Saturday, April 28, 2012

She Said Boom: The Story of Fifth Column (d. Kevin Hegge)

A few minutes into Kevin Hegge’s long-gestating She Said Boom: The Story of Fifth Column, a critic calls the titular feminist post-punk act an art band that wasn’t necessarily arty. That sounds like an interesting distinction, but it’s also as far as the idea goes in a doc that almost makes up in enthusiasm what it lacks in depth. Hegge sets a fast pace, and the early history of intellectual centre and drummer GB Jones and lead singer Caroline Azar’s collaboration nicely establishes their dynamic of cryptic rock deity and big-sweatered frontwoman, with plenty of footage of their debut in the Toronto punk scene. (Azar suggests that their off-kilter sound was a happy byproduct of their musical ignorance.) The film picks up once the band intersects with a certain go-go dancing nascent film theorist by the name of Bryan Bruce, now better known as alt filmmaker Bruce LaBruce, of No Skin off My Ass fame. Along with Jones, LaBruce ran the influential queer punk zine J.D’s., and Hegge effectively incorporates this archival material, as well as their collaborative Super 8 films, into a mixed-media portrait of Fifth Column’s role in the formation of queercore. But the film is weirdly shy about the bandmates’ sexuality, abruptly stopping the conversation with Azar’s story about wanting to elope with Jones in her late teens. For all Hegge's attention to the combative spirit of the Toronto zine wars in the late 80s, the city also comes off abstractly, as a scene that could be situated anyplace. Fifth Column fans and queercore enthusiasts will appreciate the rare present-day input from Jones, but overall this is a surprisingly conventional story of a band that, as one member says, recorded the sounds of everything falling apart. **1/2/****


The Boxing Girls of Kabul (d. Ariel Nasr)

Ariel Nasr’s The Boxing Girls of Kabul opens with clandestine footage of an execution in Kabul’s Olympic Stadium, where members of the Taliban force a woman to crawl before shooting her at close-range. That image haunts the alternately uplifting and sobering narrative that follows, which shadows the faltering Olympic hopes of a trio of young female boxers in a country where patriarchal attitudes toward women, particularly athletes, range from mild acceptance to violent hostility. This is a vibrant film, coloured by the verve of its protagonists, Shahla and siblings Sadaf and Shabnam, who speak candidly about their progressive values and their anxieties about the precariousness of their position amidst threats of assault and kidnapping. They’re presented as jocks, so it’s especially jarring when their future turns out to depend less on their athleticism than on the volatile political conditions of their country and its stance on the rights of women.

Nasr trains his camera on how these attitudes trickle down from government apparatuses and warring ideologues’ position papers to the off-the-cuff remarks of average citizens. Shahla’s brother, for example, vocally opposes their training – ostensibly because of the very real threats posed by more conservative men, who would happily regulate their household on their father’s behalf. Yet Nasr is wise not to take him at his word, later showing him scolding his sister for her lax decorum at dinner and quickly turning it into a referendum on the importance of disciplining women. The film gracefully links these charged domestic scenes to the political arena the girls are always necessarily in by virtue of what they do. But at heart this is a sports doc, and Nasr is just as adept at capturing the high energy of their training sessions, the exhilaration of their first encounters with proper rings in international competitions, and the deflation that comes from losing matches to women with far better training and far stronger financial and social support. It’s an absorbing profile, and at a mere 52 minutes, all too brief.  ***1/2/****

PROGRAMME: Canadian Spectrum  

Friday, April 27, 2012

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (d. Alison Klayman)

Like Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb’s vital This is Not a Film, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry delights in capturing its dissident subject lounging in the company of animals. Panahi has his iguana, which roams the Tehran high-rise to which he’s been confined by Iranian authorities, and Ai, a target of systematic harassment by the Chinese government, has his cats, one of whose ability to open doors mystifies him. By framing Ai in this domestic scene, director Alison Klayman finds warmth in an artist recognized for his compulsive refusal to comply with draconian authority – see, for instance, the series of photos where he smashes ancient pots and strategically places his middle finger in front of cultural landmarks. Situating Ai as a cat man might seem precious, but Klayman is also doing sly political work here. She’s demystifying an avowed radical, and showing (without telling) how his oppositional stance to the government in projects like a multi-year effort to catalogue the students who died in 2008’s Sichuan earthquake due to shoddily constructed buildings are born not of snark but out of a real respect for individuals, be they undocumented students or pets.

That’s not to say there isn’t a trickster streak in Ai’s work, which collapses distinctions between activism and art. A Chinese art critic points out that there’s something of the hooligan to Ai’s insistence on getting in officials’ faces – sometimes literally, snatching a guard’s sunglasses to force eye contact – and adds that it’s a sane response to a governing body founded on hooliganism. Always engrossing, the film is at its strongest when it tracks Ai through his Kafkaesque negotiations with a system that refuses to acknowledge him. For a long stretch, we follow him as he files a complaint for a head trauma sustained in Chengdu, where he was set to testify for fellow earthquake activist Tan Zuoren before being detained and assaulted by local police. Ai acknowledges this complaint won’t go anywhere but invites Klayman to film him as he goes through the process anyway. The result is a documentary-within-the-documentary that champions due process when it's at its most endangered, and subtly argues for informed protest within a broken system as the highest form of patriotism. ***1/2/****

PROGRAMME: Special Presentations

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Wildness (d. Wu Tsang)

“They call me Silver Platter.” That's the opening salvo of Wu Tsang’s Wildness, which hands its narrating duties off to the so-named bar in the East end of Los Angeles’s MacArthur Park, a safe space for undocumented Latina trans women that turns into a largely cissexual queer hipster party called Wildness on Tuesday nights. It’s a bumpy ride from there. Tsang, the performance artist who started Wildness, smartly establishes MacArthur Park as a palimpsest, constantly transformed by waves of gentrification, economic collapse, and immigration. (That none of these terms are spelled out is also nice.) He brings the same consideration to the complex history of the Silver Platter, attending even-handedly at first to the owners and to the bar’s shifting clientele.

So far so good, but what about that voiceover – in Spanish, no less? Tsang’s depiction of the Silver Platter as a gathering place that opens its arms to sad wanderers recalls nothing so much as Beowulf’s Heorot, that “foremost of halls under heaven.” A decent conceit, but things go south early on, when the bar wonders aloud about what will become of it, and calls out to its lost children, chief among them Tsang himself. A little of this self-aggrandizement goes a long way, but unfortunately there’s a lot of it. Tsang’s acknowledgement of his egocentrism as the director of Wildness the film is welcome, I suppose, but he’s less graceful about his status as the founder of Wildness the party. When the bar’s owner passes away and the family disobeys his wish that the property be inherited by his male partner, Tsang and company pulled Wildness in protest. Tsang has the Silver Platter alternately scold him for his impetuousness and soberly give him props for taking a stand, which officially turns this complex portrait of a space into a faux self-critical, fawning self-portrait. Too bad. **/****

PROGRAMME: World Showcase

The Mystery of Mazo de la Roche (d. Maya Gallus)

Newmarket-born author Mazo de la Roche hit the big leagues in 1927 when her third novel Jalna, the first entry in a lucrative sixteen-part series, won a $10 000 award from the ATLANTIC MONTHLY. In terms of prestige – particularly Canadians’ favourite sort, the kind that’s granted from elsewhere – you could think of her boon alongside Yann Martel’s Booker win in 2002, which similarly propelled a relatively unappreciated home-grown talent to international literary celebrity. But few people make the connection these days, or read de la Roche at all. Maya Gallus’s playful docudrama The Mystery of Mazo de la Roche does a good job of redressing this lacuna. Through a mixture of dramatic re-enactments with actress Severn Thompson, bitterly funny interviews with de la Roche’s adopted daughter, and talking head testimony from Canadian authors Susan Swan and Marie-Claire Blais, the film situates de la Roche both within her early celebrity in Canada and within the larger cosmopolitan movements of first wave feminism and modernism, with which she was loosely allied.

Like de la Roche’s Whiteoaks Chronicles, the tone is provincial, and dramatizations of Thompson cryptically fielding interview questions about her favourite foods like a Don’t Look Back-era Bob Dylan are a bit silly. The film’s eyebrow-raised exploration of de la Roche’s lifelong Boston marriage with cousin Caroline Clement, though, is interesting. So is one biographer’s contention that however genteel the Jalna novels might seem, and however vague the author’s public persona was, de la Roche nevertheless wrote herself into the series via a number of queer male author surrogates. Gallus doesn’t go as far as she could in broaching her subject’s sexuality, but Blais fills in the blanks, pointing out that the author had no bohemian community in Ontario, and wondering what might have been if, like Djuna Barnes and Gertrude Stein, de la Roche had set up shop in Europe.  That’s a mystery that nicely justifies the film, as well as a return to Jalna. ***/****


Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Bones Brigade: An Autobiography (d. Stacy Peralta)

Stacy Peralta returns to skateboarding culture with mixed results in Bones Brigade: An Autobiography. A sort of sequel to Dogtown and Z-Boys, which focused on his mates in early 1970s crew Zephyr, Peralta’s new film turns to the titular group of talented young misfits that he and business partner George Powell recruited in 1978, who went on to dominate the sport for the next decade. Like Dogtown, this is a likeable memory box of a movie, which briskly mixes up talking head interviews with scratchy archival footage and snapshots visibly manipulated by the director’s own hand. Peralta has a knack for converting alternative social history into this strangely effective hybrid of MTV and family album aesthetics. His firsthand experience and easy conversance with his subjects – who sometimes boyishly narrate his past actions to him with the kind of reverence guys usually reserve for dads and deities – makes for a good hook, and certainly there are worse tour guides through skater culture than a scrappy Jeff Daniels doppelgänger. Still, for an autobiography, this enthusiastic campfire reunion can feel cursory, especially at a bloated two-hour running time.

The main problem, which might be a moot point for viewers already well-versed in the personal sagas of skaters like Tony Hawk and Tommy Guerrero, is the film’s insularity. Peralta and his protégées have immaculately preserved memories (thanks to their avowed disinterest in any serious drug use), but while the Bones Brigade’s early successes are methodically catalogued, eventually the timeline gets washed out in a deluge of insider anecdotes punctuated by weak assertions that “That changed everything.” It doesn’t help that the complicated tricks they invented are virtually indistinguishable on film. Soft-spoken tricks man Rodney Mullen is compelling all the same, and it’s his lyrical testimony that most suggests what the film might have been. While Hawk got the video game franchise for his technical mastery, it’s hinted that Mullen was the aesthete the others envied. Towards the end he gives a monologue about authorship that’s easily the best thing in the movie; you’ll wish Bones Brigade was his autobiography. **1/2/****

PROGRAMME: Special Presentations

Ballroom Dancer (ds. Christian Bonke and Andreas Koefoed)

Early in Christian Bonke and Andreas Koefoed’s Ballroom Dancer, we see 33-year-old Russian ballroom dancing champion Slavik tell his students that a dance between two people is an everyday story, not a big drama. The goal, he tells them, is to get on the other person’s wavelength. Slavik’s lesson is taken by Bonke and Koefoed’s film, which strives to get on the physical and emotional wavelengths of an aging artist who can’t get back to his salad days with former partner and reigning champion Joanna. His training sequences with new (younger) partner and lover Anna are rendered in dynamic camera movements that position the spectator as a surrogate partner in their tense mating dance, which yields disappointing results in competition. The filmmakers find a way to capture less obviously visually charged moments as well, framing Slavik and Anna in two-shots that emphasize their distance from one another even as they share the same space: Anna seems always to be hovering in the background on her Blackberry, eager for a window out. Slavik’s journey is a tricky one, then – a quest for self-mastery negotiated with another person who has her own set of goals. 

There’s plenty of everyday drama here, but Ballroom Dancer is hampered by Anna’s growing disinterest in training and presumably the documentary. For those of us who can’t appreciate the technical nature of ballroom dancing, she’s the only real access point to her brooding partner. Her blankness, coupled with Bonke and Koefoed’s brave but misguided aversion to showing archival footage of the Slavik-Joanna partnership, makes it hard to tell whether Slavik has lost something physically or just can’t get it together with his new partner.  It’s not that he’s a poor subject: his insistence on better articulating himself in conversation with one of his many trainers (a rotating cast of counsellors) proves him to be as pensive as he is graceful. But without a clear sense of his strategy or personality, the film’s dourness takes its toll. **1/2/****

PROGRAMME: Special Presentations