Hot Docs 2022 #8: A Few Films That (for me) Faltered

Look, I *love* documentaries, but that doesn’t mean I automatically think every film I see at Hot Docs is amazing. For whatever reason, and notwithstanding the effort that I fully appreciate went into making them, some of the docs I screen turn out to be disappointing. Here are three of them.

 

The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales (4/8)
For me, there was something off-putting and a bit tone-deaf about watching co-director (and wealthy heiress) Abigail Disney interview the struggling, low-income employees who work at Disneyland, asking them about their hardships and listening as they recount their myriad financial challenges — from homelessness to lack of healthcare — on camera over and over again. Co-directed with Kathleen Hughes, the film explores the disconnect between “the happiest place on Earth” and the reality that the corporation’s monumental prosperity never trickles down to its working-class, minimum-wage-earning “cast members.” But I couldn’t help but feel there was also a disconnect between the doc’s intention and execution, because it started to feel like equal parts exposé and apology tour, with Abigail repeatedly lamenting how awful things are for the workers and how bad she feels about it. The more it focused on how she felt, what she thought and what she’d tried to do to affect change from within — sending stern emails to Disney chief Bob Iger, appearing on assorted news programs, etc. — the more weirdly self-serving it seemed. (And I say that as someone who totally agrees with her/the core issue: that economic disparity between the 1% and the other 99% at companies like Disney, Amazon and the like is a huge problem.) While the doc offers some history lessons about wealth disparity in America and the Disney corporation’s shocking level of influence over the City of Anaheim, having Abigail Disney insert herself into the narrative and onto the screen, especially as entangled in the story as she is, was a risky move that, for me, didn’t pay off. Sometimes that kind of thing works, and sometimes it just winds up being a distraction, inadvertently diluting the very message a documentary’s filmmakers are trying to send. It feels like that was the case here.

 

I Didn’t See You There (4/8)
Somewhere buried in director Reid Davenport’s muddled, confusing documentary is the potential for a couple of really amazing short films: one capturing the beauty of the world two feet off the ground, and one a total art film made up of tracking shots of patterns found in architecture, set to percussion. But this narratively scattered mid-length doc suffers from trying to be too many things at once, to the point that it’s never really clear what it’s actually about. Purportedly meant to illustrate how Davenport sees the world without being seen, and (per the official film description) explore the world of freak shows, the film doesn’t really do either, and the freak-show component consists of little more than a few ruminations sprinkled through the proceedings. Instead, Reid shoots his life: maneuvering obstacles, dealing with inquisitive strangers, visiting with family. The camera is often pointed straight down at the sidewalk or road or carpet, which isn’t actually what Reid — who has CP and uses a wheelchair — sees when he’s moving through the world. As well, so many of the film’s shots go on for about 15 seconds too long, and at one point (a l-o-n-n-n-n-g, silent, static shot of a fly trap) I wondered if the film had actually frozen or malfunctioned. I will admit that I almost turned the doc off several times, but stayed with it largely for the fleeting glimpses of what could have been and what artist-by-trade Davenport does very well: he has an excellent eye for composition and a strong sense of how to use music effectively, and there were enough of those beautifully composed shots and sequences to keep me watching.

 

Million Dollar Pigeons (3/8)
My lack of knowledge about what competitive pigeon-racing actually entails for the pigeons meant my expectations for this doc from Gavin Fitzgerald were somewhat misplaced. Or misdirected. In short, the film was not what I thought it would be… and, frankly, turned out to be more upsetting than entertaining. See, I thought it would be a fun, quirky film about fun, quirky pigeon fanciers from around the world racing their beloved birds in some kind of fun, quirky contest. Fun! The official fest description even says, “Million Dollar Pigeons is a hysterical see-it-to-believe-it story with a cast of odd and charming characters…”, which sure sounds fun, right? I mean, it’s even described as “hysterical”!

What I didn’t know (but do now) is that the “sport” is not only the playground of ridiculously wealthy (mostly) white men, but brutal on its feathered participants, who are shipped across the globe in crates en masse and then forced to fly hundreds of kilometers — maybe they make it to the finish line, maybe they die of exhaustion or disease or exposure en route — so their owners can collect prize money and, more importantly, bragging rights. The more I watched, the more uncomfortable I felt and, unfortunately, save for charming Dublin pigeon-club-member John (the only breeder profiled who seems to genuinely love his birds), there was not a single likeable figure to be found in its collection of competitors. There was no one to root for (save for the birds), and the big-competition climax felt like a celebration of avian abuse. At one point, someone makes a passing comment about “activists,” and reps from the SPCA are very-briefly glimpsed… but there’s nothing else in the film that addresses the obvious animal-welfare issues these epic pigeon races no doubt raise. A big oversight, in my opinion, akin to making a film about greyhound racing and ignoring its inherent cruelty to the animals. The lack of a balanced perspective, the overwhelmingly unsympathetic (human) subjects, and the stomach-knotting plight of the pigeons themselves make this a decidedly un-fun, non-hysterical doc I can’t really recommend.

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