As much as I lurrrrrve documentaries, not every film I saw before the fest started was amazing. Some were not bad, others were just okay and a couple were disappointing. Here’s a look at the other five pre-fest docs I checked out.
306 Hollywood (5/8)
Co-directed by siblings Elan and Jonathan Bogarín, this whimsical, experimental doc examines the life of their late grandmother, Annette Ontell, as seen through the items in the house she lived in for 71 years (at the titular address). Made up of old family home movies and hours upon hours of videotaped interviews with Annette (shot over the last 10 years of her life) the film is often fun… but somewhat uneven. The Bogaríns’ clunky, scripted micro-vignettes (starring themselves) sprinkled within the doc feel unnecessary and distracting, as do the repeated visits/mentions of Rome, which feel awkwardly shoehorned in as a way to tie in archeology (a bit) and the fact that Jonathan studied art history there (a lot). But the main conceit – that having an “ordinary” life can nonetheless lend itself to an anthropological study – is cool, and the doc boasts fabulous art direction and some terrific reenactments (by actors) set to old audio tapes.
Playing Hard (5/8)
Shot over four years and pulling back the curtain on the world of videogame development, this film from director Jean-Simon Chartier feels like it wants to be a David vs. Goliath story but, instead, is a sobering (for its subjects) look at the harsh reality of art vs. commerce. The central figure is developer Jason Vandenberghe, whose passion project is a vikings vs. knights vs. samurai warriors game called For Honor, and who embarks on a laborious journey to bring it to fruition with the team at Ubisoft. Unfortunately for Vandenberghe, the almighty dollar repeatedly upends the process, and the film tracks the game’s progress as it runs the development gauntlet. While interesting and well-made, the film unfortunately makes Vandenberghe come off as a bit naive despite having worked in the industry for a long time – surely he would know how finance dictates what can and can’t be accomplished, and how creative vision is often sacrificed for the bottom line, no?
After reading its synopsis, I was really looking forward to this doc, but its powerful thesis is rendered inert by an unsatisfying execution – and, as a feminist and a fan of docs about internet culture, it pains me to say that. Directed by Cynthia Lowen (Bully), the film follows various women coping with or fighting online harassment, but there are disjointed storylines, some of which feel misplaced in this doc, and only one woman – Anita Sarkeesian – seems like she’s actively battling sexism, trolls and harassment. There’s also a lack of context, which unwittingly makes the widespread problem actually appear smaller than it is, rather than shining a light on its pervasiveness. Adding statistics or reports would have helped, and only a couple of random experts are dropped into the narrative for one or two soundbites apiece. As a result, I fear more than a few audience members will react like one of the dudes in the doc who, in a conversation with Tina Reine – a woman whose ex created fake online reports about her, and who’s described as a “survivor and activist” though we never see any of her activism – basically diminishes her online harassment as not a big deal. And, unfortunately, Netizens doesn’t succeed in delivering its (valid) argument to the contrary.
Blowin’ Up (3/8)
I really wanted to love this verité-style doc that drops its cameras into a New York City courtroom to examine an experimental program aimed at helping sex workers avoid jail time and, instead, turn their lives around. Unfortunately, the film left me with WAY more questions than answers, and for much of its 97-minute running time, I didn’t really know what was going on onscreen. The doc desperately needs lower-thirds to identify who everyone is and what they do. WHAT are these “sessions” that defendants are required to attend? Who runs them? What happens? Why are the sessions deemed suitable replacements for a trial and why are charges erased once the sessions are completed??? Who knows. We never find out. There’s also no sense of time or how much of is it passing – was the film shot over a few months or a few years? Hairstyles change from scene to scene, and then change back, and then change again – at one point, a woman walks into a courtroom with one haircut and, literally a second later while standing in front of the judge, has a completely different haircut. I often judge a documentary based on whether I’d understand the story if I hadn’t read its synopsis beforehand. In this case, I still don’t know what I saw.
Chef Flynn (3/8)
Warning: if you’re at all sensitive to herky-jerky handheld camerawork, you may want to pop some motion-sickness medication before sitting down for this somewhat uninspired profile of teen-prodigy chef Flynn McGarry. Much of the film is made up of clips from many years’ worth of home videos shot by McGarry’s would-be-filmmaker mother, Meg, and the result is an abundance of Blair Witch Project-worthy shaky, bouncy footage that’s literally nauseating (by the halfway mark, I had to periodically close my eyes because I was getting queasy). As for the doc itself, it’s surprisingly joyless. McGarry, a well-off kid whose mother indulged – and, it seems, exploited – his culinary passion, often appears stressed or anxious or unhappy or petulant. As an origin story, the film is not especially compelling or narratively satisfying, either, and doesn’t really have much to say – one scene after another of McGarry carefully slicing or arranging or tweezering elaborate plates of food in between bickering with his mom does not a great documentary make.