Day 4 of Hot Docs was my first volunteer shift inside an actual venue. I was volunteering at one of my favourite theatres, the Isabel Bader theatre at Victoria College. That morning, Danny was screening – a doc about Danny Williams, the former Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador, directed by Justin Simms and William D. MacGillivray. I had been hearing through the volunteer grapevine that it was packed when it screened the night before as part of Scotiabank’s Big Ideas, so I psyched myself up for long lines and antsy audience members.
Of course, because it was screening at 10:30 in the morning, this was a pretty different crowd. It mostly consisted of seniors (who can get in for free before 5 pm) who were happy to shuffle on in and enjoy a morning doc. As an usher, I got to watch almost the whole thing, which I wasn’t expecting to, so here I’ll write an unexpected…
I really enjoyed Danny. The filmmakers did a great job of not only telling the story of Danny’s career and accomplishments, but also the history of Newfoundland and Labrador – a history that I know an embarrassingly small amount of, considering I lived a hop, skip and a jump away for almost all of university. Danny himself is a great character – though he is not a large man, his presence is larger-than-life and a joy to watch on screen. This is a doc that transcends political boundaries. Danny is a Conservative, but he sure as hell isn’t a Harper Conservative, and that comes across very clearly in his narrative. Political leanings aside, I can really respect the way that he stood up for and championed his province. I haven’t researched enough about him and his policies to form an actual informed opinion, but this doc serves as a wonderful tribute to him.
I also got to talk to people that came to participate in the DocX Virtual Reality Showcase. Following the rule that I must run into someone I haven’t seen in a while at every volunteer shift, the person running the Showcase was a friend from King’s! It was fun to watch people twirling in their chairs as they immersed themselves in the docs, little pod people with their Samsung goggles and massive headphones. I have yet to try this myself, but I will report back when I do!
After my volunteer shift, I headed over to Hart House to wait in the rush line for the 3:30 screening of Being Canadian, directed by Robert Cohen. I got there at around 2:15 and I was already nineteenth in line. This doc has been getting tons of press and sounded like it would be hilarious – a Canadian television writer who’s been living in LA for the entirety of his career drives across Canada, discovering the landscape and interviewing Canadian personalities to answer the question: what does it mean to be Canadian?
After a long and anxiety-ridden wait – will I get in? Have they started screening it yet? Why does this woman keep counting us? – I did manage to get a rush ticket and sat down just as the doc was starting. I experienced my first technical difficulty as the film kept cutting out at George Stromboulopoulos talking about Canadians being murderers (or something like that). Technological glitches aside, I now give you another
First and foremost – this doc is not worth the hype. And it is definitely not worth standing in line for an hour and a half when you’re hungry, tired and overheating. The beginning seemed promising – Cohen starts off in the Maritimes, which he’s never been to before, and I did get a genuine sense of wonder and excitement at seeing this part of Canada. What was especially exciting for me was being able to recognize the places he was going to – Queensland Beach, Peggy’s Cove, the Halifax Citadel – and even more exciting when I recognized people I knew working at the Citadel!
However, as the story progressed, it seemed increasingly contrived and disjointed. He also seemed to lose interest as a narrator, which I found to be an odd device. There was a lot that disappointed me about this doc. First, there was a great opportunity here to really pay attention to the landscape. When I think about what is so great about Canada, the landscape is the first thing that comes to mind – we live in a vast, beautiful and resource rich country that has some of the most incredible scenery. Canadian cities are not so special – while some have interesting historical significance, they pale in comparison to the nature that surrounds them an hour out. Most of the driving footage consisted of Robert Cohen’s side profile as he gabbed on about his queries and concerns. My second big disappointment is that he mostly talked to people in the context of becoming successful in America and then reflecting on how their Canadian-ness sets them apart from their American peers. This could have been a great opportunity to find Canadian people working and becoming successful in the arts in Canada as well – but clearly, that opportunity was wasted. While the interviews offered a few laugh-out-loud moments, the doc as a whole was just kind of “eh” and, while not offensive, it was definitely forgettable. I don’t feel sorry for the hundred or so people in line behind me – while they wasted forty minutes or so standing in line, they saved themselves the next two hours and $17 to see something that was not worth it.
Danny will be screening on Sunday, May 3 at the Isabel Bader Theatre at 1:15 pm. Tickets are still available. The DocX Virtual Reality Showcase will be at the Isabel Bader theatre until Friday, May 1, from 10 am to 7 pm. Admission is free. You can find Being Canadian online at beingcanadianmovie.com but it will not be screening again at Hot Docs.