Greg Klymkiw presents his HOT DOCS 2015 HOT PICKS #3
For the next fourteen days I will only review movies I liked, loved or that totally blew me away during the 2015 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto, Canada. Life is short. I won't bother reviewing movies that were godawful, mediocre or just plain okay. Note my picks, mark your calendars and save some precious hours, days and weeks of your life on planet Earth. Instead, spend it travelling the world via one of cinema's most vital genres.
Grass: A Nation's Battle For Survival (1925)
Dir. Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack
Review By Greg Klymkiw
You won't see many greater documentaries in your life than this one.
When I taught filmmaking at "Uncle" Norman Jewison's Canadian Film Centre, I'd often chide my charges with their pathetic lack of life experience and how it related (or rather, not) to their desire to make movies.
"Strap these fuckers on for size," I'd bark before relaying a brief biographical snapshot of two genuine pioneers in the art of filmed documentary and dramatic cinema. "They don't make filmmakers like Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack anymore and any pathetic desires you harbour to make movies about your petty bourgeois lives in the suburbs of whatever cozy enclave you were coddled in are total shit compared to this."
You see, by their early 20s, these two young men lived lives most artists could only dream about - that is, if those purported contemporary "filmmakers" actually had the wherewithal to conjure up the sort of life experience Cooper and Schoedsack gained before making some of the greatest motion pictures of all time.
Schoedsack ran away from his comfy home in Iowa (Council Bluffs, no less) as a teenager and worked as a surveyor before getting a job as a cameraman for the legendary Mack Sennett studios. He enlisted in the signal corps and served on the bloodiest fields of battle as a cameraman in France during World War I. He did the same thing in Ukraine and helped refugees when Russia and Poland duked it out for the rich fertile breadbasket of Eastern Europe and, adding more cherries to his ice cream sundae of life experience, he did the same damn thing during the war twixt Turkey and Greece.
Merian C. Cooper also fled his idyllic American nest, enrolling in the naval academy, resigning in disgust over his belief in the superiority of air power over sea power in battle, joined the national guard and embarked on the mission to chase down Pancho Villa in Mexico, enlisted in the airforce during World War I, flew DH-4 bombers, got shot down by the Hun, suffered such horrible burns to his arms that most people would just give it up, but after serving time in one of the Kaiser's POW camps, he continued as a pilot with the Red Cross in France, then joined up with the Polish airforce to kick Russian ass, served in a Russkie POW camp, escaped the clutches of the evil commie hordes and was given the highest military honours by the Polish government.
How d'ya like them apples, losers?
Schoedsack and Cooper, both born in 1893, met in Vienna and became fast friends and partners and formed a motion picture production company which not only made groundbreaking documentaries, but as a team were responsible for one of the GREATEST motion pictures of ALL TIME, 1933's King (FUCKING) Kong.
Grass: A Nation's Battle For Survival was made in 1925. Schoedsack and Cooper teamed up with the legendary (and gorgeous) spy and journalist Marguerite Harrison to capture one of the most astounding documentary films by ANY standards. Following a Bakhtiari in Iran (then Persia), the trio stunningly captured the migration of 50,000 people and 500,000 animals to better pasture over a 20,000 foot high ICY mountain range (the tribe was mostly barefoot) and the dangerous rapids of a massive river.
You will see images in this film that are not only gorgeous, but imbued with all the properties which can be rightly described as a "terrible beauty". These are real people, real domestic farm animals, really living, really dying, really suffering and really braving every danger in order to continue actually living.
They don't make 'em like this anymore. The movies, that is, AND the movie makers.
Grass: A Nation's Battle For Survival has been restored by the legendary team of Dennis Doros and Amy Heller of Milestone Films (winners of one of the highest accolades from the New York Film Critics Circle for their Shirley Clarke restorations as well as their important life's work). The movie has probably not looked as gorgeous since its release 80 years ago and it features a stirring new Iranian musical score.
This is an absolute must-see. You can do so at Hot Docs 2015 and also via home entertainment release from Milestone Films. Try to see it on a big screen if you can. For showtimes and tickets, visit the Hot Docs website HERE.
Dir. Margot Benacerraf
Review By Greg Klymkiw
If the idea of watching sheer pain and utter drudgery in one of the most desolate corners of the earth sounds like your idea of a must-skip, think again. Araya is one of the most moving, powerful and poetic documentaries ever made.
In the late 50s, filmmaker Margot Benacerraf took her cameras to the furthest reaches of a forlorn peninsula in Venezuela to capture a day in the lives of several families who make their living as workers in a natural salt "farm". From early morning, through a blistering day and even deep into the night, we get a profoundly uplifting look at pure survival. These are people who live to work and they work harder than most of us couldn't even imagine.
Every element of their existence is work - hard, brutal, physical labour under the unrelenting rays of a sun that never ceases to beat down upon them. We experience the backbreaking toil of culling the salt, breaking it down, forming it into pyramidical shaped bricks, hauling it to get ready for shipping and then, doing it all over again. The only respite for some includes re-stitching fishing nets, casting them into the ocean and harvesting the food they need for sustenance.
We also get detailed insight into the domestic chores on the home front. This is all accompanied by haunting, astonishing black and white cinematography, moving poetic narration (as information packed as it is sweetly lilting) and heart rending music (plus meticulously captured natural sounds).
These are men, women and children. Nobody here is exempt from a life of hardship - a life born out of slavery and colonialism and continuing to this day under corporate slavery.
This is potent stuff. It might be even more valuable to us now than when the film was first released.
Acclaimed by some of the world's greatest directors (everyone from Jean Renoir to Steven Soderbergh), Araya disappeared off the radar for over half a century until its revival and restoration. Now, it can be see in all its glory on both the big screen and at home.
Araya has been made available through the restoration efforts of the legendary Dennis Doros and Amy Heller at Milestone Films. For tickets, visit the Hot Docs 2015 website HERE. The film is also available on gorgeous home video transfers vie Milestone.