Today was interesting. Films that I thought would be awesome were meh, films that I chose just because they fit into gaps in my schedule turned out to be quite good, and the best film I saw all day was only 11 minutes long.
First up was Dragon Girls (4/8) which, on paper, sounds like it would be fascinating and fun. The documentary is about young girls training at a massive Kung Fu academy in China and, though director Inigo Westmeier’s opening shot is jaw-droppingly impressive, the rest of what follows is disappointingly slow. The film centers on three pupils, aged nine to 16, as they endure the insanely rigorous training and prison camp-like atmosphere of the school, where some 20,000 students master their martial-arts skills. But the film has no sense of time – older, grainier footage is intercut with obviously more-current material, but keeping track of chronology is difficult. The oldest girl is interviewed in a Shanghai apartment, where she discusses running away from the school… and then, a few minutes later, is shown IN the school, attending lessons – both as a 14 year old and as a 16 year old. Did she go back? Is that old footage? Who knows. The film is also somewhat depressing. The regimented lives of these likeable girls – who are beaten by their trainers, taught that those who beat you want to “help” you improve, and who live in unheated cement dorms thousands of miles from their families (whom they see maybe once or twice a year) – make for an unflattering look at this school’s approach to what is meant to be a beautiful sport.
Btw, as an aside, what’s the difference between the International Spectrum and World Showcase programs at Hot Docs? I don’t get it – aren’t they both just groupings of international films?
I then decided to check out a double-feature of mid-length docs because I had a hole in my day. The first doc, Galumphing (6/8) was an unexpected delight! The film follows artist Danna Arabahaina, an Argentinian living off the grid in a remote but spectacularly beautiful spot in the Brazilian rainforest. No running water, no electricity, just nature. Arabahaina talks about her decision to live alone in the middle of nowhere, her relationship with the land and the pangs of loneliness that can strike. Filmmaker Kamila Jozefowicz crafts a wonderful portrait of this bohemian and infuses the project with some absolutely gorgeous nature shots.
Galumphing’s companion film was more difficult to watch, and a number of people walked out of the screening. Free the Butterfly (4/8) tells the story of a Polish woman named Kasia, a former model and the former head of a modeling agency, who’s dying from ALS. A virtual skeleton, she is unable to move or speak, and the film tracks her efforts to organize a benefit concert to fund a trip(for herself) to India so that she might pursue the Ayurvedic treatments she believes will help heal her withered body. While Kasia herself is, without question, an inspirational force, the film spends a huge amount of time showing her being fed, dressed, moved and the like, but never really delves into who she was, why so many people want to help her, what her book was about, how/why it was such a hit, and so on. Note: If you’re seeing this film, be sure to stay until the very end of the credits, where the filmmakers have tacked on (perhaps too late in the running time) a important update.
I’d very much been looking forward to seeing Tiny: A Story About Living Small (6/8), which examines the tiny-house movement in the United States, and follows co-directors Merete Mueller and Christopher Smith as they attempt to build one of their very own. From scratch. Even though neither has any kind of construction or building experience. Charming and insightful, the film profiles assorted Americans who live in homes that are under 200 square feet in size (one woman lives in an adorable 89-square-foot cottage!), and proves that it’s not how much you have that counts, but what you do with what you’ve got. It also delivers an important message about downsizing and living responsibly, as well as the reality of what truly makes a house a home.
Speaking of homes, director Thomas Gleeson’s short film, Home (8/8) preceded Tiny and I absolutely LOVED it. Blessedly dialogue-free, beautifully shot and only 11 minutes long, the cinematic poem follows a pre-fabricated house as it’s being moved from point A to point B through the New Zealand landscape. I knew nothing about the film beforehand, and actually thought the premise was a house finding, and having, a “home” (i.e., a neighborhood where it “lives”). The early shots of the empty dwelling and the large windows actually gave the house a personality; the scenes of it being lifted and taken out of its neighborhood actually made me feel sad… for the house! And its transformation from empty structure to a place filled with signs of life (toys, furniture, dishes) made my heart swell. Such an excellent short!
Unfortunately, I ended the day with another film that didn’t quite live up to its potential, perhaps because I’d already seen the outstanding Downloaded and had expectations that were too high. TPB: AFK (The Pirate Bay: Away From Keyboard) (4/8) follows the three Swedish founders of the notorious, titular online file-sharing site as they’re sued by anti-piracy legislators and a number of Hollywood studios. But the proceedings – both in the film and in the courtroom within the film – are flat and somewhat uninteresting, and our trio of hackers are shown to be obnoxious, troubled and defiant. Nothing much happens, there aren’t many revelatory facts and, unlike the balanced approach to the issue employed in Downloaded, this doc is lacking in even-handedness… to the point that the guys actually come off as highly unlikeable and completely unsympathetic. As well, (SPOILER ALERT!) the fact that they’re repeatedly convicted sort of takes the wind out of the underdog sails and prevents any kind of “victory over corporate America” angle. I’d hoped for “wow!” and wound up with “meh.”