Hot Docs Film Festival ’11 | Day 1

The kids are charmers and their recitations are things of beauty, but director Greg Barker also uses the contest as an occasion to highlight conflicts within modern Islam.



If there’s anything I like better than a film festival devoted to documentaries it’s one that takes place in Toronto, my favorite city in the world outside of my spiritual home of New York. Really, how can you complain about good weather, nice people, and a wide array of international restaurants at all price ranges? You can’t, and so Hot Docs is an extremely pleasant experience as well as the best place in North America, if not in the world, to find out what’s going on in the world of documentaries and where the form is heading.

I missed the first couple of days at Hot Docs, but I’ve been making up for it with a rigorous schedule of film viewing ever since. I say this up front as a warning that “day one” doesn’t mean the first day of the festival—it’s just the first in the set of dispatches I will be sending.

At the beginning of Love Always, Carolyn: A Film About Kerouac, Cassady and Me (dir. Maria Ramstrom, Malin Korkeasalo), Carolyn Cassady faces the camera and says that she is known for being the lover of famous men. And that’s pretty much true; were she not the widow of Neal Cassady and one of many lovers of Jack Kerouac it’s unlikely anyone would be making a film about her today. Since Neal Cassady is primarily famous for being the model for Dean Moriarty in On the Road, you could even say Carolyn Cassady’s claim to fame comes at two removes. Still, she’s alive and they’re long dead, and there seems to be an almost infinite appetite for information about the Beats. In fact Love Always, Carolyn is framed by her selling off some Beat-related books to a rare book dealer. She’s not an uninteresting interview subject and does drop some bombshells about the Beats, as well as about her own childhood, but Love Always, Carolyn manages to feel both incomplete (barely mentioning Alan Ginsburg, for instance) and also (despite being barely feature length) too long.

Shown with it was Endless Love (dir. Asa Blanck and Johan Palmgren), a charming short film about an elderly Swedish couple who dated as young adults, broke up at the behest of their parents, then reunited in their old age and got married. It’s a beautiful film celebrating two people determined to make the most out of their years and who take in stride all that life brings them.

Every year, young people from all over the world (from ages 7 to 20-something) come to Cairo to compete in the world’s oldest Koran-reciting contest. Koran by Heart (dir. Greg Barker) follows the fortunes of three 10-year-olds competing in this contest: Nabiollah from Tajikistan, Rifdha from the Maldives, and Djamil from Senegal. Their performances are works of art as well as tests of memory; they must not only recite the text correctly but also improvise melodies while following the ancient rules of tajweed. The kids are charmers, of course, and their recitations are things of beauty, but director Greg Barker also uses the contest as an occasion to highlight conflicts within modern Islam, with some followers advocating fundamentalism while others embrace the modern world. This conflict is embodied in the life of Rifdha, an academic prodigy whose goal is to be an oceanographer, but whose father insists she will be a housewife and nothing more. Beautiful cinematography by Timothy Grucza and Frank-Peter Lehmann adds to the appeal of this well-constructed and thoughtful film.

You have to feel for Marc Dreier, the Manhattan attorney who is the subject of Unraveled (dir. Marc H. Simon). Normally stealing $400 million from your clients would make you front page news for days, but not if you’re upstaged by the biggest ponzi schemer in history. Bernie Madoff’s theft of $65 billion or so makes Dreier look like a piker instead of the big shot he so desperately wanted to be. Still you have to give Dreier style points; Madoff never flew to Toronto to impersonate a representative of the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, and that’s just one of the choice anecdotes in Unraveled. The film was shot almost entirely within Dreier’s apartment (he was under house arrest while awaiting sentencing) so director Marc H. Simon also gets style points for finding visual interest within this limited location and for turning a story whose conclusion is a matter of public record into a spellbinding tale. The ostentation of Dreier’s $10.4 million apartment lends a surreal note to the film, as do Dreier’s many conversations with lawyers and legal consultants (he’s concerned about the quality of the prison cafeteria and how he will manage to sleep in a communal cell—someone might be a snorer!) and his remarkable inability to realize that he did something really, really wrong. | Sarah Boslaugh


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