Hot Docs 2014: On Aging



Hot Docs 2014: On Aging

Profiling some of the festival's takes on aging artists and style mavens.

Still from Advanced Style.

Now in its 21st year, Hot Docs is North America’s largest film festival dedicated to the art of nonfiction filmmaking. Those seeking a path through the festival’s massive program of nearly 200 documentaries may do well to focus on some major recurring themes. The following is a primer on some of the festival’s strongest offerings about aging, which explore subjects ranging from elderly New York style gurus to a retiring LGBTQ cabaret group.

Advanced Style
Directed by Lina Plioplyte
Program: Next

Hart House Theatre (7 Hart House Circle)
(Tuesday, April 29, 10 p.m.)

Isabel Bader Theatre (93 Charles Street West)
(Thursday, May 1, 1 p.m.)

Regent Theatre (555 Mount Pleasant Road)
(Saturday, May 3, 1:30 p.m.)

Isabel Bader Theatre (93 Charles Street West)
(Sunday, May 4, 1:30 p.m.)

“Money has nothing to do with it,” a cannily dressed septuagenarian says of her personal image in Advanced Style, Lina Plioplyte’s brisk, charming profile of the stars of New York photographer Ari Seth Cohen’s fashion blog dedicated to the city’s best-dressed women over 50. That might not be true of the women’s vintage chic—their Chanel bags certainly didn’t buy themselves—but it turns out to be an operating principle for the film. Despite its refreshingly positive take on aging as something involving more than staggering illness and loss, the film has surprisingly little to say about the privileged economic and social circumstances that enable its protagonists to cultivate idiosyncratic personae for themselves during a life stage when women are typically reduced to flat stereotypes.

Still, one doesn’t go to a style documentary for class critique so much as for larger-than-life characters and, of course, fashion. As an amuse-bouche that manages to advocate a kind of soft feminism, Plioplyte’s film is more than able—though one wishes it had taken a closer look at the realities of maintaining one’s self-image while confronting the onset of illness and disability, which are treated here as uncouth digressions rather than a normal part of life.

Penthouse North
Directed by Johanna St. Michaels
Program: World Showcase
20140428Penthouse North 2

Scotiabank (259 Richmond Street West)
Thursday, May 1, 6:30 p.m.

TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
Friday, May 2, 9:30 p.m.

TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
Sunday, May 4, 6:30 p.m.

At the height of her career, Swedish model, actress, designer, and sometimes screenwriter Agneta Eckemyr (of Cosmopolitan and Playboy fame) was so in demand, she could afford to turn down a plum role as a Bond girl. Johanna St. Michaels’s Penthouse North, however, finds Eckemyr in a rather less impressive state. Still striking and wise at 62 years old, Eckemyr is unfortunately also broke, running out of options to pay for the eponymous apartment, a rent-controlled New York City penthouse whose value has increased over the years as Eckemyr’s own personal brand has flagged.

That central tension gives dramatic heft to St. Michaels’s documentary, a restrained, modest look at the career of a professional always valued for her physical beauty who is now struggling to convert that value into actual cash flow. St. Michaels’s sympathy for her clear-eyed star, who at one point coolly surveys her old autobiographical screenplay and deems it “too much like a soap,” is more than welcome; one can imagine a more moralizing version of the film that would instead have clucked its tongue at Eckemyr for falling prey to Hollywood’s star system and leaving herself stranded in old age. That doesn’t excuse the film’s silence on Eckemyr’s experience with Alzheimer’s, which is filed away in a strange title card that flashes onscreen in the closing moments. But this is, all the same, a sophisticated look at the economics of aging out of one’s career and into a brave new world.

Before the Last Curtain Falls
Directed by Thomas Wallner
Program: Canadian Spectrum

TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
Tuesday, April 29, 4 p.m.

TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
Friday, May 2, 12:30 p.m.

German-Canadian filmmaker Thomas Wallner returns to Hot Docs after the success of 2011’s jury-prize-winning The Guantanamo Trap with this fond farewell to the cast of Gardenia, a Belgian contemporary dance production put on by aging gay and trans cabaret performers. Though the film serves primarily as a guide to the group’s final performance—beautifully rendered in formally sophisticated tableaux that attempt to translate the show’s choreography into cinematic terms—it also profiles the individual performers at home and at rest, and considers what the show has meant to a range of actors and dancers whose identification as LGBT and trans has often put them at risk in their conservative European communities.

Though the performance footage is too decontextualized to make much narrative or even emotional sense to those unfamiliar with the show, Wallner’s footage of the cast members navigating their mundane lives at home—or just outside of it, learning to speak Mandarin in the car through instructional CDs, in one performer’s case—is the right kind of low-key. More importantly, his interviews with the cast members are bracing, intimate affairs—perhaps even too intimate. One moment that will surely (and deservedly) come under fire sees Wallner asking one of the stars what her birth name was, and earning a passionate rebuke for his implied suggestion that her present identity is a performance rather than the real thing. Much as that moment makes for a bad and possibly disrespectful interview, it’s also good cinema—the director’s error overcome by the subject’s passionate insistence on refusing its terms.