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In Features, Issues

REALITY BITES

By David Adler

Ruth Leitman’s LIPSTICK AND DYNAMITE, Piss and Vinegar:
The First Ladies of Wrestling.

I remember a New Yorker cartoon showing an idealized city where “gourmet delis” actually sold gourmet food and midtown movie theaters showed “New Dutch Documentaries” as expectant throngs waited in line outside. I can’t comment on Canadian grocery stores, but Hot Docs in Toronto, which bills itself as “North America’s largest documentary festival,” featured sellout shows and overflow crowds demanding to see issue-oriented documentaries from Holland, South Africa and Palestine. Moreover, the accompanying Documentary Forum, where documentary makers can pitch projects to an assemblage of commissioning editors from around the world, remains a key international financing event.

Hot Docs, which ran April 23-May 2, opened with The Ritchie Boys, a WWII doc successfully pitched at the forum the year before, but for me the festival began in the coffee shop of the Quality Inn, where two veteran female professional wrestlers were polishing off their breakfast. Ella Waldek and Penny Banner were two of the stars of Ruth Leitman’s doc LIPSTICK AND DYNAMITE, Piss and Vinegar: The First Ladies of Wrestling. The ladies voiced no regrets, either about the film or the festival, but they were discouraged by the wrestling of today: “It’s very sad. It’s not a sport anymore — they’ve ruined all the respect we worked for,” said Waldek. LIPSTICK AND DYNAMITE captures the pathos and flavor of a sport which is simultaneously mysterious, kinky and profoundly cheesy. I asked Leitman how her film had found its way to a world premiere at Hot Docs. “Fiction films are entertaining, but documentary films are supposed to be issue-driven,” she said. “But because Hot Docs is so big,” it had room for “non-issue docs” like hers.

Issue documentaries did dominate the festival, though, with provocative films about unemployment in Argentina, the politics of water, Nicaragua today, Chiapas, Gaza, Libyan beauty pageants and the working conditions on container ships.

At the Hot Docs pitching forum, delegates are seated on benches on the sides of a churchlike hall at the University of Toronto. The commissioning editors sit in the center, around an extremely long table. Black curtains billowed over the arched windows. The whole assembly has the look as well as gravitas of the Council of Trent. Each filmmaker has 15 minutes to make his or her pitch.

The first pitch wasn’t going well. A Tale of Two Moguls was going to be about Edgar Bronfman and Jean-Marie Messier and their problematic takeover of Universal. The exec from Trio, which is owned by Universal, joked that it was a pity that Trio hadn’t heard about the project sooner; it could have been a centerpiece for the channel’s Flops week. A French exec said there was no word in English that could describe precisely the problem with the project. A rep from Arte said the problem with the project was…they had already made it (or something like it)! But producer Alan Handel said later that the pitch had already attracted serious interest from two broadcasters.

Looking imperious yet pained throughout the presentations was Nick Fraser, the last BBC commissioner to routinely buy serious documentaries. Fraser has just written a long article for Harper’s arguing the need for public broadcasting since commercial TV is becoming poisonously “anodyne.” He told me that the forum “was worth it — I didn’t go last year because of SARS, and so three projects didn’t get financed.” But, he added, “the problems of TV are fantastically intense. No one knows whether or not to eschew populist [doc] programming…but the projects here really aren’t populist. [They are] ‘midrange.’”

Perhaps the most interesting documentary-financing case study occurred outside the forum in an oblique but ultimately brutal December “internal review” from Alliance Atlantis Communications, the country’s largest television producer. Senior executive vice president and CFO Judson Martin wrote, “We began this review in response to what we believe is a permanent downturn in domestic and international demand for prime time television series, movies of the week and miniseries as well as ‘arthouse’ theatrical motion picture productions… We will, in the coming days, materially and permanently reduce the size and scope of our production business.” The result? Alliance Atlantis shut down some of the most storied names in documentary production, including Café Productions, Great North and Salter Street. The decision seems to have paid off: the company’s stock price has doubled since December.

As a wintry mix settled into Toronto, I decided to stay in my hotel and watch some TV. Extreme Makeovers was on. The contestant was getting… new teeth. Meanwhile, outside in the sleet, filmgoers were lining up to see the newest in Dutch issue-oriented docs.

Surely there is some disconnect here. Perhaps the docs at the festival merely represented the last vestige of piety against the onslaught of their dark cousin, reality. But in reality, LIPSTICK AND DYNAMITE is no more pious and no less entertaining than today’s TV reality programming. And moreover, the sold-out shows and huge press for Hot Docs showed yet again that there is a real audience for feature docs.

This disconnect, which is much more pronounced in the U.S., is worthy itself of investigation by documentary filmmakers. Documentarians are always looking at the IMF (and there was a great film, Money, at Hot Docs), but maybe they should also look at the U.S. cable industry and the true politics of the FCC.

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