From Dust

    8 May 2006, mid-morning

The contempt the Sri Lankan government shows for the people it is there to serve is oh-so-palatable in the documentary From Dust. The film is about the after-effects of the Tsunami that leveled much of Sri Lanka’s coasts. I can take heart in the knowledge the Sri Lankan government has no qualms about screwing over the Sinhalese as well as the Tamils when it comes to misappropriating coastal land. In the eyes of the Sri Lankan government there is only One People in Sri Lanka; Sri Lankans of all walks of life, from all ethnic backgrounds, are ripe to be taken advantage of. It’s touching really. (Well, no; that’s a lie.)

Much of From Dust is spent talking to a few families that are trying to rebuild their lives after they lost their homes and their loved ones. The rest of the time is spent showing how the Sri Lankan government has done little to nothing to help those effected by the Tsunami, despite sitting on something like a billion dollars in foreign aid. The film, like many at Hotdocs, makes you angry. I liked it a lot. Haran and his sister both enjoyed the film as well, though he felt it was a bit meandering at times, and I suppose I would agree with him. The films focus is on one fishing village in the South West, though it is clear that what is going on their is going on all over the Island. Unfortunately, the director couldn’t travel to the North and East parts of the island, those areas under LTTE control, or under the control of the Army (like Jaffna).

Haran has the interesting — is that the right word? — perspective of actually being in Sri Lanka when the waves hit. (There are two other posts that follow-up on his initial reaction to the disaster: Melodrama Much? and Mullaithivu.) Haran got to see the LTTE’s response to the waves first hand. He said it was like night-and-day comparing the slow paced, “what the fuck are we supposed to do?”, response from the government with the fast and efficient response from the Tigers. I suppose when you have a military organization which is trained to deal with refugees of war, the mass displacement of people due to natural disasters isn’t unknown territory. It’s a shame the LTTE are terrorists. I am glad to live in a world where everything complicated has been turned black and white. (I should add it was nice to see a movie about Sri Lanka that didn’t mention ethnic groups and conflict. Not like this blurb about the movie — man I’m such a jerk.)

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Voices of Bam

    6 May 2006, late morning

Voices of Bam was far too art-house, even for someone who loves movies as much as myself. It was a very well done film, don’t get me wrong, but I think it’s very hard for documentaries to be as uninformative as Voices of Bam was, and still work. This was the first film I’ve seen at Hotdocs, and I have seen around 15 now between the 2 years I have been going, that I have seen people walk out of — a fair number of people. The movie was very similar to Elephant, Battle in Heaven and “The Forsaken Land“/blog/the-forsaken-land in its style: long drawn out scenes; very few cuts; very little dialog. What dialog there is in the film is mostly survivors speaking to their dead relatives. It struck me as very unnatural. The film has a few touching moments, but for the most part just doesn’t work — at least in my humble moving-going opinion. I understand what the director was going for, but it really felt far too forced to me. Shima and her mom also disliked the film. The movie is interesting if only because it is so different than the other documentaries i’ve seen this year. Still, it’s not really enough to make the film worth watching in my opinion; it’s far too slow.

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In a Soldiers Footsteps

    5 May 2006, late evening

In the Footsteps of a Soldier was crazy. This documentary had so many twists you would think there was no possible way it could be non-fiction. Steven Ndugga is the “star” of the film, a Ugandan who was forced to join a rebel militia at the age of 13. The movie was originally going to be about his story, when he discovers his son, who he believed to be dead, is alive and fighting as a child-soldier in the Congo. The film then shifts focus, and is about his quest to get his son back. You might think that there could be no more twists after one such as that, but the movie’s twists don’t end there. Normally I wouldn’t feel bad about talking about a documentary in some detail, but this is the sort of film its actually worth knowing very little about going in. The way the film ends is really surprising. This film is playing again, and is definitely worth checking out.

Aside: Once Hotdocs is done with, I plan to write a post about the festival as a whole, to link all these “reviews” together, and to add links for more information to the posts themselves.

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Ads at Hotdocs

    4 May 2006, early afternoon

An advert is played for Cadillac’s new Escalade before every movie at Hotdocs begins. At the end of the commercial someone in the crowd will boo, jeer, or hiss at the screen, which results in lots of claps and laughter from the rest of the audience. I am sure the SUV hating hippies love that they are sticking it to the man. Still, who do they think is subsidizing the festival? God knows I hate SUVs, but booing Cadillac because they are funding a really good film festival is, well, stupid. Though, to be fair, Cadillac was stupid for expecting the adverts to go over well.

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American Fugitive: The Truth About Hassan

    1 May 2006, early morning

American Fugitive: The Truth About Hassan is a film about the Hassan Abdulrahman. He is probably most well known for killing the Ali Akbar Tabatabai, the former press attaché for the Shah of Iran, at the behest of the Iranian government — and presumable Khomeini himself. Hassan then fled to Iran, where he has been living for the past 25 years. I first read about his story in the book The Rose Garden of the Martyrs, where he gives a short interview about what led him from America to Iran. The movie is a much more thorough examination of the man, and to a lesser extent the circumstances around the murder.

I found the film a bit muddled. As a movie looking into the heart of Hassan, trying to discover who he is and why he killed, I would argue the film is actually quite shallow. You leave the film with a strong empathy for Hassan; It’s hard not to as he is a very intelligent and thoughtful person. It is clear he has reflected on what he has done in the past, and reconciled the murder he has committed as best he can. The film humanizes his side of the story. Still, at the end of the day, there is another side of this story that involves a widow and girl without a father; this side of the story is largely ignored. People are not just the sum total of their words and thoughts; our actions and deeds play just as important a part in defining who we are. The film dances around the murder, without actually taking a hard look its true effects. I think that if the audience doesn’t understand the net effect of the murder, they can’t hope to understand Hassan and why he did what he did. Film maker Jean-Daniel Lafond interviews Tabatabai’s brother, but his time on camera is spent discussing conspiracy theories. We only learn of Tabatabai’s wife and daughter in passing. (Abdulrahman’s family mentions that Tabatabai’s family has fallen apart after his death.) It’s not Lafond’s job to be fair in making a film; this isn’t a movie about Tabatabai, someone else can make such a film. However, I do think that by leaving Tabatabai out of the story as much as Lafond has, we can’t hope to understand what drives a man such as Hassan to murder. The film wastes a lot of screen time talking about conspiracy theories around the murder, and the relationship the Republicans may have had with Iran’s regime. This is all interesting, but really belongs in another movie. This time could have been put to better use. I think Tabatabai’s wife and daughter on screen would have made the film more interesting.

If the film is good, it is because Hassan Abdulrahman is a very interesting man. The movie is probably worth watching just to hear him speak.

An Aside: The beauty of Hotdocs is that if you have questions about the film you are watching you can ask them, which is what I did: “Did you make any attempt to contact the victim’s family?” Lafond looked at me like I was an idiot; so did the host from Hotdocs. I thought they hadn’t heard me, so I asked the question again, louder. Their looks didn’t change. The crowd murmured. And then someone yelled out, “The brother was in the film.” To say I felt like an idiot would be an understatement. I tried to clarify my question, “No, I meant his daughter, his—”, but by then I think people were annoyed I had wasted all their time. Sucks. Shima and Patrick both had questions they had wanted to ask, but were too embarrassed after my gaff.

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Abduction: The Megumi Yokota Story

   30 April 2006, early afternoon

Abduction: The Megumi Yokota Story was the first film I watched at this years Hotdocs festival. The movie is about Japanese nationals who were kidnapped from Japan by the North Korean government during the late 70s. The Japanese were to be used to train North Korean spies. The movie focuses on the youngest victim, Megumi Yokota, who was just 13 years old when she was taken. The families of those who were abducted, once they learn that their loved ones aren’t dead, but are in fact trapped in North Korea, begin a long fight to get them back. The film is quite moving at times; it’s a very sad story so it’s hard not to affected by it. The girl sitting next to me started crying half way through the film, and didn’t really let up till the end. The film is good, but I think it does have a bit of an amateur feel to it at times. One problem with the film was the sound, which was quite horrible at times. Still, I enjoyed the film and think Abduction is well worth watching.

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Unknown White Male

    9 March 2006, early morning

I watched Unknown White Male last night, which was this month selection for Doc Soup. The film is absolutely fascinating; it chronicles the 2 years or so after a man finds himself in Coney Island without having a clue who he is, or how he got there. The man is diagnosed as having Retrograde Amnesia, and can’t remember anything that happened to him prior to “waking up” in Coney Island. The movie examines what makes up someone’s identity. As he determines who he was, and as he meets up with his family and friends, we get to see how they react to him and how he reacts to them. It’s absolutely bizarre. If you can track the film down I recommend you watch it. It has to be one of the more interesting documentaries I’ve seen in recent years because the subject mater is so compelling.

The official Unknown White Male web site.

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