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2014

Hot Docs 2014 #1: Young Men in Trouble

Hooray! Time to finally start seeing some documentaries! My work schedule this spring has been such that attending any pre-festival screenings was impossible (which pained me greatly, because I missed more than a dozen opportunities to check out films in advance), so when I headed out today for my inaugural day of film-going at Hot Docs 2014, I was more than ready to get my butt in a theatre seat.

Let me preface this by saying: I do not like the Bloor Theatre. Yes, the refurb is wonderful, and having a venue in the city dedicated solely to documentaries is more than fantastic, but its location blows (especially in relation to the rest of the festival), its outdoor lineups are almost always unpleasant and subject to the ever-present threat of line cutters, and – as I have expressed countless times before – the situation with its women’s washrooms has only been slightly improved. Instead of three stalls, they now have seven... but the non-stall available floor space on which to stand and wait is, maybe, eight square feet. So, it was with some resignation that I decided to head to the Bloor to see the opening-night film.

Thankfully, The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz (7/8) was excellent. Director Brian Knappenberger – who previously helmed We Are Legion, which I saw and really liked at Hot Docs 2012 – trains his lens on the friends, family and colleagues of the late titular internet whiz, who co-founded Reddit... along with dozens and dozens of other websites and online initiatives, and who committed suicide in 2012. A genius since birth, Swartz was compelled to make the world a better place through the sharing of information (as a kid, he and his brother built a collective online resource that predated, but was very similar to, Wikipedia). It was his pursuit of that goal, though, and his subsequent hacktivism, that gradually ruffled the wrong feathers and landed Swartz a Federal indictment.

Stirring, inspirational and ultimately tragic, the story of Swartz’s life – and the U.S. government’s misguided attempt to make him an example – is incredibly compelling viewing. Knappenberger taps an array of high-profile experts for commentary, including Lawrence Lessig, Tim Berners-Lee (um, the creator of the World Wide Web!), and the always awesome Gabriella Coleman (seriously, I could listen to her talk about hactivists, or anything really, for hours). The result is a biographical film rich in material and cultural relevance.

Two sightings of note: Myrocia Watamaniuk, my fave moderator ever, handled the screening (yay! I’m always relieved when she’s back), and my long-time film-fest nemesis, Mouthy Martha, was in attendance, too. There’s something comforting and nice about familiar faces... even the ones that make you roll your eyes.

Anyway... I had to rush from that screening to the Bader because, as it turns out, the “Schedule at a Glance” chart (as seen in the official Hot Docs program book and the Screening Schedule magazine) is rife with errors. A small public-service announcement: it’s a chart of (quite a few) lies! The blocks of time often do not correspond correctly to the actually running time of a given film. Internet’s Own..., for example, is blocked off as being 75 minutes long... even though it’s 105 minutes long. Likewise, I found several examples of films that appear to be more than 120 minutes long (per the chart), but are, in fact, under an hour and a half when you check the film listing itself. Doublecheck your chosen films’ running times, people! Or, do like I did, and do wind sprints between venues when you realize the time you have between screenings is actually quite short. Happily, I arrived at the Bader and, though my favourite seat was taken (poop!), an equally acceptable seat was still available... along with many others. Seems the rainy weather deterred some from standing in an outdoor line. I then found my film-fest pals elsewhere in the theatre and had a nice catch-up. (Note: evidently the film Living Stars is D.O.A. – dull on arrival.) We compared schedule notes and then took our respective seats. Unfortunately, the film itself, despite being billed as a “Sundance award winner,” was meh.

Return to Homs (4/8) tells the story of young men in Syria who, over the course of what the program book tells me is two years, take up arms as rebels battling the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Director Talal Derki follows the men as their titular city is gradually turned to rubble as a result of repeated shelling, and tracks their evolution from spirited revolutionaries to exhausted combatants... but, overall, not a lot happens in the film. And much of what I know of the plot is thanks to the program-book description, not the doc itself. Had I walked into the screening blind, for example, I would never have known that the guy in the film with the camera, who pops in and out of the film and is evidently one of the two key figures, is a “pacifist and media activist.” Homs has several fantastic sequences – one finds the crew evading snipers and travelling for what seems like many city blocks (in long, uninterrupted shots) through holes blasted through the walls of adjoining, abandoned homes. Another features weary rebel, and former soccer star, Basset falling asleep... his face going tranquil for a fleeting moment as his eyes close, only to be instantly snapped back into fight mode as soon as gunfire erupts. But, overall, the film did not hold my attention. It was hard to follow, as there was often no context given, and eventually scene after scene after scene of guys huddled in buildings, or mourning their fallen comrades, becomes less and less interesting. The fact that the guy sitting next to me kept falling asleep, and snoring, kind of drove that point home.

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