Monday, April 30, 2012

Off Label

When I go to Hot Docs, I hope that each movie will deliver a mix of information, new perspectives, inspiration, and perhaps along the way, a dollop of entertainment.  The best movies deliver a film maker's message in a way that provokes me to think differently - to question ossified assumptions, and to open up new possibilities.  For me, the key to a good documentary is a clear theme, which is expanded both through hard facts and stories.  And year after year, Hot Docs slakes that thirst.

Off Label was a sloppy, lazy movie that took a scatter shot approach to several loosely-related themes and delivered on none of them.  And it didn't come close to living up to my expectations of a good Hot Docs film. It frustrated me that these filmmakers missed the opportunity to make a really good movie on a fascinating and important topic.  And they blew it.  They didn't sort out their primary message, and then use the film to deliver that message clearly.  They needed adult supervision, or a better editor.

The movie could have focused on the use of human guinea pigs in pharmaceutical human trials.  We saw a couple of people who eked out a living as human guinea pigs.  Such people enter trials with a cocktail of drugs from previous trials in their system, (which they fail to declare so they won't be rejected).   Could some scientist explain the risk of tainted trials from using such participants?  How much can a person earn this way and how many people do it?   From the Q&A with the directors, it emerged that this was the original idea for the movie; they should have stuck to this one message and nailed it. 

One human guinea pig we met had been induced to participate in human drug trials while a prisoner and suffers very poor health, allegedly because of these trials.  I try not to be swayed by correlation; I like to see cause and effect laid out clearly. There was no solid indication of his medical issues arising from these unethical trials on prisoners.  The movie could have focused on this theme alone and delivered a powerful movie.

A former pharmaceutical sales rep relates how he could skirt the letter of the law and yet encourage GPs to prescribe ever more drugs for off label (i.e. unapproved) use.  The movie could have explored this theme in depth, but the filmmakers chose to introduce it solely through the anecdotes of this one sales rep.  Focusing on this theme would actually have lined up the movie with the title!

It could have explored the trend toward overmedication in the US.  The most interesting character of all in the movie was a bipolar woman, living in a Sasquatch museum, and dosing herself with over 20 different anti-psychotic drugs a day.  How common is that?  How did she manage to get all those pills?  Did she get them all from one highly unprincipled doctor?  Did she visit many doctors, each of whom prescribed one or two?  Did she lie to get the pills, or did they not even ask her what else she was on?  Would personal electronic medical records eliminate such malpractice?

One segment portrayed the heart-wrenching struggles of a young man who volunteered as a medic for Iraq and was ordered to perform inhumane treatments at Abu Ghraib.  He told of cavalier treatment by the VA, who simply threw a variety drugs at him sequentially, in the hope that one would work, without any accompanying therapy.  This segment could have explored this in depth; however, the segment felt like a completely tangential thread that was never developed and detracted from the main movie.

American journalism has been tending toward the presentation of human interest stories as the foundation of the news.  There's no question that a human story can help to pique interest in a topic and draw you into an important subject.  But it is dangerous to extrapolate from a single human story to concluding that there is a systemic problem around an issue - decisions, and public opinion, should be based on evidence.  This was a movie without a shred of evidence or fact.  There could be only one drug rep in the US facilitating off label drug use, there could be only two people making a living as a human trial participant, but these kinds of human interest stories can create a ground swell of response to special cases.

I seem to have written an awful lot about a movie I didn't like.  I guess I was just so frustrated because it could have been so good.  The next post will describe a movie I LOVED!

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Garden in the Sea

Garden in the Sea was my second film from the Hot Docs festival today.  The movie is about the installation of an underground sculpture by SPanish artist Cristina Iglesias in a new marine reserve off the coast of Baha California.  The huge concrete structure will provide a fish habitat similar to that provided by coral.  This is an interesting attribute, given the disappearance of half of the ocean's coral.  The scenery in the movie was absoluting breathtaking, but for my taste, the movie moved too slowly.

Platform Moon

Platform Moon was a highly unsatisfying movie.  We see a group of men living in extremely claustrophobic conditions.  We don't know where they are.  The only dialogue during the 25 minute movie takes place between these men and a disembodied voice that responds to their commands to turn things on of off, or to open or close hatches.  The men move slowly and deliberately through various hatches and narrow tunnels.  Finally, we see one man get in a diving suit, and exit to the water where he begins to hammer.  The movie ends.

Only during the Q&A with the filmaker do we discover that the men are in a small bathyscopic container for 30 days at a time, so that they can do repair work on a oil rig.  His intention was to leave us in the dark.

I like documentaries because I learn things.  Not sure I'd categorized this as a documentary.

Friday, April 27, 2012


And so on to my third and favourite Hot Docs film of the day - EthelThe film is a wonderful tribute to an exceptional woman, Ethel Kennedy, wife of Robert Kennedy.  It was made by her 11th child Rory Kennedy, who was born after her father's death.

Ethel Kennedy emerges as a vibrant, athletic, and fun-loving woman.  She fell in love at first sight on a two-family ski trip to Mont Tremblant, but had to wait for two years while Bobby dated her sister.  Pictures of her in her youth show a fresh-faced, outdoorsy woman, brimming with vitality.  She came from a wealthy and - shudder - Republican family, but soon swallowed any reservations to become an energetic campaigner in Jack Kennedy's campaigns, along with the other Kennedy women.

She could be irreverant, like the time she took the children to observe the shooting gallery in the basement of the FBI building and spied a suggestion box.  J. Edgar Hoover was a thorn in the side of the Kennedys, and she submitted a suggestion, in her trademark red ink, to 'get a new director'.  Another time, she 'rescued' an abused horse from a neighbour and was charged with being a horse thief, a hanging offence in Maryland.  And of course, her flamboyant driving earned her a few speeding tickets. 

Ethel was an unflagging supporter in Bobby's political campaigns; indeed, she was far fonder of campaigning than he was.  The picture on the movie cover showing Ethel standing just behind Bobby was symbolic of their marriage.  The children accompanied them on many campaign trips and other trips representing the US abroad.  How she found time to do all this when she was chronically pregnant is beyond me!  Of course, the ordinary tasks of life were taken care of by the servants, leaving her lots of time to ski, sail, play touch football, and enjoy the multitudinous children and pets on their vast properties.   

Ethel went on to support and fight for the social justice causes Bobby had espoused, and, of course, to bring up those eleven children.

Interviews with the droll Ethel herself and many of the children are commingled with a rich trove of family videos and photos.  The film also treated the remarkable historical events of this era, which touched Robert Kennedy's life - the Viet Nam war, the Civil rights movement, the Cuban missile crisis, the assassinations of Jack Kennedy, Martin Luther King and of course Robert Kennedy himself. 

This was a truly enjoyable portrait of an interesting woman living through interesting times.  See it if you can.

The Ambassador

I wish that Mads Brugger, the filmaker, had attended this showing of his film The Ambassador, as is customary at Hot Docs.  I had so many questions in my mind at the end of the film.

As Mr. Cortzen, Brugger buys the post as Liberian ambassador to the Central African Republic.  The film introduces us to two brokers, one British and one Dutch, who specialize in selling these posts.  Venal politicians sell these regularly, we're told, to fill the coffers of the government, or the pockets of the politicians.  As these brokers put it, such a post at $150,000 is a bargain as the holder then has untrammeled passage out of the country to bring diamonds out of the country, making such a designation worth millions.  

The CAR is widely considered to be a failed state, but this film argues that you can't be a failed state without having once been a viable state.  The CAR has been oppressed by vile and lunatic dictators and is riddled with corruption.  And Liberia is no paradise of good governance either.  So the movie shines a harsh light on two of Africa's worst basket cases.  And it's not a pretty picture that emerges.

Cortzen arrives as a business diplomat and sets about making contacts, both for his avowed purpose of building a match factory, and his lightly veiled purpose of smuggling out blood diamonds.  He establishes a partnership, and hands over lots of cash, but wonders if he'll ever see it again.  Another diplomat warns him of the delicacy and risk involved in setting out to do what he doing.  The head of security he has been meeting is assassinated. His promised papers certifying he is indeed the Liberian ambassador to the CAR have mysteriously not arrived and the situation increases in tension.    Meanwhile, the whole tawdry business is being filmed, sometimes openly and sometimes with hidden cameras. 

The movie focused on two of the continents most pitiable countries.  There are many good news stories starting to emerge from Africa, and many are predicting that the continent may pull itself out of its despair.  This movie perpetuates an image of Africa as a continent rife with corruption and mistrust, which is sad.  It's not that it's untrue, it's just that we westerners tend to generalize from the worst situations to all of Africa.

The movie left me puzzled at the end.  The Ambassador was clearly a satire.  But Cortzen seems to have nevertheless pulled off the deception.  Did he ever reveal what he'd done to the Africans?  Did he ever smuggle those diamonds?  How did he finance the purchase of the ambassadorship and the considerable bribes in Africa?


Shadows of Liberty

American media is controlled by a small number of corporations, who manage the news their outlets are allowed to air.  Since 2008, 166 newspapers in the US have folded and 350,000 jobs have been lost, which contributes to the power and influence of these corporate giants.  This situation threatens the information flow to citizens, and the very freedom of the US, where freedom of the press was a founding principle.  This is the argument of the film Shadows of Liberty, my first movie at this year's Hot Docs Festival.

This film followed several big stories that news organizations had failed to deliver.  After the original exposé on Nike's labour abuses in Viet Nam, the same reporter fought to have a follow-up story aired on CBS; however, CBS was in negotiations with Nike for a major sponsorship of the Olympics, and senior executives quashed the story.

Another case involved the story of the connection between the crack cocaine explosion in the US and US support of the contras in Nicaragua.  Gary Webb, the reporter who broke that story in the San Jose Mercury, was hounded to suicide because of the backlash.

Another story was the loss of TWA 800:  there was considerable evidence pointing to the flight going down because of friendly fire from naval exercises nearby.  Government flooded the airwaves with cover-up stories, and the media compliantly let the story go.

And then there was the big one - the US media's lapping up of the Bush administration's  allegations about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.  The administration rewarded reporters who toed the line, and choked off access for those who challenged.  At the same time, the BBC was giving prime time to voices challenging Blair's position on the war.

Even such respected media as PBS have caved to corporate interests, such as their silence on the Archer Midland Daniels scandal over price fixing.  Even the respected New York Times came in for its share of vilication.

This was a good movie, but I was left wishing that it had been better.  I didn't learn much new that I didn't already know.  Although Quebec director Jean Phillippe Tremblay stated that he wanted to shed light on global media, the movie was entirely focused on the US, and mostly on CBS.  It also failed to analyze the impact of Internet outlets, citizen journalism, and even documentaries like this.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

What a great movie!  Light, frothy, funny, touching, and graced by superb acting by old favourites such as Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Maggie Smith and Bill Nighy, as well as captivating new faces Dev Patel and Tena Desae.  And Penelope Wilton as the woman you love to hate.  For me, it brought back tremendous memories of our recet trip to India.  Lovely people, vibrant colour, and just the right amount of chaos.  We spent several days in each of Jaipur and Udaipur where the movie was set, and loved every minute of it. 

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel was definitely targeted at our demographic: let's call it the retired but adventurous crowd.  This movie is definitely a five star on my list.  I am heading off to my first Hot Docs movie of the year, so it was good to have some light, definitely non-serious entertainment before I start the Hot Docs marathon! 

Monday, April 23, 2012

Digital Assets

What's going to happen to your digital assets after your death?  Your music, your emails, your books, and all that other electronic 'stuff'?  Did you know that most online agreements say that access and ownership terminate after death?  Hmm.  An excellent article in The Economist got me thinking.....

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Murder in Reykjavik

At the risk of simply jumping on the bandwagon of post-Stieg-Larsson Scandinavian fiction, I've discovered a new detective series that I quite enjoy.  Arnaldur Indridsadon has written a series of mysteries based in Reykjavik that appeal to me both because they introduce me to a new setting, and because of the interesting characters and engrossing plots.

Hypothermia introduced me to senior detective Erlendur.  In this book, Erlendur refuses to abandon a case that has been declared suicide by everyone else.  At the same time he continues to gnaw on a decades-old case of a missing young man.  He's kept in touch with the parents over the years, and would like to deliver an answer to the father as he approaches death.  This book isn't the first in the series, but it's a great introduction to Erlendur - revealing his melancholic personality, his dogged persistance in unravelling subtle clues, his dysfunctional family life (is that a prerequisite for detectives?), and a haunting past. 

These traits persist in the next book I read, Arctic Chill.  The mystery is solved, and we gain more clarity about Erlendur's tragic past.  This book left me with a taste for more Erlendur.

To my surprise, in Outrage, Erlendur is absent, and the onus of solving the murder passes to his partner Detective Elinborg.  She echoes Erlendur's attention to details, and solves the case while balancing work with the demands of a family.  Elinborg is the author of cookbook and her knowledge of food is a key asset in solving the case.  I missed Erlendur, but thoroughly enjoyed Elinborg's time in the spotlight.  I'll be back for more of this series.  There seem to be ten books of this series which have been translated and I expect I will get to all ten - eventually.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Racing Dreams

I'm a bit behind in reporting on movies I saw during the opening week of the Bloor Cinema.  Let me catch up.
Racing Dreams follows three young people above (ranging in age from 11 to 13) as they chase the title in the World Karting Association National Series. Incessant practice and long drives to tracks for competitions is the consuming centre of their lives during this.  They feel it's worth it, as many NASCAR drivers have arisen from the Karting circuit, and each of these kids dreams of making it to NASCAR.

It's not that I'm totally enamoured of kart racing; I outgrew that after I dislocated my elbow when I rolled a go-kart many years ago at a go-kart track.  But this documentary movies is not just about racing.  It's about watching seeing three kids in mid-development, making choices about their future.  The challenge of the race exposes their formative characters. 

Josh is grooming himself for the big time, and not only on the track.  He's already a good public speaker, smoothly attracting sponsors and giving them what they want in a clean-cut driver with a winning attitude, a winning smile and winning record.  He steps up to meet a NASCAR driver to make sure he knows Josh's name for the future. 

For Brandon, from a troubled family, being brought up by a wonderful supportive grandfather, it's probably his last year in racing, because the family lacks the resources to take the next step.  He already battles a quick temper and a tendency to challenge the rules with aggressive driving, a trait that has already seen him disqualified in one race.  We leave with a fervent hope he will not follow his father's treacherous path to jail. 

Meanwhile, Annabeth is starting to feel the tug of boys and dating, and the likelihood she will exit racing and the grueling practices and weekends on the road in favour of the life of a more normal teenager.  And yet, . . .  When her father puts her in the newly purchased stock car, the engine revs and her blood surges.  Which path will she choose?

It's a fascinating movie, and was a good choice for the first week at the Bloor.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Pink Ribbons Inc.

A group of five good friends saw Pink Ribbons, Inc, three of whom had had breast cancer, and one of whom worked at the Foundation of Princess Margaret Hospital, Canada's preeminent cancer hospital.  Talk about a movie being relevant.

I had heard the movie would take a swipe at the 'breast cancer industry' as it was called, but its messages were not entirely what I expected.  Certainly, it criticized pinkwashing by companies with dubious credentials on health issues, such as KFC's pink buckets.

Another target was Yoplait which ran a promotion for people to send in lids and Yoplait would contribute to breast cancer.  Two problems there: first of all, with Yoplait contributing only a penny per lid, the postage to send in the lids was more than the donation, and secondly, while this promotion was running, Yoplait was making the yogurt with milk from cows fed with rGBH growth hormone, a known carcinogen (a practice they've since discontinued). 

The movie also challenged the thrust of breast cancer research: with so many millions raised and dedicated to breast cancer research, why hadn't there been more progress?  Only a very small proportion of the research dollars have focused on environmental contributions to breast cancer.  Since genetic and lifestyle factors explain fewer than half the occurrences of breast cancer, why hasn't more research money been directed toward the environment as a possible cause?  My friend from Princess Margaret argued passionately that researchers were focused on figuring out what made that original cell go rogue in an individual and that was an essential question to answer.  But the question still hangs in the air - but why aren't we further along after so many decades and so many dollars?

The movie also featured women protesting against the very vocabulary around breast cancer: stirring images of brave women who 'fought' cancer and 'survived' and researchers engaged in a 'war against cancer'.  They resent the implication that women have some degree of control over the disease and could survive if they would just fight hard enough.  It's not about fighting the disease, but about enduring the disease.  And the focus on  lifestyle choices, which explain only half the cases of breast cancer, shifts the blame for the disease to women themselves, making them feel it's their own fault if they're sick.

All in all a very thought provoking movie.

P.S. We saw it in The Projection Booth, a small theatre that has recently been re-opened as a rep theatre in eastern central Toronto.  We five were the only attendees, and received a personal welcome from the owner before the movie started.  Your heart goes out to someone trying to make it in the tough tough world of cinema, dominated by the giant megaplexes, and you can't help but wish him well.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Oranges and Sunshine

150,000 children.  Shipped from the United Kingdom to Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Rhodesia.  The children were from various orphanages in the UK and their parents were told that their children had been adopted by families in the UK.  Meanwhile the children were told that their parents were dead, or didn't want them.  The practice took place from the late 19th century through 1970.  Oranges and Sunshine centres on the children who migrated to Australia, excited by promises of 'oranges and sunshine', only to live desperate lives of privation, hard work and abuse in orphanages there.

The story unfolds through the life of Margaret Humphreys, a social worker in Nottingham.  In the late 80s, a daughter of one of the migrant children approaches Humphreys to request help in tracking her family history.  At first Humphreys discounts the authenticity of this woman's story, but coincidentally hears of another such instance.  Slowly Humphreys is drawn into an investigation and unravels the story of the horrific mass migrations - migrations which incredibly continued through to 1970, but were cloaked in secrecy until Humphreys' detective work. 

Humphreys doggedly tracks the story, through searches into old records and interviews in Australia.  She receives initial support from her local council to undertake the quest, and manages to reunite families long separated by the deceit of the operation.  

Humphreys' persistance and passion drained her own health and exposes her vilification and death threats, but eventually moved mountains in shedding light on the disgusting practice.  Ultimately, Humphreys founds the Child Migrants Trust, whose mission is to reunite families separated by this practice.  The trust has reunited over 1,000 such families.   Both the British and Australian prime ministers have made official apologies for what happened and the Australian government offers financial compensation for the families of the victims. 

The Child Migrant Trust website cites the reason for the migrations as the desire by the British to populate the dominions with good British stock.  There's a quote on the site by the Archbishop of Perth which reads
"At a time when empty cradles are contributing woefully to empty spaces, it is necessary to look for external sources of supply.  And if we do not supply from our own stock we are leaving ourselves all the more exposed to the menace of the teeming millions of our neighbouring Asiatic races."

Wikipedia suggests that economics might have also played a part in the migrations, because it was much cheaper to look after children in orphanages in the colonies than in Britain. Children sent to Canada tended to end up on farms, where they provided free labour, but the movie understandably narrows the focus of the movie to one country and a zeroes in on particular individual stories.

This is a very good movie.  Emily Watson is fabulous in the starring role, drawing us into her quest, and making us share her pain as she uncovers the truth.