Donkeyote (UK/Germany, 2017): Finding documentaries that make you feel good about the human condition is often challenging. Donkeyote is one of them: Manolo, a septuagenarian farmer, enjoys days-long walkabouts across Southern Spain alongside his donkey, Gorrión. His dream is to one day walk the 2200-mile Trail of Tears in the US, but not only it’s expensive, bringing Gorrión is a whole other thing.
The film follows Manolo in his efforts to put the trip together, but the campaign is just an excuse to spend time with a compelling figure, an uncomplicated man who embraces life with gusto, but slowly realizes the world may have passed him by. Donkeyote could have used a sturdier structure (towards the end, the movie feels aimless), but it’s a guaranteed good time. 3/5 planets.
Ramen Heads (Japan, 2016): A man with a cause can be a powerful force, even if that cause is to create the best bowl of ramen eight dollars can buy. The figure in question is Osamu Tomita and he is as obsessive as a Michelin-anointed chef.
Tomita believes strong flavors can be balanced, so his broth is as thick as mud He is as picky with the noodles, the ingredients and the service. The outcome is memorable. I tasted it.
Ramen Heads doesn’t entirely focus on Tomita, but he is the star of the show. The film covers the history and entire process of making ramen in dynamic fashion. The utterly dry narration manages to add more flavor to an already well seasoned dish. 3.5/5 planets.
House of Z (USA/Canada, 2016): A problem with documentaries too closely linked to the individual being portrayed on screen is that the outcome may be too soft on the subject. It’s the case with the Zac Posen-centric House of Z, a recount of the rise and plateau of the fashion designer.
Posen, who was barely a teenager when he started making dresses for her friends (Paz de la Huerta, Jemima Kirke and other teen socialites), drafted his entire family and launched a haute-couture business, the aforementioned House of Z. Immediate success translated in growing demand. The stress plus Zac’s enfant-terrible persona caused serious tension within the Posen household, leading to a very public breakup. Continue reading “HotDocs Film Festival – Day 7: House of Z, Becoming Bond, Hondros”
PACmen (USA/Australia, 2017): Of the many dramatic threads to emerge from last year’s election in the US, Dr. Ben Carson provided one of the weirdest. On the strength of a single speech, Carson was jettisoned to the Republican presidential race and for a brief moment, the neurosurgeon gave Trump a run for his money… until he opened his mouth. Unsubstantiated claims about his childhood and bizarre statements (the pyramids were built for storage purposes!) quickly derailed his candidature.
PACman focuses on the two super-PACs formed to support his candidacy: “Run Ben Run” and “Extraordinary America”. As a man of faith, Carson attracted a number of Christian-conservatives who struggled to understand how other Republicans could fall for a rube like Trump. As Carson continued to fall on the polls, increasingly desperate supporters could only blame the media and find solace in prayer. Continue reading “HotDocs Film Festival – Day 6: PACmen, Integral Man, Recruiting for Jihad”
The Workers Cup (UK, 2017): Much has been said about the brutal conditions foreign workers must endure while building stadiums for the 2022 Qatar World Cup (high temperatures, excessive hours, disproportionately low wages). Their plight has seldom been documented: Press access to worksites is severely restricted.
Director Adam Sobel takes advantage of a PR move to gain access to the workforce. The embattled contractors have organized a soccer championship to show concern for the wellbeing of their employees: The Workers Cup. The overworked personnel fails to see the tournament as a publicity stunt and happily become involved.
The harsh realities of being a foreign worker in Qatar seep through the supposedly wholesome competition. Unsavory situations like being unable to leave camp at will, or a man getting stabbed by his roommate so he could be sent back home pepper the daily lives of the migrant workforce.
Much to the film’s credit, The Workers Cup treats its subjects as individuals with agency and not as victims, which makes their plight much more relatable. Their story has only started to unfold. 3.5/5 planets.
The Road Forward (Canada, 2016): A blend of musical and documentary too ambitious for its own good, The Road Forward attempts to tackle First Nations’ most significant struggles of the last century (the Native Brotherhood, the Constitution Express, residential schools, missing aboriginal women) via information and music. The outcome is so scattered, it’s hard to become fully immersed in the film.
As if recent history wasn’t enough, The Road Forward dedicates a fair amount of time to the performers’ own battles. Their stories are compelling in their own right, but become lost in a bombardment of minutiae, particularly in the top half. Five years ago, the stylistically similar The Art of Killing succeeded by limiting its scope.
The rise of Canada’s first indigenous newspaper -The Native Voice- gives the film a vague framing, but the outcome cries for structure. The music comes close to provide one (“Indian Man” is so catchy it should transcend the film), but the result is far from cohesive. 2/5 planets.
City of Ghosts (USA, 2016): Documentaries don’t get any timelier and pressing than director Matthew Heineman’s follow-up to Cartel Land. The filmmaker chronicles the struggle of a group of Syrians who, as a response to ISIS taking over their city, started the site called “Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently”, which would go on to win the Freedom of the Press Award.
Unless, let’s say, America’s citizen journalism (often an angry white guy with a blog and a lot of venom to spew), the RBSS journos risk their lives even outside Syria. The Islamic State has put a price to their heads and there is no shortage of fanatics willing to go hunting. Continue reading “HotDocs Film Festival – Day 3: City of Ghosts, Shiners”
Mermaids (Canada, 2016): A fascinating phenomenon per se, women who find personal fulfillment by becoming “mermaids” are a lot more common than expected. Mermaids focuses on three of them, each one going through a challenging journey: A transgender woman, a grieving sister and a bipolar Latina coming to terms with a history of abuse. Each one has discovered that rubber tails free them from all their burdens, however briefly.
Mermaids does a good job humanizing a potentially ludicrous practice: Midway through the film, director Ali Weinstein digs deep on what makes this women tick and finds gold. The documentary could have used some professional insight, but as it stands, it’s quite entertaining. 3/5 planets. Continue reading “HotDocs Film Festival – Day 2: Mermaids, Blurred Lines, Brimstone & Glory”
Bee Nation (Canada, 2017): The definition of a crowd-pleaser to kick off this edition of HotDocs, Bee Nation revolves around an event with tension, drama and personal achievement ingrained in its DNA: The First Nations Provincial Spelling Bee competition. The first ever for aboriginal community.
It’s Documentary 101: Director Lana Slezic pics a handful of kids from different First Nations communities in Saskatchewan and shows their lives and how they prepare for the event. The approach allows some distressing information to seep through, like the fact schools in reserves receive considerable less money per student and, forcing administrators to make some hard decisions regarding their curriculum.
The children Slezic picks as main subjects are all overachievers, but they have a personality of their own (for William, failure is devastating; Savannah is a model of personal drive). In each case, their parental figures see education as a way out, a chance to see a world beyond the reserve. Heartbreak is unavoidable (the winners of the provincial chapter head to Toronto to compete against private school kids with tutors), but makes for great cinema.
Bee Nation is a bit stately (it’s presented under the CBC Docs banner), but is worth your attention.
3/5 planets. Bee Nation will premiere on CBC in September.