Nursing a Festival Hangover

Nursing a Festival Hangover

Thank God Hot Docs is over.

Don’t get me wrong—it was an incredibly successful festival, attracting a bigger audience than ever before (a 25% boost, according to the official press release) and displaying films that, on the whole, were of exceptional quality. Toronto should be damned proud to host an event that, once a year, draws the best of an increasingly rich genre. But I swear to god, if I have to watch that obnoxious Cadillac Escalade ad one more time I’ll douse myself in gasoline and light myself afire.

I imagine that Cadillac has already fired the ignoramus who convinced the head office to sponsor Hot Docs, but in case they didn’t:

“Dear Big Power Suit Man,I understand that a decreasing market share can do a lot to destabilise one’s judgment, but, when it comes to pitching your new SUV, a documentary festival attended by knit sweater-wearing, bicycle activists from the Annex isn’t likely to welcome you with open arms. The fesival features an assortment of films that tackle everything from corporate corruption, species extinction, war profiteering, infant rape and yes, oil addiction. When you conclude a sequence of shots of malnutritioned super models lurching up and down a chrome runway with your new Escalade rising, like Excalibur, from what appears to be a pool of oil, I can’t see how you expect a Hot Docs audience to do anything but hoot, holler and ring their bicycle bells in derision. The ad in question flopped when you unveiled it during the Super Bowl. In fact, it did so badly that you reflexively yanked back half of your business from Leo Burnett Worldwide Inc., the jokers you employed to produce it. It’s one thing to try to sell an audience something they are ethically opposed to. It’s another thing to subject them to a month-old ad that you know to be dreck.”

Anyway, apologies for the digression. But yes, I am rather happy the festival is over. Documentary films, when well-executed, bring their audiences into a world previously unknown. For a little over an hour (though some docs do push their luck), one is able to stroll around in this world, to learn how it works, to see how others think and act. When the film ends, we eject ourselves and are then able to approach again the living of one’s own lives. But when a doc succeeds—in my view at least —it makes you feel just a little uncomfortable re-entering your own skin.

The problem with the festival format—for those of us who see as many films as we can—is that that effect is largely negated. During Hot Docs, you leave a film, check your watch, and find a place to get a drink before the next is set to begin. In a few moments time, there you are in the dark again, preparing to enter into another reality.

Now that the week is over, I realise that too many good films are lost to me. I sit here and try to get back to how I felt leaving the docs I saw earlier in the week, but can’t. The festival itself is the experience I remember, not the individual films themselves.

That said, there are a few that stick. A few that, despite the effect of too many successive films, still stick in my head. Yes, I’ll admit I was wrong to presume The World According to Sesame Street would win the Audience Award. That award ultimately went to Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s four-hour A Lion in the House, the story of five families who, over six years, cope with and comfort the struggles of children diagnosed with cancer.

But, at week’s end, none of the films on the short list had the effect that Andrew Neel and Luke Meyer’s Darkon did. Once a month, in Baltimore, Maryland, a group of rational but largely otherwise uninspired people suit themselves up in tinfoil helmets and foam shields and act out a live but insanely intricate role-playing game. Countries have their own lands which need to be defended, as well as their own internal hierarchies. Sitting in the Bloor Cinema on a Friday night at 10:15, I saw grown men and women talk in an incredibly thoughtful way about the need to feel in some way heroic. They spoke about the ways in which we role play in everyday situations, and pointed out how fantasy serves as a release. Then I watched these men and women beat the living crap out of each other with plastic swords—never mindful of the camera, entirely consumed in the action.

The film I am making is also about role-playing and the ways in which everyone needs to escape from the questions and responsibilities that dog everyday life. Though film would pile on film for the rest of the week, the feeling of watching those Darkonians throw themselves into fantasy never really left me. When I sat down to re-write sections of dialogue yesterday, I couldn’t help but return to the metaphor of Darkonian combat. I thought: “What better way is there to express what I want to say than that?”

I couldn’t write anything. But it’ll come. It’ll come. If Darkon reminded me of anything, it’s that the basic desire for escape is manifested everywhere. It’s not just Darkonians and Trekkies. It’s everywhere. All I have to do is choose to see it.