HotDocs 2009 Day Three: In Love and War

Sometimes I actually impress myself with my inadvertent thematic programming when I select my screenings at a film festival. For this year’s HotDocs fest, I made up my to-see list weeks ago and my process is thus: 1) I go through the program and write down the titles of all the films that sound appealing; 2) I take the list of titles and go through the screening schedule and write down the screening dates/times for those films; 3) I shuffle, rearrange, delete and add films until I have my own screening schedule. By the time step three rolls around, and I’m working with titles, I’ve often forgotten what the films are about.

So I’m frequently pleasantly surprised when I go through a day at the fest and discover that I’ve accidentally managed to group films that have some kind of common element.

Turns out, yesterday’s documentaries both involved the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and both were directed by women. Both were also awesome.

First up was City of Borders (8/8), a fascinating look at what it means to be gay in Jerusalem and Ramallah, as told through the stories of five people – three gay men (including the first openly gay city councilor) and two lesbians – from various ethnic and religious backgrounds, who nonetheless find love and community through Jerusalem’s only gay bar. Director Yun Suh crafts a richly colored, quietly moving (read: yep, tears! lots of tears!) celebration of courage and determination in the face of hatred, and she manages to cram each of the film’s sparse 66 minutes to overflowing with heart. I can’t say enough good things about this documentary – it’s my favorite of the fest so far, and I would have happily sat through another hour had it been longer. It screens again tonight (Monday) and I’m thrilled to see it’s sold out.

Equally powerful was director Simone Britton’s Rachel (8/8), which trains its lens on the 2003 death of American peace activist Rachel Corrie, who was killed in the Gaza Strip while trying to stop a bulldozer from demolishing a house. Centering solely on the people and events surrounding Corrie’s death – as opposed to, as Britton stated in the post-film Q&A, creating a “biopic” to explore her life – the film is hyper-detailed, and features interviews with Israeli military reps along with Corrie’s colleagues, friends and family members, who occasionally read aloud from the letters she sent. (Watching her parents read a letter where she tries to calm her father’s worry by suggesting he imagine that she’s off in a sitcom somewhere turned many in the audience (moi included) into a collective sobbing mess.)

The Q&A after the screening also reminded me of one of my HotDocs audience pet peeves: people who come to a documentary wanting to see a different documentary, and who then feel the need to complain about the film that was made. That is, someone who’s unhappy because he or she feels the director told the wrong story. So, last night, one very impassioned – and, I’m certain, well-meaning – fellow stood up to say that he felt the film only showed 5% of Corrie’s life and he hoped the audience didn’t think this was all there was to her life. I’m not quite sure what his full point was, because he abandoned his commentary and left the theater, but my guess is that he expected or wanted a different film. The same thing has happened at other screenings I’ve attended, where someone takes issue with whatever a director has chosen to make, but I wish people would remember that documentaries can be about a very specific aspect of a bigger picture. The more focused they are, the better (in my opinion).

But such is the nature of HotDocs, where great films can inspire (sometimes spirited) discussion.

Oh, and tears. Lots of tears.

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