Tag Archives: documentaries

Crossing The Line

Danny Lee Harris, 1984: a American track and field athlete who ran the 400-meter hurdles and won silver medals at the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. He was the guy who always finished behind Edwin Moses, a track and field phenom, known as the guy who never loses – and he never did; he had a decade-long winning streak of over 100 races, and never lost until 1987 in Madrid, where he was unseated by Harris.

Danny Lee Harris, 2004: arrested in Santa Monica, he’s charged with the kidnap and robbery of a 75 year old woman. He faced life in prison.

Crossing The Line covers the ground between these two formative events, and what led from one to the other. Hint: cocaine.

David Tryhorn’s documentary explores the highs of sports achievements, and the lows, especially comparatively, that come after it. There’s not much that competes with winning a medal for your country, but I suppose cocaine is close. An athlete almost has to have an addictive personality in order to keep that single-minded discipline required for elite training. But what happens when that career is over and the sport just doesn’t consume you the way it used to? There’s a void. Tryhorn uses interviews with Harris’s track and field colleagues and with addictions counselors to give a fuller picture of that post-race deflation effect.

For Harris, the more cocaine he did, the more raced he need to run and to win in order to fund his habit. But running meant exposing himself to drug tests. Eventually he was caught and banned for 4 years, effectively ending his career (at the time, steroid use, an actual performance enhancer, would have only gotten him 2 years). Harris’ downward spiral feels almost inevitable, but Tryhorn is careful to paint a wider picture in which he is only one of many athletes to trace that trajectory. Crossing The Line is a well-made film that shows the flip side to sporting fame and glory.







Keepers of the Game

High school funding for sports, and girls’ sports in particular, is on the decline, but fundraising isn’t the only issue for the members of the Salmon River High team. As the first all-Native girls lacrosse team in their section, they’ve got something to prove, and 22KEEPERS-master768not just to their rivals, but to their own community as well. Lacrosse was born on their land, the Akwesasne Mohawk Territory, but it’s a game traditionally reserved for men. Considered a gift from their Creator, lacrosse was meant as a way for men to settle disputes among tribes.  The community is split as to whether women should be allowed to play this sacred game at all. Some believe that like all surviving culture, theirs too must grow and change to meet the needs of the people. Others cling to tradition. But all agree that this game is medicinal and can be used for healing. When the girls play, they take it seriously; they too want to honour their culture. Is it really such an abomination to take up their Nation’s sport?

Lacrosse is Canada’s national sport (or its summer sport, hockey being our winter one), and it so happens that I grew up on the Canadian side of the Akwesasne Mohawk Territory. The fact that none of this was unfamiliar to me didn’t make the documentary any less watchable – that’s a real credit to the movie. I have a deep respect for Aboriginal people, for their values, culture and beliefs, but there’s still a big part of me that struggles to see any woman being shut out of, well, anything in 2017. So I’m going to remind myself of some pretty important cultural context: the 2012 Olympic Games in London were the first games in which every participating country included female athletes, and in which women were able to compete in all sports. The very first Olympics were of course men only, and when women did start competing last century, it was only in golf and tennis. Women didn’t curl or play hockey in the Olympics until 1998. Weightlifting, pentathlon, taekwondo, and triathlon weren’t added until 2000. Also new to women in sports this century: bobsled, wrestling, and BMX. And finally in 2012, boxing and ski jumping were added to make women competitive in every sport. Isn’t that crazy? Of course, just because those sports are now included doesn’t mean you’ll get to see them played. NBC still spends more time covering men’s sports than women’s, particularly in winter (women fare a little better in the summer because American women win more medals than their male counterparts – BUT EVEN THEN IT’S STILL NOT EQUAL). TV time for women’s sports are still mostly dedicated to thinks like gymnastics and figure skating rather than say, judo or shotput. Women’s beach volleyball seems to get quite a bit of coverage, but I’m not sure that’s about pride in athleticism so much as the REGULATION uniform of bikinis. Yes, American women do quite well in beach volleyball. In 2008 both the men’s and women’s teams medaled but more coverage went to the women’s teams. The women’s indoor team also medaled that year but it wasn’t covered at all. So before we get on our high horses about a culturally-held belief, we need to remember that the sports most associated with women today – figure skating, swimming, gymnastics, beach volleyball – are all sports in which women are non-aggressive and scantily clad.

Back to the movie. Director Judd Ehrlich does an excellent job of sitting back and letting the girls speak for themselves. It’s clear from footage that there is no lack of skill or athleticism, but the girls are also thoughtful and expressive. Ehrlich frames the documentary as one season’s push to defeat a rival team, win a championship, and change hearts and minds along the way, but this documentary, part of the programming at the Canadian Sports Film Festival, is also an exploration of culture and identity. School sports do not exist in a vacuum. The girls attend a public school where the curriculum is very light on, and sometimes misleading about Native culture. They are taunted with racial slurs. They play competitors that have racist mascots. The film is much more than the game. And thanks to nimble editing and savvy camerawork, it’s a thrill to watch, too.





10 Must-See Documentaries on Netflix

An earlier post flagged some good movies worth your time on Netflix. This one does the same but shines the spotlight on documentaries, an especially strong category on Netflix. These are current on Canadian Netflix as of May 2017 and clicking on blue titles will reveal a more detailed look at some very good films.

Sour Grapes: Welcome to the world of fine and rare wine auction markets, and how they were ripe for fraud. This doc centers on one particular counterfeiter who befriended the rich and powerful and swindled them out of millions of dollars.

13th: Ava DuVernay’s in-depth look at the prison system in the United States how it reveals America’s history of racial inequality. The system is busted. Get woke.

Jesus Camp: I’ve forced this one on a few people now because I think it’s daring and scary as fuck. It’s about a camp indoctrinating kids into evangelical Christianity and the extremism on display is alarming.

Muscle Shoals: A must-see for music lovers, it explores the studio itself and Rick Hall, the man behind it, responsible for making music that defined a generation, birthing the Muscle Shoals Sound, remaining influential and relevant today.

Peter and the Farm: One of the most authentic slices of life I’ve ever seen on film. Peter is an old man, the product of his addictions. He’s alone on his farm, resenting the land he once cherished, and counting down the days until he dies alone. Depressing but fascinating.

Tower: A look at the fateful day when a sharpshooter started killing people on a college campus in Austin, Texas. Effective story telling and a visual flair help piece together a narrative worthy of remembrance.

Raiders!: A somewhat gleeful fulfillment of a childhood dream. Friends who spent their youth remaking Raiders of the lost Ark reunite to film the one last scene that eluded them at the time due to budgetary and logistical reasons but is now within their grasp.

The Hunting Ground: An unflinching look at the campus rape epidemic: the boys who perpetrate it, the administrators who cover it up, and the girls and their families who lay devastated in its wake.

Miss Sharon Jones: Just as her singing career is exploding she’s sidelined by pancreatic cancer. It’s the worst year of her life, but she’s not the kind of woman who goes without a fight.

For The Love of Spock: A sweet tribute to his father, Leonard Nimoy, by a son in mourning for a father and a national icon. Learn about the man and his most famous character, and be touched by how much those two overlapped.


What are your Netflix picks?


Haus of Pain

The first thing you probably should know is that James Willems and Lawrence Sonntag are popular YouTubers. They are hosts on a channel called Funhaus, which has over a million subscribers. You might think that that playing video games and talking about them to the Internets with your buddies sounds like a dream job, but Willems held on to a niggling desire to fulfill a childhood dream: to become a pro-wrestler.
Haus of Pain is the documentary that watches James follow his dream as his indulgent f155e0c3b6dc092e-e1492785639801-959x512.pngfriend Lawrence gamely tags along. They take vacation time from work in order to work out at a wrestling school to learn the moves, and to develop characters. Old home video of James proves that wrestling has indeed been a life-long obsession of his. It also proves that he should be embarrassed about this, but he isn’t, not even when the costumes arrive and PVC is the material of choice.
The two train, are big babies about small injuries, and spend most of their time cultivating their alter egos – James Angel and The Troll – in order to sell the wrestling “story”. When they’re eventually deemed ready, they meet up in a tag team match against a hateful pair ready to rip them apart in from of literally dozens of their fans.
Here’s the thing. When I was a little girl, my dream job was to work in a Bandaid factory. I can’t quite work up the same enthusiasm for it as I did back then, but here’s what I know: I was the eldest of four daughters in my family, each one cuter and needier than the last. My (single) mother only had attention to spare for me if I was bleeding, so I cultivated an interest in Bandaids right quick, being the smart aleck in the family. And back then Bandaids weren’t the sterile little pieces of plastic they are today. They were fabric. And that fabric was disgusting immediately. It picked up every germ you ever 150107105154-childhood-dream-jobs-men-2-super-169encountered, stayed damp constantly from the merest of hand-washings, and developed a distinct, pervasive smell. A smell that I LOVED. So obviously to work in a Bandaid factory and be surrounded by these miraculous little sympathy-earners all day long would be a dream come true. One of my sisters dreamed of becoming a berry picker, another of being a gas pumper, and another aspired to become a member of Barbie’s band (sure they were cartoon fictional characters, but why not dream big?). I have no idea how we all turned out to be educated, gainfully employed adults, but it has a little something to do with letting go of our foolish childhood dreams, I’m guessing.
James went for his. And whether you find that inspirational or irrational is a matter of opinion – one you can form by checking out the doc.
Haus of Pain premiered on April 28th exclusively on FIRST, Rooster Teeth’s streaming service available at RoosterTeeth.com and on Xbox One, Apple TV, iOS and Android apps.
What did you want to be when you grew up?

Hobbyhorse Revolution

I was excited to review this film for Hot Docs because I’d heard of and was mystified by ‘hobbyhorsing’ and needed to know more about it.

Hobbyhorsing is a lot like the horse competitions you’re used to seeing on TV, or in Olympic events.  Dressage, an equestrian sport, is the highest expression of horse training. In the events, you’ll watch horse and rider perform a sequence of events from memory, including piaffe (a special kind of trot), and pirouette (a 360 degree turn). In the obstacle event, the horses will jump over poles. Horse and rider are judged on how smoothly they go through the movements, and how willingly and with minimal cues the horse performs.

In hobbyhorsing, the competitions are similar, except – NO SHIT – performed with a fake horse. A hobbyhorse: those toys for small children which consist of a horse head on a broomstick.

Hobbyhorse Revolution is a documentary that sheds light on this burgeoning community, and on the people who compete (they’re older than you’d think).

Competitors “train” extensively, but don’t forget it’s their own two feet doing all the work. The ‘horses’ get off pretty lightly but are still given starring roles. Their ‘riders’ talk about them as though they are real: this one is ‘energetic’, this one ‘well-schooled.’ They are ridden with whips and put away with stable blankets. You know, in case they get fake cold.

The teen-aged girls interviewed for the film are almost all troubled in one way or another and I can’t believe that’s a coincidence. Playing make-believe with toy horses is a blatant extension of childhood. In this light, hobbyhorsing is perhaps not simply a curiosity but a disturbing trend – 10 000 “hobbyhorseists” in Finland and growing. Unfortunately, the film maker fails to answer that most obvious of questions: why? What is happening to these girls that they’ve left their peers and retreated to the safe but immature world of racing fake horses? Interesting but superficial, Hobbyhorse Revolution is a hollow look at a surprising new safety blanket.


[Between you and I, I can’t really watch a 17 year old young woman prancing around with a stick between her legs and not wonder if it’s somewhat sexual. Or entirely sexual. Either way, something here is messed up.]


Hot Docs: A Cambodian Spring

Land rights are a super contentious issue in Cambodia, where the communist Khmer Rouge regime banned private property in the 1970s, destroying tonnes of land documents in the process.

As a result, at least two thirds of Cambodians, most of them poor, of course, don’t have proper deeds for the land they live on. Over the last ten years or so, thousands have been evicted and forcibly removed from their homes in various land-grabbing schemes, mostly perpetrated by their own government, referred to in his film as a “fake democracy.”

1L6PdFeXFilm maker Chris Kelly follows three people over the course of 6 years to get a grip on their experiences. Toul Srey Pov and Tep Vanny are two young mothers who allowed their land on the Boeung Kak Lake to be measured by the government, supposedly to receive accurate land titles. Instead, the government leased their land to a private company, Shukaku, which “happens” to have ties to the Prime  Minister. Shukaku is dumping sand into the lake, flooding the streets of Boeung Kak, forcing people from their homes. These women are too poor to abandon their homes. The compensation offered by Shukaku is laughable, insufficient to start over elsewhere. But those who stay risk their lives – already 3 have died by electrocution alone.

A Cambodian Spring shows how corruption and oppression still rule in Cambodia, but more than that, it highlights our own role in this: the failure of the World Bank to enforce its own resettlement policy, and the international complicity in allowing this to happen to regular people who believe they should be able to live in the homes they have purchased.

Although a bit overlong, A Cambodian Spring is an eye-opening and intimate portrait of citizens-turned-activists, and the cost, both personally and politically, that comes with fighting back.


Operation Wedding

In 1970, Anat Zalmanson-Kuznetsov’s parents had tried to leave Leningrad several times, and several times they’d been refused. Out of legal options, they decided to flee. They and their friends dreamed up Operation Wedding, in which they’d fill a plane full of people ostensibly on their way to a wedding, and once in the air, they’d have the pilot change course. Lacking the 200 conspirators necessary for this plan, they set their sights on a smaller plane, and their group of 16 bought up all the tickets. They planned to leave the operation-wedding-2016-i-movie-posterpilots behind on the tarmac and would use their own pilot; the border was just 15 minutes away and the plane would be empty save for those wishing to escape. Anat’s parents never made it onto the plane, caught by the KGB mere steps from boarding. Her mother was sentenced to 10 years in the Gulag. Her father received a life sentence. This is their story.

The programmers at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival have done an excellent job of presenting some very interesting stories at this year’s festival, but this one may take the rugelach (I know-forgive me).

Even today, Russia remembers them as terrorists. But who were they terrorizing? They simply wanted to leave the USSR. that was their crime. They knew the risk they were taking and were prepared to pay the price if caught; most preferred death. In court, they openly declared their wish to leave, and refused to beg for mercy. Two of the sixteen were sentenced to be executed by shooting, the first time the death sentence has been invoked in a hijacking case, plot foiled or not.

Israel held protests: the entire state stood still for those who may be put to death for a crime they didn’t even commit in the end. Jewish organizations in other countries joined in. Hunger strikes were held. And behind the scenes, Golda Meir was secretly pulling strings so that Spain’s “Franco the Fascist” would commute the death sentences of 6 cop killers, thinking that Brezhnev the Communist would try to out-humane Franco the dictator.

The documentary uses archival footage and primary-source interviews, but it’s Anat’s family connection that really brings it alive. When she visits the gulag cell where her mother did time, the bleak reality overwhelms her, and it moved me to tears as well.

Operation Wedding screens as part of TJFF

Friday 5 May, 1:00 PM – Alliance Francaise

Sunday 7 May, 1:30 PM – Cineplex Cinemas Empress Walk 6

Director Anat Zalmanson-Kuznetsov will be in attendance.


Hot Docs: Tokyo Idols

What saved a 43 year old man from depression? What is he so devoted to he refers to it as a religion? What is so intoxicating he’s blown through his life’s savings? Sad-sack middle-aged men in Japan are flocking to ‘pop’ concerts performed by underage girls. They’re called Idols in Japan, they perform in ‘girl groups,’ and to date there about 10 000 of them.

They’re providing a coveted if creepy role in modern Japanese society: comfort to men MV5BOTk0OTQ1NjYzNV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwODA4NzE5MDI@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,999_AL_who have very little else going on. In a tanking economy, middle aged men find themselves with poor jobs, little money, and even less confidence. It’s no wonder they’ve stopped dating real women and have shifted their fantasies toward little girls, who run no risk of rejection. The Idols host “meet and greets” where their fans will of course pay a lot of money to have a minute’s worth of childish conversation and a handshake – in a culture where the handshake still has a sexual component to it, having been completely taboo between the sexes until only a few decades ago.

Yes, watching these stunted middle aged men fawn over children is uncomfortable. They worship virginity, prefer girls who are “still developing,” and believe that 17 is past prime. Their worst fear is that these girls will grow up to be strong women. Sapped of self worth, many men in Japan have quit dating ‘real’ women altogether. The birth rate is falling. Idol culture is proliferating. The men who adore them beyond all reason are called ‘Otaku’. These super fans would put even the most fervent Justin Bieber fan to shame. Not long ago, Otaku were considered failures, some song lyrics even called them filthy pigs, but they are becoming more and more mainstream.

The Idols, meanwhile, are on constant parade, never far from a judging eye. Every year there are Idol elections, where the men pick their favourite girls to perform for the next calendar year. For the girls it becomes about winning male adoration, and they become conditioned to want it from an alarmingly young age. The men can spend thousands (monthly!) attending concerts, accumulating merchandise, and buying time with the girls. If this sounds like prostitution to you, you’re not wrong. It’s even creepier than prostitution, isn’t it? There’s no intercourse taking place, but money changes hands for its substitution.

Director Kyoko Miyake does an excellent job absorbing her audience into this obsession. I almost felt like a voyeur, that’s how intimate her access is. And as morbidly fascinating, as this phenomenon is, Miyake expertly nestles it within a social context that deepens our understanding of it. While I was discomforted watching these transactions take place, it’s clear that the lines are blurrier in Tokyo. Miyake carefully shows both sides, the good with the bad, finding what sympathy she can in the humanity of it. Tokyo Idols is a really interesting watch and my only complaint is that I wanted even more. I’m positive there are even darker themes here to explore (what happens to the past-prime girls, for example?) and I can only hope that we’ll see more from this director in the future.


Like a Lotus Flower

like a lotus flower

Like a Lotus Flower is both a memorial to a lost mother and an example of how death can decimate a family.  The story is told in a way that keeps the viewer guessing and even though that is frustrating at times, that choice definitely made me pay total attention to this film in order to figure out how each person fit into the narrative.

At base, this is Eliya Swarttz’s story.  She lost her mother, Hedy, to breast cancer at a very young age.  Eliya wrote and directed Like a Lotus Flower, and reflects on her past through a combination of home video footage, interviews with the other family members, excepts from her childhood journals, and animated sequences.

The artwork in the animated sequences is a highlight.  Tonally, the art is an extension of the title, the visual equivalent of a flower blooming from the mud.  It is beautiful, somehow bright and sad at the same time, and ties the interviews and video footage together nicely.

It’s quite a puzzle to figure this family out, particularly when Eliya’s first father figure is her dad’s brother, who not only introduced Eliya’s parents to each other but also professes a deep and complex love for Hedy.  He refers to their relationship as being one between two emotional cripples who were trying to save each other.  For reasons that are not really explained, Eliya’s biological father is noticeably absent from the film and Eliya’s life in general.

There are also other notable and unexplained absences that will leave the viewer guessing, but perhaps that is the point.  There is no rhyme or reason to life and death, and this film captures the ebb and flow of people entering and leaving our lives as we grow.  Asking why Eliya’s mother died or why her father is absent is as effective as shouting into the wind.  These events happened and Eliya dealt with them (and is clearly still dealing with them in making this movie), and she bloomed out of a difficult situation.

By the end, Eliya is able to admit to herself and her family members how difficult her adolescence truly was despite her brave face, and when she does it feels like a breakthrough.  Like a Lotus Flower allows the viewer to participate in that therapeutic process as Eliya reconciles with her past, and does so in a way that is interesting and relatable.

Like a Lotus Flower is part of the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, screening May 10 at 3:30 p.m.


Hot Docs: Sunday Beauty Queen

Hong Kong, like many cities around the world, benefits from the help of underpaid Filipino workers. A local domestic worker would cost $8 an hour, but a Filipina in the same role works round the clock, 6 days a week, for just $500 a month. There are strict rules for these poor workers, who aren’t allowed to maintain their own residences (if they could even afford them). They often sleep in the kitchen, which is also where they eat, alone, after having served the family. These are the people who care for the elderly or nurture the very young. Away from their own families, often even leaving young children behind, they pour love and care into their duties while receiving very little in return.

sunday_beauty_queen-4Sunday Beauty Queen examines these workers, and the pastime they enjoy in their very limited time off: beauty pageants. Every Sunday they gather in events they organize themselves, strutting their stuff in costumes equal portions prom dress and cardboard accoutrements.

This well-intentioned documentary by Baby Ruth Villarama sheds light on important issues faced by migrant workers but lacks real depth, raising more questions than it answers. These women run themselves ragged serving others, sending all of their money back home to the families they left behind. They reclaim their dignity and their personhood on Sundays, competing in made-up beauty pageants. If the awarding of crowns and sashes runs late, they could lose their jobs on the spot for coming in past curfew. Instantly homeless in a foreign country, they have 14 days to find new employment or they are forced to leave. Many can’t even afford to leave, due to fees charged by both Hong Kong and the Philippines coming and going, on top of airfare and the shame of going home empty-handed.

I loved getting to know the women in this documentary, but I wish I knew them better, had a fuller sense of their stories. Sunday Beauty Queen is an excellent start, but these workers deserve a bigger piece of the pie, both in life and on film.



This review first appeared at Cinema Axis.