Hot Docs 2014 #2: Heroes and Legends

Our Rating

Ah, I love a day filled with awesome documentaries! And, happily, today was just such a day.

After some commuting hiccups (I’ve moved to a new place since last year’s fest, so I haven’t quite nailed the bus-and-subway timing yet), I sat down to the first screening of the day. And, though I really enjoyed Mission Blue (6/8) – which is part biography (of renowned oceanographer Sylvia Earle and her lifetime of work) and part eco-doc (about the plight of the world’s oceans and every living thing within them) – I did have one key problem with it: too much Fisher Stevens.

Stevens (yes, the actor) co-directed the film (along with Robert Nixon) and inserts himself needlessly into the narrative. To me, the doc would have been much tighter, more cohesive and even stronger without him popping up repeatedly, and making himself part of Earle’s fascinating and hugely-impressive-enough-on-her-own story. Each time it happened, it diluted the focus of the film, and the wooden, looped-in “interview questions” (most of which were clearly added in post) are unnecessary… again, because Earle’s answers are insightful and thoughtful and comprehensive enough that they don’t need Fishers’ set-ups.

That aside, the film itself is visually stunning, filled with gorgeous underwater cinematography. Interviews with Earle’s friends, colleagues and family members, along with a ton of archival footage and photos, complement her own storytelling, creating a portrait of a trailblazer who’s been diving the world’s waters for some 60 years. Better still, she’s a fierce, tireless crusader and environmentalist, whose titular organization is devoted to preserving (and restoring) the planet’s most precious resource. [For more info on her work, check out Mission Blue.]

This screening also featured an appearance by one of my least favourite festivalgoers: the audience member who, during the post-film Q&A, inevitably decides to make some kind of misguided and inappropriate statement or comment. This time, it was a guy I’ve seen at a bunch of screenings in years passed, and he pulls the same schtick every time. His question at this screening, after a lengthy preamble about plastic in the waters of the world, was what co-director Nixon is doing to combat the use of plastic bags in Toronto grocery stores. Wait. What? I was already walking out of the theatre by the time he actually posed that question, so I have no idea how it was answered. As soon as he was called upon, I knew whatever followed would be frustrating, so I headed out.

Next up, after a delicious lunch of fresh-made tacos and nachos, was a double bill. First, the Canadian short, Steve (5/8), a brief, black-and-white meditation on being the product of a very troubled, broken home. The film’s subject reflects on his turbulent upbringing, and wonders what his estranged mother (from whose custody he was taken as a child) thinks he’s up to now that he’s grown. Some lovely cinematography provides the backdrop for Steve’s story, but it left me with a feeling that something was missing. Can’t put my finger on what it was – the film was fine, I just wasn’t wowed.

The feature that followed was The Homestretch (6/8), an eye-opening look at the reality of life for many Chicago-area homeless teenagers. Co-directed by Anne de Mare and Kirsten Kelly, the film focuses on three such teens – Kasey, a bright and spirited girl, booted from her mother’s home for being a lesbian; Anthony, who’s a master with words and working on his GED; and Roque, who was taken in by his teacher, the unbelievably awesome Maria Rivera (seriously, would that every teacher in the world were this open and generous), when his sought-by-immigration father decided mobility would be easier without a teenaged son in tow. Each of the teens has a unique story, and the filmmakers chose their incredibly engaging subjects wisely – though, glimpses of other teens at various Chicago shelters proves there are countless more, no-doubt-just-as-compelling stories waiting to be told.

Filmed over the course of what feels like a year or two, the doc follows the trio through various ups and downs – Kasey trying to get her footing, Anthony trying to gain custody of his infant son, Roque trying to get into college – and the filmmakers score some really heartfelt, insightful commentary from the teens and the adults trying to help them.

The post-film Q&A featured a first for me: a Skyped-in participant! Roque, who’s undocumented and does therefore not possess the paperwork required to enter Canada to attend the screening, dialed in, while his two fellow doc subjects, along with Rivera and the directors, were present to field questions… most of which related to how the teens are doing now. As we filed out of the venue, I really wanted to congratulate them all on the film, but actually felt myself getting choked up on approach, so… consider this the congratulations! 🙂

Last up was a film I started to worry would be sub-par as I waited for it to begin. It was in Lightbox 4, which is a TINY theatre (so, already I wondered if the programmers had low expectations about the doc’s appeal). Then, by the time Heather Haynes took to the stage to introduce the filmmaker, there were still a bunch of empty seats. Not a good sign for a Saturday-night screening.

Thankfully, Keep on Keepin’ On (8/8) was absolutely wonderful. I loved it from the get-go, and just got better with each passing minute. Directed by first-timer Alan Hicks (who’s actually a jazz drummer, but a pretty kick-ass filmmaker!), the moving, beautifully made film chronicles the relationship between twentysomething blind piano prodigy Justin Kauflin and his mentor, legendary trumpet player Clark Terry, whose failing health can’t deter his profound love of music, collaboration and kinship through art. It’s packed with fantastic music, a who’s-who of jazz greats (including Quincy Jones, Herbie Hancock, Dianne Reeves and long-time aficionado Bill Cosby) and, for the audience, as many smiles as tears.

Terry, whom countless musicians (jazz and otherwise) cite as an icon, is largely bedridden and losing his sight, but nonetheless willing and able to work into the wee hours of the morning, helping Kauflin (and others) hone their skills. Kauflin, meanwhile, is eager to launch his professional career but plagued by nerves and, as he discusses in the film, falling victim to his own self-defeating thoughts. Together, though, the duo creates magic – both in terms of the music that emerges from their sessions, and the deep and powerful friendship they forge. The film is likewise a powerful, heart-swelling experience.

As an aside, to me, there’s often one thing that makes a big difference between great documentaries and ones that are just okay. Or, for that matter, between great ones and really bad ones: a filmmaker’s love for his subject(s). When a director clearly loves the story he or she is telling, and the people or places or things involved in it, and isn’t just looking for anything to shoot in order to jump on the doc-making bandwagon, the result is always fabulous. Rich. Textured.

And it was clear from frame one that Keep On… was made by a guy with a great love and affection for the friends on whom he turned his camera. (As of yesterday, and despite the teeny venue, the film was #1 on the list of Hot Docs audiences’ favourite films so far.)


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