Hot Docs Film Festival ’11 | Day 6

The adults in charge are often more interested in pretending everything is fine than in actually detecting and solving problems.




So many films, so little time. There’s no overarching theme in today’s films (doc overload will tend to do that to you) and they’re really quite a varied lot, but all offer something that is worth your attention.

Dick Kucera was a hard-living, hard-partying kind of guy whose charm eased his way through a life that, while undeniably enjoyable from his point of view, also left a trail of bankruptcies and broken families in his wake. Now 68 and in a 12-step program, he’s attempting to leave Despicable Dick behind and become Righteous Richard. He’s currently working on steps 8 and 9, which require him to make a list of the people he has harmed and make amends to them. So he sets off on a cross-country journey, chronicled in Despicable Dick and Righteous Richard (dir. Joshua Neale), to meet with friends and relatives and business associates and anyone else he can think of whom he has wronged in the past. It’s a long list, and some of these folks are understandably less than convinced by Richard’s shiny new self and wonder aloud if this isn’t just one more con from a man they’ve learned does not deserve their trust.

They’re not entirely wrong to be suspicious; there’s something about Dick/Richard that makes the female sex in particular vulnerable to his sweet-talking charms, and he still considers himself the center of the universe with an absolute right to have his needs met. Despicable Dick and Righteous Richard can be absolutely hilarious, particularly when Richard is apologizing for Dick’s past sins (no garden variety sins, they run to things like “I’m sorry I took a shot at your wife” and “I’m sorry I locked you out of the house naked in the wintertime”) or behaving outrageously, yet showing surprise when others become upset. It also raises questions about the limits of human (as opposed to divine) forgiveness and whether the philosophy of “living in the moment” entitles you to a free pass for whatever you might have done in moments past.

Pick up a box of tissues before you watch The Bully Project because director Lee Hirsch makes you feel the pain of young people featured in this film. They’re all victims of extreme bullying, hounded so mercilessly that in some cases they have been driven to suicide. Hirsch follows three boys and two girls attending public schools in five states—Texas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Iowa, and Mississippi—and finds that even in school districts with model anti-bullying programs the adults in charge are often more interested in pretending everything is fine than in actually detecting and solving problems. In the case of the sweet but undeniably odd Alex, no action was taken until the filmmakers showed his parents footage of him being brutally attacked on the school bus. When Ja’Meya fights back by bringing a gun on the bus she finds herself facing multiple charges of aggravated assault and kidnapping, despite the fact that the gun was never fired and no one was injured. Despite the severity of the abuse suffered by these young people, The Bully Project is not entirely gloomy; Hirsch also documents successful attempts by students and parents to organize and fight back against bullying.

The Forgotten Space (dir. Allan Sekula and Noel Burch) is a distinctly old-fashioned movie, a sort of senior citizen demanding respect for its grey locks among all the brash young whippersnappers competing for attention in the world of documentary cinema. Sekula and Burch’s “film essay” takes a grand approach to its subject, the changes brought about in human life due to capitalism in general and container shipping in particular. The strong point of this film is its spectacular imagery. The weak point (which for me tips the balance—but it won a Jury Prize at the 2010 Venice Film Festival so obviously opinions differ) is its naïve, posturing Marxist commentary and insistence on its own profundity.

Capitalism often does move in the direction of uniformity, so many jobs have become more mechanized and routine while others have disappeared entirely. There’s not much call for longshoremen these days since most freight today arrives in sealed containers that are moved in their entirety from ship to rail car, thus depriving modern-day Terry Malloys of the opportunity to nap among the coffee beans. Sekula and Birch include classic movie clips (how very 1960s) among a variety of stories on how people’s lives have been affected by changes in modern transportation, from Dutch farmers forced off their land in favor of a rail line to Korean and Indonesian shipping crews serving on vessels that fly under a flag of convenience. All this will either lead to a moment of perfect clarity (everything is related!) if you buy in to Sekula’s and Burch’s point of view or to many moments of irritation if you don’t.

You could say that Le Tigre, the groundbreaking feminist electroclash band, was the logical outgrowth of 1970s all-girl rock bands like The Runaways, or you could look for their roots in the riot grrrl movement of the 1990s. What is sure is that they were founded in 1998, were noted for their multimedia shows (projections, pre-recorded tracks, etc.), and incorporated many leftist, feminist and LGBT issues in their songs. Who Took the Bomp? Le Tigre on Tour (dir. Kerthy Fix) follows Le Tigre on their final tour, and while it’s a standard-issue rock documentary it’s also a pretty good one. There’s lots of music as well as the usual on-tour footage and interviews with band members Johanna Fateman, Kathleen Hanna and JD Samson during which they also reflect on the history of the band and on how being a female rocker is different—for one thing, they’re used to encountering hostility from male roadies and rock promoters who should be working on their behalf. On the plus side, the experience of playing in the band showed them that messy can be beautiful. The result is a documentary that, like a Le Tigre show, is both intelligent and fun.

Seldom has a documentary been more aptly subtitled than Dori Berinstein’s Carol Channing: Larger Than Life. Channing is a member of that now almost extinct breed of stars who could fill up a Broadway stage and project to the very last seat in the very last row of the balcony, no microphone required. She’s still larger than life at age 90, continuing to perform and speak on behalf of arts programs in schools and happily involved in a romance with her junior high school sweetheart Harry Kullijian. Carol Channing is a love letter to the star and is composed of the expected mix of interviews, archival material, and new footage. The one unusual element, an animated Carol by way of Al Hirschfeld’s famous caricature, is unnecessary and annoying but it won’t keep you from enjoying the rest of the film.

Much of the performance footage seems to be from the Tony Awards and other special occasions rather than Broadway performances, but Berinstein and her crew deserve credit for making good use of what was available. More notable are the varied cast of interview subjects featured in the film, from the obvious choices like Jerry Herman and Bruce Vilanch to the chorus boys who appeared onstage with Carol in the 1995 Hello, Dolly! revival who say that she treated them like family, twice taking the whole crew out to the movies and serving them herself from behind the concessions counter. Much of the information conveyed here will already be known to Channing aficionados—the lead in Hello, Dolly! was originally meant for Ethel Merman, Channing comes from a mixed ethnic heritage including Jewish (on her mother’s side) and African-American (on her father’s), and she never missed a performance even when being treated for ovarian cancer. But as she appeared in only a few movies (her performances were too big for the movies, as someone remarks during this film), this documentary may be the best way to convey to the younger generation who Carol Channing is and what she has meant to the American theatre.

If you live in a major city in the Eastern U.S. you may well have seen a Toynbee Tile set into the street and bearing some variant of this cryptic message:





Philadelphia artist Justin Duerr, admittedly a bit obsessive, became fascinated with these tiles and decided to try to decipher the text and track down the source (because the tiles are so similar to each other, he assumes they are the work of one person). The story of this quest is the subject of Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles. Filmmaker Jon Foy follows Duerr around as he forms theories and follows up on leads. This brings him in contact with, among others, a group of ham radio enthusiasts and the administrator of a message board devoted to the Toynbee Tiles. Resurrect Dead is a pleasant film that has a sense of humor regarding the global insignificance of the undertaking, while also presenting the chief investigator’s reasoning as a numbered series of points as if the film were a college lecture describing a major scientific discovery.

Jon Foy was awarded the Best Director award for documentaries at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival for Resurrect Dead, a decision I find surprising. Granted I haven’t seen all the films in that competition, but this one is a skillful yet fairly ordinary festival film that tells a moderately intriguing story but fizzles out at the end. The portrait of Duerr, an outsider who has not yet found his niche, is ultimately more interesting than the mystery of the Toynbee Tiles, and for that reason alone this is a film worth seeing.

The central figure in Dragonslayer (dir. Tristan Patterson) is Josh “Skreech” Sandoval, a onetime star in the world of skateboarding who’s clearly stayed too long at the fair. He looks remarkably older than his fellow competitors, limps from a ghastly-looking hip injury, and finds himself finishing out of the money as younger and more disciplined skaters deliver the goods while he crashes and burns. Josh spends his days skating in abandoned swimming pools, drinking and using dope, and exercising an inexplicable attraction over the opposite sex—he has a gorgeous, intelligent girlfriend and is already a father.

At its best Dragonslayer captures the excitement of skateboarding. It includes a pulsating soundtrack and some amazing action cinematography (some of it shot by the skaters themselves) that captures a sense of the disordered mental universe of Josh as well as the thrill of a good run. It also portrays frankly his current sorry state (he’s sleeping in a friend’s yard) and lack of self-awareness; Josh is an amiable fellow and tender toward his son when he spends time with him, but the world of adult responsibilities seems as far removed from his present reality as Mars. This is another award-winner that leaves me scratching my head. To me it’s a well-executed but minor subculture film, yet it won the grand jury and cinematography prizes at South by Southwest and the best international feature here at Hot Docs, so obviously somebody sees something in it that I am missing. | Sarah Boslaugh




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