Hot Docs Film Festival | Day 7

hotdocs 75In Gideon’s Army, three public defenders try to do their best for a roster of clients whose experiences with the legal system are exacerbated by their poverty.


gideons army

Fine art is the ultimate fickle commodity, worth whatever someone is willing to pay for it at the moment, a fact that creates an incentive for artists to produce work they think will sell. Chinese artists have been enjoying boom times recently, and their success has raised questions about the distortion financial incentives create for the artists coming from a long and highly developed cultural tradition, but one that is not particularly marketable today.

Finnish director Mike Mattila’s Chimeras raises this question—but deliberately doesn’t answer it—while contrasting the careers and attitudes of two successful Chinese artists from different generations. Wang Guangyi is an established painter who is quite outspoken about the conflict between Eastern versus Western sensibilities, although he’s not averse to profiting from Western fascination with his work. Liu Gong, a young, up-and-coming photographer, has no such issues with Western influence and sees art as more of a global phenomenon. Chimeras is a quiet, contemplative film, beautifully shot, and willing to raise conflicting ideas without feeling the need to bring them to a resolution.

Thanks to the 1963 Supreme Court ruling Gideon vs. Wainwright, defendants in the U.S. are entitled to free legal counsel if they can’t afford to hire a lawyer. Unfortunately, there’s no stipulation as to the adequacy of that counsel, and the system sometimes seems determined to meet the letter but not the spirit of the law. It’s not unusual, in some states, for a single public defender to handle hundreds of cases while earning a salary that will barely support one person, and certainly won’t stretch to cover a family.

Dawn Porter highlights this reality in Gideon’s Army, following three public defenders—Travis Williams, Brandy Alexander, and June Hardwick—as they try to do their best for a roster of clients whose experiences with the legal system are exacerbated by their poverty. While both the structure and most of the content of Gideon’s Army are familiar, it does raise a few issues often left out of similar issues docs. One is the fact that many of the defendants are in fact guilty, sometimes of horrifying crimes, a reality that only increases stress on the public defenders.

Bartosz M. Kowalski’s documentary A Dream in the Making focuses on the relationship between two men in Warsaw: Bartek, a young man who hopes to become a movie stuntman and thus escape the poverty of his neighborhood, and the somewhat older Pawel, who acts as a sort of older brother/father figure guiding Bartek through his workouts. Bartek has a winning presence on camera, and he’s also blessed with physical skill and determination, so it’s easy to get wrapped up in his story, and to hope that he will get his big break break and make it into the movies.

Gradually, it dawns on you that Pawel does practically all the talking in the film, and that he’s involved in some pretty unsavory stuff, and then you start to worry about his influence on Bartek. A Dream in the Making feels more like a narrative film than a conventional documentary—there are no talking heads or facts and figures about poverty in Poland—and it’s a welcome change if you’ve been overdosing on straightforward issues docs.

The short documentary Exit Point, directed by Jagoda Szelc, makes a good companion piece to A Dream in the Making. It chronicles BASE jumpers, people whose idea of fun is leaping from fixed points—the acronym stands for Bridge, Antenna, Span (bridge), Earth (e.g., cliffs)—using a parachute to break their fall. This is a dangerous sport, but also, apparently, thrilling, and you can enjoy it vicariously through the vertiginous helmet-cam footage which comprises most of Exit Point.

Quality Balls: The David Steinberg Story, directed by Barry Avrich, is an adulatory biodoc of the comedian from his roots in Winnipeg to the present, withGP055116 xl most emphasis on his television appearances in the 1960s and early 1970s. It’s so toothless it feels like it was made to run at a retirement ceremony, with many of Steinberg’s fellow practitioners chiming in about what a great guy he was, and illustrated with tame clips of Steinberg at work (most of which got few laughs at the screening). Avrich makes no attempt to create a context for Steinberg’s work (no mention of far more revolutionary figures like Lenny Bruce or Mort Sahl, for instance), and is content instead to just tell us, over and over, how smart and edgy and good looking he was. Judging from the clips shown, Steinberg’s humor was very much of the tame, Johnny Carson variety, which may explain why he was the second-most frequent guest on The Tonight Show.

Just the Right Amount of Violence, directed by Jon Bang Carlsen, intertwines two stories: his own abandonment by his father, and the work of interventionists who specialize in kidnapping difficult children, at their parents’ request, and transporting them to private reform camps. Unfortunately, neither story is told with much insight, and the interventionists’ story is told through dramatic recreations that are too obvious to be convincing (the fact that Carlsen, near the end of the film, reveals them as recreations doesn’t buy him a free pass in this regard). Carlsen’s narration is also irritating, full of platitudes and Werner Herzog–like random associations that might sound impressive if you’re in the mood to feel superior and don’t stop to think about them too much. | Sarah Boslaugh

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