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Hot Docs '14: Beyond Clueless, The Secret Trial 5

[Amir, our Canadian correspondent, is reporting on The Hot Docs Film Festival which wrapped Sunday. Reviews will continue this week.] 

In the history of cinema, there are few genres that receive as little acclaim or critical analysis as the high school film does. British critic Charlie Lyne's (of Ultra Culture blog fame) visual essay is therefore a treasure for enthusiasts of recent film history. In Beyond Clueless, he examines teenage characters in a wide variety of films produced between 1996 and 2004. Little of the titular film is shown, though its influence over the films that came after it looms large. From The Craft to Mean Girls, from The Faculty to Rules of Attraction, via Spider-man, Final Destination and everything in between, the high school student is analyzed through the tumultuous process of entering that period of adolescence and exiting it unscathed and transformed.

Beyond Clueless itself takes on the narrative arc of a teen movie. Divided in five chapters that are designed to embody the high school experience, it begins with ‘Fitting In’ and ends with ‘Moving On.’ No new material is added to the clips taken from the films discussed, but crucially, the lengthy essay is narrated by Fairuza Balk, star of The Craft, whose somber but familiar voice instills the film a teen personality of its own. [More...]

The American Pie image posted when "Beyond Clueless" was fully funded on Kickstarter.

Although the study is academic in approach, what is beautiful about this documentary is it doesn’t rob its subjects – the epitome of plastic pop culture – of their romantic and nostalgic charm. It is as loving toward them as it is critical.

The framework for the experiment is the thematic similarities that connect the films: stories about being outcast, misfit, repressed or misunderstood. Sexuality plays as big a part in Beyond Clueless as it does in many depictions of teenagers in the films of the era, from the high-minded likes of American Beauty to allegorical camp like Idle Hands. Formal similarities are also explored as the film charts visual tropes and even shot by shot resemblances between the subjects – in one particular sequence, more than a dozen passionate kisses in swimming pools across different films highlight in equal measure the creative bankruptcy and the glorified fantastical ideas of romance in the high school film. Ultimately, Beyond Clueless is an incredibly personal experience to its young director. Having spent his adolescent years watching these films, his genuine enthusiasm for the material shines through the screen. Here are films that defined an era for cinephiles of a certain age, yet never receive a retrospective examination. That this director does so with such passion is a triumph, made all the better for its deep insight, sharp humour and careful structure.

No trace of Beyond Clueless’s breeziness can be found in The Secret Trial 5, a political documentary about five Arab men illegitimately arrested in Canada more than a decade ago. In the wake of the strikes on the World Trade Centre buildings, when kneejerk reactions by governments and their media to find terrorism suspects ran rampant, these men were detained on mysterious allegations of Al-Qaeda connections in Ontario and Quebec. The Canadian law contains an element called a ‘security certificate’, under which the government is allowed to arrest individuals suspected of activities against national security without providing details about the charges. Consequently, the men were arrested while their files were kept hidden, away from them, their families and even their lawyers.

What they originally believed to be solvable in a matter of hours became a complicated, indecipherable problem that protracted over days, weeks, months and years. To this day, they have spent a combined 50 years under the security certificate, in various stages of detention and house arrest. Heavily reliant on interviews with the men and everyone else involved – but not, crucially, any agency of the Canadian government – the subject matter isn’t one that lends itself easily to stylization and formal innovation. Not that one necessarily needs to take it to task for that shortcoming. The film has an irresistible emotional punch, consistently enraging its audience with a chronological, but escalating ‘you-didn’t-think-it-would-get-this-bad’ structure. The Secret Trial 5 is intelligent and composed, reflecting the demeanor of protagonists who exhibit astounding calmness in the face of injustice and government-sanctioned blanket racism, even when one of them endures 156 days of hunger strike to protest his imprisonment. This might not be the festival’s most cinematically challenging film, but it is one of the most powerful and one that we will certainly hear about more toward the year’s end.

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Reader Comments (5)

I was really looking forward to watching Beyond Clueless and your review made it even clearer.

May 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNoecitos

Props for using Jawbreaker as the poster.

May 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSad man

Beyond Clueless sounds fabulous; I love that they included teens from relatively highbrow fare as well. Adding it to my queue immediately.

May 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

Does he discuss Dazed and Confused at all? As far as movies about high schoolers go, that's by far my favourite.

May 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMDA

MDA- If I remember correctly, it is included in the clips that they show (among more than a hundred other films) but they don't discuss it separately at length.

May 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAmir

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