Hot Docs 2012

It's spring in Toronto, which means it's time to .  . . watch some documentaries?

Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival opened in the city on April 26. While some might consider watching documentaries to be the least appealing thing to do this time of year, as the trees bud and the blossoms burst outside, or alternatively as the multiplexes swell with summer blockbusters. However, I would argue that documentaries are actually perfect viewing for the springtime, for a good documentary can stimulate and inspire in a way not unlike the kinetic beauty of May. More importantly, a documentary can make you aware of the reality of life, just as the spring does each year.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Some friends and I went on a ski trip to the Rocky Mountains a number of years ago, and I brought my camcorder with me. We taped footage throughout the trip; some of it was spontaneous, other bits were rehearsed. Some time afterwards, we remembered the tape, all got together, and watched it. We found our commentaries amusing, our antics hilarious, and other moments humorously embarrassing. The tape is a pleasing record of good times, and we've returned to it over the years for a dose of nostalgia.

Finding Truelove reminds me of our ski trip tape. Whether that's a compliment or a criticism, I'll leave up to you. I saw it late last night at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema (which has been nicely renovated and offers delicious popcorn). The film's title refers to a certain Timothy Truelove, whom the documentary's protagonists, Clay, Michael, and Andrew, discover in a high school yearbook they found at Value Village. The three friends are obsessed with Chico High's Class of 1990: with their big hair, with guessing who was popular and who wasn't, and with figuring out what became of Timothy Truelove. When they find tickets for the 20th reunion online, they decide to drive down from Oregon to Chico, California, and crash the party.

The documentary is part road movie, part 80s nostalgia piece, part teen comedy. Moments are funny, while others seem like filler, which is surprising considering that the film clocks in at a meager 68 minutes. This is probably because the filmmakers never really pursue any of their ostensible lines of inquiry. What does the word "caduceus" on the cover of the yearbook mean? What became of Truelove? As the events at the reunion demonstrate (and which I don't want to spoil), the filmmakers seem happy to simply record footage and edit a fun comedy out it. They rarely ask bold questions, pursue leads, or strike at something more meaningful. Some interesting themes are lurking there in the documentary, like that sadness of discovering what became of certain people from high school, but the film is content to be a fairly entertaining but fluffy comedy. Even digging up some information about the history of the yearbook they found would have been nice.

Michael, Clay, and director, Sam Kuhn, attended the screening. They seemed really nice, and I don't want to come down hard on their doc. This is their first feature, I believe. Finding Truelove is what it is, 80s nostalgia fluff, and some people will really like that. The late-night audience received it warmly, and my friend who came with me really enjoyed it. I just thought they could have tried for something more than good times.

Finding Truelove (USA, 2012)

Directed by Sam Kuhn; starring Michael Harmon and Clay Peterson.


Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Sundance hit, Indie Game: The Movie, had its Canadian premiere at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, and it was simultaneously transmitted via satellite to theatres across the country, including the Galaxy in Saskatoon. I'm not sure how things looked on the other end (hopefully Aren can chime in tomorrow), but this seems like an interesting way for festival flicks to reach a wider audience.

The documentary follows the challenges, pitfalls, and successes in the development and release of two independent video games: Super Meat Boy created by Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes and Fez by Phil Fish. In many ways, Ed and Tommy come across as stereotypical gamers: they're socially awkward geeks. However, the film has a clear interest in showcasing video games as a vital art form, and over the course of the film Ed and Tommy are seen to be complex individuals with longings, ambitions, and intense creativity. Phil is a slightly different kettle of fish, and he immediate strikes us as the classic artist: bordering more on the antisocial, Phil is moody, obsessive, idiosyncratic, and brilliant. We also meet Jonathan Blow, the creator of the earlier hit indie game Braid, who comments on the position of independent game development in the establishment (and who, we learn, developed a reputation for responding to his online critics directly in the comments on their blogs). Both the content and the characters are compelling.

Throughout the documentary, I was struck by both the filmmakers' implied position and the designers' stated comments on art: all conceive of art as chiefly self-expression in that old-fashioned Romantic mode. Though such conceptions are largely dated in academic studies today, the idea of the tortured artist striving to express his inner meaning to the world clearly still holds a grip on the public imagination and on artistic self-fashioning. Perhaps this is to be expected, as the industry continues to strive for full artistic and academic recognition.

Though Indie Game will likely appeal to hardcore gamers, it is equally engaging for the casual or non-gamer, and it makes a strong case for the medium as a worthy modern art form.

The directors and Fish answered questions after the screening, and Fish is just a quirky and funny in person as he was in the film.

Indie Game: The Movie (Canada, 2011)

Directed by Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky; featuring Phil Fish, Edmund McMillen, Tommy Refenes, and Jonathan Blow.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

What better way to spend a Saturday afternoon than by watching two documentaries about the sex trade! Uh . . .

In all seriousness, though, both films are quite interesting. The first one, Tilman in Paradise, a German short by Julian Vogel, is more depressing than the feature. It's a character study of Tilman Mai, who tells Vogel he's willing to discuss his private life on camera because he hopes it will change people's negative perceptions about prostitution. As the documentary unfolds though, Tilman becomes the point of focus, and as much as he maintains that prostitution is a business deal, it's apparent that this is no simple transaction for the troubled Tilman.

David Tucker's My Thai Bride is also more of a character study than a Thai sex trade exposé. Ted is a middle-aged British salesman who enjoys his trips to Thailand because of the attention all the bar girls pay him there. One day he notices Tip, or rather she notices him, and, to cut the story short, they eventually get married. Ted liquidates his assets, they move to Tip's hometown in the rural north of Thailand, and build a house and pig farm. Tip eventually grows cold, or so Ted says, and they split up.

Though film unfolds in a rough chronology, Tucker told the audience that he first met Ted, heard his story, and then he tracked down Tip, who wanted to tell her side of the story. Like how she worked in a plastic factory for $4 a day, but could barely provide for her daughter so she became a bar girl (in other words, a prostitute).

It's interesting to hear both sides of the story, and what becomes apparent is not who's at fault, but rather the mutual exploitation involved in the relationship. Both come across as flawed but human. Not to say that every older white man who marries a young Thai woman is destined for trouble. I've met such couples, and many seem quite healthy. But as Tucker pointed out in his thoughtful answers during the questions period, a bar girl looking for an interested and wealthy foreigner is certainly a problematic starting point for a relationship.

Tilman in Paradise (Germany, 2011)

Directed by Julian Vogel; featuring Tilman Mai.

My Thai Bride (Australia, 2011)

Directed by David Tucker; written by Ashleigh Hooker.

Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival runs until May 6 in Toronto.