Jakobine‘s core appeal, however, that a compelling narrative such as this could end up excised from the final cut and the film still has plenty of proverbial meat on the bone. Hopefully, the documentary’s future DVD/Blu-ray release allows for a more in-depth presentation. Brevity aside, Alfred & Jakobine proves to be a touching charmer.
UPDATE (January 21, 2015): Happy to announce that the film will be released on iTunes and other VOD platforms on February 3, 2015. Here are links for iTunes (US) and iTunes (Canada). Check it out!
Love & Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere (Director: Dave Jannetta): The ingredients of Love & Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere sound like they’ve been plucked from a Bruce Springsteen song or a David Lynch movie, as the film delves into the mysterious death of a loner in a remote American midwest town (Chadron, Nebraska), the quirky personalities who populate it, and the eccentric writer documenting it all. Director Dave Jannetta based his film on the 2013 book of the same name from author Poe Ballantine (real name Ed Hughes), a Chadron resident.
The core of the film is formed by the 2006 death of mathematics professor Steven Haataja, who disappeared a few months after taking a job at Chadron’s local college. 95 days after last being seen, Haataja’s charred body was found tied to a tree on a nearby ranch and while the evidence seems to point to it being a homicide, too many unanswered questions result in a case that remains unsolved to this day. The murder(?) mystery, made more compelling by some shoddy police work and speculations of suicide after revelations of Haataja’s history of depression come out, fuels the intrigue of the residents of the quiet town of 5,600. A number of them weigh in with their wide-ranging theories on the case and brief remembrances of Haataja and it’s these interviews that really elevate the quality of Love & Terror…. Jannetta strikes cinematic gold here with one colourful interview subject after another. One, a former detective who worked on the investigation, surprisingly admits to being the case’s most likely suspect, while another disgustingly asserts that “If it had been a fucking football coach who disappeared, they would’ve called in the National Guard.” The third component of Love & Terror… comes from its significant time spent with Ballantine, who spent six years researching the case for his book. The writer possesses an idiosyncratic charm that fits right in with the documentary’s gallery of oddballs, and his philosophical ponderings and recollections from his life never fail to fascinate (like Haataja, Ballantine also struggled at times with severe depression). Ballantine also acts as a sort of tour guide (albeit speculatively) through Haataja’s last moments alive, helpfully retracing the likely routes the professor would have had to take to his final destination.
Although its central focus is quite dark, Jannetta and Ballantine add a surprisingly lighthearted and humorous touch to Love & Terror…, which is unlike any other documentary I’ve ever seen. The mixture of these two elements may make some viewers uncomfortable (I was a little), but the end result is a thoroughly entertaining and engrossing film that never disrespects Haataja’s memory (it should be noted that Haataja’s family declined to be interviewed for the film and was opposed to its making).