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2014

Hot Docs 2014 #8: Saviors and Sinners

It seems that every year, I manage to pick a film that I regret almost from frame one and, this year, that honor goes to Focus on Infinity (N/A), which sounded fascinating in its official program-book description, but turned out to be epically S-L-O-W, meandering and, for me, incredibly boring. Though it does boast spectacularly beautiful cinematography, that was the only redeeming quality I was able to find in the 30-or-so minutes of it I watched before picking up my bag and walking out.

Examining the origins of the universe from various points of view, the film was one very long, very slow, one-take shot after another, coupled with voiceover commentary from theologians, scientists and... well, I was only there for half an hour, so I’m not sure who else was on deck. But the images often had little to do with what was being said, and what was being said was only occasionally credited to the person saying it – half the time, it was just an unidentified, disembodied voice. I was climbing the proverbial walls – with the start of each successive glacial-paced shot, I grew increasingly frustrated – and, even though the doc had a relatively short running time (not quite 80 minutes), there was no way I could imagine sitting through the rest of it. So I didn’t.

Instead, I left, did some banking, browsed Mountain Equipment Co-op, ran into a pair of former colleagues, picked up a cookie and then returned to the Lightbox to see my second film of the day.

While waiting in line, my movie-going pal Mario mentioned something about the graphic nature of what we were about to see. Wait. Graphic? I’d read the description of The Boy From Geita (6/8), but hadn’t seen anything about graphic footage. Though, given the subject matter, I wasn’t really surprised – the doc, directed by Vic Sarin, tells the story of Adam, a 12-year-old Tanzanian boy with albinism. In Tanzania, and presumably elsewhere in Africa, those with albinism are regarded as ghosts, or evil, or possessing magical powers. Thus, they’re often scorned by their families and communities, and pursued by those who want to chop off their limbs for sale to witch doctors. It’s all very disturbing, so disturbing footage would seem par for the course.

When Adam is brutally attacked and left badly maimed, he comes to the attention of a Vancouver man, who also has albinism, and who not only sets out to have Adam’s wounds (shown in graphic detail – ah, there it is!) properly repaired, but embarks on a mission to help combat the hunting of others like Adam in Tanzania.

Heartbreaking and hugely effective, The Boy From Geita has at its core a hugely compelling central subject (Adam), who gradually evolves from terrified, malnourished child (his parents wouldn’t feed him) into a healthy, more secure boy. Watching his story was incredibly moving (bring Kleenex) and, though there is explicit footage of his reconstructive surgery, it’s nothing that exceeds what you might see on the Discovery Channel.

Given the heaviness of ... Geita, I wasn’t sure following it with a screening of The Overnighters (6/8) was such a great idea. It had been described in the festival schedule as “emotionally devastating” and, it being day eight of my Hot Docs-going, I was already fairly tapped out as far as tears and depressing films go. Nonetheless, my pals and I lined up and braced ourselves for what might follow.

Turned out, at least for me, the film wasn’t at all devastating (emotionally or otherwise), or even especially sad. It was, however, an incredibly fascinating character study. Directed by Jesse Moss, The Overnighters begins as a look at the town of Williston, North Dakota, which experiences a sudden oil boom and almost immediately finds itself inundated with men from around the world, hopping off buses and trains in search of work. But employment supply can’t meet demand, and all those men seeking a better life instead find themselves desperate for a place to stay. Enter Pastor Jay Reinke, who opens the doors (and floors and parking lot and every spare corner) of his Lutheran parish to anyone needing shelter... much to the consternation of the neighbourhood.

While his efforts seem noble, a curious undertone of resentment and hostility towards him begins to develop among the men he’s housing, and the citizens of Williston grow more vocal in their opposition to the “Overnighters” program as the busloads of men continue to arrive. Soon, Reinke’s world begins to unravel, and the doc morphs into a portrait of a man desperately trying to keep it all together.

Intriguing and engaging, the film nonetheless leaves a lot of unanswered questions by the time it winds to a close. I can’t ask any of them here because it would spoil some of the plot developments. What I will say, though, is that – from the get-go – despite his loving platitudes and cheerful, optimistic demeanor, Pastor Jay seemed... odd. I couldn’t put my finger on what it was, but “ego-driven with a hero complex” did come to mind more than once. There seemed to be an intense craving for attention, and a desire (however unconscious) to be regarded as a savior. This is one film where I would have loved to have a post-screening Q&A because I feel like there’s a lot more to this story than what the doc revealed.

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