Hot Docs Film Festival ’11 | Day 2

Phnom Penh Lullaby offers an intimate, sometimes in-your-face portrait of this odd couple, and its greatest merit is that it doesn’t force an arbitrary form on their chaotic lives.


One of the things I like best about the Hot Docs festival is how international it is. We’re used to seeing feature films from all over the world, so why not documentaries as well? Forty-three countries are represented by at least one film at Hot Docs and many films cross international boundaries. Consider Phnom Penh Lullaby: a documentary about the relationship between a Cambodian woman and an Israeli man, made by a Polish crew. Or Love Always, Carolyn, reviewed yesterday: a Swedish documentary about a member of that most American literary movement, the Beat Generation, who now lives in the United Kingdom. Today’s reviews also include a Danish film about a Finnish mobile phone company that includes a substantial portion filmed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and a film about the two families of Travelers (an indigenous, formerly nomadic group of people in the British Isles).

I used to be a serious participant in track and field so I’m familiar with the athletic accomplishments of Harry Jerome, who competed in three Olympics and as the world record holder in the 100 yard dash once held the title of the world’s fastest man. But Harry Jerome was more than just an athlete; he led by example as a black man from a largely white province (British Columbia), was made an Officer of the Order of Canada, and was a pioneer among runners in training with heavy weights—a practice which allowed him to come back from a quadriceps tear so serious it required surgery. You can learn all this and more in Mighty Jerome (dir. Charles Officer), a celebratory documentary of Jerome’s life featuring interviews (most notably with his wife Wendy, a white Canadian who has quite a bit to say about how they were treated as an interracial couple), archival footage, and reconstructions. The latter lend the film an impressionistic air that takes it beyond a traditional talking heads format, while Officer’s care to place Jerome’s life in historical context makes it interesting even for those who are not great fans of athletics.

Couples don’t come much more dysfunctional than Ilan and Saran. He left Israel for reasons he’s not willing to share but which may include mental illness, while she is a native Cambodian with an alcohol problem. She wants to get married; he’s evasive. It’s not always clear how many husbands or children she has had. Sometimes they communicate, sometimes they scream at each other, and at best they have only part of a language (English) in common. They live in a squalid flat, surviving on what Ilan can make reading Tarot cards in the markets of Phnom Penh while prostitutes ply their trade nearby.  Phnom Penh Lullaby (dir. Pawel Kloc) offers an intimate, sometimes in-your-face portrait of this odd couple. Its greatest merit is that it doesn’t force an arbitrary form on their chaotic lives, but lets viewers observe and form their own conclusions.

Coltan is a source of two elements, niobium and tantalum, that are vital in the manufacture of cell phones and many other electronic products. Most coltan comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and, true to the “resource curse” observed in many developing countries, rather than enriching Congolese citizens it has made their lives more miserable by helping to finance the country’s ongoing civil wars. This is not news—in fact its been known for at least 10 years—and Frank Piasecki Poulsen, a Danish filmmaker and ardent cell phone user, wants to know why Nokia isn’t more concerned about it. Poulsen loves to appear on camera, Michael Moore style, and Blood on the Mobile purportedly documents his personal quest to investigate the sources of coltan and to convince Nokia to change the way they do business (although he never makes it clear if there are other, sufficient sources of coltan in the world). The most interesting segments of Blood in the Mobile are those filmed in the Congo (with the help of child miners who put themselves at great risk), while the sections filmed in Europe that mainly document Poulsen’s inability to gain access to anyone with decision-making power feel more like showboating and will only delight those already converted to the cause. 

Irish Travelers are a distinct ethnic group who, although unrelated to the Roma, are sometimes called “gypsies” because of their traditionally nomadic lifestyle. One of their customs is settling feuds between families with bare-knuckle boxing matches (which they call “fair fights”). A series of those fights, taking place over 12 years, forms the primary subject of Knuckle (dir. Ian Palmer). The fights are not brawls—they are refereed and resemble ordinary boxing matches except for the lack of gloves and ring—but are illegal and have to be held with one eye open for the garda (Irish police). The central character in the ongoing drama of Knuckle is James Quinn McDonagh, a charismatic character who resembles James Gandolfini and seems to have a good head on his shoulders—in fact he’s smart enough to train for his fights, win them, and then retire before going punchy. Not everyone shows the same self-discipline, however, and a series of taunting videos exchanged between the Quinn McDonaghs and another family, the Joyces, seems to ensure that their differences will never be settled. Knuckle offers you an intimate look at a largely unfamiliar culture that is fascinating even if you have no interest in boxing. | Sarah Boslaugh





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