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…)
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.
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 However, when she tried to return home in 1960, she found that her South African passport had been revoked.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.
“Funemployment,” “affluenza,” “recessionista,” “staycation” — the recession of 2008 and 2009 introduced a host of strange slang into the common vernacular. With Recessionize! For Fun and Profit! 15 Simple Steps!, Toronto filmmaker Jamie Kastner invents his own term, albeit ironically, he says.
“The way [this recession] was being covered, I realized, was part of the story and part of the event itself,” says Kastner. “The way it was being ‘cutesified,’ basically, and how it was being spun into almost a feel good story or a good news story even though it’s the worst imaginable news.”
Recessionize! premieres at this year’s Hot Docs film festival in Toronto (see sidebar for showtimes). Kastner’s previous documentary Kike Like Me, about Jewish identity, was among the best-attended and most talked-about films at the 2007 festival.
Kastner’s new film opens with archival footage of Great Depression–era New York City. Men in suits are climbing onto high window ledges as people below gawk and take photographs. In a voiceover, the director explains that, contrary to popular belief, these were not rich bankers jumping. Rather, it’s suicide rates among the middle class that increased during the Depression, as they have every recession since. In making Recessionize!, Kastner says he hit the road “to find stories to inspire my fellow middle class children of the free market not to jump.” (more…)
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.
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…)
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.
Because it’s a film that so crucially relies on carefully developing its story, and playing out its various startling revelations with measured restraint, it’s tricky to talk about John Kastner’s Life With Murder without exposing its secrets. (Indeed, we’ve been explicitly urged by the producers and Kastner himself to check any impulse to do so.) But it’s no spoiler to say that the triple Emmy Award–winning Canadian filmmaker has produced what will likely emerge as one of the most talked–about documentaries to screen at this year’s Canadian International Documentary Film Festival, better known as Hot Docs.
Co-produced by the CTV, NFB, and Kastner’s own production company, Life With Murder tells an exceptional story that’s made all the more improbable by virtue of its verity. In January 1998, the town of Chatham, Ontario became the unlikely site of a murder, when eighteen-year-old high schooler Jennifer Jenkins was gunned down in her family home. Just as her traumatized parents were coming to terms with their daughter’s death, local police zeroed in on their prime suspect: Jennifer’s twenty-year-old brother, Mason.
Though Mason asserted his innocence, he was eventually convicted of first-degree murder, and is now serving a life sentence at a medium-security correctional institute nearly 500 kilometres from the scene of the crime. Determined to keep what family they have left intact, Brian and Leslie Jenkins remain in close contact with their son, frequently visiting him in prison, exchanging jokes and birthday gifts. Life With Murder is at once a gripping small-town murder mystery and an agonizing portrait of parents’ grief, which only deepens as the film unfolds.
Again, to say too much about Life With Murder is to effectively ruin it. But with its premiere at Hot Docs this weekend to be followed by an airing on CTV (date TBA), as well as other robust (though also undisclosed) distribution deals in North America, it is a film that demands to be seen and, afterward, seriously talked about.
Walrusmagazine.com spoke with Kastner about how he discovered Mason’s case, and the manner in which his film’s story revealed itself. (more…)
As civil war ravages Sri Lanka and militants approach the capital of Pakistan, do you ever stop to wonder: in the throes of war, who’s making the chapatis?
If it seems as though I’m making light of serious situations, the film Cooking History asks you to consider the gravity of the question. The documentary by Slovak director Peter Kerekes, which picked up a special jury prize at the Hot Docs documentary film festival in Toronto last week, looks at major European conflicts of the 20th century from the perspective of some often-ignored but crucial figures in warfare: military chefs. (more…)
[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.
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…)
If I thought that I was going to be bored watching a documentary about boredom I probably wouldn’t have gone to see it. Unfortunately I didn’t have the benefit of hindsight before going to see Coco Schrijber’s newest work, Bloody Mondays and Strawberry Pies. Battling a sinus infection and the pouring rain I was determined to see the film. I am always up for a little intellectual waxing. The proposed subject of boredom held the promise of esoteric ideas and everyday reality just so that the sold out theatre proved others were just as excited. (more…)
A shiny white SUV pulled up to a curb. Two Dutch women jumped out, struggling with the thick padding of their parkas. They expertly grabbed a large camera and an extended mike, whirling around to survey their battle terrain. They found the shabby Soviet-era courtyard abuzz: men and women, red-nosed and loud, huddled in groups to celebrate the Russian version of Mother’s/Women’s Day. March 8th marked the crew’s first day of filming. The women planned to run some test shots, but their subjects started falling, laughing, crawling, rising and falling again. It was perfect.
Drunks, stray dogs, snow and inherently Russian babushkas colour a dead poet’s world, painted in Aliona van der Horst’s latest documentary Boris Ryzhy. Another “sensational” snapshot of one of the most criminal Russian neighbourhoods; another tragic suicide of a contemporary bard, singing from the limbo that separates intellectual and underground circles—the award-winning Amsterdam filmmaker did not want that story. (more…)
[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…)