Before you get all smart-assy on me, no, I did not pose for that sculpture. It's an extract from a photo I took on a hot summer's day in a park in Prague filled with weird and wonderful art work by local artists. The piece is highly evocative of how I aspire to live my life: naked* under the sun and a deep blue sky on a high roof with an unobstructed view, desired by those who also spend inordinate amounts of time daydreaming or going to see films, which pretty much amounts to the same thing, doesn't it? (*Consider the
word "naked" a metaphor, please; I only take my clothes off in public
for cash or multi-colored bead necklaces.) Designer and filmmaker, Eliane Lazzaris, did me a kindness, so obrigada minha cara menina. On with the show:
When you go to a big international documentary festival like Hot Docs, you notice certain trends that are engaging the entire documentary community. Not just the little insular one we have here in New York, fabulous though it is, but the larger community out in the world interested in pushing this fascinating art form to its limits. There are seemingly higher and higher stakes involved for doc makers, creatively, narratively, cinematically, idealogically. What you have in Toronto, as well, (twice a year, yet!) is some interesting force fields coalescing when you bring what amounts to one of the most sophisticated film audiences in the world together with some of the best and brightest cutting-edge filmmakers, smart people engaged in crafting work that truly speaks to the zeitgeist. Even our 22-year-old waitress at dinner one night rushed us along, telling us we needed to go see (Audience Award-winner) The Cove or Winnebago Man or Episode 3: Enjoy Poverty, or something equally as wonderful in just a half hour, so she'd better bring us our check straight away. That did my heart good, let me tell you.
The parties and various industry gatherings, too, bring an international flavor to North America. We live on giant land masses here; we tend to get a bit myopic about the rest of the world. Hot Docs was where I first met friend, Massoud Bakhshi, filmmaker and director of the new Iran International Documentary Film Festival which I was privileged to attend last year. Through that connection, I met Orwa Nyrabia, filmmaker and director of the new DOX BOX in Damascus, Syria, which I also had the privilege of attending in March because I re-met Orwa in Helsinki, Finland at the DocPoint festival where I was a guest this past January because of meeting festival coordinator Helena Mielonen in Tehran. And like that. This is not unusual since festivals are the places where unique and exciting collaborations emerge: between filmmakers, filmmakers and producers, programmers and artistic directors, funders and fundees, and other industry folk who work to keep nonfiction, or factual programming, alive and flourishing. And then you have Mr. Sean Farnel, one of the most talented programmers out there who also rockets around the planet making discovery after discovery so that Hot Docs can keep providing the wealth of riches it's been known for for the past sixteen years. (Farnel, pictured, announcing this year's fest line-up, courtesy James McNally and photographer, Jay Kerr.)
So without further ado, in the next few posts, I'll talk about some of the films I saw there that left a particularly deep impression, starting with my two faves--two films that, upon first blush, seemingly have very little in common. What they both do provide are some of the most fascinating threesomes I've come across in cinema. The triangle is fast becoming my favorite geometrical shape; when something is "triangulated," both the fixed baseline, as well as the angles that radiate from it, form a pretty damned accurate survey of certain systems and relationships. Interestingly, one film takes place in the rural hinterlands of South Korea (I know next to nothing about South Korean cinema), the other in the dystopic urban nightmare of Pyongyang, North Korea (and no one really knows about North Korean cinema, do they?) which has gone out into the world as a Danish film, but it is very much a North Korean one, as well, a chilling and fascinating glimpse of that clandestine place. One film is presented as a touching pastoral fairytale but turns out to be pretty much wall-to-wall laughs; the other a seemingly Python-esque charade played for laughs manages to provide plenty of fiercely sobering moments due mostly to a brilliant script master-minded by its director.
The Red Chapel's shorthand log line, if it needed one, would probably be something along the lines of "The Yes Men do North Korea." (Take a look at part of it here.) Shown in the International Spectrum, aptly-named Danish director Mads Brügger's wild adventure takes us into the maw of Kim Jong-il's secret empire. How these Danes got permission is anyone's guess but we'll chalk it up to kismet since this filmmaker does not squander a moment of his time there to explore and extrapolate upon the nature of this country that has cut its population off from the rest of the world while eating hundreds of thousands of its own through mind control, starvation, torture and life-long imprisonment. In other countries, one can be labeled a dissident and still go home and have dinner with the kids. Not in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. You're "disappeared" permanently. Enough of what goes on has been leaked over the decades to know that to, not only get in there, but to get in there with cameras, is an impressive feat, indeed.
The chilling brilliance of this film shows itself in its leadership on both sides of the fence. On the official site of Denmark, there is an essay on the personality of the Danes by journalist Victor Andersen that says, "Common to all Danes is their tendency to take the ups and downs of life with a touch of irony, often self-irony. . . . They tend to say the opposite of what they think, in keeping with the nature of [that] irony." In other words, they could make great spies and get away with a hell of a lot in a place that doesn't know what irony is.
However, it says that over the years, "there have also been traces of local insularity, snobbery and conformity. It was best not to be different or odd." So a Dane might feel a certain sympathy with the North Koreans, perhaps, conformists par excellence? Brügger brings some friends with him, namely, two young Korean comedians, both raised from a young age in Denmark; they consider themselves Danish, not Korean. They are there to stage a comedy revue for a select audience in the capitol. One is a big strapping, tattooed young lad called Simon, the other an 18-year-old spastic with a severe central nervous system disorder which affects his physical movements and speech, making most people think that he's retarded when he's far from mentally deficient. He finds himself in a place where children like him are given away or hidden from the rest of society, or as is intimated more than once, done away with completely.
He is the deepest thinker, the most intensely emotional, most adversely affected subject in this whole shebang, incessantly articulating why following an ironical conformist into a conformist society with no irony can be a bloody dangerous thing. And so young Jacob turns out to be the steadfast baseline of this particular, oddly-shaped triangle. While Brügger is unscrupulously giving the North Koreans a run for their money, Jacob is questioning the evil nature of his own leader, the man who brought him there to help perpetrate a fraud on a grand scale. This is not a highly nuanced film for the most part; it is broad and slapstick in nature, delivering punch after comedic punch while exposing the underlying dis-ease of an oppressed people.
To Brügger, who constantly compares current-day North Korea with Hitler's reign (the title references a communist spy cell that operated in Nazi Germany), the mad clapping and smiling and crying and puppeteering that go on like a mass case of Tourette's amongst its citizens connotes sheer terror, a terror these people live with day in, day out with no respite since everyone is watching everyone else for the slightest sign of unrest or unacceptable actions and thoughts. His earnest wish that the local people accompany Simon singing the Oasis song "Wonderwall" is his own idea of not-so-subtle thought control: "And all the roads we have to walk are winding / And all the lights that lead us there are blinding / There are many things that I would like to say to you / But I don't know how. Because maybe / You're gonna be the one that saves me / And after all / You're my wonderwall." Like the Yes Men and others like them, Brügger is a ferocious cultural insurgent, the camera his most potent weapon. I'm anxious to see what land he'll infiltrate next. I'd actually love to see him focus the lens on his own culture. Wouldn't that be ironic?
The love triangle in Lee Chung-ryoul's Old Partner involves a man, his wife and the man's best friend, an ox that's worked beside him for forty years. The first South Korean film to compete for the Grand Jury Prize in Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival, the film played to enthusiastic crowds in Toronto, as well. It also happens to be the most popular documentary ever in its native land, creating a groundswell of a fan base, many of whom troop out in a daily touristic mass to the quiet, rural land of farmer Choi Won-gyoon (which is kind of horrifying, actually). In this film, which also exhibited in the International Spectrum, Chung-ryoul captures the last year of the ox's life as it limps out the last days of its existence as a beast of burden alongside his master, also a beast of burden. 80-year-old Choi steadfastly and stubbornly tills his plot of land no differently than a farmer of centuries ago would have done (albeit without the beat-up radio tied to the ox's harness). He and his wife have put nine children through school and university with sheer, backbreaking labor, ensuring, of course, that none of their offspring will be farmers.
The funniest moments occur mostly because the ox and the old man display such similar personality characteristics. When a creature, human or otherwise, nears the end of its life, it's not unusual to find that it's become somewhat intractable, unwilling to veer from a proscribed and deeply circumscribed course, especially if that course has been pretty consistent for decades. A certain fortitude is displayed which trumps physical limitations and in this mutually faithful partnership of animal and master, we see true kindred spirits. Choi says more than once that the ox is "his karma." The foil comes in the figure of Choi's wife, Lee Sam-soon, a perpetually complaining shrew of a woman who cannot for the life of her understand why they don't deep-six the ox and use more modern conveniences for farming like machinery and insecticide sprays. Through all of this, daily life on the farm, intrepid visits to the small nearby city (by ox cart) to get checked by doctors (the old man's been diagnosed with cancer) and have their funeral portraits taken, Chung-ryoul creates a deeply personal portrait of a dying way of life in Korean culture.
Crafting a beautiful screenplay to accompany his gorgeous cinematography, the film does falter at moments due to scenes that are awkwardly contrived (versus gracefully contrived). They're funny as hell, but obviously set up for the laugh or to force a particular emotive response as when he shoots a close-up of a tear falling down the ox's face when Choi attempts to sell him at the market. The thing is old; it has rheumy eyes that spill water regularly. This is romantic cinema-making at its best with lingering shots filled with transcendent light that speak volumes about the silent bonds between ourselves and the natural world that can never be severed, even after one's mortal coil is shrugged off for greener pastures.
In my next post, Conference Session 4: What's Next for Film Festivals and the first North American Good Pitch at the Toronto Documentary Forum.