2008 Hot Docs Festival Report

As you may know, we’re big fans of documentaries here at Film Junk, and the past few years have proven to be a great time for people getting into documentary films. Hot Docs, Toronto’s annual documentary film festival, has been growing steadily since its inception in the early 90’s, and the many sold out screenings seen in 2008 are a testament to the fresh wave of enthusiasm and passion that audiences have for the medium.

While I wasn’t able to catch as many movies at this year’s Hot Docs festival as I had hoped, I still wanted to report back on three noteworthy films that I did see.

Shot in Bombay
Dir: Liz Mermin

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Liz Mermin takes viewers behind the scenes of the making of an Indian gangster film in this comical yet fascinating peek behind the Bollywood curtain. Anyone who thinks that Bollywood produces nothing more than song and dance musicals will certainly find this film illuminating. For starters, they have their own version of Michael Bay, and his name is Apoorva Lakhia. He is directing a movie called Shootout at Lokhandwala, based on a real shootout between police and gangsters that happened in an apartment complex in Mumbai in 1991. Considering the fact that the actual event resulted in a massive bloodbath and public outrage, you might assume that Lakhia’s adaptation would be fairly dramatic and tackle some heavy issues… but you’d be wrong. Shootout at Lokhandwala appears to be primarily concerned with blood, gunshots and destruction, putting it on par with the some of the best Hollywood cheese.

Still, the documentary does feature interviews with the real police officers who were involved in the shootout, and examines their beliefs when it comes to fighting crime. To add to the complexity, there is a secondary storyline about the film’s star Sanjay Dutt, a huge star in India who is embroiled in a neverending court trial that constantly prevents him from shooting for weeks at a time. This forces the crew to get creative and work around his absence to the best of their ability. At its heart, Shot in Bombay is a lighthearted look at the rigors of filmmaking, and yet it also points out striking similarities and differences between the excesses of both Hollywood and Bollywood. Fans of American Movie and Lost in La Mancha especially should seek out this flick at all costs (and of course, fans of Indian cinema).

Nerakhoon (The Betrayal)
Dir: Ellen Kuras

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Certainly the most grim and serious of the documentaries I saw at Hot Docs, The Betrayal is the story of an immigrant family from Laos who flee to New York without their father in the years following the Vietnam War, only to find it an almost equally cruel and uninviting place. Ellen Kuras met co-director Thavisouk Phrasavath over 20 years ago when she took an interest in learning to speak Lao, and at the time began shooting footage of his family, not really knowing what kind of story she wanted to tell. What she ends up delivering is a moving portrait of a displaced family and their struggle to not only survive but also to maintain their humanity and their relationships with each other.

Kuras is known for being the cinematographer on films like Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Be Kind Rewind, Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam and Mary Harron’s I Shot Andy Warhol, and she employs a lot of interesting visual techniques to create an artistic documentary that is both expressive and powerful. The end of the film may be one of the most teary-eyed moments I can recall in a theatre ever, and the series of events that occur will leave you in disbelief that not only did this all actually happen to Thavi and his family, but that it was captured on film as well. This is the kind of documentary that should win Academy Awards, and I only hope it gets the distribution it needs to reach a wider audience.

Carny
Dir: Alison Murray

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When I read that Alison Murray’s film Carny was a study in the lives of traveling fairground workers, I was pretty much sold. We have all probably heard the term “carny” at one point or another and wondered what kind of person would take on a job maintaining carnival rides and running gimmicky games at booths for very little pay. But the truth is there are people out there who do this job and genuinely enjoy it — some even feel like it’s their true calling. I will admit that Carny didn’t quite live up to the expectations I had for it, but it still shed some light on the carnival subculture and some of the reasons why people are attracted to it.

The oddball assortment of characters in the movie include Hairy, a young lesbian who escaped from an abusive family, Dave, a divorced father who now finds himself in a polygamous relationship with two girlfriends, and Bozo, an insult clown who was born into the carnival scene only to be forced to a 9 to 5 job when his wife falls ill. Alison Murray previously directed Mouth to Mouth, a fictional film starring Ellen Page as a teenager who runs away to join a cult, and it’s obvious that she is most drawn to the story of Hairy. While she best exhibits the need for a substitute family, I only wish we could have spent more time with Bozo or a few of the other employees who had their own compelling reasons for joining. At a running time of 75 minutes, I feel like Carny could probably have dug just a little bit deeper. That said, I love documentaries that take you inside a completely different way of life that you may never experience yourself, and Carny does exactly that. The next time I’m at a carnival, I know I’ll be looking at the people behind it with a whole new perspective.

Also check out Jay’s Hot Docs reviews over on The Documentary Blog:

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