Fest faves

The following feature docs are making their way along the festival circuit, and as you'll see in these profiles, are well worth the price of admission.
May 1, 2010


JS Kastner Productions with the NFB, in association with CTV

Appeared at: It’s All True (Rio de Janeiro), Hot Docs (Toronto)

Coming to: L.A. Film Festival (U.S. premiere)

Most of what you’ll read about triple Emmy-winner John Kastner’s latest film, Life with Murder, will begin with a disclaimer stating there’s not a lot you can say about the story arc of the film without spoiling it. We’ll say the same thing. What we can say is that the film doubles as both a heartbreaking and at times harrowing real-life murder mystery, and a meditation on unconditional love.

The Jenkins family of Chatham, Ontario, was struck by the unthinkable on a January night in 1998, when their 18-year-old daughter Jennifer was found murdered in the basement of the family house. The lifeless, bloody body was discovered by her parents, Leslie and Brian, while their older son Mason was nowhere in the house. Police eventually charged Mason with the murder and the then-20-year-old maintained his innocence, saying he was abducted by four men who subsequently killed Jennifer. After being convicted of first-degree murder, Mason spent years appealing the sentence, while his parents, Leslie and Brian, had to make the decision whether to support their son and keep him in their lives, or break off ties completely and effectively lose both of their children.

Through the course of the film, we see new evidence come to light to reveal the killer’s true identity – evidence that was being unearthed as Kastner and team were filming. ‘The killer did in fact confess on camera and we never dreamed it would happen,’ says the director.

Kastner, who has covered crime extensively over the span of his career in documentary filmmaking, first met Mason in Ontario’s Warkworth jail while working on his previous two-part doc Monster in the Family, which also dealt with a relationship between a convict, Martin Ferrier, and his family. But while Ferrier’s mother branded him a ‘monster’ and fought hard to keep her son in jail (he was released shortly before the doc aired on Canadian net CTV), Mason’s parents still regularly visited their son in the same prison, even though he was convicted of murdering their daughter.

‘I had started talking to Mason and the family in 2005, and we didn’t start to get seriously interested in the story until two years later,’ says Kastner. But although Leslie and Brian had seen Monster in the Family and were willing to have their story documented, it was still difficult to ‘peel back the layers’ of silence that the family had engaged in for so long.

‘They didn’t discuss with Mason or anyone else in the family whether he was guilty or innocent – they just buried it,’ Kastner says. ‘So setting out to make a major documentary about something that no one wants to talk about – that was a challenge!’

But the family members do talk in the film, and the audience sees the interaction between Leslie, Brian and Mason. The audience is also privy to, thanks to both Kastner’s diligent efforts and the intervention of the Jenkins parents, heart-rending police interrogation footage from the investigation as well as the 911 call made to the police by Leslie and Brian.

Kastner says a major distribution deal is soon to be announced, as is an air date on CTV. But while the doc will eventually have the opportunity to be seen by larger audiences in North America and beyond, Kastner says the opinions of two viewers – Leslie and Brian Jenkins – were of paramount importance. Thus, he screened the film for the couple over three consecutive weekends.

‘Brian, when it was over, said, ‘It was hard to watch but I’m glad I did,” he recalls. ‘Leslie is very restrained in showing her emotions, but when I turned to her she was beaming. And she said, in her very restrained way, ‘You’ve been doing some work there, haven’t ya?” Barry Walsh


Open Face, in association with Different By Design

Appeared at: SXSW, Cleveland International Film Festival, Independent Film Festival of Boston, Hot Docs (international premiere)

Coming to: Seattle International Film Festival, L.A. Film Festival, Silverdocs

In the lives of many artists, triumph can sometimes be snatched from the jaws of horrible tragedy. Great work can sometimes spring from unthinkable circumstances. Such is the case for Mark Hogancamp, the subject of Jeff Malmberg’s staggeringly good directorial debut, Marwencol.

Hogancamp was savagely beaten by five teenagers during a night out in Kingston, New York. The attack left him with severe brain damage that required him to relearn how to walk, talk, eat and write. But part of that process of rehabilitation would be a therapy he would create on his own – a 1/6th scale, fictional World War II-era town he called Marwencol, built in his backyard and populated by dolls representing people and situations from his real life.

Malmberg became aware of Hogancamp’s world through seeing photographs he’d taken of the town and its populace in the pages of New York City-based art magazine Esopus. ‘I was immediately captivated, particularly by his captions and his little psychic admissions of what was going on in the town,’ Malmberg recalls. ‘I thought, ‘Man, there’s something really happening here and I want to figure out what it is.” Malmberg met with Hogancamp and saw more of the photographs, taken from new scenarios he creates daily. ‘I realized I wasn’t just fascinated by his photos, I was fascinated by him,’ says the director. ‘So it became my mission to get to know him and luckily we became really good friends.’

Malmberg says Hogancamp was open and receptive throughout the four years of shooting: ‘I think he knew there was something he wanted to share and something I wanted to understand as well.’ Malmberg says that with a wealth of material at his disposal, it was a race to the finish to make the film’s South by Southwest debut. ‘I think we finished about three days before our premiere,’ he laughs.

The film has done extremely well on the fest circuit – Marwencol snapped up the Grand Jury Award for best doc feature at SXSW, and Malmberg took home the HBO Emerging Artist award at Hot Docs. U.S. audiences will have an opportunity to see what all the buzz is about in the fall thanks to a distrib deal with The Cinema Guild. ‘Six months ago we were still trying to figure out the movie and now we’re accepting an award from Chris Hegedus,’ he says of the Hot Docs experience. ‘You can’t beat something like that.’ Barry Walsh


Yellow Pad Productions in association with Icon TMI

Appeared at: Hot Docs, Sundance, Chicago Film Festival, Sonoma

Coming to: theatrical releases in Pakistan, Iran and Europe

The new documentary on the life and political history of assassinated former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto kicks off with an animated title sequence detailing a concise version of Pakistan’s 63-year history. Inspired by the opening titles for the film The Kingdom, co-director Duane Baughman (who helmed the film with Johnny O’Hara) opted for a similar animated style to help sum up Pakistan’s history, from its birth to present-day issues such as literacy, average earnings and sanitation. It’s a touch that helps separate the film from the pack of solcio-political documentaries.

The other element that makes this so much more than a dry political doc is, of course, Bhutto herself. A fascinating and inspiring personality, Bhutto is documented from her childhood growing up as the eldest daughter of Pakistan’s former President and Prime Minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto; to her leadership of the Pakistan Peoples Party and her fight for democracy in her country, which ended with her assassination in 2007. The film also touches on her education outside of her country at Harvard College and Oxford University, as well as the tragic deaths of her father and brother for political reasons.

Come this June, Bhutto will hit screens in Pakistan. One of the few U.S. documentaries to get Pakistani distribution, the opening of Bhutto in three cities (Karachi, Islamabad and Lahore) is on the verge of being finalized for June 21, what would have been Benazir Bhutto’s 57th birthday.

‘[There's] a lot of controversy surrounding it and it’s going to be a very interesting time,’ says Baughman of the opening in Pakistan. ‘Mark [Siegel, producer] and I both hope to be there. We’ll probably drag some press in tow to capture whatever is going to happen.’

Siegel was a good friend of Bhutto who handled her business in the U.S., and when Baughman called him up hours after her death to ask him to work on a documentary about her life, he wasn’t ready. Three months later he revisited the idea and started contacting her family for interviews. The interviews with Bhutto’s children, husband and sister in the film are the only ones they’ve given since her death.

The film, which is also opening in parts of Europe and Iran in June, was two and a half years in the making and is still transforming as the UN investigates Bhutto’s murder. The filmmakers are constantly changing its ending as more information comes to light. Lindsay Gibb


Canal+, Chez Wam, Studio Canal

Appeared at: Hot Docs

Now playing: U.S. theaters since May 7, 2010

Babies is centered around such a simple idea that it seems crazy nobody thought of it earlier: take four cute babies from various locales around the world and follow them for a year. Still, it’s the execution that has people snapping up movie tickets, with a reported $1.1 million box office take on Mother’s Day alone. Babies screened in 534 locations in the U.S. on the Mother’s Day weekend in early May (as well as Toronto and Montreal in Canada) and benefited from a strategic marketing push that included tie-ins with 10 mom-friendly brands, including Pampers and Johnson’s Baby.

Producer Alain Chabat came up with the idea for a narration-free study of babies over a decade ago, with director Thomas Balmès (Damages, A Decent Factory) receiving a call from Chabat’s production company Chez Wam in 2005. Balmès saw the film as an opportunity to make ‘a non-fiction film of pure observation’ and took on the project, with filming commencing at the start of 2006 and taking place over 400 days.

Balmès and crew selected four locations: Tokyo, Namibia, San Francisco and Mongolia, and found four expecting couples willing to let the team document the early stages of life for their children, from birth to first steps. The camera unobtrusively monitors the growing tots as they gurgle, cry and play, with no narration or subtitles but rather an instrumental track tying the story together. We see most of the parents from the neck down, as abstract, or universal figures.

The film also illustrates the extremes experienced by babies, determined by geographies. The urban babies, Hatti in San Francisco and Mari in Tokyo, have a wealth of toys to keep them amused and are both enrolled in ‘Mommy and me’ classes. Meanwhile, the rural babies, Namibian Ponijao (pictured) and lone boy baby Bayarjargal (or Bayar, for short) in Mongolia, have decidedly different lives. The only toys they have are the dogs, roosters and chickens that they co-exist with and whatever else they can get their hands on.

Thanks to the strong support on Mother’s Day, Babies enjoyed the 10th highest opening for a doc in the last 10 years. Not bad for what Chabat has called ‘the biggest smallest adventure ever.’ Kelly Anderson


Directed by Rebecca Haimowitz, Vaishali Sinha

Appeared at: Hot Docs (World Premiere)

Made in India, which made its world premiere at Toronto’s Hot Docs, was one of a handful of documentaries at the festival to receive an added screening, and for good reason. The doc takes a balanced approach to the sensitive issue of Westerners looking to the Third World for surrogacy.

The film, by New York filmmakers Vaishali Sinha and Rebecca Haimowitz, follows Texans Lisa and Ryan Switzer whose lifelong dream is to have children of their own. After the couple comes to terms with the fact that, due to medical reasons, Lisa will not be able to naturally carry a child, they start looking into alternative methods.

Haimowitz discovered the story of North Americans going to impoverished nations to have fertilized eggs implanted in surrogates (a trend dubbed ‘medical tourism’ by some) while she was researching a separate project on surrogacy. She then brought the story to Sinha, a filmmaker she knew well but had never worked with. ‘We talked about all the different issues it brings up, and it seemed like such a specific area that [still] covers so many different issues: reproductive technology, choice [and] globalization all converge in this one subject,’ says Haimowitz. ‘So by the end of this long conversation we thought, ‘We have to make this movie.”

As the film progresses all of these connecting issues come up as the Switzers are invited on network television in the States to talk about their undertaking and to fend off the idea that North Americans who use foreign surrogates are exploiting poorer nations.

This perspective on international surrogacy is a common one but also an overly simplified one, and Made in India delves into the complexities by also following the surrogate, Aasia Khan, as she makes the decision to have the Switzers’ baby (in fact, twin babies) implanted in her. It exposes the glitches in the system as communication breaks down between Khan and the surrogacy agency as well as the communication between the hospital where the babies are born and the Switzers, yet it also looks at the joy that both parties get from creating a family together.

The next step for the film is the search for distribution so that it can screen in Europe, the United States and, hopefully, India as well. Lindsay Gibb


Break Thru Films

Appeared at: Tribeca Film Festival, Sundance, Hot Docs (International premiere)

Coming to: U.S. theatrical release on June 11

While younger people today may only know Joan Rivers from her red carpet reporting during awards season, or perhaps for her penchant for plastic surgery, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work reveals Rivers as a groundbreaking female comedian who is fighting tooth and nail to retain her career’s relevance at the age of 76.

Co-directors Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg (The Devil Came on Horseback) begin their intimate look at the caustic comedian with a shot of Rivers pre-makeup; unmasked, as it were. It is symbolic of the entire 90-minute documentary; a ‘warts and all’ look at the comedian’s personal life and career in 2009. We see the lows – a jarringly blank day planner, the firing of her long-time right hand man – and her highs, including winning the reality show Celebrity Apprentice and a revival of her career.

The film reveals that there is no sign of slowing down Rivers in her 76th year. Instead of reveling in past successes from her career as a stand-up comedian and as a regular guest host on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, Rivers is angry that work has dried up. She launches a one-woman show in Europe with high hopes to take it on the road, but after less than kind reviews, she is defeated and the dream to continue with the show is dashed.

After appearing with daughter Melissa on Celebrity Apprentice, and hearing ‘You’re hired’ from Donald Trump, Rivers is back in the spotlight. Stand-up engagements and a Comedy Central Roast follow, where comedian Kathy Griffin steps in to convince her that a roast is an honor and a tribute. Her career is back on track.

Like other comedians, Rivers comes across as insecure and needing approval. A revealing scene shows Rivers discussing how her mother used to berate her about her appearance. She’s also a perfectionist, a quality made apparent to the filmmakers when they screened the completed film for her. Fearful of it being ‘boring,’ she eventually came around when the film screened for others who loved it.

Known for her candor, Rivers still had some reservations about how much she revealed. ‘She said one time under her breath as she was watching it, ‘It’s a documentary, it has to be like this,” says Stern. Kelly Anderson

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.