Elephant's Dream

Elephant’s Dream, directed by Kristof Bilsen.

It’s been several days since I departed Toronto, fully satiated by the documentaries at Hot Docs. I might want to dub it a week of re-creations gone wild, because easily half of the films I saw used the technique of actors or subjects reenacting real events. The technique wasn’t always used to good effect, but it was spot-on for The Nightmare, director Rodney Ascher’s exploration into sleep paralysis. It’s as close as one could hope to get to a Paranormal-like horror film, which made me a little worried that it would take the low road. But Ascher pulls his punches. The film is restrained in its scares as it builds our trust and spends time with its subjects who discuss their terrifying nights of feeling paralyzed and visited by dark forces. And, eventually, the film is spine-tingling and scary as heck. But not gratuitously so. It might disappoint horror fans, but I appreciated its fun, smart approach to a fascinating phenomenon.

Many of the films I saw had the common theme of people reaching out to each other, sharing their humanity and overcoming grief or trauma. This was true for The Arms Drop, about two men involved in an illicit act but who pay very different costs, and My Enemy, My Brother, about an Iranian and Iraqi soldier who have two chance and fateful meetings. Most moving of all was Thank You for Playing, about a game developer who creates a video game as a way to communicate and handle the slow, heart-wrenching loss of his terminally ill child.

Keeping in mind that I won’t write about several Hot Docs films, including Montage of Heck and Uncertain, both of which I’m assuming are going to end up on my 2015 top ten list because I saw them previously, what stands out most for me are two small films. They’re small in the sense that they’re low budget, and there’s been very little talk about either one. Maybe that’s part of their charm — they felt like discoveries.

The first is Elephant’s Dream by Belgian director Kristof Bilsen. It’s a no frills verite film about life in Kinshasa, Congo that feels like a 19th century Russian novel. We see the quiet, tedious everyday existence of everyday people. Their idleness plays for laughs but without snark. This is a place where the fire station itself burned down, and firefighters are teased by locals while they try to do their jobs. The value the subjects place on meaningful work is touching, as their nation inches toward development.

The other is the biggest stand out — Stand By for Tape Back-up, which might not even be a documentary in some people’s eyes. It could be called video art. Whatever. It moved me. The visuals of the film are entirely gleaned from a VHS tape that the director, Ross Sutherland, inherited from his grandfather. Both he and his granddad taped and re-taped shows and movies on the tape, so there’s a weird hodgepodge of imagery. And what we hear throughout is Sutherland’s hilarious, poignant, inane and poetic narration as he tries to find meaning in the tape after he has a hard drive crash, losing his past personal information and work. Riffing on Ghostbusters, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Jaws, his own depression and the human inclination to look for patterns, Sutherland raps, talks, jokes and curses his way through what’s a beautiful, provocative essay on life in the post-post-modern age.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen