Hot Docs 2014 #4: Callings

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Today, I did something that I’ve never before done in my 20+ years of festival-going: I forgot my press pass at home.

I make a point of never taking it out of my bag during a festival, so that I’m always assured it’ll be with me when I need it, but – in what I can only assume was a fleeting moment of fatigue-induced delirium – I took it out of my bag this morning (to rearrange the bag contents)… and then totally forgot to PUT IT BACK IN. As a result, after a lovely, sunny, 65-minute walk from my place to the ROM for my first screening of the day, I reached into my bag to retrieve my pass and… it wasn’t there.

Cue: stream of expletives and an immediate skyrocketing of my blood pressure. Without the pass, I wouldn’t be able to see ANY films, so I had no choice but to turn around, get on the subway (and then the bus) and head all the way back home to retrieve it. So much for the 10:30am showing of The Starfish Throwers!

From the ROM, I rushed back to the subway, sprinted to the bus platform, ran from my bus stop to my place – where the pass lay waiting for me on the kitchen table – ran back to the bus stop and immediately scanned the film listings to see if I’d be able to make it back downtown in time for anything.

Thankfully, I Am Big Bird: The Carroll Spinney Story (7/8) was starting at 11am at the Bader, and my frantic rushing landed me at its box office at 10:50am. PHEW! I went inside, found my favourite block of seats still empty (thank you!) and sat down in an exhausted, relieved heap.

I Am Big Bird was on my “do not miss!” list for the fest, and I’d planned to see it later in the week, but the pass disaster (the “dispasster”?) turned out to be serendipitous as it meant catching this sweet, often poignant film a few days early – which also meant my chances of actually being in the presence of Carroll Spinney (who’s performed Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch for 40+ years, and who may not stick around for the whole week’s worth of screenings) were dramatically improved.

I was right – Spinney, his wife Deb… and OSCAR THE GROUCH (!!!!) were all in attendance, along with filmmakers Chad Walter and Dave LaMattina, for a post-film Q&A. The doc itself chronicles Spinney’s life, work and love affair with his wife, and includes a number sequences that will tug at the heartstrings – just try not to cry when Big Bird sings “It Isn’t Easy Being Green” at the memorial for Muppets creator Jim Henson. Comprehensive, thoughtful and filled with amazing archival footage (from Sesame Street and a vast amount pulled from the Spinney family’s own home movies), I Am Big Bird is a must-see for anyone who grew up watching its giant yellow hero… which, I would think, is pretty much everyone.

Next up was the wonderfully charming and inspirational Divide in Concord (8/8), the story of Jean Hill, an 80something resident of Concord, Mass., and a fiercely determined environmentalist, who tries repeatedly to have her town council approve a ban on the sale of single-serve plastic water bottles. Citing the damaging effects of the ever-expanding scope of plastic waste in the world’s oceans, Hill tries to rally her fellow citizens, but comes up against repeated opposition – not the least of which is from a woman named Adriana Cohen, who seems to believe herself a champion of freedom but, instead, comes off like a wealthy, ignorant, hugely entitled bully who belittles Hill and makes absolutely no sense in her arguments.

In fact, so many of the proposal’s opponents have ridiculous, pointless arguments – throughout the film, they claim Hill is “trying to take away our water,” forgetting that they have free-flowing water IN THE TAPS IN THEIR OWN HOMES. As the film unspooled, it was hard not to want to grab these people by the lapels and shake them. She’s not taking away anything except PACKAGING that’s harmful to the planet, you half-wits! And, for that, she should be applauded as a trailblazer, not condemned (or ridiculed – OMGsoinfuriating!) as an enemy of liberty. Jean Hill rocks, and so does her mission!

After refilling my reusable water bottle (seriously – been using one for years!) at the Lightbox water fountain after the screening, I made my way to the Scotiabank for Private Violence (7/8), an unflinching look at domestic violence in the United States. Director Cynthia Hill grounds the film in the story of Deanna Walters (pictured), who suffered brutal, ongoing abuse from her husband and is in the process of having him prosecuted. Helping her along the way is advocate and activist Kim Gruelle, herself an abuse survivor, who’s determined to support the victims of abuse, ensure the abusers are brought to justice, and educate the public on the realities of life for battered women.

Though it may sound like an “issue film,” Private Violence succeeds in being relatable and understandable by zeroing in on a specific situation, rather than casting a wider, more general net. There aren’t, for example, an array of onscreen statistics or graphics to paint the big picture; the film’s specificity is far more effective, in my opinion, and makes the subject matter resonate more than facts and figures would. So did the information cards handed out to the (admittedly sparse) audience after the film, and Hill’s plans to launch an outreach program around the film (which debuts on HBO in October).

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  1. I think I’d flip out if I met Oscar the Grouch at a screening. I’d be all over that Big Bird movie! 🙂


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