Hot Docs 2012: Early Screenings, Early Reviews!

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My first official Hot Docs screening is tomorrow night, but I’ve been lucky enough to catch a few pre-fest press screenings. Here’s what I’ve seen so far, and what I thought:

In the strangely poignant Detropia (6/8), filmmakers Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing (Jesus Camp) examine the economic collapse of Detroit, Michigan. Once a booming auto-manufacturing metropolis, the city has become something of a graffiti-ridden ghost town, with endless rows of boarded-up homes and businesses, and citizens desperate for solutions. (You can buy a big house there for just $6000!) By profiling a number of Detroit residents and touring the dusty (empty) hallways of some of Detroit’s grandest, now-deserted old buildings, Grady and Ewing present a stark portrait of a once-great city reduced to an emaciated, depressed shadow of its former self. As one foreign visitor remarks, there is nonetheless remarkable beauty amid the decay.

I was looking forward to Ballroom Dancer (3/8), the story of one-time Latin ballroom world champion Slavik Kryklyvyy as he attempts to recapture his past glory. Too bad a lot of the film feels manufactured and more like a (scripted) melodrama than a real documentary. With no narration and no interviews with its self-absorbed star – who’s prone to preening, pompousness and incessant belittling of his girlfriend/dance partner – the film has to rely on its footage to captivate the audience. It doesn’t, largely because, in order for viewers to be engaged in this kind of doc, they need to sympathize or empathize with its subject… and that’s hard to do when you’re only presented with one highly unpleasant personality who, after a while, seems to very much deserve everything he gets.

Whatever Slavik’s faults, his self-absorption pales in comparison to that of James Franco, whose experimental, autobiographical offering – Francophrenia (or: Don’t Kill Me, I Know Where the Baby Is) (2/8) – reeeeeally stretches its “documentary” classification. Wildly self-indulgent and mind-numbingly boring, the film (co-directed by Franco and Ian Olds) is more of a weird performance-art piece than an actual documenting of anything real. Franco follows himself over the course of a day in Hollywood, as he shoots a guest spot on TV’s General Hospital. He provides demented voiceovers meant to convey losing his mind… but it just came off as lame and, ultimately, pointless.

Did you see the documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys years ago? Did you love it? If so, and if you’re like me, you’ll likewise love Bones Brigade: An Autobiography (7/8), its equally exciting and engrossing sequel. The first film, centered around the Zephyr skateboarding team of the 1970s, was sort of like a chronicle of the birth of the sport; this one is about its death in the 1980s and subsequent resurrection thanks to the Bones Brigade skate team… which included a scrawny, freckled little kid named Tony Hawk. Once again skillfully directed by former Z-Boy Stacy Peralta, and with the same kind of super-fascinating insider access, the film features tons of archival footage of skaters like Hawk, Steve Caballero, Mike McGill and the oddly poetic Rodney Mullen. Exhilarating from start to finish.

Colourful Californians of a different sort are at the center of Wildness (4/8), an interesting if not entirely successful look at the Silver Platter, a small club in Los Angeles catering to the city’s Hispanic transgendered community. Director Wu Tsang starts off strong, explaining the club’s history and the stories of its long-time proprietors and veteran denizens, but the film loses a bit of steam when its focus changes and the story is suddenly about how Tsang and his club-kid pals tried to infuse the tiny sanctuary with, well, wildness (which was also the name of their weekly “party” at the venue). Though undeniably well-intentioned, the quartet of avant-garde queer artists inadvertently trigger the venue’s gradual decline. It’s sort of like watching a cautionary tale on what not to do when you stumble upon something unknown and cool.

As powerful as it is infuriating, director Kirby Dick’s The Invisible War (7/8) exposes the issue of sexual assault in the assorted branches of the U.S. military. Stirring interviews with women (and one man) who were raped while serving their country reveal a bizarre “tradition” of cover-ups and insanely offensive mishandling of the crime victims – many of whom actually wound up charged themselves, while their attackers escaped any consequence. While it’s definitely not a feel-good film (in fact, it’s kind of a feel-ANGRY film), the documentary nonetheless delivers 99 minutes of hugely compelling content, and shines a much-needed spotlight on one of the American military’s darkest secrets.


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