HotDocs 2009 Day Eight: Are We Done Yet?

There comes a point in every film festival when I hit a wall.

I get drowsy at screenings and “rest my eyes” from time to time, my patience is whittled away to nothing and I start counting how many films I left before I can officially stop.

At HotDocs 2009, it happened on day eight. (And it’s obviously not just me: the pre-film introductions at my first screening enthusiastically welcomed us all to “HotDocs 2008!”)

I began the day with Ghost Bird (5/8), a film that probes the rumored discovery of the long-thought-extinct Ivory-billed Woodpecker in a small Arkansas town… and the ensuing pandemonium that broke out in the scientific and bird-watching communities worldwide. But, as interest piqued and the town’s economy started to grow around the discovery, doubt was raised. Evidence demanded. Claims refuted and lots of questions arose. This is all fine and good, and the film was very interesting… for a while. But there came a point around the one-hour mark where it felt like the film was ending, and it felt like a great place to fade to black and roll credits. Unfortunately, it went on for another 30 minutes after that but just kind of kept repeating the same things over and over again. This is where I started to get very sleepy, and where I closed my eyes from time to time.

I didn’t close my eyes so much as roll them repeatedly during my second screening, 21 Below (4/8), a somewhat meandering and directionless documentary about a dysfunctional family in Buffalo, NY – specifically, sisters Sharon and Karen. Sharon, oldest of three daughters, is married and pregnant for the first time; Karen, the troubled baby of the family, is already a mother of two, pregnant with a third and dating a rather charmless drug dealer. Purportedly a film about family, all I saw was stereotype after stereotype reinforced throughout what felt like a very long 91 minutes. None of the people onscreen – save for Karen’s terminally ill infant daughter – are likable and, as I watched, I really didn’t know what it was the filmmakers hoped I’d take away from their project. That drug dealers are bad? That 21-year-olds aren’t equipped to parent three children? That siblings argue? I have no idea. But, in my opinion, the result is a film that, in fact, paints a wildly unflattering portrait of its subjects… especially Courtney, the drug dealer. Sharon suggests that maybe, despite his line of work, he’s “a kind person” and perhaps that’s what her sister sees in him. If that’s really the case, why, then, do we only ever see him embracing every negative stereotype possible, without any footage of him being kind and good? The family goes for Christmas portraits and he poses with Karen’s young son pretending to aim a gun at the camera, fer cryin’ out loud. Nevermind the scene where he nonchalantly talks to Sharon’s husband about how he wanted to kill his ex… how he’d “shoot that bitch” or something to that effect.

As the film unspooled, a number of people got up and walked out. I would say at least a dozen, in a theatre of perhaps 150 people. I would have joined them had I not been so curious to hear what would be asked and said at the post-screening Q&A. I saw numerous people shaking their heads during the film, so I figured I wasn’t alone in my confusion. Imagine my surprise when one of the first women to speak said she thought the film was “perfect.” PERFECT?!?!?!? That’s saying a lot about any documentary, but to say it about THIS one? No. She set the tone for the subsequent questions – only one person seemed to mildly criticize the film by asking whether anyone had bothered to get Karen professional, mental help because she was very clearly depressed and in need of counseling – so, suddenly feeling like my opinions and I were in the minority, I packed it in and left.

By this point in the day, though, my patience had worn thin, so it was with much reluctance that I sat down for my third and final film, Love in India… which I walked out of at its halfway mark. The film was a look at the conservative approach to love and sex in the land of the Taj Mahal and the Kama Sutra, but it started to feel a little navel-gaze-y in the same way that The Glow of White Women did last year – a young, male director making a film about love or sex (or both), who inserts himself into his film in a distracting way. When Love’s director started reciting his own poetry on camera, I knew it was time for me to call it a night.

And, to be honest, I was glad. It’s been a busy festival, and my stamina is seriously waning. So much so that today – Saturday, which would be day nine of the fest for me – I’m staying home.

It’s been thunderstorming off and on all day, and the forecast is for continued rain through the overnight, so I have no interest in standing outside in line, getting soaked. It gives me a chance to regroup and rest for tomorrow, the fest’s last day and, hopefully, one filled with a couple of great screenings.

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