HotDocs 2010 Day Three: Rainforests, Revelation and Rivers

Despite the ongoing threat of decidedly inclement weather, I once again managed to elude rain today and, even better, saw a trio of excellent films.

My first screening of the day was the mid-length documentary, i bought a rainforest (7/8), which turned out to be a wonderful, moving, infuriating and yet remarkably hopeful little film packed into a trim 58 minutes. In it, co-director Jacob Andrén decides to find out what, if anything, happened to money he raised as a boy for a “save the rainforest” program. Trekking to South America, Jacob runs face first into the ecological realities of the ongoing deforestation, but also rediscovers some of the preservational drive that spurred him and his classmates (and children around the world) to action some 20 years earlier.

Just as good as the film was the insightful post-screening Q&A, during which Andrén and his co-director, Helena Nygren, discussed environmentalism and idealism, and how – in the face of so many ecological documentaries painting an “it’s too late, we’re doomed” picture – they wanted to make a movie that proves, despite the odds, every little bit really does help and does make a difference. And they more than succeeded.

[For more on the filmmakers’ conservation ties, and how to donate to the groups featured in the doc, visit their official website.]

Intermission: evidently, there was some sort of HotDocs-sponsored FREE (!) barbecue on Cumberland Avenue this afternoon, but I missed it. I saw plenty of folks with hot dogs and pop, but I was sprinting from one screening to the next and didn’t have time to get some gratis grub. Alas.

Next up was The World According to Ion B. (7/8), an incredibly moving profile of Ion Barladeanu, a 63-year-old homeless man and alcoholic living in Bucharest… who’s also a brilliant artist. With tattered suitcases and old shopping bags filled with decades’ worth of his astonishing collage work, Barladeanu calls a garbage-filled alley home. And, when his talent is discovered and the spotlight of the art world slowly turns towards him, the only thing he asks for is a bicycle. A life of hardship and struggle gets easier in some ways, but more difficult in others, and some of the most poignant moments in the film come when he attempts to revisit his childhood home (he doesn’t belong) and becomes an outsider amid the ardent enthusiasts clamoring for his art (he doesn’t belong with them, either). The final two scenes in this documentary were so quietly powerful that tears were running down my cheeks.

My last film of the day was Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (7/8) which, as its title suggests, offers an up-close-and-personal glimpse into a year in the life of the famed comedian. Hilarious and occasionally surprisingly heartfelt, the film follows Rivers as she polishes a play about her life and takes it across the pond, does her time on Celebrity Apprentice and criss-crosses the country for book signings and club gigs and promotional appearances. While Rivers’ sharp wit and even sharper mind take center stage for much of the doc, it’s in the quieter, more introspective sequences and moments – like her annual Thanksgiving practice of delivering meals to shut-ins, or her heartbreak at severing ties with her longtime manager – that the audience gets to see her tender side, which is often well-protected by the walls of her acerbic public persona.

And, in many ways, it’s that kind of intimate access to the lives of others that makes HotDocs such an emotional experience. Year after year, film after film, audiences get know all manner of fascinating, courageous, controversial, colorful, kooky, heartbreaking and heroic people and, for about 90 minutes, spend some time engaged in their life experiences.

To that end, and on a somber note, while waiting in line for … Piece of Work I found out that one of the “stars” of last year’s festival – Eva Markvoort – died on March 27th. She was the vibrant and hopeful 23-year-old subject of 65_RedRoses, a documentary chronicling her struggle with cystic fibrosis and her desperate search for a double-lung transplant. At the end of that film, she’d received her new lungs and was enthusiastically ready to take on the world. But, well after shooting was completed and well after last year’s fest, her body rejected those lungs.

I remember her shocking-pink hair, which made her easy to spot out and about at screenings last year, so the news of her death tonight was surprisingly jarring (especially since I overheard it being mentioned matter-of-factly by someone else in line) and, having witnessed a piece of her difficult journey, I felt a distinct sadness. It also served as a reminder that, unlike the main characters in fictional films, the people opening up their lives in a documentary are real, and they do go on living, and dying, after the camera stops rolling.

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