HotDocs 2009 Day One: Confusion and Cats

Last night, I attended my inaugural screenings at HotDocs 2009, and I’m really hoping that the remainder of my festival experience goes a little more smoothly than night one did.

The fest has some 150+ films unspooling over the next 10 days, and the schedule is filled to overflowing with stuff I want to see. I only managed to check out two documentaries at advance screenings:

Act of God (5/8), director Jennifer Baichwal’s look at people who have been struck by lightning. It had a really fascinating premise, but its description as a “meditation” turned out to be accurate: because, while it was contemplative, it wasn’t as compelling as I thought it would be. Several victims of lightning strikes share their stories, and there’s a tangential thread involving scientists measuring brain waves… but, at a brisk 75 minutes, it still felt like it could have been tighter.

Fierce Light Equally meditative, but a film I enjoyed more, was Fierce Light: When Spirit Meets Action (6/8), director Velcrow Ripper’s examination of spirituality within social and political activism. Criss-crossing the globe, he profiles various peaceful activists and the motivation for their non-violent civil disobedience, and interviews well-known voices for change, including Bishop Desmond Tutu and Buddhist monk Thich Naht Han. The result is an appropriately quiet but stirring film.

But my “official” HotDocs experience began last night, and got off to a bit of a rocky start. I’d been out of town until yesterday afternoon, so it was a bit of a mad dash for me to get to the media desk before it closed, in order to pick up the press pass that would actually get me into screenings. What began as a quick stop turned into nearly 20 minutes, after which I left… not with my pass but with a letter that would serve as my temporary pass until such time as my pass was printed out (hopefully, later last night, so that it’s there, waiting for me when I go back to the media desk today). Despite assurances that the letter was just as good as the pass, I feared that the staff at the various theaters might not be as well-informed about this faux-pass process.

Sure enough, I arrived for my first screening – after scarfing down, and thereby burning my tongue on, The World’s Fastest Dinner – walked over to the HotDocs ticket desk and had no less than THREE people totally cut in line in front of me (WTF?!). I waited my turn, then showed the fest reps my letter and explained its purpose. I was told that the press passes were being held at the advance box office, and that I should go there to get mine. As I was being given directions, I said, “No, I actually went to the media desk in the industry center. That’s where the passes are.” Nope, said the young woman, I really should go to the advance box office. This went back and forth for a few moments longer, and then she finally relented and said, in a tone that contradicted her words, “Okaaaay, I *guess* that’s fine…”

I’m not sure if she thought I was trying to scam my way in, but whatever. I got my ticket, decided to skip any subsequent films for the night, and went to stand in the long-by-now ticketholders line.

Note to all festgoers: expect to see and hear a lot of shilling from the folks at Scotiabank Scene Card.

Statistics My first screening at HotDocs 2009 was a double bill. The first film was a half-hour Norwegian short called Statistics (4/8), which… hang on a second… is that?… could it be?… was some of it… scripted?? Director Solveig Melkeraaen, cute as a button, introduced her film as a “portrait” of people working in a call center, but some of the film felt decidedly staged. I mean, there’s an entire sequence where one worker – while listening to ‘90s pop – imagines all the women in the office making eyes at him, and one goes so far as to seductively kiss the glass partition between them. There’s no way any of that can be considered “documentary.” It felt very much like a Norwegian version of The Office. I dunno, I sat in the theater wondering if anyone else was thinking what I was thinking. (If you were there, or have seen the film, let me know what you thought.)

The second, mid-length film was a Canadian offering called Cat Ladies (6/8) an unsurprisingly quirky but occasionally very sad look at four women and their cats. One has three, one has 16, one has more than 120, and one is a bonafide crazy cat hoarder who has cats covering every available surface in her small, filthy bungalow. What was disturbing for me was seeing the cats in the homes of the latter two women, where they are clearly in distress and where some are very obviously sick. The filmmakers wisely juxtapose comments from the Toronto Humane Society (about the delusions of cat hoarders who believe they’re “helping” or “saving” the cats) with comments from the cat hoarders, who say exactly that.

I called it a night early, reasoning that I should probably get groceries to restock my fridge after my week away. Hopefully, my shiny press pass will be ready and waiting for me when I go to collect it today. Fingers crossed!

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