Hot Docs Film Festival | Day 2

hotdocs 75In Valentine Road, Marta Cunningham digs beyond the obvious and uncovers many wrongs on the part of the adults who should have been helping these two young men grow up.


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Interior. Leather Bar

Interior. Leather Bar has two great hooks. First of all, it’s billed as a recreation of the 40 minutes of now-lost S&M footage William Friedkin deleted from his 1980 film Cruising to receive an “R” rating. Second, it’s co-directed by James Franco (with Travis Mathews), and Franco has a phoenix-like ability to remain interesting no matter how many times he crashes and burns. So does the actual product deliver on the promise? Unfortunately, it doesn’t even come close. There are about five minutes of reasonably well-cut and explicit action in this 60-minute film, and the rest is mostly people talking, in an apparently semi-improvised fashion, about making the film. The central figure is Val Lauren, a Sal Mineo lookalike cast as Pacino, who is clearly not into it (or he’s playing a character who is not into it—who knows?). Unfortunately, the result is mostly boring, and the fact that this film was shot in a day and half really shows.

The short film Coffee Time, directed by Maria Fredriksson, is much more insightful, and also more fun. It features four no-longer-young Swedish ladies talking about sex—not in a Betty White/randy grandma kind of way, but as four friends might when they meet over coffee. It’s both sweet and pointed, and definitely worth a look.

Recently I was trying to look up a book I read a few years ago whose title, I believe, was Paved with Good Intentions—as the road to hell is said to be. The point of the book was that international aid often makes things worse rather than better. What I learned in the process is that numerous books with a spin on that title and subject are out there, which should tell you that this idea is already common currency. Raoul Peck’s Fatal Assistance makes the same point, although more artfully than some, and focused on a recent and painful example: the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Despite hundreds of millions in foreign aid pledged, and substantial amounts spent in a great flurry of activity over the last several years, there has been very little improvement in the life of the people who the aid was supposed to help.

There are several aspects to this problem, all illustrated by Peck, including: misplaced priorities (e.g., ignoring the huge but unglamorous problem of rubble removal); flying in goods rather than purchasing them from local businesses, and bringing in foreign laborers rather than providing money to purchase goods and services locally (which would have helped rebuild the Haitian economy); failure to coordinate with local authorities (e.g., assigning foreign workers to clean up a creek already being handled by Haitians); and generally doubting the ability of Haitians to do anything for themselves, let alone play a role in defining their future.

Peck’s basic theme is that the aid should have been delivered directly to the Haitian people or to their government, because they understand their needs and priorities better than anyone. It seems a suggestion worth trying (obviously the current system of foreign aid is not working), although Fatal Assistance fails to note longstanding patterns of corruption and inefficiency in Haiti, or the fact that the country wasn’t doing all that well before the earthquake.

Each year, Hot Docs organizes a sidebar featuring documentaries from a country or region outside North America—a great idea, because if foreign features have a hard time getting shown on this side of the pond, foreign docs face even bigger obstacles. This year the country of focus is Poland, and the first film in this particular sidebar I saw is Man at War, directed by Jacek Blawut for HBO Eastern Europe. His subject is World War II re-enactors who organize themselves into air squadrons and engage in elaborate battles—on computer screens.

It’s an interesting look into the psychology of an activity that combines gaming with an historical recreation (sort of) of World War II. Several of the men (the only role women play in this film is that of the extremely tolerant wife) involved cite their father’s or grandfather’s actual military service as the source of their interest, and some also collect uniforms and other memorabilia. Being neither a gamer nor the possessor of any Y chromosomes, I found Man at War an interesting cultural artifact, but for an ardent gamer or World War II buff, it would probably hold a lot more interest. The cinematography is particularly good, including the quality of the screen images, and it does give you some sense of how complex these war games can be.

The short film Rogalik, directed by Pavel Zielmiski, features a camera floating through the homes of the residents of the small town of the title. What slowly dawns on you is that the camera is moving, but the people are not—they’re watching TV, playing video games, and basically just whiling away the time. During the talkback, cinematographer Maciej Twardowski clarified a key point: Rogalik is in a depressed part of Poland, and for the most part, people really don’t have anything to do all day.

Valentine Road, directed by Marta Cunningham, looks at a school shooting case of a few years ago, in which an 8th grader shot and killed a classmate. There was no question about the immediate facts of the case, as there was a classroom full of witnesses, and the shooter, Brandon McInerney, had even mentioned to someone the day before what his plans were. Sounds like an open and shut case, right? Not so much. Both were male, and the defense offered up a version of the gay panic defense: The dead kid, Larry King, had asked the shooter to be his valentine.

I’m sure that sounds ridiculous to you, too, but not so to several jurors as well as at least one teacher at the school, who likened the shooter to a bullied child who simply had to defend himself from the insult to his identity. In fact, it was the dead kid who was a regular target of bullies—he was small for his age, lived in a group home, was biracial, and had recently begun to dress and act in ways suggesting that he was transgender.

The greatest strength of Valentine Road is that Cunningham digs beyond the obvious and uncovers many wrongs on the part of the adults who should have been helping these two young men grow up. Not that it excuses murdering someone, but Brandon was abused by his father, and his mother was a drug addict who was often not present in his life. To top things off, he had begun hanging around a white supremacist gang, one of who was acting as his mentor. On Larry’s side, it seemed that no one was helping him deal with his coming-out process, which can be difficult for anyone, or advising him of the potential danger in the direction his behavior was going.

Another great strength is Cunningham’s ability to gain the trust of people with quite different takes on the events, and to get them all to speak freely on camera. One girl in Larry’s class said she began dressing like a boy the day he was shot, and her girlfriend is also quite forthcoming. The homophobes of the community are also quite free in expressing their opinions, and while I find their attitudes reprehensible, I also realize that we all have to find a way to communicate with each other if we expect to ever make progress. | Sarah Boslaugh

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