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Last updated: January 16, 2006
Copyright 2006
Michael R. Colford. All rights reserved

Film Festival Reviews

HotDocs, 2010


by David Valdes Greenwood

Toronto is best known in cinema circles for its Toronto International Film Festival. But it tells you something about cinema culture in the city that the little sibling is a festival showing 180 films for 150,000 moviegoers. That festival is Hot Docs, North America’s largest documentary film festival.

Project NimI spent three days in early May taking in the international slate and found some gems among the seven full-length features and several shorts I viewed. The marquee film of the set, which is headed to Boston for wide release later this year, is Project Nim, the new James Marsh (Man on Wire) picture. An account of 30 years in the life of Nim, a chimpanzee taught sign language and initially raised among humans, the movie is gripping and provocative. It was definitely a film patrons were discussing afterwards—in lines for other films, in neighborhood cafes, and so on. But your take on this particular film may well depend on how you felt about the use of re-enactments in Man on Wire; in that film, staged period scenes were interwoven with real footage to prove their veracity. In Project Nim, there is little actual extant footage, so it is composed of nearly 90 minutes of re-enactments colored to mimic the film stocks of specific eras. I found that occasionally distracting, though highly atmospheric, but not enough to weaken the film’s overall power.

Position Among the StarsMy favorite film, Position Among the Stars (from Dutch director Leonard Retel
Helmrich), is a look at three generations of an Indonesian family: a Christian grandma longing for rural life, a layabout Muslim son making very little of his city existence, and a sullen nonreligious granddaughter trying to prove that girls just wanna have fun, while her elders want to see her get an education. What is remarkable about the film is the way Retel Helmrich distills natural world details into metaphor—what appear to points of light in a night sky become dew drops which then are revealed to be liquid pesticide, a poisonous but necessary kind of beauty, a modern fact in an ancient landscape. There’s a terrific scene worthy of Truffaut or Fellini where a boy flees through back alleys with stolen laundry billowing behind him. Despite good reception on the international circuit (and at Sundance), as of festival time, there was no Boston release yet set.

Open SecretI do think we’re likely to see Open Secret, a U.S. documentary about NPR commentator Steve Lickteig, an adopted man who discovers that his story isn’t quite what he’s been told—and that literally every other person in town (from his siblings to his high school prom date) has known this his entire life. How he wrestles to make peace with this news, as well as with the two women who want to be called “mother,” is a journey that spans several years, as his film follows emotional reversals that are unexpected for the narrator, and quite likely for the audience. The filmmaking is not unique or especially cinematic, but the storytelling and Lickteig’s control of narrative detours make for a riveting experience.

Less successful, the Italian film Housing, about the lack of low-income units in the city of Bari, was a bit repetitive for me, even though the subject was powerful. Vodka Factory, a Russian film about a single mother who wants to quit her job at the distillery and find stardom in Moscow, was very engaging, but full of bombastic verbal fight scenes. The director later admitted (to the audience at my screening) that he himself had provoked these battles, making sure they took place in front of the cameras; as a result, a certain staginess hangs over the whole affair.

The worst film was The Good Life, a Danish rip-off of Grey Gardens but without the eccentric, colorful characters. Meant to reveal the sad lot of the formerly wealthy, it was an exploitative and grating study in stasis. At the end (when, literally, no progress has been made), I thought perhaps it was supposed to be a Pinter exercise, minus the wit. But when you add that up—colorless Grey Gardens + wit-free Pinter—all you get is depression and a sour taste in your mouth.

At Night They DanceHappily, the last film I saw was one of the most fascinating. At Night They Dance, by Arabic-speaking Montreal director Isabelle Lavigne, places viewers inside the world of wedding-circuit Egyptian bellydance, a tradition that is nearly all that holds together the family at the film’s center. The matriarch is about to give birth to her seventh child, while her three eldest daughters deal with aggressive promoters, leering bachelor party attendees, morality police, boyfriends, and drugs. A rare documentary fortunate enough to be an official selection in this year’s Cannes Film Festival, I’m hoping it will snag one of those Kendall one-week releases. For me, it was the perfect wrap-up to a festival worth attending.

Boston International Festival of Women's Cinema High Falls Film FestivalIndependent Film Festival of Boston Provincetown International Film FestivalSidewalk Film FestivalSundance Film FestivalToronto International Film FestivalTribeca Film FestivalVenice Film Festival