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2015

Hot Docs 2015 #3: Outreach & the Outrageous

Huzzah! The first official day of film-going at the festival finally arrived and, after a long walk to the Bader – where I joined a couple of my fest-going pals in line – it was time to get Hot Docs 2015 underway.

I’d been looking forward to my first film ever since the festival’s film lineup had been announced. I’ve loved the work of director Kim Longinotto for years. Her subjects are usually champions for the rights of women and children around the world, be it in India (Pink Saris), South Africa (Rough Aunties), Cameroon (Sisters in Law) or the UK (Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go), and her films consistently powerful, insightful and moving.

So, when I saw that her latest – Dreamcatcher (5/8) – was on deck this year, I was sold before I even bothered to read the synopsis. But, overall, I wasn’t nearly as wowed by this film as I had been by her previous docs.

Set in Chicago, the film centers on Brenda Myers-Powell, a fierce and devoted former prostitute and drug addict, who turned her life around to become an outreach worker for troubled young women in the Windy City. Loving, and drawing on her own past in order to inform and advise, Brenda offers these women – be they prostitutes or abused teenagers – unconditional, non-judgmental support and, more importantly, hope. Longinotto follows Myers over what seems like the course of almost a year, and introduces the audience to a number of the women she tries to help.

For me, though, the narrative felt scattered, and I didn’t find myself as engaged with the subjects as I thought I would. Some of the time, I wasn’t sure what was happening (who’s that girl? is she in prison? why is she there?), and other times I wished we’d spent more time with one subject over another (too much time spent on the ex-pimp, IMO). As well, much of the film was made up of survivors’ stories of rape, sexual abuse, physical abuse and the like, so that it started to feel like a very very heavy slog to get through, with each story more harrowing and disturbing than the last.

The weight of these successively dark stories was driven home for me by the repeated loud gasps and exasperated sighs of a woman sitting near me in the theater, who was visibly and audibly upset with what she was watching, and who clearly had no idea beforehand what the film would be about. Occasionally, she would whisper-scream “disgusting! oh, disgusting...” to her seatmate. There were also at least five walkouts (that I could see) during the screening, which I don’t recall ever happening at a Longinotto film in the past. By the time it was all done, I just felt exhausted, frankly.

Thankfully, my next two films did a great job of lifting that grey, downer fog.

First up was the delightfully charming UK short film Born to Be Mild (7/8), which trains its cheeky lens on assorted members of The Dull Men’s Club, an actual organization of self-professed “dull men,” whose hobbies range from collecting milk bottles to “roundabout appreciation” (i.e., appreciating the beauty, design and functionality of traffic roundabouts). Treating his eccentric, surprisingly endearing subjects – who fully embrace their self-proclaimed dullness as they explain their pastimes – with affection and not ridicule, director Alex Oxley creates a lovely little doc that entertains as much as it informs.

That film preceded another doc I was super-excited to see... mainly because its subject matter looked like 13 kinds of awesome. Plus, you know, it’s one of a handful of more light-hearted films screening at the festival this year, and those are always, always a welcome change of pace.

The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young (7/8), from co-directors Annika Iltis and Timothy Kane, dives headlong into one of the most secretive and outrageous wilderness races on the planet: the grueling titular Tennessee endurance challenge that’s been run for more than a quarter-century, but with fewer than a dozen finishers. Like, total. Ever.

In the film, the directors track the participants – some race veterans, some newbies – and terrifically colorful event organizer Lazarus Lake as the 2012 race is run. Harsh conditions, an ever-changing route and a time limit of 60 hours to complete the 100-ish mile course combine with racers’ mental and physical fatigue to create a super-fun doc that’s as filled with drama as it is with laughs. Not to mention the occasional “ewww” moment as the Barkley’s toll is revealed in nice close-up shots of blistered, ravaged feet and legs.

And, as at Dreamcatcher, I somehow wound up seated to audience members who detracted from my enjoyment of the film. This time, it was a moronic couple in their 20s, who wandered in (clearly dressed for a nightclub not a doc at the Bader) nearly a half-hour into Barkley (WTF?) and then proceeded to talk – at full volume – throughout. They reminded me of this pair of (far funnier) SNL a-holes, because that’s exactly the tone and cadence in which they spoke to each other. When they took out gum and started chewing their cud, I thought for sure I was on a hidden-camera show. Sadly, I was not.

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