Hot Docs Film Festival ’11 | Day 4

Never brag about your work, kill quickly and neatly, be well-educated and speak well, live an apparently normal life among normal people.




One of the programs at this year’s Hot Docs is “Made in Italy,” which features eight feature-length documentaries from Italy (two are international co-productions). I saw five of them—all well worth your time and as a group offering a wide range of subject matter and cinematic approaches to documentary.

The Castle (Il Castello) is the most formally adventurous of these films. Directors Massimo D’Anolfi and Martina Parenti go behind the “Authorized Personnel Only” doors at Milan’s Malpensa Airport to show you scenes that few air travelers will ever see: security patrols, interrogations of foreign travelers, inspections of shipments of animal products. The Castle draws on the cinematic conventions of the horror movie, featuring many tracking long shots of eerily deserted space in which the automated movement of escalators and electronic doors appear uncanny and the disembodied voices of public address announcements take on a sinister air. Because nothing is explained or otherwise placed into context, everything seems mysterious and otherworldly. We can make sense out of some of what we see—a drug courier from Paraguay caught dead to rights with his intestines full of cocaine, boxes of live lobsters inspected and some set aside for being not quite live enough, official questioning of a Nigerian who claims to be on a business trip buying clothing for resale yet has less than $500 cash on him—but what to make of the woman who appears to have taken up residence in a public restroom, cooking on a hotplate, styling her hair and washing her laundry in the sink? An electronic soundtrack by Sebastian Castro Miranda adds to the surreal feel of a film that succeeds in making the mundane seem otherworldly.

El Sicario, Room 164 (the assassin, dir. Gianfranco Rosi) takes you behind the scenes of another world most people will never experience for themselves—that of Mexican drug traffickers, as related by a hit man with 20 years of experience working for a Juarez cartel. Based on an article published in Harper’s (“The Sicario: A Juarez Hitman Speaks”), the film consists almost entirely of the anonymous hit man, draped in a thick black veil, directly addressing the camera as he describes not only his own exploits (not for the faint of heart, as torture and murder figure prominently), but also how and why he got started in the business and how the cartels have totally displaced so-called legitimate authority in the regions where they operate. The hit man draws diagrams in a small notebook to explain aspects of his trade and also outlines a sort of modern-day Book of Bushido, specifying the norms of behavior expected of a hit man: never brag about your work, kill quickly and neatly, be well-educated and speak well, live an apparently normal life among normal people. Despite being confined almost entirely to a single motel room (site of his first professional torture), El Sicario, Room 164 is never dull thanks to the intrinsic interest of the subject matter and dramatic sense and disarming frankness of the narrator, whose attitude and lack of regrets could be summed up as “business is business.” Notably, he has never been charged with a crime in either Mexico or the U.S. and needs only fear retribution from others in his extralegal world where there is a price of $250,000 on his head.

Christian theology predicts a Second Coming in which Jesus Christ will return to earth, although the specifics about what might follow that event vary from one denomination to another. However, it might be that we can stop speculating about what might happen because Jesus is already back here on earth. There’s just one problem: there’s at least three of Him and none of them seem to have given much, if any, thought to the others. I Am Jesus pays a visit to each. David Shayler is a former British secret service agent who says he came to his revelation (“I know in my heart that I am Jesus Christ”) with the aid of some magic mushrooms and lives by scrounging food from dumpsters. He also likes to appear in drag that is less than convincing. INRI Cristo likes to dress the part, with a white robe and crown of thorns, and spreads his message through YouTube videos featuring his flock of comely female followers. Vissarion, known to his disciples as “The Leader,” leads a farming commune in Siberia where temperatures sometimes drop to 35-40 degrees below zero and residents are instructed in how to identify early signs of frostbite in themselves and others. They have a few things in common, including the fact that all three are white men and all three have attracted followers who seem to get something out of the experience. Directors Valeria Gudenus and Heloisa Sartorato take an agnostic view in I Am Jesus, neither promoting nor seeking to debunk any of these would-be Messiahs, and the result is an entertaining film that also raises questions about religion and spirituality and the subjective nature of truth in such matters.

In Housing we see life in Bari, an economic center for Southern Italy. No new social housing has been allocated here for the past 20 years. The result: 3,000 families on the waiting list, 1,000 of whom have become squatters. A second result: many of those who have public housing are so afraid of losing it that it has come to rule their daily lives; they can’t go abroad to look for work for fear that someone will take over their flat while they are away and romances have broken up because neither party is willing to give up their housing. Old ladies put scarecrows in the window before they go out and people post signs saying things like “armored door” and “Lorusso family is in” to discourage break-ins. To hear those with council flats speak, their lives are something like Night of the Living Dead as they barricade themselves against what they perceive to be rampaging hordes of ghouls who want not to eat their brains but to take over their homes. Housing, directed by Federica Di Giacomo, takes a more dispassionate approach, allowing the camera to observe its subjects primarily in long shots that provide a calming counterpoint to what is admittedly a very disruptive social situation. The council flats are spacious and modern so it’s no wonder that they are in demand, nor is it surprising that those without housing find themselves increasingly exasperated with government officials who, while generally polite and businesslike, have no concrete assistance to offer.

The Valley of the Moon (La Valle della Luna) chronicles the clash of cultures that occurs between two generations of hippies who both want to occupy a beautiful expanse of rocky headland near the Sardinian sea. Called “the valley of the moon” thanks to its oddly shaped rock formations, which look like something dreamed up in a CGI lab (in fact they are simply the result of limestone exposed to centuries of weathering), this region has been the site of shifting communities of free spirits since the early 1970s. Two longtime residents, Mimmo and Antoine, have created comfortable living quarters in the caves and developed ways to live by scavenging food, freeing them to work on their art. However, August brings an invasion in the form of young backpackers who delight in the natural surroundings but whose agenda is fun, not art—skinny-dipping, drinking, drum circles, and soccer are among their chosen activities. The new arrivals are noisy, they create a mess, and they fail to respect boundaries, and Antoine and Mimmo soon begin to sound like grumpy old men who want those damn kids off their lawn (although it is “their” lawn only in terms of the length of time they’ve been there). Director Giovanni Buccomino mixes interviews with lots of observational footage and an inspired soundtrack that includes klezmer, rock, classical, and new-age space music. He creates a film which, while favoring one point of view, also suggests that what is taking place may simply be part of the cycle of life, as surely as the ocean and the wind sculpt boulders into the hobbit-like formations that give the area its name. | Sarah Boslaugh






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