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HOT DOCS: CANADIAN INTERNATIONAL DOCUMENTARY FILM FESTIVAL (4/30 --5/6/01).

"Who needs April in Paris when you can be in Little Italy on College Street," said Albert Maysles, renowned New York filmmaker in Toronto to show his latest film, Lalee's Kin: The Legacy of Cotton, and to give a master class at Hot Docs 2001, Canada's eighth international documentary festival.

Two years ago Maysles received the Hot Docs Lifetime Achievement Award together with his late brother, David, for his groundbreaking films Give Me Shelter, Grey Gardens and Salesman. Maysles, 74, surrounded by adoring young filmmakers, looked as sunny as the College Street. And hey, it's not La Croisette, but it has a certain local charm.

The festival's tally of 1,400 delegates was up from 1,100 last year, and accredited media doubled from 100 to 200, says Chris McDonald, Hot Docs executive director. The delegates came to schmooze, network, do business, attend seminars, symposiums, master classes, party and also catch a few of the very strong 70 films. "We did a lot more marketing this year," said McDonald, "which paid off in record numbers." Sold-out screenings created long queues at the Royal and Bloor cinemas.

So Hot Docs is growing up, changing, losing its innocence. Last year's parties often spilled out of College Street restaurants onto the sidewalks where the delegates, wine glasses in hand, were promptly shooed back inside by the police of Toronto the Good. Now they are squeezed into a very noisy and hot Rogers' Industry Centre. "An overwhelming success, we hit a home run," said Rudy Buttignol, creative head, documentaries and drama for TVO. "We had more commissioning editors, and North American commissioning editors got the Amsterdam hang of it. As a result there was more financing of projects." Buttignol, who helped pitch two projects, was talking about the second annual Toronto Documentary Forum, a two--day pitching event based on the Amsterdam model. It lets filmmakers with some funds pitch their projects before an international panel of broadcasters/buyers in a restricted venue in what we're told is a high tension, ulcer-making ambiance.

The festival had three main streams: Canadian films, international films and a national spotlight, which this year beamed on the Nordic countries of Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Iceland. Said Torontonian John Hopkins, of Square Deal Productions. "It's better than Banff with its primarily television series, movies-of-the-week and game shows. As a documentary producer you're low on the totem pole at Banff, and you have to work your way through a large crowd of producers and broadcasters. It's also more expensive. In North America, Hot Docs is the best opportunity to pushing projects forward. Everyone wants to talk to you."

Newfoundland filmmaker Gerry Rogers's My Left Breast won the $5,000 Gold Award for Best Canadian Documentary in a revamped awards lineup. With Rogers as the heroic and funny actor! director (see Take One No. 32), the film shows her cancer treatment from radical mastectomy through weeks of chemotherapy and radiation. It is both a horror picture and a comedy. Rogers was having a great time at Hot Docs, schmoozing, doing interviews and being on the awards committee, Said Rogers, "Hot Docs...phew...so many films, workshops, films, schmoozing, films and then the people who make the films. Could it get any better?"

It was amazing to see so many films made with genuine passion in contrast to the bare bones of greed and cynicism covered by Hollywood special effects. Dark Days is Marc Singer's film about homeless people living underground in an Amtrak tunnel below New York's Penn Station. This 27-year-old British-born former model and scuba-diving instructor stumbled across a colony of almost 100 squatters living in shacks next to passing trains and vermin. During the day, like other homeless folk, they foraged in garbage cans for food and saleable items. At night they descended into the blackness of the tunnel. There, somehow, surrounded by rats with trains roaring a few feet away, they managed to cook and sleep, care for pet dogs and cats and even be good neighbours. An award winner at Sundance, Dark Days is at its best with monologues and confessions in which, much to our surprise, we recognize our common humanity One tunnel dweller, picking through cast-off food, says, as he drops a suspicious morsel back into the garb age can, "I don't like to eat anything I'm not familiar with." Singer and his underground friends, who took on the roles of both actors and crew, went through seven years of scrounging, begging and borrowing to make their grainy black-and-white 16mm film.

Startup.com, the festival's opening night film, is a story of a new Internet business directed by Chris Hegedus and Jehane Noujaim. The directors wisely avoided getting bogged down in technical matters and focused instead on organizational and financial problems as they followed two young entrepreneurs in classic cinema-verite style. Interestingly, Noujaim's close friendship with one of the two young men, brings the clash of business and personal relationships into stark relief.

Shelley Saywell's Out of the Fire, which won the Silver Award for Best Canadian Documentary, starts in 1942 when the German army came to a village called Lenin where Fanya Schulman was then a 15-year-old with a camera. When the 2,000 Jews of Lenin were rounded up to be shot, her photographic talent saved her life, and she escaped to join the partisans in the forest. Fifty-five years later, Shulman, who had made a new life in Canada, returned to her village. The most moving moments in the film come when she reconnects with her old guerrilla comrades. Saywell weaves Shulman's photos and her words into a powerful story of survival.

The Canada/France co-production Ravel's Brain, which won the Best Direction Award for Larry Weinstein, uses Ravel's music and very unusual and original visualizations to convey a sense of aphasia, a disease from which Ravel suffered in his last five years. It prevented him from writing down or communicating to others the music he could imagine in his brain. Interviews with Ravel's friends are combined with home movies and stills and some unique and dazzling directorial strategies. It's a film of marvellous flare and style.

Bay Waymen's and Luis O. Garcia's Spirits of Havana, the festival's dosing film is gorgeous, with an irresistible feeling of human warmth throughout. Jazz flutist Jane Bunnett travels through Cuba with her husband, trumpeter Larry Cramer, meeting old and new friends. They travel from Havana to the regional music centres of Mantazas, Cienfuegos and Camaguey. Jazz fans will love conga maestro Tata Guines's Ron con Ron and groups like Los Munequitos, Los Naranjos and Desandann, a cappella choir that sings in Haitian Creole. We also see Bunnett and Cramer work diligently repairing Cuba's precious old musical instruments. The Cuban music is like a huge river with many tributaries, Bunnett said.

Lalee's Kin: The Legacy of Cotton, is a devastating picture of a society in crisis. Lalee Wallace, a poor and illiterate survivor of sharecroppers from the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta, asks one of her many grandchildren and great grandchildren, "You want to go to jail or to school?" Educator Reggie Barnes tries to rescue the region's dysfunctional school system. It's a cinema-verite piece made by director Susan Froemke, editor Deborah Dickson, and Albert Maysles, whose cinematography won a special prize at Sundance 2001. The audience also really liked The Fairy Faith, John Walker's opening film of the Canadian Spectrum, with its tales of legends and lore, lovely and scary little figures gambolling in the hills of Cape Breton Island, the highlands of Scotland, the moors of Devon and, of course, Ireland. If you sit still and look carefully, sometimes you can almost see them.

With 70 films screened, one can usually expect some contrasts in style, but seldom as much as that between Dark Days and Books and the Night. Dark Days, with its black-and-white images and its focus on "the lower depths" and people at the end of their tether seems, deceptively, simple, even "primitive." In contrast, Books and the Night director Tristan Bauer provided the most elegant and polished film of the festival. In an amazing performance, actor Walter Santa Ana portrays the late, great Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges. Instead of the studied simplicity of Dark Days, Bauer uses every resource of film -- dramatizations, archive scenes, interviews, stills and quotations. All are blended into a complex film filled with visual metaphors. Each in their own way is a classic.
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Author:SAINT-ANDRE, LUCILLE DE
Publication:Take One
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jul 1, 2001
Words:1408
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