HotDocs 2009 Day Six: Issue-Driven Cinema

I ended day five of the fest with a full-pie movie, and that’s exactly how I started day six.

Rough Aunties (8/8), directed by Kim Longinotto (Sisters in Law, Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go), is a powerful, inspirational and profoundly moving look at the courageous, tireless women of Operation Bobbi Bear, an organization that protects and assists abused children in Durban, South Africa. Profiling five of its staff, the film follows the women over the course of ten weeks, as they fight their way through red tape and politics while trying to be advocates for the young victims coming into their care… in addition to dealing with their own personal tragedies. Director Longinotto does a masterful job of presenting all her subjects and their heartbreaking stories in a way that allows the audience in without making us feel like voyeurs.

In fact, and to the credit of all involved, I felt so deeply immersed in the lives of the people onscreen that I doubt they will leave my mind for a very long time. I strongly recommend you check it out if it screens near you.To that end, for more on the film, the women in it, or info on upcoming screenings, you can visit the film’s official website.

Up next was a film I feared might be mind-numbingly dull… but oh, how wrong I was! The End of the Line (7/8) is a fascinating and alarming film about the problem of overfishing the world’s oceans – which is leading to the loss of entire species, the destruction of ecosystems and the creation of underwater environments that are no longer hospitable for sustainability. Director Rupert Murray interviews a number of researchers and scientists, whose studies show that – without intervention – the world’s seafood supply will vanish completely by the middle of this century. Also featured is British reporter Charles Clover, as he attempts to inform politicians and restaurateurs alike about the perilous situation unfolding in the planet’s waters. Though the music in the film is, at times, a little on the over-the-top side (momentarily undermining the impact of the images instead of buoying them), The End of the Line is as much a must-see-viewing film as An Inconvenient Truth is for anyone who cares about the planet.

I’m still not sure what to make of my final doc of the day, though. There had been a lot of pre-screening buzz about Reporter (5/8), and the lines to get in were substantial, but the film itself left me feeling kind of… meh.

Profiling globe-trotting, awareness-raising, Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristofer, the film follows him as he travels to the Congo (with a university student and inner-city teacher in tow) to seek out the “right” story to motivate his readers to action – specifically, the smaller, personal picture amid a much larger problem. At one point, Kristofer comments that he’s done this sort of work for so long that he’s developed a detachment that allows him to see and hear atrocious things without being emotionally invested in them. And that might be part of my problem with the film – because I found it strangely clinical and distanced. I didn’t feel engaged with Kristofer or the story he was seeking. I don’t know if that’s something the filmmakers intended (my guess would be: probably not), but that’s how I felt watching and I didn’t shed a single tear during the screening. Weird.

Then again, maybe all these heart-wrenching documentaries back-to-back are starting to numb my response mechanisms.

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