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Establishing Shot

So here it is—a tiny little corner of the blogosphere to call my own. The gracious folks at Toronto Life have been kind enough to admit my cine-soapbox under their well-fortified roof. For that, thisfilmmaker aspirant is immensely grateful. A clean well-lighted place to be sure.

It’s a very exciting time to be talking about film, especially in Toronto. This city harbours some of the most zealous and appreciative film audiences in the world. It also serves as the main stage for the English Canadian television and film industry’s ever-dramatic struggles for identity and audience.

We have what is perhaps the premiere audience-centered, commercial film festival in the world. We are where Hollywood comes (or came) to shoot on the cheap and where they launch their sublimely self-indulgent awards season. Torontonians think and talk about film more than the citizens of any North American city outside of Los Angeles and New York. We are a city of filmmakers and film lovers—home to Norman Jewison’s Canadian Film Centre, the NFB’s Mediatheque, Cinematheque Ontario, the Liaison of Independent Filmmakers Toronto and much, much more.

The problem, of course, is that while Torontonians eat up foreign films of all sizes and flavours—from Sundance-fare to Hollywood blockbusters to docs about depressed Japanese girls with fish fetishes—they very rarely attend domestically made work.

As I struggle to put together the short film I’ve written, I spend a lot of time thinking about audiences. Why do we see what we see? And what is it that makes a film-going experience enjoyable? As I proceed in this space, these issues will be at the forefront. Sure I’ll be talking about specific films. But, at the heart of it all, I’ll be analyzing my own responses, hoping to get a better sense of how and why films have moved me. Because that, in the end, is what it’s really about.

In this space, I’ll discuss new releases, re-discovered DVD gems and industry gossip. If I drop in too many notes about the stumblings of my own film, have patience. It’s an all-consuming process and one that I believe is making me a more engaged audience-member and critic.


Every time my producer and I huddle around a solitary candle in his ramshackle apartment to discuss how many foot-long sandwiches we’re going to have to provide our cast and crew on shoot dates, my mind begins to drift: “Instead of being a stupid schlep, I could make a doc about them,” I say to myself. That would be so much easier. Then I wouldn’t have to struggle with this tin-can dialogue of mine. Real people, real situations. And all you pay for are travel expenses and a camera.

Sure you need access. And yes, the emotional connections you develop with your subjects bring forth unforseeable challenges. But it sometimes seems like everyone but me is making documentaries—about their fathers, aunts, neighbours, friends, it doesn’t matter. Sooner or later, they’ll be no one left to follow and shoot because even the subjects of docs will be making docs. I jest of course, but there’s no way to deny it—docs are the new blogs, and vice-versa. Whoops! It would appear I’m behind the eight-ball yet again.

Today marks the beginning of Hot Docs , a festival that has miraculously become the largest of its kind in the world. This year’s fest features 100 films, ranging from from the sprawling and politically ambitious to the small and starkly intimate. Suffice it to say I’ll be sleeping down at the festival headquarters for the next week and a half. (And my subsequent posts will go into more detail about specific films.)

The highlight will no doubt be the festival’s look at the films of the great Werner Herzog. Herzog’s films have always been centered on madness and the point where grand vision meets stark reality and social restraints. This is a guy who walked all the way from Munich to Paris to visit ailing critic Lotte Eisner, believing that the quest itself would save his friend. (Hot Docs, incidentally, will be screening the film, Walking to Werner, in which a Herzog-worshipper walks from Seattle to L.A., to meet the great man.) When a young documentary maker named Errol Morris came to Herzog to discuss his desire to make Gates of Heaven‚ the German New Waver claimed he would eat his own shoe if Morris ever finished the project. The stunt worked. Morris was spurred on, the film got made and Herzog, in the end, proved true to his word (if you don’t believe it, watch Les Blank’s Werner Herzog Eats his Shoe).

Herzog is best known to young film fans for 2005’s Sundance-winning Grizzly Man a film about Timothy Treadwell, the delusional and deeply troubled bear advocate who spent summer befriending foxes and “guarding” the grizzlies in Alaska’s Katmai National Park. When Timothy and his girlfriend were ultimately mauled, Herzog edited together his years of footage and made Treadwell’s life into one of his most deeply disturbing and human studies in madness and delusion.

Herzog will be speaking on May 6th at the Isabel Bader Theatre. If Herzog on Herzog is any indication, this appearance will be one of the more engrossing and thought-provoking discussions of the potential of film many of us have heard in a long while. (Sadly, tickets were long ago sold out—rumour has it you can find them on Craigslist and scalpers will no doubt be lurking nearby.)

As for the films, both Herzog’s and others‚ all I can say is: see as much as you can. Hot Docs is one of Toronto’s under-appreciated gems. Go out and appreciate all that Canada and the world have to offer. Then come back here and bicker with me about what did and didn’t work.


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