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Ashley Judd, Pulp Queen

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Hot Docs '14: In the Spotlight

[Amir, our Canadian correspondent, is reporting from The Hot Docs Film Festival, the biggest documentary festival in North America currently underway in Toronto.]

 One of the tendencies that festival-goers develop over time is finding connecting threads between films that might otherwise be completely unrelated. This unconscious search for umbrella themes, even if unintended by festival programmers, intensifies when you sit down to write about the films. At first glance, there is little connecting three films about aging Belgian transsexuals, Argentinian civilians on camera, and Turkish-American political pundits. Beneath the surface, though, all deal in some way with a desire for self-expression in the spotlight.

Before the Last Curtain Falls follows a group of gay and transsexual performers who get together in the later years of their lives to put on an avant-garde show called Gardenia. When the film begins in the hauntingly beautiful city of Ghent in Belgium, where the performers hail from, the show has already become a massive international success and it is returning home for one final performance after more than 200 outings. Director Thomas Wallner combines interviews with the cast members with footage of the show to paint a portrait of each of them, drawing on their experiences of sexual identity struggle, social oppression and therapeutic theatre work.

Before the Last Curtain Falls - Trailer from gebrueder beetz filmproduktion on Vimeo.


The formal structure feels familiar, but in spite of minimal exposition regarding the nature of Gardenia, the film captures the eccentricity and beauty of the stage play with resplendent photography. Yet, the film isn’t so much about Gardenia than the ways in which it affects its performers. The details of the show are less integral to experience of Last Curtain than the interviews, a collection of heartfelt anecdotes that are powerful, enraging, poetic and nostalgic all in equal measure. It is a compassionate, quietly moving look at the injustice that transsexuals face in the society and how, for this specific group of people, the experience of performance has been extremely cathartic.

A different form of self-expression is at the centre of Living Stars, an Argentine documentary that enters the lives of many people through a unique window: placing a static camera in front of them as they dance to an international hit. Everyone from young children to old retirees at a nursing home, from a valet driver to a dentist and his daughters is invited become one of the titular stars. Because of the variety of songs and performers on display, the clips range from exhilarating to slightly dull and everything in between, but the selection of these dancers in their personal space is far from accidental.

Directors Gaston Duprat and Mariano Cohn have carefully curated costumes, backgrounds and spectators to express the inclusivity of music as a language for expression. Clichéd as this sounds, Living Stars finds, through the universal force of music and dance, that there are more similarities between people around the world than there are differences. The film finds these similarities and celebrates them, and while it remains entertaining throughout, it nevertheless overstays its welcome despite a slight 63 minute runtime. The thesis of the film is neither fresh nor challenging enough to sustain it, though the reinterpretations of dances are quite entertaining and often funny to watch.

Yet another type of showmanship forms the basis for Mad as Hell, director Andrew Napier’s film about The Young Turks, which takes its title from the famous line uttered by Network’s Howard Beale. If you are unfamiliar with the work of TYT, they are the world’s largest online news show, founded and hosted by Cenk Uygur. It’s a progressive show whose brand of honest but often confrontational political coverage can irk as many people as it can entice. Their gradual but consistent rise to the top is an internet success story of the highest order, owing in large part to the invention of youtube in their early years.

Slickly produced over the course of several years, Napier’s film is easy to attack as hagiography. Mad as Hell barely stops short of hailing Cenk as an American hero, but this is a rare case of personal connection to the documentary’s subject overcoming its cinematic shortcomings in the eyes of this viewer. Having watched TYT since their early days, I have long admired their brand of news coverage and the personality with which they impose themselves on the viewers. Few anchors have the integrity to publicly discuss their past political positions, admit their mistakes, continually seek progress and vociferously advocate democracy. The makers of the film clearly believe that the news world is a better place because of TYT and they don’t temper that view in charting the history of the organizations evolution. Still, there is something for non-fans of the show in Mad as Hell as well: it might not be formally adventurous or particularly memorable, but its rags to riches tale — an American dream played out in real time — is fascinating and inspiring to watch. Perhaps it isn’t always the fault of a filmmaker if his subject seems positively larger than life.

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