Hot Docs review: ‘Position among the Stars’

8 05 2011

You won’t find a stronger documentary that so beautifully brings out Indonesia’s churning social and religious questions than Position among the Stars (Stand van de Sterren), which screened recently at Toronto’s Hot Docs festival. Earlier this year the film took home the Best Feature-length Documentary at IDFA and a World Cinema Special Jury Prize at the Sundance festival.

Directed and shot by Dutch filmmaker Leonard Retel Helmrich, it’s the concluding film in a trilogy following a poor family living through modern-day Indonesia’s tumultuous decade of change. (His first two films The Eye of the Day and Shape of the Moon won the Joris Ivens Award IDFA – 2004, and the World Cinema Documentary Grand Jury Prize at Sundance – 2005.)

Position among the Stars continues Helmrich’s 12-year documentation of Rumidjah, an elderly Christian grandmother living in the world’s largest Muslim community, and her family. Rumidjah struggles to keep her non-observant Muslim sons on track, and to provide for her granddaughter’s uncertain future in an increasingly globalized economy. Through the microcosm of a single family, we see all the issues Indonesia is struggling to come to grips with today.

Helmrich’s cinematography style is astonishingly intimate. Using his unique “Single-shot Cinema” method – his excellent website where he describes his trademark style is here – and an array of relatively cheap consumer cameras, he brings the audience into startling moments of truth in the family’s life.

After a screening he answered some questions about his film:

Describe your filming technique and how you got such intimate scenes with this family.

I didn’t want to be just an observer, and standing, shooting scenes from the outside. I wanted to be a participant, among them. As I filmed, I was just being with them, together.

There is a drama going on always, and when you get to know people you can predict what will happen, and I just make sure that I get the right angle from the right place. I call it single-shot cinema. At a scene, I shoot in a single shot and only in the editing it gets cut.

I also used five different cameras, normally I have just consumer cameras, but they are all specialized in certain things. I use them like a painter would use a brush. So I can say that in this situation, “this camera would be best.”

In the scene of the boy running (ED NOTE: a long scene with multiple shots of a young boy running through Jakarta’s alleys after he’d stolen some clothes) I just ran after him, and he ran away… but I knew where he would go, I knew his labyrinth by then. So when I had a number of my shots and I thought “if I want to make my story round I should do something extra – I should do with the camera what he wanted to do himself.” The boy wanted to fly. So I took the little camera and put it on a bamboo stick and lifted it up to get a kind of a crane shot.

How much time did you spend with the family, and how did you meet them?

I was there about 14 months, almost every day, actually living their life for that time. This is the third part of a trilogy, the first I shot almost 12 years ago, so they know me quite a lot.

In 1990 was the first time I went to the village where my mother was born, and it was there I met them. Rumidjah’s husband was still alive, he was about twenty years older than her and he still could speak a little Dutch. Because of the old colonial tie. So it was a great bond between us and we became friends. It was just before the fall of Suharto (May 1998.)

And then I hired Bakti (Rumidjah’s son) as a driver and I was seeing what was happening with the family. And it was historical, this change in the country because the Suharto family was a dictator and he had to step down, and there were huge protests, and it was similar to what is happening now in Arab countries. And I saw that what was happening in their life was a microcosm of what was happening in greater Indonesia so I thought, I’d better focus on them.

Can you talk a bit about the themes you pulled out?

The main reason I decided to focus on religion, economy and politics is because it’s the three things that are very much changing and making this turmoil in Indonesia. If you look at every newspaper they are really the three main things. The economy is booming, but there is a also a kind of reaction from the religious part. And politics of course, you have to cope with these events.

Helmrich said he doesn’t plan to film a fourth installment, but if something were to happen in the family that was important with respect to Indonesia, then “I’m ready.”

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Hot Docs 2011

1 05 2011

Officially, Hot Docs began April 28th. But it feels like still it’s the “party weekend” before Hot Docs really begins – the Hot Docs that for so many in the film industry means endless meetings, sweaty pitches, making connections and hopefully, landing a deal.

I’ve had the chance to meet some wonderful people, from festival programmers to producers and filmmakers (mostly at the amazing social nights that start after 9 every day) but the best thing about Hot Docs is, of course, the films. That’s why we’re all here. To see the incredible results of a filmmaker’s vision. To delight in watching what took sometimes five or ten years of work to realize.

So without further introduction, here’s a slice of a few of the films I’ve had the privilege to see over the last 3 days.

The Bengali Detective is my personal pick for audience favourite of the year.

It’s hard to claim that after having only seen 7 films, knowing there are so many excellent ones out there. Over 200 of them! But this film is a true crowd-pleaser. It follows the engaging, loveable Rajesh Ji, a private investigator who secretly wants to be a Bollywood dancer. It’s a crime show-whodunnit-love story-tragi-comedy that hits all the right notes.

Rajesh’s work is serious, as people call on him to solve crimes they feel the police don’t care about. The film points out a system that still today, for all of India’s progress, oppresses the poor and makes the vulnerable pay. But rather than the typical story about another heartbreaking struggle, the story is so vibrant and full of courage, so tragic and comic, that I gained a totally new compassion and understanding of India.

Rajesh is also a loving father and husband, and it’s touching to see his expressive affection for his son and wife. There’s a tragedy lurking, but I’ll let you watch it  – it’s a heartbreaker. All in all I felt this is like a feature film with all the right elements to pull a sophisticated audience along, and it all just happens to be true.

A second favourite is ‘Fightville’, a film about amateur mixed martial arts (MMA) fighters, by veteran filmmakers Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein. Here’s a more complete review in the Globe and Mail than mine could ever be.

I’m not sure why it appealed to me so much – certainly not because of the violence inside the cage where young men in the prime do their best to destroy their opponent. The more realistic the violence, the paler and more uncomfortable I become. It’s not a film for the faint of heart. But I loved this film because it challenged a lot of pre-conceived notions I had about MMA and UFC fighting. It’s a character study with a cage as a set and the sound of blows and grunts as the soundtrack.

It also has a strong theme of the journey to becoming a man. The film follows two young men who have dedicated their lives to being the best fighter in the ring, Dustin Poirier and Albert Stainback. One from a violent childhood, the other who looked up to his fighter father and wants to be just like him. In the sweat and blood of the Louisiana gym where they train, we watch them both learn more about life and themselves. Both men are articulate and give a voice to why some men turn to violence to express what’s inside.

We see through ‘Fightville’ that it almost doesn’t matter that the discipline is mixed martial arts. These men could be training to be fighter pilots or chefs. But through the journey of committing themselves and pursuing something so totally if they’re going to be the best, they become better men. And that’s a story every athlete and artist can relate to.

More reviews to come, I’ve got to sign off for now.





Storytelling from the fringe

6 12 2010

“Fringe” is a word I used to dislike very much. Maybe because I’m too conservative…? Traditional? Or maybe because I’m the kind of gal who likes to include everybody. Why should we celebrate “fringe” unless we want to practice exclusion as a society? No one should be on the fringes of community!

However, my gripe with “fringe” is possibly the very reason I’m working to become a documentary filmmaker. This is what causes me to go to those the mainstream considers “on the outside” and invite them in, by letting them tell their story to a wider audience who might not otherwise get to hear it.

Telling your story is a powerful way to invite people into your life. Through storytelling, others are invited into your conversation, and you grow into their community. Memoirs, first-person narratives, personal documentary journeys – these could all be just as easily defined as “testimonials” because they testify to where we’ve been, and who we become through the individual circumstances in our lives.

With that in mind – and because it was free, thanks UBC Dialogues! – I attended a panel discussion on “Storytelling from the Fringe” Saturday at the Whistler Film Festival. You want to hear about the juicy scoop on the films don’t you? Well, sorry to disappoint, I didn’t see a single one.

Saturday night’s film A Life Ascending directed by Stephen Grynberg was sold out, and I wasn’t into seeing the German thriller The Silence, although it looks very good. So no movies for me in Whistler, however I did go later that evening to see the striking film Fair Game in a Vancouver theatre – the fascinating account of Valerie Plame being outed as a CIA agent by the Bush administration, and the “discovery” of non-existent WMD that lead to the Iraq war.)

But here’s a good roundup of the fest. I was happy to note that the one film I would have liked to see again after watching it at Hot Docs, Marwencol, won a $2,500 documentary award for “an intimate portrait of an artist who lives between fantasy and reality and whose miniaturized world magnifies our own.”

It’s an incredible film, a fascinating portrait of an artist using toys in to-scale human dramas to deal with the psychological aftermath he lives with after receiving a vicious beating. Here’s an interview with director Jeff Malmberg.

But back to what I did see…

Documentary directors Gwen Haworth (Not Kokura and She’s a Boy I Knew), Nettie Wild (director of A Rustling of Leaves: Inside the Philippine Revolution (1988), Blockade (1993), A Place Called Chiapas (1998), and Fix: The Story of an Addicted City (2002 ) and experimental video artist Daniel Cockburn talked about their experiences in making films “from the fringe.”

In Nettie and Gwen’s case they spoke about filming subjects who are often marginalized from the mainstream, and in Daniel’s case, about his extremely experimental films which – for most people – kind of defines “fringe”, even though he himself was reluctant to subscribe to the term. I’m going to focus on what Nettie had to say because her approach is closest to the kinds of stories I want to tell. And as a sought-after mentor in documentary film who has worked the longest term of the three as a filmmaker, she has a lot of wisdom to offer.

Nettie said that every day she’s filming or editing, she has to ask herself: “Why on earth am I doing this?” She said she is aware that she comes as an outsider to her documentary subjects. Whether in the Chiapas, the Phillipines, or a relationship between a drug addict and a non-user on Vancouver’s streets, Nettie gains access to a world she doesn’t come from through trust and friendship. But it can only go so far. She knows she can only “walk alongside” these people in order to tell their story – which she describes as “high stakes dramas” – and is only allowed as deep as her subjects will take her.

The answer to her question though, is the people themselves who trust her with their stories. Because they’ve been courageous enough to open up and make themselves vulnerable to a perfect stranger, she has an obligation to fulfill, a film to make. This is also why Nettie says she works for a full year following the release of any of her films to ensure it gets as wide a distribution as possible. This is to honour her unspoken contract with her subjects: they let her into their lives and in return she works hard to bring the story to the public, right next to the blockbuster showing at Cineplex.

In Nettie’s case, it seems the “fringe” element is the classic reason documentarians exist: to bring the stories of life on the lonely edges of what we know into the light of the known and acknowledged. (There’s a new book out about Nettie and her films from Anvil Press, and a retrospective of her work will be showing January 15 – 17 at the Pacific Cinematique.)

While Nettie’s stories tend to use a linear, direct-line narrative, Daniel’s experimental videos are far from linear. It took him about 3.5 minutes to explain his latest film You are here to the audience, and even then he had to say the film never makes it clear where the story is set or how his characters are related. In his case, the unconventional mediums Daniel uses to encase his stories is the “fringe” element. (Click here for a good interview with the director about the film.)

Gwen’s perspective as a filmmaker from the fringes is very different yet again.

Her up-close and personal documentary film She’s a boy I knew is an “ethnographic autobio pic” of her family and ex-wife’s experiences and emotions as the filmmaker underwent gender reassignment from male to female. In this case, the subject matter is the fringe area.

Gwen spoke about her determination to honour the voices of those making themselves vulnerable to the camera – her father, mother, sister, best friend and ex-wife – and spoke about how she strove not to centre the film around her life as a transsexual lesbian.

I thought Gwen’s comments were powerful because the tendency in filmmaking is to focus the action on the “hero” – the classic protagonist-going-through-fire. In this case the principal actor chose to truly tell this story from the fringes, from the perspective of those around her.

So far… I have to say that compared to these folk, my storytelling from the fringes has been limited thus far. But there are a few: about a Young Man who decides to quit life on the streets and his home in a Montreal squat, a Woman whose faith goes counter to ordinary human logic as she bucks the odds and brings healing through horsemanship to the “lost children of the earth”, and a couple of Trappers in northeastern BC who love the bush and animals enough to get risk getting involved in the regulatory system around oil and gas extraction.

More on that story to come…





VIFF – Storyville

23 09 2010

I’ve booked myself in for a day of story pitches at the Vancouver International Film Festival.

14 pitches.

4 hours.

More than 1 palpitating heart, to be sure.

I’m excited to see and hear how seasoned directors and producers present their ideas. What works and what flops. Who will toast themselves with champagne after and who will drown in whiskey. Who will walk out with a deal and who goes home to walk the dog with a sinking, deadened feeling in their gut.

They must be nervous – I mean, who wouldn’t be? You’re standing in front of people who can give you the money you need to make your dream film happen. Or not. One day I’ll be up there. Strangely though, then I think of the possibility of one day standing in front of a panel of commissioning editors and broadcasters, preparing to pitch my heart out, I actually don’t feel like vomiting. I feel… calm.

Because once I have my heart set on something, I know I can convince almost anyone to see my vision. They don’t stand a chance of resisting my charm. You just need to have that devil-may-care attitude that says “I’m going to make this film whether you get on board or not – I’m just giving you a chance to jump in now because you need it. You need my story. I don’t need you.” They’ll eat me up, I have no qualms about that.

So, only two things have stopped me from totally conquering the world of broadcasting to date.

1. I don’t know how to pitch. Rather, I don’t know how they expect you to pitch. Know the rules and then you can break them, right?

2. Need to firm up the story I’m pursuing. The battle over resources in the North – land vs. gas, water vs. oil, unspoiled wilderness vs. skyrocketing shares – is a big one and I don’t yet have the angle I need. I know we’re going to pursue this story. I know it will be huge. I know it’s important to the rest of Canada, even to the world.

What I don’t know is my “in”, that unique perspective that will let this story unfold naturally and seamlessly. Until I have my own angle I won’t have that deadly confidence I’ll need to pitch it and get a contract.

So for now I’ll kick back and watch the others sweat, and probably lose my premature and entirely unwarranted arrogance somewhere along the way.

I think I’ll sneak in some whiskey.

UPDATE: Also going to the FREE Melting Silos meet&greet reception on Wednesday: http://meltingsilos.eventbrite.com/

Digital media producers + film producers/directors = key to success “Join the Melting Silos team for a drink at a “non-virtual-real-3D-interactive” event to meet in-person! Graciously held during the VIFF Trade Forum, it will take place after a digital media discussion. Geared for filmmakers and digital media companies, we’ll do some quick roundtable-type discussions and you will meet a bunch of new people. We’ll also announce the call for the 2010 Melting Silos applications. Melting Silos is a transmedia development project supported by Telefilm, NFB, Praxis, BC Film and Agentic Communications, Inc. http://meltingsilos.com”





Filmmaker Magnus Isacsson’s take on Hot Docs

11 05 2010

Bloor Theatre: glowing in all its gritty glory in the sunshine of a May day in Toronto

I’m interning with documentary filmmaker Magnus Isacsson for a few months. Here’s his take on some screenings he took in at the Hot Docs festival (Toronto, May 2010.)

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Bloor Theatre Hot Docs Marquee