by Jesse Cumming
The 2015 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival
The back of the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival program guide offers an index of films organized not by director or country, but by subject. While this provides a useful point of entry, especially for a festival boasting more than 200 titles, such a guide remains indicative of the continued privileging of content over form in non-fiction film. With such an emphasis on storytelling—not to mention more recent concerns with “documentary impact,” the subject of an industry report published by Hot Docs last fall—it’s perhaps unsurprising that the bulk of the festival tends towards safe and established modes of delivery. In short, a lot of talking heads.
All this isn’t to unfairly malign story-based filmmaking or the festival, Toronto’s second-largest film event and, so evidenced by this year’s record-breaking attendance, a thorough crowd-pleaser. While Video On Demand has emerged of late as a cost-effective and efficient tool for documentary film distribution, it’s heartening to see rush lines around the block for almost any title, and packed houses at venues like 700-seat Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, the city’s doc-exclusive theater operated year-round by the festival.
Furthermore, highlights from this year’s festival did range from content-driven and “impact”-oriented films to expressive medium-length works keen to poke through at the increasingly porous distinctions between fiction and narrative filmmaking. (T)ERROR is one such work whose rich premise nearly renders the presentation negligible, but which manages to boast both style and journalistic acuity. Directed by Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe—the latter on hand to provide an introduction by way of imploring “I hope this film makes you really fucking angry”—(T)ERROR takes as its subject one Saeed (a.k.a. Shariff), one of the thousands of FBI informants commissioned post-9/11 to infiltrate and investigate potential threats to homeland security, almost exclusively in Muslim-American communities. The filmmakers discreetly accompany Saeed to Pittsburgh as he begins a new investigation, one he hopes will serve as his last (in a bonus bit of dramatic flair).
The unease surrounding the project from all parties is clear, and efforts to develop Saeed as a sympathetic figure are routinely undercut by his ever-wavering interest in the project. He’s cagey, paranoid, and irritable. When prompted to recall past investigations, including one that led to the incarceration of a friend, he proves himself to be almost entirely unapologetic. Such obvious tensions surrounding (T)ERROR’s production are doubly served by the camera’s anxiety-inducing close-ups. For a figure ambivalent about being documented, Saeed’s beard and eyes, almost perpetually shaded under the brim of his cap, are routinely probed at length, as if his grey hairs might suffice in lieu of verbal expressions of guilt.
The film is far more sympathetic to Saeed’s target, Khalifah al-Akili, and its most brilliant move occurs midway though the film, as the filmmakers approach and begin documenting al-Akili (without revealing to either subject their dual role). Al-Akili, who correctly ascertains his pursuant’s role as a government agent, finds his own paranoia justified when he is arrested and incarcerated under trumped-up firearm possession charges. For a film that revels in shadows and tight framing, (T)ERROR is revealing, frightening, and—as intended—infuriating. Its portrayal of present-day fear-mongering is arguably more effective than Laura Poitras’s Citizenfour (the film’s creative consultant) for how brashly the efforts overlap with explicit Islamophobia.
(T)ERROR is a chilling work, and its effects are further exacerbated when seen as a counterpart to Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker’s Welcome to Leith. The film follows the efforts of notorious white supremacist Craig Cobb as he endeavors to buy up and take over the sleepy town of Leith, North Dakota, establishing it as an Aryan haven. The two films share much in common beyond their inclusion in the festival, as an interview with staff at the anti-hate Southern Poverty Law Center in Welcome to Leith details their dwindling resources to track and battle domestic hate groups as post-9/11 initiatives—like (T)ERROR’s FBI informant program—have gradually superseded their own funding and capabilities.
Like a nightmare version of The Overnighters, a breakout from last year’s Hot Docs set against the North Dakota fracking boom, the film only introduces such economic and political forces as a prerequisite for the drama at hand, choosing to emphasize the small-scale enmity between the town residents and their unwelcome neighbors, playing out over a series of city council meetings and increasingly frightful interactions.
Frighteningly assertive and imposing, Cobb is clearly both intelligent and media-savvy. Never camera-shy, he and his colleagues, as well as figures from the National Socialist Movement, are always eager for each opportunity to expound before the filmmakers. Likewise, the footage shot by Nichols and Walker and North Dakota locals is supplemented by material shot on a camera phone by Kynan Dutton’s partner, including the film’s centerpiece sequence in which Cobb and Dutton roam Leith’s streets armed with loaded rifles. Unlike the unseen specter of “terror” in Cabral and Sutcliffe’s film, in Welcome to Leith it is on bold display.
As its placement on last year’s Sight & Sound’s greatest documentary critics poll suggests, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s Leviathan (along with the films of their Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL) colleagues) has already proven a landmark work in non-fiction filmmaking. It’s one whose extended influence is just beginning to percolate, as evidenced by the opening scene of Those Who Feel the Fire Burning, the audacious debut of Dutch filmmaker Morgan Knibbe. Non-linear and only nominally a documentary about migrant travel between North Africa and Europe, the film opens with a frenzied thunderstorm battering a raft of voyagers. Here Knibbe flexes his artistic license as he shoots the scene from the point-of-view of a passenger, the subjective camera raising the emotional stakes above Castaing-Taylor and Paravel’s unmanned GoPro, cast off in wild abandon.
The nightmarish passage established, the film adopts the freedom to move between continents with the ease of a pan, moving from the realm of the SEL to that of late Malick. It’s a dicey point of reference to draw from, and the film’s voiceover—ranging from existential queries to laments of “The smell of orange blossom, the fresh morning breeze”—may prove overdone to some, but Knibbe has the confidence and capability to ensure the film remains his own, intrepid, and impressive.
In Those Who Feel the Fire Burning the camera is ever-drifting, whether over vast stretches of highways at night or individuals, occasionally compelled to hover over a single face or conversation but more often pivoting around an anonymous figure before ricocheting to the next. From here Knibbe’s camera routinely returns to the shadowy corners of the frame or the sky, allowing for near-invisible edits that leave viewers in a constant state of disorientation and suspension, forced to continually reassess what exactly they’re seeing and where they are. It’s a clever device, able to formally replicate the assumed culture shock and alienation of the film’s subjects, and one Knibbe thankfully curbs before it devolves into a gimmick.
Félix Dufour-Laperrière’s Transatlantique fits neatly within a growing trend in recent non-fiction filmmaking examining the often-unseen world of shipping, commerce, and global trade routes. Beyond the aforementioned Leviathan we might add Noël Burch and Allan Sekula’s thoughtful essay film The Forgotten Space, and last year’s understated triumph Episode of the Sea. In this year’s Hot Docs, Transatlantique wasn’t the only new addition, screening alongside Exotica, Erotica, Etc., which earned director Evangelia Kranioti the festival’s emerging filmmaker award. Utilizing the elegiac and somber testimonials of a sea-liner captain and a former prostitute, Exotica, Erotica, Etc. is a beautifully shot exercise, albeit one that is never as free and poetic as it posits itself to be, its images routinely reigned in and guided by its interwoven voiceovers.
By contrast, the stylistically rigid and minimalist Transatlantique, shot in austere black-and-white, is the more expressive, eschewing voiceover in favor of simple sound design and greater concentration on the minutiae of the ship and its crew. Whereas Exotica, Erotica, Etc. utilizes music and finely treated audio material to craft an overly determined lyricism, Transatlantique proves that an extended shot of light dancing across a deck can be as, if not more, resonant. Other moments display a more active directorial presence, incorporating elegant clips of the YouTube music clips the crew spend their time watching, their low-resolution only serving to heighten the film’s oneiric allure. Exploiting the latent poetics of industrialized vessels and machinery may not be an entirely novel endeavor, but Dufour-Laperrière’s tidy, quiet 65 minutes amount to an assured exercise in understatement.
The tension at play between global exchange, be it people or goods, is collapsed further in Ella Raidel’s Double Happiness, one of the festival’s oddest entries. The film looks at the picturesque Austrian lakeside town of Hallstatt, as well as its exact scale replica built in mainland China throughout the mid-aughts. The film’s first third is an absolute delight: playful and coy, the director is keen to exploit the uncanny premise, constantly toying with the twin locations’ incongruities and miniature models of the town’s plaza, with repeated cutaways to residents of the Chinese replica dressed in traditional Austrian garb. Interviews with residents of the Austrian Hallstatt allow the bizarre exchange of copies and originals to fold in on itself, as the proprietor of the original hotel refurnishes the establishment in the form of the facsimile, with materials sourced entirely from China.
It’s unfortunate, however—if perhaps appropriate—that the film suffers from a problem of scale. One of the most striking and evocative images in Double Happiness is a vast aerial photograph that displays not only the replica town, but a looming cluster of high-rise towers camped to one side and a sprawling outcropping of single-family homes on the other. Regretfully, however, Raidel’s own efforts to expand her point of inquiry and offer a broader commentary on contemporary Chinese development fails to achieve the same degree of nuance. Instead the film overreaches itself in a shaky effort to expound on the slippage between copying and creativity (though to the film’s credit, the name Baudrillard is elided entirely). Double Happiness darts from a loose parallel between the Hallstatt development and Shenzhen’s lightning-fast growth, passing by recreations of the Eiffel Tower, the pyramids, and New York City in the Shenzhen-adjacent Window of the World park (which earlier served as a set for Jia Zhangke’s superior reflection on post-modern inauthenticity, The World). Finally, the film broaches the subject of industrial development and the mining company responsible for the development of fake Hallstatt, without ever fully exploring or engaging with the greater repercussions of such major economic forces.
Raidel is clearly an expert stylist, with a marvelous sense of composition and editing and a deceptively wry sense of humor. In addition to the endlessly fascinating footage of the Hallstatt recreation, images of a bustling Shenzhen and a sequence of wedding portraits shot throughout the Window on the World park (complete with Cultural Revolution-era uniform costume changes) are undeniably compelling, even if the film never manages to coalesce into a wholly satisfying work. There’s perhaps a warning to be made about proffering an examination of “authenticity” at a documentary festival, but, for its unevenness Double Happiness—as with any of the films mentioned herein—is a thrilling taste of the diverse documentary work taking place at the fringes of the law, the shoreline, or the truth.
The 2015 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival ran from April 23 to May 3.
JESSE CUMMING is a researcher, writer, and film programmer based in Toronto. He is an M.A. candidate in York and Ryerson University's joint Communication and Culture program.