#HotDocs16: Fourth Batch of Reviews
By John Corrado
We have now reached the final weekend of Hot Docs, and below are my thoughts on some more films that I had the chance to see over the last few days. Please come back on Monday for my final batch of reviews, and you can find more info on any remaining showtimes through the links in the film titles. Enjoy!
Brothers: Filmmaker Aslaug Holm recorded her two sons Markus and Lukas for eight years of their young lives in Norway, lovingly capturing their growth from little kids to teenagers. We watch as they go to school and soccer practise with their dad, exploring their own interests and identities, and quietly rebelling against their parents, seamlessly edited together to show the profound affects of passing time that come with every milestone.
The mother’s often wistful narration explores her own memories of childhood and the fleeting nature of watching her kids grow up, and the two boys share some touching and philosophical thoughts on religion and the meaning of life, channelled through their young but wise perspective. It’s hard not to be affected by a lot of the scenes and find little moments to relate to, as Brothers beautifully captures the feeling of watching time pass right before our eyes, in ways that are both charming and moving to watch.
Gatekeeper: Yuko Shige is a retired police officer who has now devoted his life to patrolling the Tojinbo Cliffs in Japan, a notorious destination where countless people go to take their own lives, in a country that has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. He’s assembled a team of volunteers who watch with binoculars and talk down potential jumpers, and also operates a local cafe where people who are depressed can come for a hot meal and to talk about their problems. Although he has already saved hundreds of lives, he remains haunted by the ones who have been lost to the cliffs. At just forty minutes long, Gatekeeper is a beautifully filmed and quietly affecting portrait of the inspiring work that Yuko Shige and his team are doing, that is refreshingly open in the ways it talks about depression.
I Am The Blues: Playing almost like an American blues version of Buena Vista Social Club, I Am The Blues allows us to hang out in the classic juke joints, church halls and front porches in Mississippi that are home to aging musicians including Bobby Rush, Jimmy “Duck” Holmes and Barbara Lynn. They are part of the last generation of blues artists whose music was infused with the pain of working as slaves and in cotton fields, and they retain their enthusiasm for jamming and recounting old stories. Although it runs a little long at 106 minutes, I Am The Blues is an enjoyable and touching film that is worth seeing for the abundance of great music and to hear these old masters share their stories and songs.
Wizard Mode: Robert Gagno is one of the top pinball champions in the world, travelling around to different competitions with his very supportive father. He’s also a young man living on the autism spectrum in Vancouver, who is just starting to gain more independence, searching for employment and wanting a relationship. Robert’s special interest in classic arcade games allows him to be intensely focused when he’s “in the zone,” and become part of a community that is very accepting, but the support he receives from his parents, and the way he overcomes challenges in his determination to keep moving forward in his daily life is equally impressive. Directors Nathan Drillot and Jeff Petry have crafted a compelling portrait of his life in Wizard Mode, providing some nice stylistic flourishes, and building suspense during the competition sequences. The film also nicely edits together old home movies with footage of him now, to show his tremendous progress. This is an inspiring and optimistic look at a young man who continues to beat expectations, both in pinball and in his life.
Mattress Men: There are three compelling subjects at the centre of Mattress Men. The first one is Michael Flynn, who owns a small mattress shop in Dublin, and hopes to branch out and become the “McDonalds of mattresses.” The second is struggling entrepreneur and part-time store employee Paul Kelly, who is looking to rebrand as a social media expert and turns his boss into a YouTube star under the persona of Mattress Mick, with a series of goofy and delightfully low budget commercials. The third guy is Brian Trainer, an improbably optimistic man who roams the streets dressed in a mattress costume, trying to drum up business and spouting philosophical observations on life along the way.
Director Colm Quinn follows these three men as they are getting ready to shoot a rap music video to advertise their business, seeking viral online fame. Paul Kelly is in many ways the heart of Mattress Men, a man on social assistance who is struggling to support his young family and seeking fair payment and recognition for his work, but threatened to be pushed aside and have others take credit for what is essentially his work. Although Mattress Men is often quirky and entertaining, it’s also a surprisingly affective and touching human drama about working class people just trying to get ahead post-recession, that plays with a charming and distinctly Irish flavour.
Suited: Bindle & Keep is a unique tailor shop in Brooklyn, that specializes in making suits for people who don’t conform to their birth gender, and have trouble finding fancy clothes that flatter their bodies and how they identify. Founded by Daniel Friedman and Rae Tutera, the shop attracts a wide range of clients, from a trans man who needs a suit for his wedding, to those looking for clothes that aren’t overly masculine or feminine. Director Jason Benjamin gains intimate access to the shop and its clients, and as the subjects share their deeply personal stories, and we see them become profoundly affected by finally trying on clothes that fit, Suited is the sort of film that gets you choked up in all the best ways. This is a refreshingly positive look at the non-binary community, and it’s genuinely inspiring and uplifting to watch, showing the power of clothes to help express what’s inside.
Handsome and Majestic: Directed by the Wizard Mode team of Nathan Drillot and Jeff Petry, the excellent short documentary Handsome and Majestic follows trainsgender teenager Milan Halikowski, who is struggling to find acceptance in his small town of Prince George. It’s phenomenally power at just twelve minutes long, and plays beautifully alongside Suited, offering a touching introduction to Milan’s story and budding advocacy, and making us genuinely want the best for his life.
Off the Rails: Darius McCollum is a New York legend, having spent over thirty years impersonating transit officials and commandeering buses and subway trains for joy rides, and ending up stuck in the revolving doors of the prison system because of it. Severely bullied as a child and having a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome, Darius is happiest when riding the rails, and knows the entire transit system like the back of his hand, finding community amongst the workers and passengers. It all started when he was fifteen and the driver let him take over the subway for an hour, flawlessly doing the announcements and making every stop before being caught, leading him to come up with increasingly ingenious ways to get his transit fix, replicating uniforms and getting himself the badges and keys that he needed to access different areas. From picking up passengers to inspecting the tracks at night, he does every single job exceedingly well, with the only problem being that he doesn’t actually have a job.
The New York Transit Authority is apprehensive to employ him because they are embarrassed by how he has exposed the flaws in their security, and the compulsive pursuit of his special interest at literally all costs has tragically led him to spend many years of his life in prison, not getting the support or therapy he needs. The only thing he loves more than transit is his mother, a resilient older woman who stands by his side, while also resigning herself to the fact that she can’t do much to break his cycle of repeated offences. First time director Adam Irving has crafted an incredibly compelling film that is completely sympathetic towards Darius McCollum. Telling his story through interviews and reenacted flashbacks, he becomes an almost Shakespearian character, and it’s hard not to be on his side and end up rooting for the guy. This is a fascinating and heartbreaking portrait of a complex and larger than life character who has been absolutely failed by the justice system, but keeps breaking the law to do what he loves.
The Bad Kids: Black Rock Continuation High School is an alternative school located in a remote community in the Mojave Desert, that takes in students who are facing issues ranging from extreme poverty, drug addictions, felony offences and teen parenthood. Many of these kids come from bad homes, and face incredible amounts of stress and pressure that threaten their education, but the school allows them to go through the work at their own pace, even offering wakeup calls, transportation and snacks to any students who need them. Watching these kids work through and confront their struggles, guided along by the headstrong principal Vonda Viland, is heartwrenching and truly inspiring. Directors Lou Pepe and Keith Fulton evoke empathy at every turn, and The Bad Kids is a compelling vérité portrait of this school, that allows the kids to miraculously open up and break down in front of the camera. This is a powerful look at kids who’ve been dealt a tough card, but show great potential and have an opportunity to overcome it. You’ll be thinking about these students for long afterwards.