Hot Docs 2009 Report: Best Worst Movie, Winnebago Man, Carmen Meets Borat and More

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Every year in Toronto, the Hot Docs Film Festival manages to assemble an exciting assortment of top-notch documentary films from around the world. This year was certainly no different, and a number of the movies have already picked up distribution deals and are well on their way to gaining mainstream attention. However, there are always plenty of diamonds in the rough as well, amazing films that sadly may never find the audience they deserve.

So which upcoming documentaries are hits and which are near-misses? Read on for our full report from the 2009 Hot Docs Festival!


Best Worst Movie

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When he was 11 years old, Michael Paul Stephenson was cast in a low budget horror movie called Troll 2. He, along with many of the other actors, thought that it would be their ticket to big time acting careers, but were shocked to find out afterward that the final product was a complete disaster. They tried for years to erase the embarrassing experience from their memories, but then a strange thing happened: the movie started to gain a small but rabid group of fans who worshipped its cult status as one of the worst movies ever made. Stephenson sensed the opportunity for a strange sort of redemption, and decided to pick up a camera and attempt to reunite the cast and crew nearly 20 years later, all while trying to understand the appeal of movies that are considered “so bad they’re good”.

One of the most talked about documentaries so far this year, this movie is a riot to watch not only for Troll 2 fans but also the uninitiated as well. There are plenty of lively interviews with quirky fans who justify their love for the film, but what makes Best Worst Movie truly special is the unbelievably strange group of people who were involved in making Troll 2. There is George Hardy, a charismatic man who has gave up his dream of acting to be a small town dentist, but now is trying to embrace his newfound fame. There is Margo Prey, Stephenson’s on-screen mother in Troll 2, who has now gone completely off the deep end. Then there is Italian director Claudio Fragasso and his wife Rossella Drudi, who to this day feel that Troll 2 was a masterpiece, causing tempers to flare when fans fail to take it seriously as a work of art. The whole thing adds up to an unforgettable documentary that must be seen to be believed.

Winnebago Man

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Believe it or not, the concept of viral videos predates the internet and YouTube by several years. Back in the late ’80s and early ’90s, dubbed video tape trading was a way for people to share odd little movies with their friends, things like Heavy Metal Parking Lot, the Star Wars Holiday Special, and… Winnebago Man. Although I had never heard of him previously, Jack Rebney became one of the first ever viral video celebrities when his obscene outtakes from a Winnebago promotional video started getting passed around, eventually earning him the unofficial title “Angriest Man in the World”.

Years later, when first-time director Ben Steinbauer finds himself still obsessed with the video, he decides to try and uncover the mystery behind Jack Rebney and his famous foul mouth. While the investigation itself is disappointingly short, Jack Rebney proves to be an exciteable yet cryptic old man with plenty on his mind. Steinbauer and Rebney forge an intriguing relationship, with Rebney struggling to understand his fame, and Steinbauer questioning his own motives for tracking him down in the first place. Winnebago Man is a very funny but also heartfelt portrait of a man who had almost given up on the world, until he finds that the world won’t give up on him.

Carmen Meets Borat

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In the wake of the success of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat, there was a parade of lawsuits from people who had been misled and misrepresented in the film. Most of these people were Americans who realized (as only Americans would) that there was money to be made through litigation, but what about the poor residents of Glod, the Romanian village that was used as Borat’s hometown? They clearly had been taken advantage of, but did not have the resources to fight back — until a big shot American lawyer shows up and promises to go to bat for them.

The title of the movie is a bit misleading in that Sacha Baron Cohen doesn’t really figure into the proceedings at all. For the most part, the focus is on everyday life in Glod and the hopes and dreams of one young woman (Carmen) who wants to eventually ditch her surroundings and move to America. It is interesting to see the truth behind the village (a lot of what was shown in the movie is actually real), and the greed and suspicion that starts to take over makes for some good drama. However, if you’re hoping for an unofficial behind-the-scenes companion piece to Borat, you certainly won’t find it here.

My Greatest Escape

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You’d think that a movie about a famous French criminal who escaped from prison five times would be rivetting and action-packed, but unfortunately this documentary drags… big time. Unlike Man on Wire, there are no suspenseful re-enactments here; in fact, it’s almost as if the director Fabienne Godet is assuming that the audience already knows the story behind his crime spree so she simply glosses over the majority of the details. Instead we are treated almost entirely to intimate interview footage with the film’s subject, Michel Vaujour, as he recounts his experiences and how his time in solitary confinement changed his life.

There is a fascinating documentary somewhere in here, but the poor pacing and the lack of context get in the way. Despite these problems, there are some touching moments, and Vaujour proves to be a fascinating man with a lot of profound things to say. It’s just hard not to see this film as a bit of a wasted opportunity.

The Yes Men Fix the World

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A sequel of sorts to the 2003 documentary The Yes Men, this captures the politically-themed pranksters Mike Bonanno and Andy Bichlbaum in the midst of another round of sneaky stunts. They infiltrate media events and impersonate important people in order to set up hoaxes that will bring awareness to crimes perpetrated by corporations.

This time around they directed the movie themselves, which gives them a little more freedom to provide context and background on the various issues they are exploring, however it focuses less on the suspense leading up to their guerilla acts. Either way, their witty satire and silly set pieces are always a joy to behold, and they are much more charismatic and less obnoxious than certain other documentary rabble rousers who have tread on this territory before.

Art & Copy

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At this point, Doug Pray’s filmography basically speaks for itself: from the seminal turntablist documentary Scratch, to the trucking culture flick Big Rig, to the surfing family portrait Surfwise, he’s been exploring a lot of very different topics, and exploring them very well. This time around he tackles the world of advertising, but rather than turning out a polemic against the evils of marketing, he tries to understand the personalities behind some of the most successful and influential ad campaigns of all time.

Taking a cue from Gary Hustwit’s Helvetica, the futuristic soundtrack and gorgeous imagery make for a very artistic and cinematic documentary. On top of this, however, the subjects are fascinating and the insight gained is remarkable. It’s a wonderful celebration of creativity in an industry that is often criticized, and a look from the other side of something that surrounds us every day.

Reporter

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Director Eric Daniel Metzgar and producer Ben Affleck have put together a powerful film that examines what it takes to be a journalist reporting from war-torn nations and what it takes to get a reaction out of American readers back home. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, known for bringing attention to the crisis in Darfur (among others), travels to Congo with a student and a teacher who help him navigate the landscape and unearth the personal stories that will ultimately tell the tale of the on-going genocide there.

They face situations that are both tense and heartbreaking, including an extended meeting with a warlord within the confines of his home base, and an encounter with a woman who has essentially been abandoned to die in her village. Although some of the lessons are a little bit murky, it’s a heavy and compelling watch nonetheless.

Action Boys

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A documentary about Korean stuntmen should have been a “can’t miss” proposition, but Action Boys takes an unexpectedly comedic approach to the material that takes away from the excitement and derails some of the drama. Following several hopefuls enrolled at the Seoul Action School, the movie is a no holds barred look at the pain and dedication involved in becoming an action star. The quirky narration is at times quite funny, but when it comes to the action, there’s not enough of it, and the movie is a bit too long. While some of the film’s subjects go on to star in such popular Asian films as The Host and The Good, The Bad, The Weird, hardcore martial arts fans may not be completely satisfied with the end result.

Laughology

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Canadian filmmaker Albert Nerenberg (Stupidity, Let’s All Hate Toronto) is back with another offbeat documentary all about laughter. While the subject matter certainly holds a lot of potential, the execution is somewhat lacking. Nerenberg visits with a world-renowned laugh doctor, investigates African laughing sickness, and explores the phenomenon of laugh tracks. However, the forced narrative involving the search for his lost laugh and the mock-serious tone strangely counteract the sense of humour in what should have been a very funny film.

Broke

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Anyone who has been to a pawn shop knows that it can be a pretty depressing place, accumulating bits and pieces of people’s lives that were given up in exchange for some quick cash. Broke offers a fly-on-the-wall view of the daily happenings at a pawn shop in Edmonton called A1 Trading. While at first the movie seems awfully bleak and borderline exploitative with the number of junkies and desperate people that owner David Woolfson takes advantage of, eventually things get interesting. The relationship between Woolfson and Chris Hoard, his unpaid assistant, takes center stage with Hoard constantly complaining about his life and Woolfson occasionally showing there is a heart beneath his tough exterior. It’s not the most pleasant and uplifting movie in the world, but it is certainly absorbing.

Cat Ladies

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What starts as a funny and quirky look at women who love their cats a little more than most, quickly becomes disturbing, shocking and kind of sad. Director Christie Callan-Jones turns her camera on four different women who live alone with their cats, each increasing exponentially in the number of cats they own and their level of insanity. Among them is Ziggy Isaak aka The Cat Lady of Kitchener, who lives with well over 100 cats: a fact that put her at odds not only with her neighbours, but also the Humane Society. It becomes clear that they are each making up for something that is missing in their lives, and while in most cases animal companionship can be a healthy thing, the movie begs the question, “Where do you draw the line?”. At 58 minutes, I only wish the movie had been a little bit longer.

Also be sure to check out more Hot Docs coverage over at The Documentary Blog:

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