The Imposter

This documentary was originally reviewed after screening at Canada’s Hot Docs 2012.

Impossible, improbable, imposter – ★★★★★

The Imposter is one of those films that is best enjoyed the less you know about it going in. If you’ve managed to escape the story of 13-year-old Nicholas Barclay’s missing persons case, then do your best not to google things. In a story that you wouldn’t believe if it were fiction, “Barclay” who went missing from his home in Texas in 1994, shows up four years later in Spain. I’m not ruining anything by using those little inverted commas as the title of the film tells you everything may not be as it seems.

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Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry was the opening film of the 2012 Hot Docs festival, screening at Toronto’s Bloor Cinema on Thursday April 26th. Check out all our Hot Docs coverage here.

Chinese whispers - ★★★½

For a Chinese artist to be named in Time’s people of the year list is quite remarkable but to call Ai Weiwei (pronounced “I way-way”) simply an “artist” is to do a real disservice to everything else he stands for.

Weiwei came to international prominence for being one of the design consultants on the “Bird’s Nest” Beijing Olympic Stadium, and then holding one of the few dissenting voices from within China as he boycotted the games for not being inclusive or open enough.

He embarked on a series of investigations into whether the Chinese authorities had followed proper building practices in the construction of schools that collapsed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. More than 5,000 children died in these  “tofu-skin schools”, and Weiwei went on to honour their memory by mounting thousands of backpacks onto the walls of Munich’s Haus der Kunst for his “So Sorry” exhibition.

Running parallel to his public art is a campaign against a Chengdu police officer who assaulted him one night. Weiwei had to get surgery to deal with swelling in his skull following the incident and documented every moment of the procedure, recovery and attempted legal action against the authorities. Weiwei’s use of Twitter sees him bringing the hypocrisy and oppression at play in modern China to an international audience with the simple act of sharing a photograph of himself lying in bed with his head wrapped in bandages.

In many ways the Sichuan earthquake activism and Weiwei’s bureaucratic campaign to get justice against the police-man who assaulted him feel much more important than what is presented as his “art”. Like many large-scale artists (messrs Warhol and Hirst come to mind), Weiwei employs workers to do almost all of his art production. He is still the ideas man and we do see him in his studio directing things, but the token shot of him painting some of the millions of the sunflower seed exhibition at the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall feels almost like he’s just playing along for the cameras.

| o | - I, Me-Me

Sometimes a first-time documentary director just gets lucky. In 2008, Alison Klayman happened to be living in China as a recent journalism graduate thinking about a career in documentaries. A friend asks her to take some footage of a new photo exhibition of Weiwei’s time in New York in the 1980s. She builds up a relationship with him and begins to document his work.

And so over the next two and a half years she has access to a man whose profile seems to be expanding exponentially. Following him as he confronts Chinese authorities, travels to New York and Europe and spends time with his family and contemporaries. Weiwei is a sel-aware, warm and infectious man, and it’s hard not to want to root for him. However the flippancy with which he deals with a child he fathered outside of his marriage is a little strange, and seems to be the only black mark on a very strong character.

In April 2011, Klayman’s film reaches a new level of drama that any documentary film-maker would crave – Weiwei disappears. It transpires that he has been arrested on suspicion of tax evasion and is being held in an undisclosed location. The fact that this move by the Chinese government comes when the Arab Spring is gaining traction across the world shows just how dangerous Weiwei’s profile is; silencing him considered to be preferential to allowing him to spearhead any protests.

When Weiwei disappears you would expect Klayman to investigate or spend more time with his family and friends but instead we don’t get much in the way of explanation. You get the sense that her approach to the documentary was simply “follow Weiwei and see what happens”, understandably you’re dealing with the Chinese communist party so you’d hardly expect candid interviews with President Hu Jintao but it does leave the whole film feeling like a little bit like a lost opportunity.

USA  /  Directed By: Alison Klayman  /  Starring: Ai Weiwei, Ying Gao, Changwei Gu  /  91min  /   Documentary   /  General Release: 27 July 2012 (US/Canada), 10 August 2012 (Ireland/UK)

Hot Docs reviews [Pt.3]

(Somewhat belated) reviews for Bones Brigade: An Autobiography, We Are Legion: The Story Of The Hacktivists, The Revisionaries and The Queen of Versailles are below. Check out all our Hot Docs 2012 coverage here.

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Hot Docs reviews [Pt.2]

Hot Docs Pt.2

This is a guest post from Sarah Dunne, a pop culture junkie living in Toronto.

Reviews for Shut Up And Play The Hits, About Face: The Supermodels, Then And Now and The Mechanical Bride are belowCheck out all our Hot Docs 2012 coverage here.

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Hot Docs reviews [Pt.1]

Reviews for The Invisible War, Brooklyn Castle and The Imposter are below. Check out all our Hot Docs coverage here.

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The Invisible War - ★★★★

Kirby Dick has made a name for himself by rallying for the under-dog against “the man”. Whether it was his exposition of American politics’ anti-gay agenda in 2010′s Outrage, sexual abuse victims and the Catholic church in 2004′s Twist of Faith or independent film-makers and critics fed up with the MPAA’s often inexplicable rating choices in 2008′s This Film Is Not Yet Rated.

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Looking ahead to Toronto’s Hot Docs 2012

Hot Docs 2012 runs from April 26th to May 6th

So living in Toronto has some huge advantages for film fans. And now I’m not talking about the civilised, intelligent audiences, but instead the city’s phenomenal festival offerings!

Leading the charge is the world’s biggest film festival, TIFF, which burns through the city every September. But in second place is the world’s preeminent documentary festival, Hot Docs. I was lucky enough to get to my first Hot Docs last year (and wrote a little about it here and here) and it’s a fantastic festival which excels with the small things like ticket sales, line-ups and Q&As.

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David Lynch’s daughter seems a bit mad

So Toronto’s Hot Docs festival runs next month from April 26th to May 6th. It’s the world’s leading documentary festival and I’m still trawling through the extensive program working out what looks worthwhile.

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Senna will not win an oscar // Thoughts on the 15 film documentary shortlist

No Oscar love for Ayrton.

Once again the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences have baffled me. Over the weekend they released their shortlist of the 15 features which will be vying for the oscar for Best Documentary Feature. They are…

Battle for Brooklyn
Bill Cunningham New York
Buck
Hell and Back Again
If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front
Jane’s Journey
The Loving Story
Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory
Pina
Project Nim
Semper Fi: Always Faithful
Sing Your Song
Undefeated
Under Fire: Journalists in Combat
We Were Here

Now first of all, I am absolutely thrilled to see Hell and Back Again in there. It was the best film I saw at Toronto’s Hot Docs festival last spring, and the film-maker Danfung Dennis was a true gent as well as an incredibly talented man. Dennis is a stills photographer who shot Hell and Back Again on a Canon 5D Mark II with a custom-built rig (see his twitpic), creating the most immersive shots I’ve ever seen be they in a feature film, documentary or computer game. It’s well worth watching the trailer if you have a minute to spare.

While I’m sad to see Werner Herzog’s Into the Abyss, Susan Saladoff’s Hot Coffee and Constance Marks and Philip Shane’s Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey ommited from the list, there is no omission more glaring than that of Asif Kapadia’s Senna.

The movie tells the story of Formula One driver Ayrton Senna’s life from Sao Paolo to his fatal crash in the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. Whether you’re a fan of Formula One or not, this is an absolutely flawless documentary with more heart and emotion than any scripted movie. Its “characters”, “plot” and structure could have made for a really solid biopic, but the wealth of archive footage and interviews available meant there was no need. If you haven’t seen this, then see it. Laugh at his ladies. Boo the Frenchman. Marvel at his driving. Cry at the crash.

It did well at the box office and scored incredibly well with the critics and yet it looks like once again this has no bearing on the Academy’s choices. There had even been talk of Senna receiving a nod in other categories like editing and sound, but this now seems unlikely after its omission from the list for documentaries

It has happened before, with Grizzly Man, Hoop Dreams, Why We Fight and King of Kong all being notable examples that have failed to find any traction.

Now and again a film like Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop, Murderball or Supersize Me sneaks in there, but nowadays it seems they like to have this as Oscar night’s “ISSUES” category. Last year alongside Banksy’s film we saw films about war (Restrepo), the environment (Waste Land and Gasland) and the economic crisis (Inside Job).

This longlist of 15 comes from a longer list of 124 entrants which the Academy’s documentary branch screening committee then whittle down. We’ll find out which five make the nominations list on January 24th.

We’ll complain about that too.