By Marc Glassman
The 17th annual Hot Docs festival started with a bang—I almost wrote “a rush”—last night with an Opening Night gala presentation of Thomas Balmes’ Babies and a premiere of the new rock doc Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage. After the films, there was a “green carpet” party at the Royal Ontario Museum featuring local cocktails, eco-cuisine and a fairly hefty ticket price–$175—for a good cause, “the friends of the environment.” The spirit at the after-party was effervescent, with the doc community—local and international—out in force to chat, drink, flirt and dance. If this is an industry in crisis, you certainly couldn’t tell it at the ROM.
Over the course of the next week and a half, Hot Docs will screen 166 films in 10 programs ranging from a South American survey to a retrospective on British veteran verité specialist Kim Longinotto. Lovers of docs and stats will find it hard to stop dwelling on details. The festival is presenting lots of premieres: 20 world; 30 international; 26 North American; 48 Canadian and 16 Toronto.
Films are being screened from around the globe: 47 from the U.S., 30 Canadian, 20 from the U.K., 10 from Germany, 7 from Brazil, 6 from Netherlands and, well, you get the drift. Even Yemen and the Republic of Cameroon are represented by one doc apiece. The best stat of all? 48 docs are from first-time filmmakers.
While all of this constitutes good news for the documentary and independent film scenes, one should approach all of the merriment around Hot Docs with caution. True, this is clearly a landmark year in what is now one of Toronto’s iconic festivals. But it’s also certain that funding sources for docs are drying up around the world as the market for TV viewers and advertising dollars continues to fracture and governments grow increasingly reluctant to fund arty projects or prop up threatened public-minded broadcasters. And without TV dollars or arts council grants, many of the docs selected for this festival would never have been made.
That’s a worry for Hot Docs 2011, perhaps—but the reality is that this year’s festival is in fine shape. There are lots of ways to approach the diversity and freshness of the programming in Hot Docs but for this first report, let’s start by looking at the changing role of men in modern society.
From Finland come a couple of remarkable films, Steam of Life and Freetime Machos, which interrogate the role of masculinity in modern Finnish society. A culture famed for its stoic males, alienated from life and love, is shown to be to be quite the opposite of its stereotype. Director Mika Ronkainen, internationally recognized for his funny incisive look at the Screaming Men vocal performance group, returns to the doc scene with Freetime Machos, a penetrating account of a season in an amateur rugby league.
The men, employed in many cases by the globally successful mobile phone company Nokia, are a self-deprecating lot, hoping to have fun with rugby and not embarrass themselves. They even recruit a young woman for the team but are overruled by the Helsinki head-office, which insists that rugby is an all-male sporting event. After a blowout opening day loss, the team, led by Roger, a phlegmatic Brit, concentrates on keeping their games close.
Without working too intently at it, Ronkainen creates an indictment of Nokia, which fires Roger and others despite record profits, deeming their jobs “redundant.” Jarmo, one player, works on a trenchant “tell all” book on Nokia while others struggle with the pressures of maintaining good relations with their wives and children during tough economic times. By the end of the season, an older member of the happy band has to move north in pursuit of a new job while Matti, one of the naïve young players, copes with the realization that a teammate is gay—a fact that most of the team knew all along.
If the lads in Freetime Machos are relatively open about their feelings, Steam of Life is a positive revelation. Take the towels off Finnish men in a sauna bath and more than sweat comes pouring out of them. Set up as a series of dialogues in saunas both grand and small, the stories told by the men to each other are startlingly candid and emotional.
One dark haired youngish man tells about losing his daughter in a divorce case: the bereavement this father feels is heart wrenching. Another tells an even more tragic tale, recounting the death of a baby daughter and his pain at leaving her in a cold room when “she always loved warmth.” The film concludes with all the men, back in their work clothes, singing a folk ballad.
Moving across the Atlantic, The Kids Grow Up explores similar emotional terrain to Steam of Life. Happily, Doug Block’s film has far less calamitous content than the Finnish sauna movie although it, too, deals with fathers and daughters. In this case, Block, a New York filmmaker is concerned because his teenaged daughter, Lucy, is getting ready to fly the coop and go to college in California. Doug’s camera tracks Lucy during her last year in high school, following her around their Manhattan apartment and upstate New York summer cottage.
The most fascinating aspect of the film is Block’s presentation of himself in his role as father and documentarian. Both Lucy and his wife are driven to distraction by Doug’s constant shooting and amazing self-regard. Despite his wife’s plunging into deep depression and his daughter’s increasing annoyance at what she perceives as his prying into her personal affairs, Block appears to be intransigent—absolutely committed to seeing out his project.
Block scored a big success with 51 Birch Street, a film which explored his feelings about his father’s second marriage to a former secretary, made quite soon after Block’s mother’s death. Here, once again, it’s Block’s feelings that are pre-eminent, not those of his daughter, the ostensible subject of the film. She remains enigmatic, possibly as a defense mechanism, as she deals with her last year of high school and long-distance relationship with a French boy she met a couple of years earlier when she was an exchange student.
One wonders whether Doug Block has, quite intelligently, set himself up as a straw dog, a character that the rest of this real-life cast have to understand. Did he create a persona to make the film more dramatic? Or is this him?
In any case, The Kids Grow Up does capture the joys and frustrations of being a parent. It, along with Steam of Life and Freetime Machos documents the “new man.”
In my second report, we’ll see how women are coping and prospering in docs, both on and off the camera.