By Chris Knight, National Post
You might expect the director of programming at Toronto’s Hot Docs film festival to have a fixed notion of what is and isn’t a documentary, but Sean Farnel, now in his fourth year in the job, says it’s a moving target.
“I’m becoming less of a purist about the form as I see filmmakers doing impressive things,” Farnel says. “This is a case where the term ‘non-fiction’ is better than ‘reality’ — whatever that is. Documentary as a non-fiction form has become very fluid in the last 10 years ... You see docs consistently pushing the form in new directions.”
Two popular, form-pushing films released last year illustrate his point. Waltz with Bashir, by Ari Folman, recreates the Israeli filmmaker’s memories of the 1982 war with Lebanon through animation. Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg was part monologue, part travelogue and partly made up, though clearly even the imaginary parts of Manitoba’s capital are close to Maddin’s heart.
This year’s festival, which opens next Thursday with a screening of Jennifer Baichwal’s Act of God, includes a number of what Farnel calls “creative documentaries.”
Cooking History, about soldiers’ food during wartime, uses tableaux and elaborate reconstructions. Antoine, a Canadian film by Laura Bari, immerses the viewer in the universe of a blind five-year-old boy. Big River Man, which Farnel calls a “demi-documentary” in the festival’s program notes, “might be another example of walking the line between fiction and non-fiction to achieve what Werner Herzog would call poetic truth.”
While there’s never any shortage of good documentaries or appreciative audiences, Farnel believes Hot Docs offerings can appeal even to the multiplex crowd. “We have movies that are as funny as any broad comedy and as dramatic as any mainstream drama,” he says. “The reason our audiences have doubled in the last three years is that audiences that take that chance get hooked fast.”
Ultimately, he says, what he, his fellow programmers and attending filmmakers are looking for is the unexpected hit.
“It’s easy to see where films like The Cove and Burma VJ that have won awards and are coming to the festival with a lot of momentum — it’s easy to see where they’re going to have a very good festival,” he says. “But I’m excited to see which of the films that we haven’t seen a lot of bubble up and cause conversation.” Farnel is shy about picking favourites, but when asked for some possible dark horses at this year’s festival, he rattles off some unusual fare that fascinated him: Outrage, Defamation, About Face, The Sound of Insects and The Way We Get By.
Still, he admits public reaction can startle him. “I was surprised that Taking Root won the audience award last year,” he says, referring to Lisa Merton and Alan Dater’s story of Kenyan political activist Wangari Maathai. “Not that it didn’t deserve to win, but it was such a small, modest film.”
As with so many of Toronto’s film festivals, viewers are a vital component to ultimate success. “These are all in a sense word-of-mouth films,” says Farnel. “These films are such great conversation starters and are such a social experience. I’m excited about what the audiences tell me.”
Read the rest of the article here.
Yes, it is true, Nik Sheehan and FLicKeR are coming to New York city to the Anthology Film Archive, June 13th.
See you there.
The enthusiasm of Nollywood Babylon is infectious. Focusing on the widely unknown (in the U.S., at least) Nigerian film industry, this documentary speeds its way through seventeen years of their film history. Starting in 1992, the video market in Lagos has provided financial opportunities for hundreds of actors and directors making thousands of films. Clocking in at about 2500 films a year, Nigeria has the third largest film industry (the first and second being the U.S. and India, respectively). Seeing the passion that these artists share for films showing the real experiences of Nigerians, and the love of Nollywood itself, is inspiring for independent filmmakers everywhere, struggling to get their little pictures made.
The star of the film, the Nollywoood director Lancelot Oduwa Imasuen (known as "Da Guv'nor in Lagos), had made 157 movies when "Nollywood Babylon" started filming. By now I'm sure that number has increased drastically as he directs two more during the four-month period the documentary crew was filming. Lancelot is a quirky, very serious, loveable character. Watching him scream at his grip in one scene and then comfort his actress after an emotionally draining performance, you can see just how much he cares about this business.
I only wish the film made an effort to slow down a bit more than its star. The directors, Ben Addelman and Samir Mallal estimated some 9000 cuts, and that seems to exclude the cuts made within the Nollywood film clips themselves. This MTV-style editing makes watching the film a little bit like wiping out under a giant wave. The new information hits you full speed, and you're left with a mouth full of sand and an unsatisfying feeling of accomplishment. Each Nollywood poster shown in a split second has a wealth of information just beyond our grasp and the effect is a bit nauseating. The style matches the subject, but in this case a moment of silence, or even a single extra second spent on each shot would be very much appreciated. Perhaps the responsibility is placed on the audience to sit up, pay attention, and do our own research later.
The Gates (HBO)
Maysles Films in association with HBO Documentary Films and CVJ
Filmmakers explored how the now-celebrated Central Park installation by artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude came to be in this memoir of a creative process that survived a 24-year odyssey of bureaucratic hoop-jumping.
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Theater of War
Backstage insights into art and ideology
''Theater of War'' follows a 2006 production of ''Mother Courage and Her Children'' that starred Meryl Streep. ''Theater of War'' follows a 2006 production of ''Mother Courage and Her Children'' that starred Meryl Streep. (MICHAL DANIEL)
By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / March 27, 2009
In the summer of 2006, thousands of theatergoers, stargazers, and people who enjoy Marxist German classics braved impossible heat to attend a production of Bertolt Brecht's "Mother Courage and Her Children" in Central Park. It was more hoopla than Brecht ordinarily receives, even by the standards of the New York stage. But this Public Theatre production was somewhat out of the ordinary. Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline were starring in a new translation by Tony Kushner, directed by George C. Wolfe with music by Jeanine Tesori. And it was free.
John W. Walter, a film editor and documentary maker, was around to film the show's rehearsals. But it wasn't just Streep's star that struck him. It was Brecht's. "Theater of War," Walter's invigorating film, asserts the value of Brecht - and the power of art - for our troubled times.
The film combines backstage footage, interviews with Kushner, Wolfe, Tesori, and Streep, and conversations with two professors, one of whom worked alongside Brecht, the other who teaches his work. What comes of all this is both a film of ideas (call it "Everyday Brecht") and a modest journey into the dramatist's life. More than once the two merge into living philosophy.
Much of the playwright's biography is explained by Tufts University's Jay Cantor, who discusses how Marxism presented Brecht the intellectual rigging for his political anger. The film applies the basic revelations of Marxism (work is tyranny, labor effaces personality, that sort of thing) to the Public's production itself. Initially there is reason to fear. Jeremy Lydic, who oversaw the props and wrote his thesis on "Mother Courage," and Marina Draghici, who managed the costumes, do their jobs while Cantor explains that our work is who we are.
It's not drudgery we see, though, but a kind of personal pride in craft. Eventually Cantor, who has allowed himself to stare down the Marxist rabbit hole and seems the glummer for it, moves on to the productive uses of Marxism, which, under these circumstances, have more to do with the effectiveness of collective action. That, after all, is how art is usually made.
Brecht wrote "Mother Courage" as an antiwar jeremiad, and the play's enduring strength is the ugly reach of its moral quagmire. Mother Courage runs a profitable mobile canteen for soldiers that she continues to haul even after the war has cost her her three children. Death is tragic, but so, in a sense, is this woman's will to live. Walter sees in the Central Park production a parallel to contemporary military conflicts. American troops were spending another year in Iraq, and Israel had just invaded Lebanon.
"Theater of War" is perfectly Brechtian in form - "action and commentary on the action," as someone points out. Much of the most stirring commentary comes from Streep, who objects to the general idea of filming rehearsals (process looks like "bad acting," she says), but appears to go with the Brechtian flow, letting us sees flubs, sweat, and tears.
Walter juxtaposes her grueling, almost deranged performance with footage of the legendary performance by Brecht's wife, Helene Weigel, who appears to be twice as formidable while doing half the work. These backstage scenes explore the Brechtian urge to create and rebel. But the movie wonders whether creation is an adequately confrontational act. What is the value of art in times of strife? Should people be sitting in the theater or rioting in the streets? Walter's film reminds us that once there was a man whose work made no distinction between the two.
Wesley Morris can be reached at email@example.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/movienation.
© Copyright 2009 Globe Newspaper Company.