Watching documentaries tends to be a challenge. There’s a lot of dreck out there and watching a listless or amateurish film can be a real drag. Even more so when it’s a documentary because you know no one is making any money on this thing and, probably, the filmmaker’s heart is in the right place. Luckily, the truly bad docs are in the minority. Another challenge can be the tough, social issue documentaries that confront one’s own apathy or feeling that the world is too unjust and cruel. That, of course, is a good challenge. It makes us confront reality, bear witness, that sort of thing.
But there’s a new challenge to watching documentaries, one that is nearly always close to my mind these days when I start watching a “nonfiction,” yes the quotes are important here, film. It’s becoming more and more common that audiences are being challenged by the very notion of what they’re watching: Is it real? Is it a documentary? I’m not addressing the fundamental premise that all documentary is a form of mediation and therefore a director’s portrayal of reality. I’m talking about movies that take viewers for a ride and end up being not quite what they seem. I’m talking about Exit from the Gift Shop, Catfish, Imposter and a number of other films including two, Tickled and FRAUD, that I saw at this year’s Hot Docs Film Festival in Canada.
I don’t want to give too much away because both these films are well worth seeing as they exemplify the best of this new wave of is-it-fake? documentary filmmaking. I should note here that this isn’t a new concept—Orson Welles probably did it best with 1975’s F for Fake—but this is a new incarnation for our small-screen, quick edit, YouTube era. Tickled may not even intentionally be in this category. The film is about a New Zealand TV journalist, David Farrier, who stumbled upon a tickling fetish subculture. As he goes deeper into this world, things become increasingly more ridiculous and hilarious until…well, this may be a spoiler so look away…things become totally grounded and real and pointedly disturbing. I’ll leave it at that. It’s a fun ride until it becomes a more serious one, and I appreciated it from start to finish.
FRAUD, on the other hand, grabs the is-it-fake question and pumps you full with it like a foie gras goose. The film is purported to be an assemblage of actual home movie footage found on the Internet by director Dean Fleischer-Camp. The “story” is a dizzying mash-up of the videos that tells of a married couple with two sweet kids and an increasing mountain of debt that leads to them scamming and shopping their way on a road trip through America. What’s real here? Without giving anything away, I can say everything and nothing. It appears Fleischer-Camp has used non-fiction material to tell a fictional tale. Have I been scammed into believing this? I don’t think so. But that’s what the guy at the Q&A who called the director a liar (apparently, at another Q&A, Fleischer-Camp was called a “con artist”) sure thinks. The actual experience of watching the film is disturbing because the camera is so shaky and zoomy. There was a cut almost every four seconds, so this is not a movie for everyone. In fact, there were more than a dozen walk-outs at my screening. But I think the film is well crafted, and I’m tempted to see it again to decipher the seams. I imagine Fleischer-Camp is counting on that, hoping to induce a Blair Witch-Memento-Mulholland Drive-Natural Born Killers need to watch the film multiple times.
Those are the two films that really stick with me because they challenged me by covering outlandish material with strong filmmaking chops (as does Penny Lane’s NUTS!, by the way.) But that wasn’t all that was at Hot Docs this year. I was also very impressed by the vérité filmmaking in Hotel Coolgardie, which is not a big film, but a powerful fly-in-your-beer-glass look at a rough bar in a little town in Australia where young female international travelers work as barmaids for short stints to feed their wanderlust. The film follows two such women from Finland who endure the repellant misogyny of the bar’s patrons, who treat the girls like meat (and the women there treat them worse!). Hotel Coolgardie really puts you in a very foreign, often unsettling, place.
I also appreciated Do Not Resist, Craig Atkinson’s portrait of the militarization of the local police forces in the good ol’ USA. It’s a hot topic and Atkinson gets powerful footage from the riots in Ferguson and rides shotgun with hyped up, over-weaponized police forces as they break into people homes. There are flaws to the film—the director’s agenda isn’t nuanced (not that he’s wrong)—but his access to both sides of the issue makes it riveting and infuriating.
Hot Docs continues through Sunday, so if you’re a stone’s throw from Toronto, I suggest you drop by if you like being challenged—in a good way.