HotDocs 2010 Day Seven: Call Girls, Controversy, Cameras and Closing Thoughts

Much to my chagrin, today was my final day at HotDocs 2010. I have to head out of town at the crack of dawn tomorrow, so I’ll be missing the festival’s final three days. It’s been a wonderful week filled with so many wonderful films, and this festival remains my favourite of them all.

Anyway, on to today’s screenings…

First up was The Canal Street Madam (6/8), a profile of Jeanette Maier, who operated a New Orleans brothel with her mother and daughter for many years before being busted by the FBI. The film examines how Maier ran her business, which catered to as many high-profile clients as average Joes, and how, in present day, she’s trying to reconcile her past while building a new (or somewhat new) future as an advocate for the rights of sex workers. Archival footage and home video punctuates current interviews with Maier and her entire family, all of whom have criminal records, as they reflect on the past – including the made-for-TV movie about their exploits – and their feelings about prostitutes being prosecuted while their johns walk away with unblemished records.

Maier is a terrific subject, gregarious and outspoken most of the time, but nicely shaded with vulnerability and the heart of a lion when it comes to her kids or her work. I suspect, much like the empathic light cast on Joan Rivers as a result her biographical doc, this film will erase certain preconceived notions about a professional madam and, certainly, about Maier herself.

I followed up one documentary about controversy with another, and headed over to 12th & Delaware (6/8), a film about the goings-on at an intersection in Pierce, Florida, where an abortion clinic sits on one corner and a pro-life office is on the other. Co-directors Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing (Jesus Camp) train their lens on both sides of the issue, first profiling the staff at the “Pregnancy Care Center,” which offers free ultrasounds and counsel to pregnant women considering abortion in a bid to get them to proceed with their pregnancies instead. What unfolds is often surprising or downright shocking, as the pro-life advocates peddle misinformation and, in one chilling sequence, secretly track the whereabouts of the abortion doctor across the street. The staff at the abortion clinic, who describe the perils of their profession and the non-stop harassment of the pro-lifers, get equal time and the fear and disbelief in their voices as they discuss their work is palpable.

While the film is balanced in terms of viewpoints, the pro-life side repeatedly shoots itself in the foot with the behavior and mentality of its zealous members. One biker-like dude, who’s perpetually wearing sunglasses, is especially frightening, and the ignorance they pass on in the name of life preservation is astounding. It’s very difficult not to feel like the confused young women looking for answers at their door are being manipulated, misinformed and completely misled. Being advised to stay with an abusive partner because “having the baby might change him for the better” is not only ridiculous, but irresponsible. And it’s all there onscreen in this compelling film.

Last up for the day, and my experience at this year’s fest, was a moving mid-length doc called I Shot My Love (6/8), a slice-of-life look at the relationship between its director, Tomer Heymann, and his dancer boyfriend, Andreas, as they try to navigate the waters of their romance amid their cultural differences (Heymann is Israeli, Andreas is German) while living together in Tel Aviv. Adding another layer to the love story is Heymann’s spirited mother, a fixture in her son’s life and frequent subject of his perpetually running camera, who keenly probes her son about what he wants out of life, and out of his deepening partnership with the sweet and open-hearted Deutsch man.

Before the screening, I was under the mistaken impression that Heymann’s film was about the dissolution of his relationship, but it’s just the opposite. He and Andreas are still together (it’s been four years since they met), and theirs is a touching love story that unfolds like one of Andreas’ performance pieces – a quiet, nuanced dance between two people working together to create something special.

And, after the film’s Q&A, I packed up my press pass and headed home, feeling more than satisfied with my HotDoc-ing. I saw great films, and wish I could have seen more – every year there are just too many to cram into any given day, and there are a ton I just couldn’t fit in this year. (Among the ones I missed but wanted to see were When I Rise, Ito – Diary of an Urban Priest, Kings of Pastry, Gaea Girls, Dish, Waste Land, Autumn Gold and The Parking Lot Movie, to name but a few.)

HotDocs continues to impress me, year after year, and continues to be one of the most accessible festivals Toronto has to offer. Its staff and volunteers run a tight, professional ship, but are always careful to remember: this is supposed to be fun. The love they have for their work and the films they program is evident, and I’m always sad when it’s over. This year, it’s ending a little earlier than usual for me, but I look forward to doing it all again next April. Until then…

[Note: for the full scoop on the festival’s award winners, click here on Sunday afternoon!]

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