HotDocs 2010 Day Six: Lessons and Love

Sometimes I think covering HotDocs – or, more specifically, watching a slew of documentaries all at once – would be a lot easier if I were dead inside or had a heart made of stone. But I don’t, and I get immersed in the stories onscreen, and I cry… a lot… and it gets emotionally exhausting.

Today was no exception, as I attended back-to-back screenings that wrung-out my heart (in a good way, though).

First up was A Small Act (7/8) which, like i bought a rainforest, proves undeniably that every good deed begets another and that every effort makes a difference, no matter how seemingly small. The film follows U.N. human-rights attorney Chris Mburu on two tracks: 1. as he reconnects with Hilde Back, a now-elderly Swede who, decades earlier, helped pay for Chris’ schooling through an international sponsorship program, and 2. as he attempts to pay that one small act – which eventually allowed Chris to attend university in Nairobi and, subsequently, Harvard Law (on a Fulbright scholarship) – forward by founding a scholarship in his home village in Kenya in Hilde’s honor. Simultaneously, the audience is introduced to three prospective pre-teen applicants to Chris’ new program as they share their heartbreaking stories and study for the national exam that will determine which one(s) of them, if any, get marks high enough to qualify for the scholarship.

Engaging, moving and brilliantly paced to draw out every ounce of suspense and tension – the sequence where the children await their test scores had everyone in the audience on edge – A Small Act is a wonderful documentary that reminded me a little of War/Dance in terms of its tone, though the subject matter in this film is comparatively much more uplifting and far less gruesome.

I stepped out of the Bader and into the pouring rain, then ran over to the ROM for my next screening, which also promised to tug at the heartstrings.

Monica & David (6/8) is a very lovely little movie about its titular subjects, a Florida couple with Down syndrome, who get married and attempt to navigate the world as husband and wife. Living under the watchful, supportive eye of Monica’s parents, they attend life-skills classes, learn to cook and consider finding jobs. The film does an excellent job at demonstrating how much Monica and David love each other, and how much their families love them both but – because it focuses almost entirely on the magical, positive side of the couple’s relationship – it does feel a bit like it lacks a little balance. Having said that, and it’s really just a minor criticism that’s more about my personal taste, the film is filled with many heartwarming moments and vignettes, and the wedding itself is especially moving. Yep, I totally cried.

The only real misstep, in my opinion, happened during the post-film Q&A session, when the director referenced a Toronto Down-syndrome couple (who are engaged to be married) she’d met just prior to the screening, and then invited them up on stage. I so know her intentions were good, and that the gesture was simply meant to show how couples like Monica and David exist everywhere, but it felt really awkward and unnecessary and a bit patronizing in a sort of “aww! aren’t they cute!” kind of way. Again, maybe that’s just me, but it stuck out in a strange way and I felt a bit like the couple had been put on the spot.

Thankfully, by the time I headed out, my eyes were dry again and so were the streets. The rain had stopped, I caught my bus on time and went home to get ready for tomorrow, my final day at HotDocs 2010.

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