Sticking Your Neck Out. Hot Docs Movies Reviewed: An Honest Liar, Point and Shoot, Demonstration
Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.
Cel-phone cameras are ubiquitous now. So it’s getting harder to separate the relentless recording of everyday life from a real documentary. Filmmakers really have to stick their necks out to find something amazing and surprising and beautiful. But some do just that. This week, I’m looking at three films playing at Hot Docs. There’s a magician who exposes tricksters; an adventurer who joins a (non-religious) jihad; and political demonstrators… who dance?
Dir: Justin Weinstein and Tyler Measom
The Magnificent Randi was a Toronto-born magician and escape artist who modeled himself after the Great Houdini. Like Houdini, he is famous for his deception and dramatic escapes. And like Houdini, he devoted his second career to exposing the fake fakers: the ones who bamboozle audiences into thinking their tricks are for real. I’m talking faith healing televangelists like Peter “out poison!” Popov, the fake TV psychics, and the pseudo-scientific prestidigitators. He has a long-held rivalry with Uri Geller, the spoon bender from the 60s and 70s who claims he has telekinetic powers.
Randi also showed how easily scientists can be fooled as they tried to probe alien abductions and ESP. Using young collaborators and his own deceptions, Randi manages to fool even a dedicated scientist if he tried. He secretly places students (who claim they have special abilities) into the experimental pool, and later reveals his tricks – much to the dismay of the scientists. He provides the scientists with a list of what to look out for, but still manages to slip through the cracks. Today he lives in California with a dramatic white beard and walks with gold-topped cane.
This is a fascinating and very well-crafted story, with a twist all its own. Turns out his longtime partner and collaborator, Puerto Rican artist Jose Alvarez, has a lie he keeps under wraps for three decades. Ironically, the two met on the old TV quiz show To Tell The Truth. These honest liars make for a very interesting movie.
Dir: Marshall Curry
Matthew Van Dyke was a coddled kid from Baltimore, “the only child of an only child of an only child”. Fascinated by movies like Lawrence of Arabia, the blue-eyed boy dreams of exotic and dangerous adventures. At the same time, he’s also a cube of quivering jello with OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) and a remarkable sugar phobia. So, after university (Middle Eastern Studies), Matt decides to take a crash course in Manhood. He sets off on a motorcycle trip from Gibraltar to Afghanistan, across North Africa and the Middle East. He documents all his travels with a video camera and a helmet attachment. In Iraq and Afganistan, as a freelance war reporter, he falls in with US soldiers. They teach him the basics of rifle shooting, machine gunning and missile launching. OK… fun and exciting, I’m sure, but mere backpacking adventures do not a Hot Docs movie make.
But here’s what happened next. When he reconnects with a Libyan hippie friend he’d met in his travels, he ends up sneaking into Libya during its civil war. He joins the Benghazi rebels, fighting Gaddafi’s soldiers, and standing beside men shouting Allahu Akbar as they fire missiles at far off targets! Things take a turn for the worse and Matt ends up in solitary confinement in a government prison. His mother and girlfriend are terrified. Will he get out? And if he does, where will he go next?
Point and Shoot is a great adventure story about a man who carries a Leica camera in one hand and an AK 47 in the other. It is politically naïve — the movie doesn’t talk much about geo-political issues, ideologies, or the long-term ramifications of that war. Its real strength is as a first-hand look at a fascinating and exciting personal adventure.
Dir: Viktor Kossokovsky (and 32 others)
A year ago, Spain was in economic turmoil when it’s right-wing government imposed crushing austerity measures. This led to huge demonstrations. In 2013, 32 students in Barcelona, each armed with a video camera, record it all, right in the middle. The general strike, the crowds, and the peaceful marches… and the less than peaceful responses from the riot police. The demonstrators seem split between those who wear Gandhi masks – peaceful disobedience – and the hacktivists in their Guy Fawkes masks.
This movie, though, is about the beauty of crowds, and movement. The running back and forth, the burning dumpsters, and the attacks from helmetted police. It’s set to Minkus’s Don Quixote, and its beautiful and revealing. Against a backdrop of Gaudi’s curvy, drippy architecture you see an old-timer who has been demonstrating most of his life, and young students out for their first demo. And some secrets revealed: dozens of “Black Bloc” activists are seen climbing happily into police vans (not arrested); they’re all agents provocateurs, planted in the crowd to ignite violence and justify police attacks.
Demonstration is an artistic look at a public protest.
All of these movies and more are playing through Sunday at Hotdocs. All students and seniors can go to daytime screenings for free! Go to hotdocs.ca for details. And Toronto’s Jewish Film Festival also opens today and continues all next week, including a brand new Canadian movie called the Pin – about young lovers hiding in Lithuania during WWII – and it’s in Yiddish. Looks interesting… Go to tjff.com for more info.
This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com