Hot Docs 2018 #11: Encounters, Earth and Editing

Our Rating

It’s usually around this time during the festival – i.e., just after the halfway point – that I start to hit the wall. Days of lineups and donuts for dinner and hotfooting it from theater to theater and writing reviews in the wee/late hours start to catch up with me, and I find it increasingly difficult to keep my eyes open during screenings. I definitely found myself struggling to stay awake a few times yesterday… which is a reflection of my fatigue, not the quality of films I was seeing.

Happily, the day got off to a great start, first with the fun and funny I Love Your Fucking Name (6/8), an eight-minute short from director Finn O’Hara, featuring an array of Torontonians with unusual and/or famous names. They include a Gillian Anderson, a Brigitte Bardot, a Peter Pan, a Sarah MacLachlan and so on, all of whom recount the joys and challenges of their well-known or colorful monikers. It was a light-hearted and delightful appetizer for its accompanying feature.

I will preface this next review by saying I have been a fan of Bill Murray’s since the late-1970s. Meatballs is one of my favorite films of all time, one I’ve always loved for its unexpected (and oft-overlooked) poignancy, and I’m pretty sure I’ve seen every movie Murray’s made since. So it was no surprise that Bill Murray: Life Lessons Learned from a Mythical Man (7/8) was an automatic must-see for me when the fest’s full programming slate was announced. Over the course of the festival, I’d also been hearing really great buzz about the movie from other filmgoers, so my expectations were getting higher by the hour… and I’m thrilled to report they were met.

Life Lessons… is a lovely, thoughtful meditation on what it means to be truly present in your life, even if (or, perhaps, especially if) you’re a world-famous movie star with legions of adoring fans. In director Tommy Avallone’s cinematic love letter to Murray’s irreverent approach to living, we’re introduced to various everyday folks who have all had memorable random encounters with Murray over the years: he hung out at one guy’s SXSW house party, played kickball with another woman and her friends, read poetry to a bunch of construction workers… the list goes on. And the common denominators in all the stories are Murray’s down-to-earth, average Joe attitude and genuine desire to fully immerse himself in whatever experience into which he inserts himself… and the fact that, when he feels the time is right, he just extracts himself.

I’m not lying when I say I teared up several times during the film, not only because of the unadulterated joy on the part of the storytellers, but because the doc really does contain some sweet, insightful and useful lessons that can improve the quality of your life… and the lives of those around you. And make sure you stay until the very end of the credits! There’s a bonus scene after the credits have finished that is totally worth sticking around for.

Next up was Behind the Curve (5/8), a peek inside the growing “flat-Earth movement.” That is, the millions of people who currently believe wholeheartedly that the planet we live on is not, in fact, a globe, but a flat disc that may or may not be covered by a dome. For real. Director Daniel J. Clark explores the nature of their movement, and the infighting and conflicting viewpoints within it, and profiles some of the most prominent flat Earthers, including its genial unofficial “leader,” Mark Sargeant, and Patricia Steere, a YouTuber whose Web series has racked up more than 200 episodes and 13K subscribers. The doc also features a wide array of scientists, psychiatrists and experts (including astronaut Scott Kelly) who repeatedly debunk the group’s theories… to no avail. The flat Earthers eschew science and claim they need “proof” the planet is spherical, no matter how much proof is provided them. It’s fascinating and maddening at the same time. And though Clark says his goal was not to mock the subjects of his film, it’s clear the doc does take some subtle jabs at Sargeant and Steere.

The post-film Q&A was also curious. Both Sargeant and Steere were in attendance but not onstage – not sure why, but my guess would be because all the questions would be directed at them and their movement, not at the filmmaking team. And, given the fact that both were still holding court with filmgoers in the concession area of the Lightbox a full hour after their screening ended, I think I may be right.

I then hopped right back in line for one of the fest’s hottest tickets: Active Measures (4/8), which details the far-reaching, decades-old ties between Russia and Donald Trump, as well as Russia’s tactics (called “active measures”) when it comes to global political affairs. While the film does boast tons and tons and TONS of high-profile interviewees – including Hillary Clinton and John McCain – its frantic, frenetic, breathless editing made the doc feel as though it were made by someone with ADHD. No clip lasts more than about six seconds, and most flash by onscreen in about a second or two, tops. So quickly, in fact, that I often didn’t have time to read the lower-thirds or the text, or to actually take in an image or a comment before the film rushes to the next point. It became dizzying after a while, and made it hard to follow what was happening or to absorb the information being delivered. It felt like director Jack Bryan opted for quantity over quality in a bid to cram as much as possible into 112 minutes, and at the expense of actually allowing any of it to sink in with filmgoers. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of information (some of it surprising, some of it not) packed into Measures, I just wish the film had given itself and its subjects some much-needed breathing room.


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