HotDocs 2009 Day Five: Switching Things Up

Here’s what I love most about having a HotDocs media pass: it allows me to make changes to my film-going schedule on the fly. If I need to rearrange my films at the last minute, I can. And that’s incredibly helpful.

Such was the case yesterday, when I arrived for my (planned) first film of the day — Orgasm Inc. — only to find a gigantic ticketholders line snaking around the theater, and a surprisingly long line of people waiting to buy tickets. I pondered my options for a moment, then decided that I didn’t want to risk queuing up only to get into a packed venue where I’d have to sit in the front row. So, instead, I took out my screening schedule to see what else might be showing at the same time or shortly thereafter.

And that’s how I landed at my (actual) first film of the day, Cooking History (5/8), which examines war as seen through the eyes of military cooks. Using various European conflicts of the mid-20th century, the documentary features interviews with the now-aged cooks who fed troops and/or officials during battle. They recount the types of meals they’d prepare, anecdotes about their work or life during wartime, and each one prepares one of the dishes for which he or she was known. This is all fine, but it felt long and repetitive after a while. Most importantly, I kind of felt there should have been some kind of warning – either in the program book or as an announcement before the screening – that the film contains very graphic footage of animal slaughter. A live cow tied to a tree has its head cut off. A screeeeeeeeeeaming hog is dragged by a hook through its snout to its slow and prolonged death. And so on. Personally, I found these scenes gratuitous and unnecessary. They don’t relate directly to the narrative, and (based on the groans and turned heads of the audience) didn’t do anything to enhance the cinematic experience for those of us in the theater.

Next up was another last-minute subsititution: the much-ballyhooed Children of God (5/8), about which I’d heard nothing but good things, instead of Shadow Billionaire (about which I’d also heard good things). Set in and around a riverside crematory in Nepal, Children… profiles several homeless boys who “work” the site. That is, they lie in wait for the memorials to the dead, and then pillage the offerings of food or money or linens after the mourners depart. (The director explained that this is a common practice, and the mourners are aware of what happens.) Maybe my expectations were too high, but I found the film just okay. Strangely enough, the children’s stories didn’t move me nearly as much as those of the dying patients at the crematory’s adjacent “hospital,” which is essentially a place to die for the gravely ill. Those interstitial stories left me in tears, but – for the most part – I felt curiously detached from the lives of the film’s key subjects. Odd.

I’m thankful that my final film of the day was the kind of movie that makes your heart swell ten sizes… but also makes you weep openly for 90 minutes. The Way We Get By (8/8) had me crying almost from its first frame, and the tears kept right on flowing all the way through the ENTIRE thing. No exaggeration. Directed with tenderness and grace by Aron Gaudet, the film profiles a trio of elderly “greeters” who operate at Bangor International Airport, saying welcome back or goodbye to hundreds of thousands of U.S. military troops coming home from, or heading, overseas. Bill, Joan and Jerry open their lives, homes and hearts to the camera, as they recount why they do what they do, and what it means to them to be there when soldiers land in their town. Beyond moving, the film is a beautiful portrait of these generous souls, whose own personal pain and hardships are pushed aside for a greater good.

Not surprisingly, I was an emotional mess by the time the closing credits rolled and Gaudet welcomed his mom – Joan the greeter! – to the stage to field questions from the audience. The whole night was lovely, if very weepy.

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