Last film of the week and one of the best. This tells the story of George Zimbel, one of the best known and talented street photographers of our time. The image here is of the classic series he did of Marilyn Monroe but he also known for pictures of John Kennedy and many other iconic images of the 20th century. We meet the photographer himself and his very strong opinions of his work and his efforts to protect it. He still uses film not digital photography and lives in his dark room perfecting his work. He has strong opinions about what he calls the digital diarrhea of the new cameras that takes away the latent talent of the photographer’s eye. He is a street photographer and few of his images are ever posed. Many do not know they are being photographed and that occasionally has created issues for him around privacy laws. The film also traces his conflict with the New York Times over ownership of his Kennedy pictures which he licensed the Times to print but not own. The exchange of correspondence between him and the New York Times lawyer are classic. I could not help thinking of another film: Finding Vivian Maier. In 2012 at TIFF this documentary traced the work of Vivian Maier who was also a street photographer but who remained totally anonymous until long after her death. She did not work in the dark room and her film developed in local shops and put it away so no one ever saw it until is was accidently discovered after her death. It brings to mind Zimbel’s comment that the art of photography is very much in the eye of the photographer and also that I like street photography very much. Both films are very good and should be seen together I think.
Again this is film I attended sort of at random. I had vague memories of the events covered but only after getting into the film did I see this as one of the first and worst mass shootings in recent US history. It occurred in 1966 at the University of Texas at Austin in which a single sniper took a high powered rifle to the top of the highest tower on campus and began indiscriminately targeting students and others on campus. In just over and hour and a half he killed 16 and wounded 36. The film uses animation to reenact the events, film footage from the time and interviews with some survivors and police who intervened. No one was ready for this kind of situation and those who acted to take down the killer were brave and somewhat foolhardy but successful in the end. The story is dramatic and makes no overt comment about gun control or ties to mass murders in more recent times but it doesn’t really need to. Taking us into the situation and reaction of the participants and victims is all that is necessary. A very interesting film that takes you into the heart of the first tragedy of its kind.
The Last Laugh is a study on whether or not you can make fun or have a laugh about likely the most unfunny thing ever: The Holocaust. Drawing on many great Jewish comics including Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks to Sarah Silverman, the film explores whether or not there is anything funny about this human tragedy but also looks at how and when you can be funny about any similar event from the Inquisition (remember Monty Python?) to 9/11. Although there are many opinions and some great jokes the consensus seemed to be that the you can laugh at or with the people caught up in the events of that time but you can’t make light of the event itself. The movie draws on scenes from Hogan’s Heroes which starred Robert Clary a holocaust survivor and French actor to Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi to The Producers. Lots of laughs at the Nazi’s primarily but not at their victims or the event itself. I was struck however at the one person in the film who is not an entertainer but rather an activist Renee Firestone who strives to keep the memory alive. She is a survivor of Auschwitz, and elderly woman who is very articulate but not bitter. She laughs occasionally as she tells stories of her days in the camp and brings a humanity to the situation that opens the door to looking at the humour that existed even among the Jews caught up in the horror. It is a fascinating study and a side of many of the comics featured in the film that you might never see otherwise. I highly recommend it.
I chose this film at the last moment as I had time between two others I had pre-booked. I am glad I did because I learned a lot about Islam and jihad and what motivates those who choose to fight in the Middle East. The film follows the lives of a muslim family in France and in the first place one of their sons who becomes radicalized and returns to the family home in Syria as the civil war in that country started. He goes to fight against Assad and joins the rebels as opposed to ISIS and finds himself in the middle of a confusing and vicious war where the good and bad are hard to distinguish. He is soon seen as an enemy of both the Assad regime and ISIS both of whom want him dead and they ultimately get their wish. The father who supported his son’s decision realizes with his death that he must take up the struggle. He goes to Syria to follow his son and continue his son’s work. He becomes a major leader in the rebel forces but he is also haunted by the fact that his son’s body is missing and buried by his enemies in an unmarked grave. His final ambition is to find his son’s body and have it buried in the family estate which had been in the family for hundreds of years. It is a remarkable story and while many are not enthusiastic about jihadi thinking you will come a long way to understanding the thinking and context from which it arises at least in this case.
Do you remember All in the Family, Maude, The Jeffersons, Fernwood Tonight, Mary Hartman among many many other classic TV shows? If you do and you loved them then you will love this movie about the genius who created them all. Norma Lear is now 93 years old and long retired but still as active and vigorous as ever. This documentary was special as it follows the career of a man who pushed the boundaries of what television could do and opened it to political and social issues long felt to be taboo for broadcast TV. Interviews with Jon Stewart, George Clooney and Rob Reiner are interspersed with clips from his more memorable programs to give you insight into one of the most creative minds in broadcasting. Now 93 he still gives generously of his time. The interviews he does for the movie are great but the real thrill, and why I go to festivals like this, was his presence by Skype for a Q and A after the film. Unlike Werner Herzog who couldn’t be bothered to hang around to talk to audiences because he is just too important (sorry I had to get that dig in) Lear gave generously of his time and answered the audience questions with wit and wisdom. A great time was had by all.
First a confession. I really don’t like Werner Herzog who I believe to be one of the most over-rated film makers of all time. The only film of his I think I ever liked was Encounters at the End of World about the people who live and work at McMurdo Station in Antarctica. Other than that… nothing. Pretentious documentaries and boring meandering dramas. How he gets the attention he does is beyond me. Okay enough said. I gave him one more chance with this film because I was sold on the topic: a study of how the Internet has invaded our lives for good and bad. I was hugely disappointed. The film is trivial in the max. Nothing in the film is new or even insightful. It is one boring scene after the other and if you have lived in a cave until you saw the film you might learn something but otherwise be prepared to be unsurprised. The shallowness of the film is augmented of course by Herzog’s belief in most if not all of his documentaries that he must be the narrator. The script is silly and his voice condescending and irritating. Avoid this film at all costs.
Many will remember the rise and fall so to speak of Anthony Weiner the man with the unfortunate name given his troubles. Weiner was a sharp, quick witted, left leaning. Democratic Congressman from New York whose fall from grace began with him texting a photograph of his privates to a woman admirer or at least a woman he admired. He was the object of ridicule on the Daily Show, the Colbert Report and on news media around the world. After the scandal that brought him down in 2011 he tried to revive his political career by running for mayor of New York City against Bill de Blasio. He agreed to allow a film crew inside the campaign to follow his run which he had a real chance of winning. The film gives great insight into the man and the nature of a political campaign but the outcome was not as he expected. Having already been a self inflicted victim of scandal he could not resist temptation and during the campaign he again texted images of his anatomy and was caught. The campaign crashed and burned and the film follows him all the way down with revealing comments from himself and his family and co-workers. It is stunning that he allowed the film to be released and says something about the man, his ego and the times. If you ever wondered how Bill and Hillary stayed together you get some idea of this from the film. Weiner and his wife are both political animals first and human beings afterward. She is one of Hillary Clinton’s closest advisors and is still to this day. Weiner himself is a politician in the fullest sense and while likely no longer electable is making a career out of being a pundit and political commentator. He has no shame and either does his wife apparently. This documentary is a great insight into American politics and hugely entertaining. Weiner is an incredibly charismatic, over the top personality that leaves you shaking your head at what happens, how open he is and where US politics is headed. It is out in wide release now so should show up in Toronto theatres before long.
The life and times of Roger Ebert is the subject of this film and it is not a new documentary but came out in 2014 shortly after Ebert’s death. It did have the virtue of being able to include Ebert in the story with interviews and emails – when he was too ill to speak anymore. While some may not love Ebert and his partner Gene Siskel there can be no doubt that they had a huge influence on the industry and on audiences during the run of their TV show. They were both film reviewers for rival papers in Chicago and Ebert himself fell into the job by chance, being given the assignment when the regular reviewer was unavailable. He was a gifted writer and took to the role with enthusiasm. The competition with Siskel was natural as was their eventual collaboration and in the long run close friendship. The film paints a very moving and insightful look at Ebert, his relationship with Siskel and his final years as he fought and suffered with cancer. I had not seen this movie when it came out but now would urge anyone with a love of film to have a look at one of the great film critics and a really interesting man.
I will be clear. This was simply the best film I saw during my week at Hot Docs and one of the best movies I have seen in some time. Yes I am obsessed with climate change but music is something else that grabs my attention and this film along with Song of Lahore (reviewed elsewhere on this blog site) is simply wonderful. Interestingly the film is funded entirely from Canada and has a Canadian director but it set in the deep south of the U.S. in Mississippi and Louisiana. It is a tribute to the original blues musicians of the deep south most of whom are now in their 70’s and 80’s and some of whom passed away shortly after the film was completed. The viewer however is treated to a close-up and engaging interaction with these musicians. You feel as a viewer are right there with them as they are interviewed, talk among themselves and are followed to performances. The music and the interviews are brilliantly intertwined to complement one another and not interfere with the feeling of the blues that is generated by their openness. It is hard to describe the story as such. One almost becomes friends with the singers and that is something that is a tribute to the film makers and to the musicians. The coolest part for me was at the end. The director and one of the stars of the film – Bobby Rush were standing right next to my seat and I got to thank them both very much for making the film and I shook hands with Bobby which was a real thrill. Look the only way to give you a feel for what you are going to see is to send you to the website where there are all sorts of short cuts from the film and extra scenes. Go to: http://iamthebluesmovie.com/ and enjoy.
Okay – I am a bit focussed on climate change and this year’s festival gave me many opportunities to indulge my obsession. Josh Fox, the director of this film also directed one of the more recent and important climate change films Gasland. So I figured this one had to be good. It starts from him noticing that a tree he planted in his home community as a child is dying and he wants to understand why. The question sends him on a trip around the world to see how the places and things that people treasure are being lost as a direct result of climate change and its effects on their homes and countries. The stories are heart wrenching but the responses of the people affected are encouraging. It turns out that the things climate can’t change are our ability to react and fight against those that would continue the assault on our world. He documents many of these struggles from individual acts to community resistance. The film does help those of us who are really depressed about what is happening to see the possibility of change and perhaps a way toward saving what we have left. Uplifting.