Hot Docs Film Festival | Day 4

hotdocs 75The immediate subject of The Kill Team is the trial of several American soldiers who were accused of killing Afghan civilians for sport.


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Continuing with the theme of young men and war—or perhaps I should say the attraction combat and the military experience—hold for a certain type of young man, Dan Krauss’s The Kill Team highlights a less positive aspect of this phenomenon. Krauss’s powerful documentary had its international premiere at Hot Docs after winning Best Documentary Feature at the Tribeca Film Festival, and will no doubt go on to win many more awards.

The immediate subject of The Kill Team is the trial of several American soldiers who were accused of killing Afghan civilians for sport. The film is based primarily on interviews with three of the soldiers involved, one who was tangential to the case, and the family of Specialist Adam Winfield, who tried to report the killings, only to find himself charged with murder.

There are three horrors in The Kill Team: the crimes themselves, the sad joke that is the military justice system, and, most frightening of all, the specter of a mob of immature and well-armed young men accountable to no one but each other. That’s the dark side of unit cohesion, an experience often cited as one of the prime appeals of military experience—it can morph into a power trip where you can do just about anything, including kill innocent civilians, and be sheltered from any consequences, because nothing matters outside your unit. The men involved in this particular episode did not get away with it, much to their surprise, but who knows how many others have?

Bristol is a town of about 26,000 in northeastern Tennessee whose greatest claim to fame is as the site where musicians such as Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family laid down their first tracks. If enough people see Remote Area Medical, directed by Jeff Reichert and Farihah Zaman, it may also become known as the tipping point in the debate over universal medical care in America. If empathy doesn’t provide sufficient motivation to reform the system, perhaps shame will.

Remote Area Medical (RAM), a program created by British philanthropist Stan Brock to provide medical services in remote areas of the world, has shifted its focus to providing care to underserved populations in the United States. In this documentary, RAM sets up shop in the Bristol Motor Speedway, while persons seeking care arrive days in advance and camp out in the parking lot. The result is a surreal cross between a field hospital and a tailgate party. Reichert and Zaman tell their story through a combination of direct-to-camera statements and verité footage, with the rhythms of the three-day Bristol event providing the film’s structure.

Report Area Medical does a great job of capturing a group of people caught up in a paradox: In the richest country in the world, they rely on occasional charity to get basic medical and dental care. The film deliberately focuses only on the reality of a specific three-day event, but one obvious question does arise. The people who turned up for care talk a lot about self-sufficiency and being ashamed to ask for help, but one wonders how they feel about really solving the problem, with government-supported health care for all. Would they embrace it, or would they resent paying taxes so other people could receive the care they need?

Swimming from Cuba to Florida is the Mt. Everest of long-distance swimming—except that lots of people have climbed Everest, while no one has successfully completed the 103-mile Cuba-to-Florida swim, through shark- and venomous jellyfish-infested waters with some of the strongest ocean currents in the world.

Diana Nyad holds many marathon swimming records, but never conquered the Cuba-Florida route. Thirty years after retiring from the sport to become a successful television journalist, she decided to give it one more shot, an experience documented in The Other Shore, directed by Timothy Wheeler. Preparations for the Cuba-Florida swim provide the film’s narrative spine and are intercut with biographical flashbacks, including one discussing an occurrence that has become all too common among female athletes: sexual molestation by her male coach.

There’s nothing innovative about The Other Shore, other than its choice of subject, but it does offer an interesting, behind-the-scenes look at the process of preparing for a monumental goal. It also provides insight into the psychology of someone motivated to do something so dangerous and difficult, and the effects of an obsession on the other people in your life.

Dragon Girls, directed by Inigo Westmeier, begins and ends with a mass display of martial arts by the students of the Shaolin Tagu Kung Fu School, where 20,000 students study each year in the shadow of the Shaolin Temple. In between, Dragon Girls takes you behind the scenes at the Tagu School, concentrating on a group of female students as they train, attend class, and horse around in their dormitory. It also features a number of direct-to-camera interviews with students and school officials.

The Tagu School is very tough. The students train harder than many Olympic athletes, and a scene where several of the girls compare their scars and stitches gives you a sense of the damage their bodies are absorbing. Some find it too hard, and run away. One such former student, who now runs a nail shop in Shanghai, is among those interviewed. She was sent to the school because she was uncontrollable at home—she’s not the only student sent for that reason—and calls the school “hell” while also crediting it with teaching her that you have to make the most of every moment. Perhaps, she concludes, her Tagu experience was worthwhile, after all. | Sarah Boslaugh

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