Monthly Archives: May 2016

How to Build a Time Machine – Director, Jay Cheel

How many of you have seen the classic 1960 film The Time Machine based on the H. G. Wells novel? Well the star of this documentary has and could not get it out of his mind. Not all documentaries are serious, depressing stories of politics gone wrong, disaster or social inequity. Some are fun and this one counts in that latter category. Rob Niosi is an animator but also an amateur craftsman who decides he wants to recreate the time machine from the movie in his basement. He has all the tools he thinks and figures it will take him 2-3 months. Some several years later he is still working on what can only be called work of art. The film follows his efforts to build the various components and the new skills he needs to learn in working with wood, metal, and fabric as his dream comes together. In parallel we follow Ron Mallet a theoretical physicist who lost his father to a heart attack when he was very young. He has, since the age of 8, wanted to build a time machine to travel back and warn his father and hopefully save his life. This dream leads him to become a physicist and to study time and space. He is actually one who believes time travel in some sense is possible and is working on the relation between black holes and their connection to time travel. The two time enthusiasts know each other through the film and come together when Rob Niosi is ready to unveil his machine. The event is a party at Niosi’s home and all the guests are required to dress in Victorian costume. It is wonderful event and the two principles of the movie are charming and interesting. You learn a lot about craftsmanship and physics in a relaxing and entertaining way. Highly recommended if you get a chance to see it.

De Palma – Directors, Noah Baumbach, Jake Paltrow

This film is very highly rated on Rotten Tomatoes and IMdB but I was less impressed. Sure it is great to see a film that looks at one of the 20th Century’s most successful directors but it is one of the most sycophantic and self indulgent films I have seen in some time. Yes, I liked some of De Palma’s films: The Untouchables and Mission Impossible but that is about where it ends and really these are in some cases great trash but there is really nothing here that deserves the adulation this man gets. The film focuses on him – long interviews in which he praises himself unequivolently. I found it a bit tiresome in the end. He talks about his work and how it developed over time and how he learned so much from the masters like Hitchcock and Truffaut but how luckily he was able to improve on them all. He noted at one point how directors begin to fade in time and points to how after Psycho, Hitchcock really lost it and did not make another worthwhile film. He, De Palma, of course has not suffered the same fate. So while some of you may be bit fans of the guy and will enjoy seeing him congratulate himself on his amazing career, I would suggest the rest of you wait until a more appropriately critical study is made so you will learn something useful rather than suffer through self praise.

Chasing Asylum – Director, Eva Orner

Another good example of how we are challenged by climate change. In this case the film is about South Asian and Middle Eastern refugees who are fleeing to Australia to escape famine, drought and war. Unlike Canada and Europe however the Australians throw up legal and inhumane obstacles to these people. The film documents the clear efforts of a series of Australian governments to deny entry to these refugees and to try and deny that they are anything but refugees. They force them to move to horrendous concentration camps which they call detention centres on isolated islands north and east of Australia. The living conditions are intolerable and the detainees suffer from physical and mental illness brought on by and intensified by the living conditions. In true democratic spirit it is illegal to film in these camps and anyone working there who blows the whistle is subject to criminal prosecution and imprisonment. The director and film crew that put this together filmed suruptiously and interviewed social workers and others anonymously. It was a brave film to make and the participants even braver. The film is made by Australians who were present for a Q and A afterwards. They are deeply ashamed of their country and their fellow countrymen who are complicit in the actions of their government. One of the saving graces of the story was an interview with the former prime minister Malcolm Fraser from 1975-83. He was the last prime minister to look on immigration as a positive thing and who strongly condemned the policies of his successors. Unfortunately he died shortly after the film was completed but appeared to be one of the only sane voices left in the country.

A very powerful film that is not uplifting or particularly hopeful but which does may you feel better about Canada.

Bobby Sands: 66 Days – Director, Brendan Byrne

In 1981, during the height of The Troubles in Northern Ireland a young IRA recruit, Bobby Sands, was arrested for the second time and placed in the notorious Maze Prison on an arms possession charge. While there he and the other prisoners argued that they were not criminals but rather political prisoners and should be treated differently. In previous years the British government had allowed these prisoners special status in terms of the conditions of their imprisonment but Margaret Thatcher had revoked these and put harsh conditions in place. To protest this treatment and draw attention to the IRA’s demands, Sands decided to sacrifice himself and went on a hunger strike. Ten other prisoners joined him and for 66 days he held the attention of the world as he slowly declined and ultimately died from starvation. Several more of the other hunger strikers also died until the British relented under public pressure and lifted the harsh conditions for the prisoners. His actions brought attention to the conflict generally in Northern Ireland and to the manner in which the British chose to suppress it. The film uses actors, newsreel footage and interviews with survivors and others who were present at the time as fellow members of the IRA, British police and others. It is an objective enough picture but clearly paints a positive one of Sands himself.

I confess I am of many minds about this film. While many want to point to Sands’ courage and initiative in giving up his life for his cause, it is his cause that one has to question. The Catholic population in Northern Ireland were isolated and in a minority but they were hardly in need of the kind of terrorist campaign the IRA waged. 3500 innocent people were killed by the IRA during their so-called war. They themselves suffered little as they cowardly shot unarmed women and children and planted bombs that they triggered from a safe distance. During Sands’ hunger strike some innovative IRA types thought it would be great to have him run in a by-election for a Northern Ireland seat in the British House of Commons. He won of course but on the day of the election some brave IRA gunmen knocked on the door of a house in Belfast and shot an unarmed mother dead for the crime of helping collect census forms. That I should praise Sands’ for his courage defending these terrorists is beyond me. On the other side however, his death brought attention to the fact that the British and Irish both had done nothing to resolve the conflict. Over the next nearly 2 decades slow action was taken to bring peace to the situation which meant reconciliation among the IRA and the equally abhorrent Ulster Defence League. The real courage was with the relatives and friends of the victims of the conflict who were able to forgive or forget what had taken place. Still as you can see the film makes you think and also to be fair does not shy away from labelling the crimes of the IRA. Worth a watch in this reviewer’s opinion.

Age of Consequences – Director, Jared P. Scott

I really enjoyed this film but mostly for the content which I strongly support. While many believe now that climate change is real and a smaller but significant believe humans are the cause, most have no real idea what that means other than it will get hotter and in the distant future (5 decades or so) we will need to do something about it. This film makes it clear that we are already dealing with the impact of climate change and need to do something immediately. Already dealing with it? The Pentagon has taken it totally seriously and recognizes that most of the conflict in the world today can be traced directly to climate change. This includes drought, famine, desertification, intolerable heat in the Middle East and South Asia and worse to come. The reality is that our civilization may not survive the next 10 -20 years. We need to address issues like flooding, wild fires, famine and drought. Our infrastructure is very fragile particularly our power grids and they are all vulnerable to increasing storms. The surge of refugees is already destabilizing Europe and it will get worse as many millions flee intolerable conditions in the southern regions. Some of the more frightening material from this film comes from people like retired US Rear Admiral David Titley. Titley chaired the US Navy Task Force on Climate Change and he has many dire warnings for us. This film was one of several at the festival this year urging us to wake up quickly to the threats facing us today. An important film all should see.

Migrant Dreams – Director, Min Sook Lee

This is a film that shook me up and embarrassed me for my ignorance about Canada’s temporary foreign workers program and how the “local” food I buy and eat is produced. Recently there was a hue and cry when it was discovered that Heinz was no longer going to buy tomatoes for its best selling ketchup from farms in Leamington Ontario and closed a bottling plant in the town that had been operating for decades putting lots of locals out of work. Loblaw’s took the brunt of the criticism when they decided to drop sales of French’s ketchup. French’s ketchup it turned out used tomatoes from Leamington. The outrage was so bad that Loblaw’s had to back off and reinstated French’s ketchup. (which actually tastes better if you ask me.) At any rate I joined in the sense of outrage at least moderately but this was before I knew what I know now. This movie paints a pretty awful picture of the industrial farming that goes on in this “Idyllic” farming community of Southwest Ontario. Huge green houses are used to grow crops and are staffed by migrant workers who are virtual prisoners of their employers. Part of the defence for the employers is that they hire through recruiting agencies and are at arm’s length from the way the workers are treated. Without getting into detail you need to see this film to understand how our national and provincial governments allow this abuse to continue. I hope you will see the movie but then go to the website and sign the petition. Here is the link: http://www.migrantdreams.ca/ and Petition

Song of Lahore – Directors, Andy Schocken, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy

Awesome movie!! I saw the trailer for this at a local revue movie theatre. I had seen the title and confess to being somewhat culturally dismissive. I thought I don’t really want to see a movie about Pakistani music. The trailer however changed my mind the minute I heard Dave Brubeck’s Take Five played on the sitar. Then Wynton Marsalis appeared and I was hooked. The movie when I finally went to see it was amazing. Not only for the music and the story but for the overall quality of the film editing and the insight into the stories of these musicians. Wynton Marsalis is also very good but that almost goes without saying. The story is about a group of Pakistani classical musicians who have been silenced by the Taliban and Pakistani governments who imposed Sharia Law and saw music as an evil to be suppressed. They maintain their skills and music in secret sessions until the suppression is eased but by then the audience for their music has died. They decide to reinvent themselves by incorporating Jazz into their repertoire. They post a video of their work online which is a Pakistani version of Dave Brubeck’s classic Take Five. To their surprise they get international recognition and ultimately an invitation from Wynton Marsalis to play a concert with his jazz orchestra in New York. It is an amazing success. I have posted a picture of the groups flute player here as he along with the percussionist is the best of a great group. There is a great scene where he and Marsalis’s flautist have a dueling flute solo that will blow you away. The neat thing is that the guy in the picture made his own flute from a bamboo pole which is traditional in Pakistan. The climax of the film is the concert in New York and it is filmed beautifully giving you real insight into the group itself and Marsalis’s reaction to their talent. Great stuff. It has had only limited release but deserves much wider viewing.

2016 Hot Docs Festival

I just completed 10 days of Toronto’s 2016 Hot Docs Festival and have to say it was one of the best film experiences I have enjoyed in this city. I managed to see 20 films and while some were very good others were fantastic. I saw no bad films at all. Not sure if this was because I am a total documentary fan or because of the superb selection job done by the programmers. I am going with the latter reason. Not only were the films I saw of great quality but the Q and A sessions afterwards were excellent. I was particularly impressed with the hosts of each session, again a tribute to the programmers who were knowledgeable and drew useful and interesting comments from the guests. The questions from the audiences were also good and a tribute to the doc fans of the city. Finally, a word about the volunteers who were polite, helpful and are the face of the festival to most of us standing in line. They deserved the applause they got at every showing I attended. I spoke to a few of them and they all reported satisfaction with the way they are treated by the festival staff and rewarded for their service. Great job.

I confess I am not sure how many other documentary festivals there are in the world. Certainly TIFF, Sundance, the Berlinale and other festivals offer a documentary program but I am not aware of another festival that offers over 200 high quality documentary films over 10 days. This festival, like TIFF, make Toronto a film lovers paradise and I am thrilled to be living here and have easy access to these events. Congratulations to the staff of Hot Docs and I am looking forward to next year.

Rabin Rabin in his own Words – Director, Erez Laufer

When I was a high school student my father took a one-year contract position to help establish educational and children’s programming for the newly established national Israeli television broadcasting service. As a result, my family moved to Israel for a year and lived in a small village north of Tel Aviv. The year was 1966-67 so by chance we ended up being in Israel for the Six Day War (yes I am that old) my one and only chance as a Canadian to experience international conflict. To be honest it was somewhat uneventful for my family. The Israeli’s took the war to the enemy destroying their air forces on the ground and swiftly defeating the ground forces in a surprise attack to take the good ground and end the threats. Rabin was the brains behind the victory. His preparation of the Israel Defence Force and the Air Force over the years leading up to the war meant Israel was more than prepared for a war Rabin himself was convinced was coming. He then led his forces to its overwhelming military victory. It was a stunning victory but Pyrrhic to say the least. The following 50 years have been fraught including a second war and ongoing unrest both within the conquered territories and in the country itself.

While this paints Rabin as a warrior the film itself paints a far more complex picture of a leader who was convinced of the need to finish the war with an honourable peace even if it meant compromise with Israel’s enemies. He had a long and eventful political career that ended in 1995 with his assassination. He served as ambassador to the USA, Prime Minister in the 70’s during which he authorized the Entebbe raid, and again prime minister in 1992 until his assassination. During his second term he worked for peace agreements with Egypt and the PLO and lobbied against the resettlement plans of the Israeli government in the period between his prime ministerial terms. Despite his key role in defence of his country he was killed for daring to make peace. The film uses his diaries, speeches and newsreel film to tell the story of one of the 20th Centuries most remarkable leaders and arguably the greatest Israeli leader in the short history of that country. This is not only a great story but a great film that engages the viewer from beginning to end. I highly recommend it.

When I was a high school student my father took a one-year contract position to help establish educational and children’s programming for the newly established national Israeli television broadcasting service. As a result, my family moved to Israel for a year and lived in a small village north of Tel Aviv. The year was 1966-67 so by chance we ended up being in Israel for the Six Day War (yes I am that old) my one and only chance as a Canadian to experience international conflict. To be honest it was somewhat uneventful for my family. The Israeli’s took the war to the enemy destroying their air forces on the ground and swiftly defeating the ground forces in a surprise attack to take the good ground and end the threats. Rabin was the brains behind the victory. His preparation of the Israel Defence Force and the Air Force over the years leading up to the war meant Israel was more than prepared for a war Rabin himself was convinced was coming. He then led his forces to its overwhelming military victory. It was a stunning victory but Pyrrhic to say the least. The following 50 years have been fraught including a second war and ongoing unrest both within the conquered territories and in the country itself.

While this paints Rabin as a warrior the film itself paints a far more complex picture of a leader who was convinced of the need to finish the war with an honourable peace even if it meant compromise with Israel’s enemies. He had a long and eventful political career that ended in 1995 with his assassination. He served as ambassador to the USA, Prime Minister in the 70’s during which he authorized the Entebbe raid, and again prime minister in 1992 until his assassination. During his second term he worked for peace agreements with Egypt and the PLO and lobbied against the resettlement plans of the Israeli government in the period between his prime ministerial terms. Despite his key role in defence of his country he was killed for daring to make peace. The film uses his diaries, speeches and newsreel film to tell the story of one of the 20th Centuries most remarkable leaders and arguably the greatest Israeli leader in the short history of that country. This is not only a great story but a great film that engages the viewer from beginning to end. I highly recommend it.