Hot Docs 2021 #18: Well, They Can’t All Be Winners — Part Deux

Sometimes, when you’re seeing a slew of films in a day, you wind up with the occasional dud. And then, as I discovered today, sometimes you inadvertently wind up seeing two duds back to back. Which is why, by the time I got a third of the way into the second one, I had to throw in the towel…

 

The Taste of Desire (3/8)
It takes an oyster two to three years to grow big enough to harvest, and that’s about how long it felt like I was watching this exceedingly s-l-o-w and tedious film that didn’t seem like it really knew what it wanted to be. Is it about oysters? Desire? Both? Neither? Based on some of the glowing reviews that I read for this doc, I’m clearly in the minority in not liking it, or perhaps not “getting” it, because it was all I could do to just finish it. Directed by Willemiek Kluijfhout — and featuring an incredibly cheesy, breathy, French-accented voiceover by “desire” (as in: “desire” serves an unseen narrator, who pops in throughout the film to tell you about herself and how she operates) — the doc introduces a half-dozen people around the world whose lives intersect in some way with that of the oyster. There’s an oyster picker, a couple of chefs, a woman who makes jewellery out of imperfect pearls, an author writing a book about oysters, and a burlesque dancer whose act involves her donning an oyster costume. Had the film simply profiled these six individuals and dropped the whole “desire” angle, I might have enjoyed it more. Instead, it felt like its thesis never quite crystallized, and the connections the filmmakers were clearly trying to make between oysters and desire and these six subjects never quite felt authentic or organic. I lost count of how many times the subjects said the word “desire” in their interview answers and commentary, as though having it repeated would somehow help the oyster/desire connection stick. Instead, it was distracting and felt forced. Likewise, there were bizarre detours in the narrative, such as an extended sequence about life/death/immortality (no mention of oysters), or the repeated lingering shots of naked bodies juxtaposed with macro footage of oyster shells, which felt out of place. Again, maybe I just didn’t understand what the film was meant to convey but, for me, it was really a challenge to sit through without nodding off.

 

Taming the Garden (not rated)
Much to my extreme chagrin, the film I watched (well, started watching, anyway) immediately after The Taste of Desire was this excruciatingly S-L-O-W, atmospheric and profoundly uninteresting documentary that I actually — for the first time at the fest this year — turned off about 30 minutes in. And, even then, I felt like I had watched it for about 28 very-generous minutes too long. Directed by Salomé Jashi, and from what I gleaned based solely on the synopsis I read before tuning in, the doc is apparently about a wealthy man who’s having 100-year-old trees in Georgia (the country, not the U.S. state) dug up and replanted in his own private garden. I can’t tell you if that’s what actually happens in the film because, by the time I turned it off, THEY WERE STILL IN THE PROCESS OF DIGGING UP ONE TREE (something that was already underway at the film’s outset!). To call the film “methodical” is an understatement — at one point, the filmmakers shoot a boring machine (which, ironically, earns its name in every sense of the word here) as it’s prepped, moved, positioned… and then bores. One. Slow. Inch. At. A. Time. FOR A VERY LONG WHILE. It felt as though the director just put the camera down somewhere, hit “record” and walked away, not caring what might be captured in front of the lens, be it two workers talking in a completely unlit room (?!) or a cloud of smoke (or mist? who can tell?) drifting through a forest. It was woefully dull, and made The Taste of Desire look thrilling by comparison. One of the ways I typically assess the strength of the films I see at Hot Docs, or anywhere for that matter, is: would I be able to understand what this doc is about if I walked in, sat down and just watched it, and knew nothing about it beforehand? When a film is well-made, the answer is always yes. In this case, it was a resounding, “HELL, NO.” I would have had NO CLUE. And I still don’t. On the upside (?), it still wasn’t as bad as the worst film I’ve ever seen at Hot Docs: 2013’s The Last Black Sea Pirates.

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