HotDocs 2010 Day Five: Sweet, Sweet, Sweet

Sometimes, I find myself lucky enough to be present for a really magical festival experience. Something that’s so special it reminds me why I attend film festivals in the first place, and something so unique that it couldn’t really happen in any other context. And, for me, it’s usually not the big, fancy premieres or high-profile films that provide them. It’s often the tiny films, the unknowns, that cement themselves in my memory for years to come and become part of my festival history for life.

Today, I had one of those experiences.

I’ve been eating, and loving, Jelly Belly jelly beans for more than 20 years, so when I was flipping through the festival schedule and saw that HotDocs would be screening a film about their creator, it was a no-brainer. And, as I queued up for the screening of Candyman: The David Klein Story (7/8) all I was really expecting was, perhaps, a colorful film about an unsung hero of the confectionery world.

But no sooner did I take my spot in line when an exuberant, rumply guy in a rhinestoned cowboy hat began working his way from person to person, introducing himself. It was David Klein. He stopped to talk to everybody, and thanked each of us profusely for coming to the film. He talked about how much he was loving the festival, and Toronto, and invited us all down to visit him at his shop in California if we’re ever in the area. His son, Bert, who appears in the film and is one of its producers, was also on hand, taking photos and letting slip that we’d all be getting a bag of Jelly Bellies when we got into the theater. What?! Awesome!

I watched the Kleins work the entire line, and I watched as the faces of the people in the line lit up, one by one, as father and son made their way amongst the ticket holders. It was like everyone suddenly turned into delighted children, eager for candy and excited to meet the guy who made it. Certainly, that was the case for me. By the time I sat down in the theater, bag of beans in hand!, I knew this would become a festival experience I’d talk about for years to come. It’s not every day you meet someone with as genuine a generosity of spirit as David Klein.

The film itself was equally great, revealing the big heart (and big brain) of a smart, creative law-school grad who, in the 1970s, introduced the world to “gourmet jelly beans” but, who, after selling the rights to a one-time business associate in 1980, has since been excised from the candy’s history. The story has something of a “nice guys finish last in business” lesson to it, but any fears that the doc might be a downer are erased when you see that Klein is much more interested in helping other people than in the bottom line. Happy to give away his money (or time or expertise) if it means lending a hand to someone else has, perhaps, been his undoing as a would-be multi-millionaire, but has allowed him to put more than his share of good out into the world.

[Oh, and the free beans before the screening were handed out by the film’s director, Costa Botes, who insisted I take a second bag when I returned to the theater after a pre-film trip to the loo.]

My second film of the day was one that I had earmarked as a “must see” the second the screening schedule was released, and my excitement only grew as I heard pre-fest buzz that it was excellent. This Way of Life (6/8) didn’t knock me on my ass with awesomeness as much as I thought it would, but it was still a really fascinating and moving portrait of a New Zealand family living a unique life. Free-spirited parents Peter and Colleen are raising a half-dozen children (all under 10 years of age) in a rural mountain community, with the prevailing themes of their child-rearing being: goodness, fairness, and understanding the difference between right and wrong. As the family endures a number of hardships – Peter’s adversarial relationship with his stepfather at the root of most – they lose their home and much of what they own, but never their hope.

Filled with gorgeous cinematography, the film is also infused with a great deal of sweetness and tenderness… which is beautifully juxtaposed with the ruggedness of the terrain, the work and the strapping hero at its center. When Peter sits perched in a tree and thoughtfully reflects on his love for his wife and each of his children, there is immeasurable poetry in his heartfelt, tearful words and a profound reminder of the importance of family. I left feeling very warm and fuzzy.

It was a pretty good day of movie-going, overall, I’d say.

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