Monday, April 28, 2008

Hot Docs 2008: home movies that come back to haunt us

Though it was as diverse as ever in its programming of movies from everywhere and about, seemingly, everything, this year’s well-attended Hot Docs International Documentary Festival, which wrapped on Sunday night, was for me something of a primer on the shape of docs to come—that shape being defined by the wild proliferation of consumer-level audiovisual technology over the last half-century and our impulse to record our lives as a method of either verifying or coping with it. A few years ago Capturing the Friedmans brought home movies into the theatre with an iconoclastic layer of threat, the past coming back to haunt us in living—if deteriorated—colour, while Tarnation clarified that a more personal sort of non-fiction was to become an increasingly dominant genre. Neither of these movies were the first to use home movies in an inventive way, but they were popular, inflammatory, and influential.

Skip ahead to 2008 and we find
Must Read After My Death, Morgan Dews’ investigation into the private turmoil of his grandparents and their children, a work composed almost entirely of Super 8 footage taken by the family and unnervingly candid audio recordings they made for each other as a therapeutic device. With the mise-en-scène confined to the construction of a montage that will convey insight through canny or poetic juxtaposition, the movie unfolds as a collective public testament to the troubles of open marriage, patriarchal resentment and experimental psychiatry that none of the participants actually intended to make.

Her Name is Sabine is French actress Sandrine Bonnaire’s absolutely devastating portrait of her sister, who in the last fifteen years has slipped from a reasonably functional, autonomous person living with autism to a heavy, sluggish woman in need of constant care and living in a ceaseless, at times nightmarish, drug fog. Bonnaire’s manipulation of a lifetime of family movies is sly, artful, moving and finally deeply respectful, as it should be. The most powerful moments arise when the images of Sabine from the past—a playful, attractive woman with a striking gaze—finally converge with the present. Sabine watches her old self and recognizes all to well what’s transpired. Her flood of anxiety is almost unbearable, an effect you’re not likely to shake off for some time. I very much hope you’ll have the opportunity to see it soon.

Another work, not quite as reliant on personal archives but certainly made more poignant through the intermingling of past and present, was the festival’s opening night gala, Sacha Gervasi’s awesomely titled Anvil!: The Story of Anvil, which chronicles the mostly middling fortunes of the titular Toronto metal band that’s spent its career perpetually on the cusp of success, despite its ardent cult following and the adulation of numerous metal heavyweights. The movie is surely destined for great things, if for no other reason that it’s so damn endearing, with Anvil originators Lipps and Robb Reiner (a drummer named after the director of This is Spinal Tap: further evidence that truth is stranger than fiction) exhibiting an uncommon depth of long-term, contentious, ultimately redeeming friendship.

Citizen Havel, shot over an 11-year period by Pavel Koutecky, proposes an interesting variation on the home movie theme, in that all the footage was accumulated with the explicit intention of being used in a documentary yet it possesses the candidness of something far more personal. Koutecky was granted access to the charismatic former Czech president’s home and work life of a level unmatched in political history, thus we’re able to witness speeches being spun and decisions being mulled over, as well as Havel’s relationships shifting, his despair over the death of his wife, his killing of approximately 96,000 cigarettes, and his visits with everyone from Bill Clinton—who plays a mean ‘Summertime’ on the sax at a Prague nightclub—to The Rolling Stones.

Perhaps no other use of home movies seen at Hot Docs 2008 could ever equal the caustic effect of Errol Morris’ Standard Operating Procedure, his "non-fiction horror movie" and graphic investigation into what went down in the Abu Ghraib prison back in 2003. At the dark heart of the story remain the photos and videos, shared, copied and spread around, made by the US military staff guilty of the torture, sexual humiliation and various other sorts of abuse of Iraqi inmates. As Morris interrogates the interrogators, the question lingers: if we can presume that at least some of these people knew what they were doing was so incredibly wrong, why in the hell did they amass—and flaunt—so much evidence of their crime? While most films at Hot Docs have an uncertain future, S.O.P. is among the few that will thankfully be coming to a theatre near you.

No comments: