Documentaries

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.

Alias

Alias (Director: Michelle Latimer): Actor, pro­ducer, writer, dir­ector and former Hot Docs pro­grammer Michelle Latimer unveiled her first feature-length doc­u­mentary at Hot Docs 2013 on Friday, a por­trait of Torontonian rap artists and pro­du­cers, entitled Alias.

The film is a labour of love, four years in the making, an intimate look at the lives and careers of Alkatraz, Alias Donmillion, Trench, Keon Love and Master Knia. If some of these names aren’t familiar to you, Torontonians might know Alias Donmillion through his high-profile arrest and con­vic­tion, stem­ming from an incident at Caribana in 2007 where he attempted a “West Indian Salute” and fired a weapon in the air in a crowd. Out of jail and trying to recap­ture the career that he lost, Alias and this group of artists try to keep their lives from get­ting too real and over­shad­owing their art and dreams.

While Toronto does have a respected hip-hop and rap cul­ture, there hasn’t been much respect given through main­stream media cov­erage. But as the film unfolds, it becomes clear that Latimer really took the time to con­nect and under­stand her sub­jects and they provide her access that is almost start­ling in its intimacy.

In one of the earliest scenes, Master Knia is organ­izing a hip-hop night at the Opera House, trying to get lesser-known artists on a bill for the evening. As he admits, things don’t start quite on time as the crowd arrives late, the show starts late, and the night runs out with sev­eral artists still left to per­form. While the con­cert fea­tured a bevy of young, mod­er­ately tal­ented artists boun­cing around with more entourage on stage than ori­ginal hooks, our seasoned sub­jects are left standing at the side, ill at ease with the organ­iz­a­tion of the night, but trying not to give Knia a hard time, watching their chance to per­form slip away. All five of them have kids, and as any parent knows, taking a night off from child care requires not just finding a babysitter, but losing out on quality time with their kid, and when reality sets in and they can’t get onstage, it’s hard to watch as they each reveal their dis­ap­point­ment. Not exactly the first per­sonal reveal you’d expect to see in a film about hip hop artists and the scene.

After this scene, it’s very evident that we’re not watching a film about cocky, up-and-coming artists; these are vet­eran per­formers looking to stay rel­evant and get that next big break, while also jug­gling other com­mit­ments like family, work and edu­ca­tion at the same time. But as the film pro­gresses, it reveals the dark­ness that sits at the edges of each subject’s psyche. Violence, crime, dis­crim­in­a­tion and poverty, in some form or another, are daily reminders of the dif­fi­cult reality during the day-to-day of their lives. Keon Love reveals early on that she’s lost 11 people to viol­ence alone in the last year, and as two others admit to hust­ling on the side to sur­vive, they live in fear from cops on a reg­ular basis. But throughout it all, the doc­u­mentary is full of moments that high­light the hustle and the struggle that this group puts towards their art, des­pite any mixed res­ults. A mid-afternoon music video shoot is delayed by late dan­cers, a less-than-ideal weather situ­ation and dis­or­gan­ized friends, but still they manage to pull it together in the end. In some moments how­ever, real exhaus­tion seems to set in. For all the pos­it­ives, there’s always the threat of viol­ence, and when the instance occurs in the film, it’s from the hands of a force you least sus­pect, but unfor­tu­nately, ulti­mately expect.

Overall, Alias is a tight, unflinching look at a musical move­ment that is def­in­itely gen­er­ated by class struggles and geo­graphy, a genre cre­ated when people are told they can’t expect to do much with their lives and fight back through art, and a group of local artists trying des­per­ately to not fall into the trap of living a life realer than their lyrics.

Alias plays with My Black Box, a short doc­u­mentary about Quebecois hip-hop artist Dramatik and his use of rap to con­quer his stutter.

Alias screens again on Saturday, May 4, 8:45pm at Scotiabank 4. You can buy tickets in advance at the Hot Docs web­site, hotdocs.ca

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Another Night on Earth

Another Night on Earth (Director: David Munoz): Munoz packs a lot into this hour­long verité obser­va­tion of Cairo’s har­ried taxi drivers. Filmed in 2011, while pro­testers were still occupying Tahrir Square, everyone in Another Night on Earth has an opinion on the revolu­tion. What’s most sur­prising and refreshing are the messy but abso­lutely honest exchanges between people you’d never expect to see together. The real revolu­tion seems to be the emer­ging role of women, from the rare female cabbie who’s been driving for 30 years, to the young niqab-wearing revolu­tion­aries arguing for their right to work and an edu­ca­tion. Everyone com­plains about cor­rup­tion and poverty, hoping that cur­rent events will help, though most seem resigned to more suffering.

Some of the best moments, though, aren’t polit­ical at all. An argu­ment over the quality of Egypt’s foot­ballers leads to a hasty exit; a cabbie scolds a kid because he only seems to play sports on Playstation; a woman’s rowdy kids sing a song about get­ting stoned while the driver com­plains of a head­ache. Throughout it all, Cairo’s lively cul­ture of blunt­ness mixed with polite reli­gious plat­it­udes makes for an enlight­ening and inter­esting ride. Director Munoz mostly stays out of the way, but does vary the cam­er­a­work enough that you don’t feel trapped in the traffic, unlike his subjects.

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Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival 2013

So, the 20th edi­tion of the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival starts next week. And nor­mally by this time, I’ve posted sev­eral pre­view posts talking about the films I’m most excited about. Why not this year? Well, I’m very pleased to share that I’ll be working for the fest­ival this year. I only found out about a week ago, but I’ve been busy pre­paring and that might explain my absence not just here, but on Twitter as well.

I’ll be doing the intros and Q&A ses­sions for about 20 films over the festival’s ten days (April 25-May 5, 2013). Even looking at my schedule makes me tired, but it’s going to be a great oppor­tunity to meet film­makers and to help them enjoy the fest­ival and the city. I’m hon­oured to do it, but I have to admit it’s a little strange, too. The job of fest­ival pro­grammer can be divided into two halves: the pre-festival job of screening sub­mis­sions and eval­u­ating whether they’re festival-worthy, and then the work during the fest­ival itself, showing the films and hosting the film­makers. In 2009 and 2010, I was doing the first part of the job for Hot Docs, and this year, I’m doing the second part. Hopefully one day I’ll get to do the whole thing, but I’m tre­mend­ously excited (and a bit nervous) nonetheless.

I’m not going to share my schedule here because, frankly, I really don’t want anyone who knows me to be in the audi­ence (although it’s bound to happen). But I am hoping to see a number of other films, too, and having to re-arrange my schedule at the last minute has put me into a little bit of a panic. I’ve been for­tu­nate to have seen a number of films ahead of the fest­ival, too, but here’s where things will become a little bit strange.

As an employee of the fest­ival, I’m not cer­tain yet what sort of cov­erage I can provide here. I’ve already written a few cap­sule reviews, which you may or may not see here. And as in past years, I have a few guest con­trib­utors who will likely be posting here during the fest­ival. I hope you can appre­ciate the del­icate situ­ation I’m in, which is to say that I may not be able to “cover” the fest­ival the way I have in pre­vious years.

With that in mind, though, I’m happy to point you to some other great local writers who will be cov­ering Hot Docs this year:

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William Kurelek's The Maze
Note: Because of the intricacy of the painting depicted in the poster, I’ve linked it to a much larger ver­sion, so please click to see more. And a bit of trivia: Van Halen used a detail of this painting for the cover of their 1981 album Fair Warning.

William Kurelek’s The Maze (Directors: David Grubin, Robert M. Young, Zack Young, Nick Young): My famili­arity with the work of Canadian painter William Kurelek is largely due to a child­hood friend­ship. My friend’s par­ents knew the artist and des­pite the fact that we lived in a modest apart­ment building, their home con­tained a number of what I think were ori­ginal works. It was the 1970s and I knew him as a deeply reli­gious Catholic artist. What I didn’t know was the struggle his life had been up to that time.

In 1969, American film­maker Robert M. Young had been approached by James Maas of Cornell University to make a film about so-called “psychotic art.” When Young saw Kurelek’s painting “The Maze” in Professor Maas’ slide col­lec­tion, he knew he wanted to make a film about the man who cre­ated it. “The Maze” was painted while Kurelek was a patient at a psy­chi­atric hos­pital in England in the early 1950s. It wasn’t intended for public con­sump­tion, but rather to illus­trate the con­tents of his mind to the doc­tors who were treating him. Admitted in a sui­cidal and depressed state, he was ori­gin­ally dia­gnosed as a para­noid schizo­phrenic. He spent sev­eral years on and off in two dif­ferent hos­pitals in England, and received a stag­gering 14 ses­sions of shock treatment.

How he arrived in such a mental state is the focus of the film. Young inter­viewed Kurelek and his family mem­bers and pro­duced a half-hour ver­sion that was widely shown, but he had been working on a longer ver­sion that had been lost until recently. Young’s sons Nick and Zack, musi­cians and visual effects artists, decided to com­plete their father’s work on the longer film, incor­por­ating music and anim­ated sequences.

The inter­views from 1969 remain com­pel­ling for their hon­esty. Kurelek him­self comes across as a man of extreme shy­ness and humility, and his descrip­tion of his darker younger days as a “spir­itual crisis” give an indic­a­tion of how he regained his mental health. Growing up on the prairies as the son of Ukrainian farmers, William never fit into their ideal of phys­ical strength and mental tough­ness. His artistic tem­pera­ment was mis­un­der­stood both at home and at school, and he was bul­lied phys­ic­ally and emo­tion­ally. Despite his jour­neys to Toronto and Mexico to attend art school, he never seemed to con­nect with kindred spirits and as a result, he felt more and more dis­con­nected from the real world. Painting was his gift and his only form of expressing his pain, but all his par­ents could see was that he couldn’t earn a living.

Ultimately, Kurelek was saved (quite lit­er­ally) by his con­ver­sion to Catholicism in 1957. Through his faith, he was able to turn his focus out­ward and to temper his per­fec­tionist tend­en­cies. He painted a major series on the Passion of Christ, and he began to see his own suf­fer­ings as pre­par­a­tion for depicting those of Jesus. He came to for­give the harsh treat­ment he received from his par­ents, and went on to paint a hap­pier series of paint­ings of his child­hood on the prairies. With that came a measure of suc­cess and sta­bility, and the family that he’d always wanted. Though we don’t hear how they met, his wife Jean is inter­viewed in the film and their chil­dren are seen. Because the film­makers were lim­ited to the ori­ginal inter­views, we don’t get a full pic­ture of what brought Kurelek to the point of con­ver­sion or really any details of his life from 1957 up to 1969, when the inter­views were conducted.

Sadly, William Kurelek died of cancer in 1977 at the young age of 50. His repu­ta­tion grew after his death and though I don’t know where cur­rent tastes rate him, it’s safe to say that he is among the greatest of Canadian artists.

The longer film really dazzles, with more focus on the indi­vidual paint­ings, and the use of anim­a­tion really evokes the powerful emo­tions that must have gone into their cre­ation. William Kurelek’s The Maze has given me a much fuller pic­ture of a fas­cin­ating man and an artist with a unique vision. Though some of the “psy­cho­lo­gical” paint­ings remind me of the work of Hieronymus Bosch or Pieter Breughel, the range of Kurelek’s work as seen here set him apart as a true original.

The film has been accom­pa­nying a trav­eling exhib­i­tion of his work called William Kurelek: The Messenger during 2011 and 2012. It’s also being shown at the Rendezvous with Madness Film Festival, coming up from November 9–17 here in Toronto.

Official web site of the film

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Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher

At this year’s Hot Docs, the film that undoubtedly had the biggest effect on me was Off Label. This erstwhile “issue doc” turned out to be so affecting that I lit­er­ally could not write about it for months. You can read my very recently posted review of the film and maybe get a sense of why it seemed to dif­fi­cult for me. My first viewing was a few weeks before the fest­ival, but after seeing it a second time during the fest­ival, I knew I wanted to talk to the film­makers. I wasn’t exactly sure what I was going to say, but I knew that any film that left me so unsettled was doing some­thing right. I’d been a big fan of the pair’s first fea­ture doc­u­mentary, 2009’s October Country (review) but that film’s intimacy didn’t seem to fit with what I thought would be a standard take­down of the phar­ma­ceut­ical industry. So we sat down for break­fast at the Sutton Place Hotel while I threw some half-formed ques­tions and obser­va­tions their way.

[click to continue…]

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