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More Than a Game

A Hot Doc, reviewed: Grinders explores professional poker’s working class blues



Do you like poker? Toronto filmmaker Matt Gallagher does. He’s long been a decent player, and now that he’s broke — small child, recession — and apparently lacking in transferable skills, he decides to try it on as a career. He becomes a grinder.

A grinder, we’re told, is someone whose sole source of income is poker. Gallagher’s Grinders follows two of them: Danny, a well-intentioned, alcoholic dad, and Andre, a clown (“Mark, I love your money, bro! Oh, I love your money!” he declares after a win at the table, pouring the loser’s chips all over his own head). Both are found nightly on Toronto’s underground circuit, which appears robust. They play from 10 pm until 7 am, after which, bleary eyed, they might go to a casino to play more poker, or perhaps pick apples with the family. Both are overweight, speak in a Trailer Park Boys–like patois, and favour t-shirts emblazoned with gangster imagery and/or cartoon characters. Neither is proud of what he does for a living. Andre refers to himself throughout the film as a degenerate, warning us not to be fooled by his “beautiful house” and “two beautiful dogs”; Danny constantly reminds himself, and us, that he’s doing this for his daughters, whose pictures he keeps on the table when he plays. (more…)

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Posted in Moving Pictures  •  1 Comment

Back to Life

A Hot Doc, reviewed: Mika Kaurismäki’s Mama Africa revives the legend of Miriam Makeba
Mandela and MakebaHotDocs.caNelson Mandela and Miriam “Mama Africa” Makeba

Singer Miriam Makeba, known as Mama Africa, died in November of 2008. Ten months earlier, I saw her perform at the Palau de la Musica in Barcelona, Spain. At the time, I didn’t understand what I was witnessing — the denouement of a fifty-year career, the last tour of a woman whom millions would mourn as a saint. Makeba, a South African political exile, American civil rights activist, stateswoman, and brilliant musician, was a hero of the pan-African movement of the 1960s and ’70s, and an influence on virtually every South African singer who has followed her.

Mama AfricaFinal Hot Docs showtimeSunday, May 8, 1:30 PM
Isabel Bader Theatre, Toronto

In 1959, Makeba appeared in the anti-apartheid documentary Come Back, Africa. The filmmaker, American Lionel Rogosin, brought her to Cannes for the premiere. Come Back won the Critics’ Award; Makeba became an instant phenomenon, playing around New York and London, appearing on television, and recording under the guidance of Harry Belafonte, whom she’d met in the UK. However, when she tried to return home in 1960, she found that her South African passport had been revoked. Unable to re-enter her country, she lived in exile until Mandela was freed thirty years later. In the meantime, she introduced South African music (and, to a large extent, politics) to the West.

Mama Africa director Mika Kaurismäki grew up listening to Makeba’s songs on Finnish radio. His feature documentary almost wasn’t made, as Makeba passed away just before filming was scheduled to begin. Kaurismäki pursued the project anyway, partly from an urge to preserve the singer’s legacy. The film doesn’t suffer at all for the lack of its star — Makeba comes across intimately, her story as affecting as if she’d told it herself. Kaurismäki pieces her life together from interviews with Makeba’s grandchildren, former band members, friends, and prominent admirers, along with an enormous amount of wonderfully remastered archival footage. The portrait that emerges is of a woman without fault: a role model in the strictest sense. (Mama Africa mentions only two of Mama Africa’s five husbands.) This may be an unapologetic love letter, but few will object.

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Coming Down From David Wants to Fly

A Hot Doc in hindsight

I had expected the premiere of David Sieveking’s David Wants to Fly to be a modest proceeding. The premise of the documentary — recent film school grad devotes himself to Transcendental Meditation because David Lynch tells him to — is ridiculous.David Wants to Fly

© Adrian Stähli

I had expected the premiere of David Sieveking’s David Wants to Fly to be a modest proceeding. The premise of the documentary — recent film school grad devotes himself to Transcendental Meditation because David Lynch tells him to — is ridiculous. There couldn’t be that many people who would skip Still Alive in Gaza for it.

I arrived late, then spent ten minutes looking for a seat. The place was packed. Eventually I squeezed myself between a slight grey-haired man and a boisterous couple who traded Lynch anecdotes as a Hot Docs programmer took the stage. “So, how many of you are here for your interest in Transcendental Meditation?” he asked. The small man next to me and a few others raised their hands. “And how many of you are here for your interest in David Lynch?” Hands shot up like reeds around the theatre. There was even some whooping. Of course! This was a Lynch fan event.

David Wants to Fly
is about whackos (David Lynch), lost film school grads (David Sieveking), and exploitation (Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and his “TM movement”). It’s told through Sieveking’s personal narrative: He wants to make great movies, like his idol, David Lynch. At home in Berlin, he hears of a TM conference at Fairfield, Iowa’s Maharishi Peace Palace where Lynch will be speaking about, or rather advocating for, the practice. (more…)

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Posted in Moving Pictures  •  14 Comments

A Portrait of the Artist as an Elderly Woman

A Hot Doc, in capsule review
The Woman With the Five Elephants

When I am old, I want to look like Swetlana Geier, with her wide eyes and swishing skirts, and her long white hair swept up in a bun. I want to talk and think like her — with wit and depth and unfathomable understanding, in images and allusions to history and art. I want to live in her house — or, if that sounds too creepy, a house like hers, set in dark green woods but close to a market square where I can buy lettuce from the local lettuce lady, who parcels it in newspaper, that I will use when preparing dinner for my adoring flock of grandchildren, who come to visit often.

Geier, Germany’s pre-eminent translator of Russian literature, is hunched over and moves slowly, and often ends her thoughts with a softly spoken “yeah,” like she can’t believe how profound she is, either. Is it the Dostoevsky? I wonder, watching her. Is it reading the “five elephants” (i.e., great novels) of Dostoevsky — repeatedly, constantly, and with the intensity of focus required to translate them, as Geier does — that makes a person this aware and this beautiful? Or is it a natural side affect of being hyper-intelligent, sensual, and eighty-five?

These are probably not the questions that the director, Vadim Jendreyko, meant for me to ask. The themes of The Woman With the Five Elephants, raised in the context of Geier’s life story, are grand — literature, language, connection, reconnection — and I’m probably supposed to be dwelling on those. But I’m obsessed with Geier. (She cooks! She cleans! She saved Crime and Punishment from being known in Germany as Guilt and Atonement!) Everything else becomes important only insofar as it reveals her character and is shaped by her articulation. This isn’t a fault in the movie so much as proof of Geier’s power to take it over.

Unless Jendreyko made her up. He could have spun her, edited her into what he wanted her to be. It almost seems like he must have, she’s so perfectly wrought as Inspirational Character. It wouldn’t upset me if he had. Even if Geier were a fiction, she would still be full of truth.

(The Woman With the Five Elephants is screening at Toronto’s Hot Docs film festival. Photo courtesy of Filmtank)
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Posted in Events  •  1 Comment

Absinthe and Dreams

TORONTO – Productions like Montparnasse remind me that I need to keep more booze in the house. When Mags, an American model living in 1920s Paris, awakes mid-day in her slip and looped pearls (a rare clothed moment) and grabs the champagne bottle by her bed as she begins to relate the spasmodic, erotic details of her previous night’s tryst with a celebrated painter, I think—I need to get out more. What am I doing, sitting here thinking about how I’m going to write about this later? I shouldn’t spend my time typing! I need to live, like Mags! Go, Mags, to the corner bars and nightclubs, to the studios and bedrooms of grossly talented and sensually obsessed men. Go mostly for your plugged up roommate, Amelia, newly arrived would-be painter, escaping the Christian Temperance Union America but not yet ready to enter the raunchy haunts you inhabit, where inspiration wets the walls and is more easily absorbed than a soixante-quinze cocktail, liberally poured. Go for Amelia, but also for us who want so badly for art to exist in these places, these dark, smoky, stinking, dizzying, only half-real dens of urban dawn, where nothing—beauty, morality, freedom—stands up to examination. It’s too dark in there, and everyone is too drunk. (more…)

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Posted in The Haulout  •  No Comments

[The Walrus will be reviewing films at this week's Hot Docs festival in Toronto. More reviews to follow.]

Emma Franz’s first documentary, Intangible Asset Number 82, records the life and work of a very rare commodity—Kim Seok-Chul, a reclusive Korean shaman and musical grandmaster. Seok-Chul is introduced to us through Simon Baker, an Australian jazz drummer widely regarded as his country’s best. Baker’s obsession with rhythm and musical force finds an idol in eighty-year-old Seok-Chul—the music he produces is nothing like anything Baker (or the viewer) has heard before. He embarks on a quest to track down Seok-Chul and learn from him. It proves to be a nearly impossible task, considering the shaman’s age and illness and his stature in Korean religious life. But Baker perseveres, and Franz follows him.

What follows is an account of Korean musical traditions that continue to resist the force of modernization. On his way to Seok-Chul, never sure that he will meet him, Baker encounters some people and practices so extreme that they are hard to reconcile with any notion of normalcy: one shaman, a bubbly, round-faced, boyish singer, spent seven years living on wet rocks by the side of a waterfall, singing (or shouting) seventeen hours a day, learning his craft from the flow of the water. Incredibly, he and Baker become fast friends.

The film can feel, at times, like an anthropological account—something you’d be shown for university study—but when Franz focuses on character the results are quite moving. She is clearly a dedicated documentarian, with the ability to suss out narrative in a complex story and the sense to exclude herself (she is also a musician, and so likely has her own opinions on Baker’s take on music) from the piece. It will be interesting to see how her work develops.

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Walrus @ Hot Docs: Best Worst Movie

There’s a scene in Best Worst Movie that marks the beginning of the downturn: Dr. George Hardy—blonde, buff, infinitely popular—sits at his kitchen table surrounded by friends. “I just always thought I had this presence…I always thought I could do it,” he says. Everyone knows George should have been an actor. Why doesn’t he do it now? He could leave dentistry. His children are grown. “It just wouldn’t be practical,” he says, his voice quiet. “It wouldn’t be practical.”

A few minutes later, we see George look on as an actor at a film convention signs autographs for fans. No one wants George’s autograph but he tries to smile, always happy for others. He hovers in the background.

The small audience at Innis Hall is unsure how to react. The subject of Best Worst Movie has thus far been a vehicle for documentary rom-com: George, the cheerful dentist, was once in a movie—and it was the worst movie ever. Hilarious! But now George is recast: a failed actor in a failed film. There’s been a dramatic shift. It’s not funny anymore. Stuffed behind students’ desks in the makeshift cinema, we move uncomfortably in our seats. (more…)

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Walrus @ Hot Docs: Paris, 1919

[The Walrus will be reviewing films at this week's Hot Docs festival in Toronto. More reviews to follow.]

In 1919, in Paris, the leaders of hundreds of nations and disparate groups convened in Paris to map out the political geography of the postwar world. New alliances and lines would be drawn, and the Treaty of Versailles would be broached, edited, and signed. This was important stuff, I thought. I wanted to know more. So I went to see Paul Cowan’s Paris 1919, based on the book of the same name by Margaret Macmillan. I had been taken in by a festival write-up promising a portrayal of that “significant event [that] has never lost its geopolitical influence.” Apparently, its failure continues to haunt us. This sounded important. Naturally, I wanted in. Unfortunately, Cowan’s film did not deliver. (more…)

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