Hot Docs Film Festival | Day 6

hotdocs 75How should we deal with people who commit horrifying, violent acts against others, but are mentally ill at the time of their actions?


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Kim Longinotto has spent her career documenting the lives of girls and women around the world. Her subject in Salma is a remarkable Tamil Muslim woman who became a famous poet and politician, overcoming almost unimaginable obstacles in the process. As was the custom in her village, Salma was shut off from the outside world at age 13, literally locked up in a room with the only view provided by one barred window. No school, no work—nothing to do but wait to be married, after which point the confinement continued, but under the control of her husband’s family.

For 20 years, Salma read the newspapers in which food came wrapped, furtively wrote poetry that her husband destroyed whenever he found it, and eventually smuggled a manuscript out of the house with the help of her mother. Her poems, which exposed the patriarchal abuses of her village, made her nationally famous, and also led to her political career.

Salma tells her story in retrospect, beginning with a visit to her mother, who was forced to give her up at birth because her father wanted only male children. Salma was raised at first by her seven-year-old aunt and then reclaimed by her parents; back home, she observed her mother enduring regular beatings from her husband because she saw no alternative. Salma also offers insights into women’s lives in Salma’s home village today, where matters haven’t changed all that much—but for all that, it’s a beautiful film and a celebration of the spirit and dignity of women who have not let themselves be defined by their circumstances.

How should we deal with people who commit horrifying, violent acts against others, but are mentally ill at the time of their actions? That’s the implicit question behind John Kastner’s NCR: Not Criminally Responsible, which follows the case of Sean Clifton, who nearly killed a woman 12 years ago in a vicious knife attack. Clifton suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder and schizophrenia, and was determined by a Canadian court to be not responsible for his actions. He was confined to a mental institution where he received psychiatric treatment. As his condition improved, he gained insight into his past actions, and was gradually allowed more and more freedom. At the time the film was made, Clifton was living in an apartment and receiving regular checkup visits from a psychiatric nurse.ncr not_criminally_responsible_1

Kastner does not downplay the horror of the attack, and allows the victim and her parents to give their side of the story. “Julie” (her identity is confidential, and her image was disguised on screen) was 22 and about to be married when she was attacked, out of the blue, by a wild-eyed stranger whose face haunts her to this day. She survived the attack, but the fact that Clifton specifically sought a female victim and cursed her with a stream of misogynist rhetoric (including the inevitable c-word) was not lost on either the victim or her parents—although they were eventually able to accept the fact that Clifton’s untreated mental illness was the primary cause of his behavior. One major question left unexamined by this documentary is what might happen if Clifton receives the right to live independently and without supervision. Will he continue taking his medication and keep the disorder under control, or will he relapse to his former state of mental illness?

One thing about New York City: It’s a street photographer’s paradise where, thanks to what art historian Max Kozloff calls the “volatile proximity” of people, you don’t have to go anywhere in particular to find something worth shooting, because there are multiple things happening almost anywhere you look. Cheryl Dunn’s Everybody Street celebrates the life and work of a number of street photographers, both the Old Masters such as Helen Levitt and Gary Winogrand, and current practitioners such as Boogie (Vladimir Milivojevich), Joel Meyerowitz, Mary Ellen Mark, Jamel Shabazz, Martha Cooper, and Jeff Mermelstein.

Everybody Street allows the photographers to speak for themselves, and they’re quite eloquent in illuminating why (and sometimes how) they do what they do. Mixing new video footage with interviews and iconic photographs, it provides a context for understanding their work and the special appeal of working in New York. The only false notes come when the photographers seem to be answering set questions about digital versus film, the economics of the business, safety, and their regard—or lack thereof—for other people’s right to privacy.

Good Ol’ Freda, directed by Ryan White, offers a look at the career of Liverpool native Freda Kelly, a typist and before-they-were-famous Beatles fan who got her dream job at age 17, when she was hired by Brian Epstein to be the band’s secretary and head of their fan club. She worked for the Beatles for 11 years, from before they hit it big until after their breakup, and harnessed her sensibility as their biggest fan to write copy for their monthly magazine (a key way to communicate with fans in the days before the internet).

This is Freda narrating her own story as the no-nonsense Liverpool woman she is (she never capitalized on her access to fame, and still works as a secretary today), illustrated with lots of archival materials to take the viewer along on her journey. She has a self-deprecating sense of humor (recalling that she once predicted The Beatles would be “as big as Cliff Richards,” never anticipating the worldwide phenomenon they would become) and a firm sense of boundaries, teasing the camera with hints that she has some stories she will never tell. | Sarah Boslaugh

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