Hot Docs Film Festival | Day 8

hotdocs 75The Crash Reel also raises philosophical questions about the addictiveness of adrenaline sports and the sometimes blurry line between determined and foolish.


pussyriot 500

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer

Sick Birds Die Easy, directed by Nicholas Fachler, provides a first-person view of the journey of several friends into the jungles of Gabon, searching for the iboga plant that they believe will cure their addictions. Or maybe it’s all one big Blair Witch Project, or even somewhere between the two. Sick Birds Die Easy starts out well, teetering just on the edge of improbability, but becomes tedious well before the end, as the improbabilities begin to pile up and the story loses its way.

I’m not going to say much about Shooting Bigfoot, directed by Morgan Matthews, because it’s both highly spoilable and well done enough that if you are into Bigfoot (or skeptical about Bigfoot) you probably will want to see it for yourself. Matthews takes you on a different kind of a journey, hunting Bigfoot in the company of several guys who have been there before: Tom Biscardi, Rick Dyer, and two guys known only as Dallas and Wayne. For most of the film, Matthews proceeds to let them makes fools of themselves. Then, like any good horror movie, things start to get strange, and something does happen, and that’s as far as I’m willing to go on the matter. Both Sick Birds Die Easy and Shooting Bigfoot would make great midnight movies, so here’s hoping they get some play in that market, at least.

Richard Davidson is a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin specializing in the study of emotion, with a particular interest in the power of mindfulness meditation and related practices to change the way the brain works. Free the Mind, directed by Phie Ambo, looks at his work with several different populations, including military veterans with PTSD and nursery school children with ADHD. Engaging but not terribly deep or at all critical, the film sometimes veers uncomfortably close to infomercial territory as it combines illustrated elementary lectures on brain function with up-close looks at several individuals who have benefited from mindfulness training.

Sports such as aerial skiing and snowboarding are relative newcomers to the Olympics, but they’ve rapidly become popular, in part because they televise so well. The Crash Reel, directed by Lucy Walker, is a celebration of snowboarding that also takes a critical look at the commercial culture behind it, focusing in particular on the rivalry between two of the best competitors, Shaun White and Kevin Pearce.

If you follow snowboarding, you’ll be waiting for the other shoe to drop, and drop it does: In 2009, Pearce was seriously injured in a halfpipe accident, and the final two-thirds of the film is dedicated to his rehabilitation, intercut with crash footage and interviews with other adrenaline-sport athletes. This section of the film also raises philosophical questions about the addictiveness of adrenaline sports, the media hype machine that pushes the competitors in ever more dangerous directions, and the sometimes blurry line between determined and foolish.

Teenage, directed by Matt Wolf, is based on Jon Savage’s book Teenage: The Prehistory of Youth Culture, 1875-1945. Wolf sets out to chronicle the invention of the teenager, avoiding an authoritative, narrated approach by combining archival footage and dramatic recreations with the stories of four young people whose voices are supplied by Jena Malone, Ben Whishaw, Julia Hummer, and Jessie Usher. The result of this approach is a film that feels more like a collage of home movies than a deliberately crafted documentary, but the limited chronological (about four decades) and geographical (mostly United States, with Germany second and Britain a distant third) scope means that it repeats material and arguments already long familiar, resulting in a doc that feels repetitive and scattered at the same time.

The radical feminist punk band Pussy Riot drew international attention in February 2012, when they performed a guerilla-style protest in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow. What Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, directed by Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin, makes clear is that this protest was not a one-off publicity stunt, but the expression of a radical sensibility from a group of young women who grew up with Glasnost and are not willing to be bullied into obedience.

Lerner and Pozdorovkin draw heavily on archival footage, supplemented with interviews with the families of the accused—Nadia Tolokonnikova, Katia Samutsevich, and Masha Aloykina—who discuss how their daughters became involved in radical politics. The progression of their trial provides the film’s structure, but it goes much deeper than just recounting events, making clear that Pussy Riot’s honest defiance represents a real threat to Putin’s regime—a fact demonstrated by their two-year prison sentences for what can only be described as a symbolic act of defiance.

The Last Black Sea Pirates, directed by Svetoslav Stoyanov, suffers from false advertising: There are no pirates in this movie, just a collection of legends-in-their-own-minds hanging out on a beautiful Bulgarian island in the Black Sea, and periodically dynamiting holes in the ground in the hopes of locating buried treasure they are convinced is buried there. The boss of the operation is named, appropriately enough, Captain Jack, and his sad band of misfits seems composed primarily of convicts and drunks without enough gumption to get on with their lives.

There are some truly funny moments in The Last Black Sea Pirates—one guy tricks out his mule like the car he is no longer permitted to drive, while another has lengthy discussions with his mistress about how he’s going to buy her a beautiful wedding dress after they find the pirate gold—but there are far longer stretches of boredom. Captain Jack’s paradise is threatened by an impending condo development, but even that is not developed as a theme; it’s just one more thing that registers briefly, if at all, on the consciousnesses of this band of losers.

One occupational hazard of film festivals is that you start making connections between movies that really don’t have much to do with each other. So here’s my suggestion for the day: Captain Jack and his shiftless band of followers should meet up with the quartet of Bigfoot hunters that Morgan Matthews featured in Shooting Bigfoot. I bet they’d hit it off just fine, because they have a lot in common. | Sarah Boslaugh

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