Hot Docs Toronto Opening Weekend Review: The Good, the Bad and the Over The Top Rope
Words by David Kirkpatrick
The festival’s opener Ai Weiwei deservedly got much of the pre-festival column inches and the film truly lived up to its hype. The film masterfully overcame the challenge of telling the story of an artist evolving into an activist as well as exposing some home truths about China that we all probably knew but were happier to sweep under the carpet. The film’s subject, with his good humor and relentless creativity in showing defiance, made this a movie that you’d watch three more hours of.
I caught Back to the Square groggy-eyed early on Sunday afternoon in TIFF, not really looking forward to engrossing myself in a politically-charged look at the Arab Spring. My fears were allayed early on as the opening of the movie was interrupted by a cleverly placed light-hearted short about a man in Egypt who had named his child Facebook in aftermath of the revolution. The main picture centered on five unique stories of Egyptian people in the year following the uprising. What emerged was a story not widely covered in the international media, one of heavier repression and worse living conditions. While not all five stories worked with the same effect, the final two tales of a young girl assaulted by state security, and of a young man whose brother had been jailed for writing a blog were both depressing and compelling in equal measures.
On the other end of the doc spectrum, SXSW 2012 winner Beware Mr Baker was the perfect way to rocket launch me into a long weekend of Hot Docs, charting the story of certifiably mad former drummer of 60’s super group Cream (the one with Eric Clapton!), easily the funniest of the docs of the weekend. Other features such as About Face (interviews with 50+ supermodels and their attitude toward their later years) and Jeff (investigating the impact of the infamous Jeffrey Dahlmer murders on its wider community) hit some high points but both lacked the insight or controversy I was hoping for.
The intimate Innis theatre housed the 169 minute marathon look back at how Hollywood movies depict the city of LA in Los Angeles Plays Itself. The length was only one a few things that did not resonate well with many in the audience on Saturday night, as this film did not translate well from the written pieces that preceded it. The movie was structured into three hour-long acts, the content of each seemed to skip almost at random in and out of the theme of the given act. The lack of coherency along with the monotone narration led to at least a quarter of the audience to file out before its completion.
I feel a little guilty for listing Tundra Book in this section, as I actually enjoyed this look at northern artic native reindeer farmers, but the fly-on-the-wall style did not help draw out the story or any depth from this intensely interesting footage. Having seen Werner Herzog’s Happy People in the last two weeks, it shows a masterclass in humanizing and drawing the narrative from what was a similar tale, one that could have really taken the Tundra Book to higher plains.
The Over the Top Rope:
The best films are sometimes the ones you go to seeing knowing nothing and expecting less, and this is exactly the situation I found myself in for the late night screening of Glow on Friday night. This look at the 80’s TV show (standing for Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling) followed the stories of the cast members of the first ever female-only pro-wrestling promotion. As a childhood pro-wrestling fan, I am pretty familiar with how 80’s wrestling looked, but I wasn’t alone in my enjoyment. The whole late night audience roared with laughter as one kitsch wrestling character followed another and the camp sketches just kept coming. A real success!
Ai Weiwei (Apr 26th 21.30) ; Beware Mr Baker (Apr 27th 18.15); Glow (Apr 27th 23.30); About Face (Apr 28th 15.30); Los Angeles Plays Itself (Apr 28th 19.00); Jeff (Apr 28th 23.30); Back to the Square (Apr 29th 14.00); The Tundra Book (Apr 29th 18.00); Buzkashi (Apr 29th 21.45)