HotDocs 2009 Day Two: Big Hearts, Big Tears

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Attending HotDocs can be an emotionally exhausting experience. Sure, there are documentaries that make you laugh or make you think, but a fair number of the films on the docket will probably make you cry at least once.

Such was the case for me yesterday. Honestly, it’s only been two days and I think I’ve already filled my tear quota for the festival.

With my (thankfully ready-to-go) shiny new press pass slung around my neck, I hit my first film of the day… which was a last-minute addition to my sked and one of those selections I make “just because it fits.” That process is hit-and-miss, but A Good Man (7/8), which I walked into without expectation, definitely falls into the former category.

Simultaneously heartwarming and heartbreaking, director Safina Uberoi’s film centers on earnest Australian sheep farmer Chris Rohrlach, who decides to open a brothel as a way of supplementing the family income so that he can continue to care for his quadriplegic wife, Rachel, at home. A love story at its core, the doc paints a colorful portrait of one husband’s devotion and never-say-die attitude in the face of seemingly impossible odds. I totally cried repeatedly throughout.

The double-bill I attended next served as a bit of a palate cleanser, in that neither documentary tugged at my heartstrings in such a dramatic way or made me reach for the Kleenex. The first was the short film Presidio Modelo (4/8), which is more of an art film than a documentary, I think. With very slowly dissolving images of the decrepit remains a circular prison – built in 1920s Cuba – at its core, Presidio… uses voiceover narration in story form to explain what the building is, why its design was important, and what sort of historic events led to its creation and ultimate demise. Meditative but perhaps too sedate for me.

The second film was a mid-length doc called Audition (5/8). Director Nelofer Pazira visits a rural village in Afghanistan to examine the differing views and sometimes controversial perceptions of men and women when it comes to being on camera. By holding “auditions” for a film, Pazira exposes the contradictions between the sexes – the men have no problem acting in front of the lens, but don’t want their women appearing in film or photographs. Compelling and, at times, jarring, Audition might work better as a feature-length film, which would allow for a sharper focus on its subjects (profiling fewer of then, but allowing for more in-depth coverage, perhaps?)… many of whom feel worthy of greater exploration.

Last up was another double bill, with both films helmed by director Larry Young. The first was a very short short called Carmen (7/8), which – per Young’s own description at the screening – is a first-impression “sketch” of its two subjects: a devoted wife caring for her MS-afflicted husband. Married for more than 35 years, and with the MS having robbed her husband of his body for most of that time, the film is a very poignant, very beautiful snapshot of what it means to love someone in a profound, selfless way. (This movie was six minutes long and I totally cried for five and a half of them.)

Young’s second film, the mid-length Ana and Arthur (5/8), was also good, but didn’t quite grab me the way his short did. Perhaps due to his personal relationships with this film’s two subjects – 70-year-old Ana and her 35-year-old husband, Arthur – and his inherent knowledge of their story , the documentary was a little more confusing for me as an audience member, in terms of timeline and what happens onscreen. Described in the program book as a look at the dissolution of the couple’s seven-year relationship, I felt myself distracted by questions as I watched: what do they do on this farm? how did they meet? are they actually married or just living together (a question answered later in the film)? It was a situation of me asking myself: would I know what this film is about if I hadn’t read the synopsis in advance? Thankfully, my questions were answered at the post-film Q&A… but I also realize that not all audiences will have that privilege. Nonetheless, it was an interesting glimpse into the end of love, and a strangely fitting bookend to my day’s screenings.

One interesting sidenote to my HotDocs 2009 experience so far: more than half the films I’ve seen have been directed by women. It’s a total coincidence, but a really awesome one, in my opinion!


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