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2012

Hot Docs 2012: New School and Old School

As many frequent festivalgoers will likely attest: sometimes, when you’re seeing a whole slew of movies in a fairly short amount of time, you need a “light” day in order for your body and mind to take a bit of a breather. That’s why I only saw two films today. And, thankfully, I didn’t want to walk out of either.

Welcome to the Machine (5/8) is sort of like a kernel of what could be a really amazing (and much bigger) documentary. The subject matter, in short, is society’s love affair with technology, and the ensuing debate over whether that relationship will wind up benefitting humanity or destroying it in the long run. Director Avi Weider talks to experts on both sides of the argument, and addresses hot-topic issues like The Singularity (the theoretical date on which artificial intelligence will take over the world and we become one with technology), and – much to my surprise – sheds some fascinating light on the manifesto of (Unabomber) Ted Kaczynski. Turns out that Kaczynski’s extremely articulate and well-written thoughts aren’t actually so crazy, after all, and his theories about where technology will lead the planet (namely: doom) are entirely possible based on the way the world is today.

It was a great discussion-starter film, but I actually wanted more. While I realize the constraints of independent documentary filmmaking (budget, time, access, etc.), Weider only skims the surface of a much deeper issue, and his odd editing choices – like repeatedly dropping to black over and over again between shots, the animated Bible slides, etc. – wasted time that might have been spent further delving into humans’ obsession with gadgetry, electronics and the pursuit of technological advancement. Clearly, other people in the audience also wanted to keep the discussion going, as evidenced by the passionate if needlessly brief (there was plenty of time before the next film!) Q&A session afterwards.

As an aside, what I found HILARIOUS (in a bad way) was the fact that, after having just watched this cautionary film about being too invested in technology, several people whipped out their smartphones and started texting the second the first closing credit appeared onscreen.

My second film of the day was, in a word, wonderful. Charles Bradley: Soul of America (8/8) is the kind of beautiful little gem I love to find when I go to festivals like Hot Docs – it features a fascinating central subject and a story that leaves your heart feeling full and your cheeks streaked with tears when its credits roll. For the uninitiated (as I was when I sat down in the theater), Charles Bradley is a Brooklyn singer in his 60s, who’d spent his adult life performing as a James Brown tribute artist and who decides – at 62 – to cut an album of his own. Bit by bit, he gets it done, and his journey from down-on-his-luck handyman to crowd-thrilling artist is the stuff of biopics (you just know Eddie Murphy will be all over this if Hollywood ever decides to turn Bradley’s story into a narrative feature). Plus, the music is absolutely kick-ass fantastic!

Best of all, though, it’s genuinely inspiring. It’s a reminder that you’re never too old to have a dream, and that the dreams you do have really can come true – at whatever age – if you just keep moving toward them.

Charles Bradley... was preceded by a tight little short called I Beat Mike Tyson (6/8), which provided a nice contrast. The film is about boxer Kevin McBride, whose claim to fame came in 2005 when he did the seemingly impossible in the ring -- he knocked out the titular heavyweight champion. But, years later, McBride is struggling to recapture that victorious high and to reignite his career... with mixed results. It's a movie about small moments, but proof that sometimes the most important ones (in The Big Picture) aren't necessarily those for which a sea of cameras is trained on you.

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