Sunday, May 8, 2011

Hiding all over the world: Hot Docs 2011

The 2011 edition of the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival draws to a close today in Toronto, where the belated arrival of spring has failed to lure filmgoers away from lining up and huddling into theatres throughout the city. I’m at least sitting near a sun-warmed window as I write this, my report on some of the festival’s highlights, in a quiet converted coach house deep in Parkdale, hidden off Sorauren Avenue, where it’s slightly easier to reenter my unlikely to ever be realized fantasy of hiding from the world altogether.

The hermits, monks, freaks, fascists, dropouts, druggies and survivalists of French filmmakers Laure Flammarion and Arnaud Uyttenhove’s
Somewhere to Disappear, all of them male, all of them American, all of them unmistakably incurable misfits of one kind or another, have gone to greater lengths to hide from the world than most of us could ever fathom. Flammarion and Uyttenhove’s film is the product of a protracted road trip with US photographer Alec Soth, who has forged an ongoing project out of making portraits of those who have attempted to fall off the grid, nearly all of whom, ironically, are more than happy to be photographed and to talk about their lives once tracked down in their hovels, shacks, caves and campsites. Soth spends part of Somewhere to Disappear shopping around for a remote piece of land of his own, yet he confesses that what appeals to him is not genuine escape from civilization but “the idea of escape.” He’s an artist, not a recluse. He wants to get a lost a little, “to be carried along,” yet he keeps a GPS on the dashboard of his minivan. He’s our surrogate, cruising the outer margins to convey the eerie allure and obvious hazards of life lived in rejection of all we take for granted. The filmmaking in Somewhere to Disappear is (perhaps inevitably) grubby, lacking the distinct highly personal perspective, craft and precision of Soth’s work, but it ultimately serves its theme very well, evoking a sense of rough roads rarely taken, rabbit holes in a world hard at work to keep its every corner tracked and measured, hovering in cyberspace.

Bobby Fischer tried to hide from the world, but it’s not so easy to pull off when you’re the greatest chess player in history, an ideological pawn in Cold War one-upmanship, and quite probably, and flamboyantly, mentally ill. Liz Garbus’
Bobby Fischer Against the World attempts to map out Fischer’s story, his peculiar and precarious sort of single-minded genius, his uneasy relationship with fame and urge toward isolation, his erratic behaviour and the grotesque politics he adopted late in life. She doesn’t entirely succeed, utilizing a treasure trove of archival images and footage and drawing upon a number of fascinating interviews with Fischer’s colleagues, but arranging these pieces into a somewhat muddy narrative arc that more than once abandons the path it seems briefly invested in. If you don’t know chess deeply, the film doesn’t help you much, and once it does begin to offer some insights, it does so only after working through the period in Fischer’s life when understanding chess is most useful. The general style of this HBO production is perfectly conventional, though, given the amount of biographical information and cultural context it wants to convey, its structure finally feels not quite conventional enough. Still, Fischer’s a fascinating figure who couldn’t resist the opportunity to expose some parts of his troubled psyche to the public, so the film, flawed or not, is very much worth watching.

The Forgotten Space (pictured both above and in the lead-off image), easily the finest work I caught at Hot Docs this year, is a collaboration between photographer Allan Sekula and theorist Noël Burch, a sort of follow-up to Sekula’s 1995 book Fish Story. This “film essay,” shot on both Super 16mm and digital video, traverses the world to investigate the global transportation industry, so much of which remains hidden or invisible to consumers, exploits labour, and undercuts the economies of developing countries. Sekula and Burch are especially interested in sea transport, in the “floating warehouses” that, for example, carry cod from the North Atlantic to China for cheap filleting and then sends it back again, or moves American wastepaper to recycling factories in the developing world. 90% of the world’s commerce travels by sea, packed into shipping crates than renders the cargo anonymous, unloaded in yards where its shuffled around by robots and rarely inspected, even in the post-9/11 US. As an elegantly structured critique of late capitalism whose visual refrain is an image of ships sailing onward, it’s tempting to think of The Forgotten Space as the coherent version of Godard’s Film Socialisme, but this is finally a very distinct, arguably singular kind of film, its discourse so thoroughly grounded in interviews (with laborers, with historians, with the homeless) that you occasionally forget how exactingly conceived it all is.

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