HotDocs 2009 Day Seven: Secrets and Lies

I have to start by saying that I continue to be impressed with how well HotDocs runs, how well-attended all its screenings are, and how accessible it is to the public. This is what a film festival should be. Plus, its program book – which of the exact same quality as the one sold at TIFF, only with about 1/100th of its advertising pages – is only $2. TWO DOLLARS! (TIFF’s ad-laden book goes for $30+, btw, which is ridiculous.)

Anyway, I digress…

My first film yesterday was The Jazz Baroness (6/8), director Hannah Rothschild’s profile of her great aunt, Pannonica “Nica” Rothschild, a British heiress who eschewed the family fortune to immerse herself in the American jazz scene of the 1950s. Specifically, into the world of Thelonius Monk, with whom she forged a close relationship. Interviews with friends, family and jazz luminaries are combined with archival footage and recordings, and punctuated by recitations of Nica’s letters are provided by Helen Mirren. This is the kind of documentary I dig – a straightforward and well-executed portrait of a relatively unknown (or little-known) individual with a really fascinating story. Based on the packed-to-the-rafters screening – at 1:45pm on a Thursday afternoon! – I would guess I’m not alone in that feeling.

Up next was The Yes Men Fix the World (5/8), one of the films I’d been looking forward to most at HotDocs… but one which, perhaps due to my lofty expectations, kind of underwhelmed me. For the uninitiated, the Yes Men are Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, a clever duo renowned (or reviled, depending on who you are) for the corporate pranks – specifically, infiltrating high-profile events by posing as representatives of large corporations, and then making shocking, outrageous or simply ludicrous announcements that the actual companies would never, ever make.

Their first film, The Yes Men, was excellent… but this one felt a little less cohesive. The pranks are bigger – pulling one over on the BBC News is no small matter! – but the documentary itself lacked some of the spark of their first outing. Again, maybe I was too excited and had set my expectations too high. Dunno.

Last on the docket was director Kirby Dick’s latest, Outrage (5/8), an exposé of closeted gay politicians in the U.S., who actively campaign against gay and lesbian issues. With the guidance of leading gay-rights crusaders and journalists, Dick throws open the doors on Washington’s closet, outing politicos whose voting records drastically oppose the way they secretly live their lives. While a lot of the film is compelling, and some of it moving (the brief montage of gay-bashed teenagers), it felt a little like there was something missing… as though it wasn’t quite as shocking or revolutionary or eye-opening as I’d expected. It was good, and informative, but might have benefited (as my movie-going pal pointed out) some historical context and, perhaps, a brief look at openly gay politicians with successful careers to provide some juxtaposition.

 

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