Hot Docs 2016: The League of Exotique Dancers, Contemporary Color, and Tower

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Hot Docs 2016: The League of Exotique Dancers, Contemporary Color, and Tower

Kicking off Hot Docs with nonfiction films about the grand dames of burlesque, a colour guard concert organized by David Byrne, and a campus shooting in Texas from 1966.

Still from festival opener The League of Exotique Dancers.

Still from festival opener The League of Exotique Dancers.

At Hot Docs: a buoyant portrait of burlesque performers in their the heyday, a gorgeous experimental concert film featuring David Byrne and North America’s best colour guard teams, and a gripping animated procedural about the University of Texas campus shooting of 1966.


The League of Exotique Dancers (Special Presentations, Canada)
Directed by Rama Rau

Screenings:

Friday, April 29, 1:30 p.m.
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)

Tuesday, May 3, 9:45 p.m.
Bloor Hot Docs Cinema (506 Bloor Street West)


Toronto filmmaker Rama Rau makes a triumphant return to the festival after last year’s No Place to Hide: The Rehtaeh Parsons Story with the buoyant and engaging burlesque doc The League of Exotique Dancers. Ostensibly a record of burlesque’s luminaries returning to form after years of retirement and other hiccups to perform at Las Vegas’s Burlesque Hall of Fame—described here as a showcase that brings women from different eras together on one stage—the film is most effective (and, for those with an interest in alternative performing arts, indispensable) as a document of a diverse cast of women’s experiences within a highly gendered form of labour.

Rau guides us through a more or less chronological history of burlesque in North America through the personal accounts of a number of dancers, among them British Columbia’s own Judith Stein, hearse-driving self-described “cosmic queen” Camille 2000, and Toni Elling, who brings the perspective of being African-American in a workplace that commodifies Black bodies in potentially insidious ways. Elling’s angle on what it meant to either present as Black or pass as white in an industry that depends so strongly on women’s performances of self is a welcome one in a doc that otherwise skews white. That limitation aside, Rau is nevertheless committed to a progressive vision that focuses, refreshingly, on how burlesque is a personality-driven art that has historically afforded its performers the opportunity to cultivate their own dramatic personas—and make a living from it—in concert with their own unique bodies, styles, and tastes.

We could have done without some of the generic muzak scoring the old videotaped footage of the women’s quintessential performances. We’ll also confess to some confusion about the film’s elastic timeline, which tends to move back and forth from nostalgia for the art form’s heyday to first-person recreations of it as if in the present. But Rau is a smart filmmaker who builds a rewarding relationship with each of her subjects, a cadre of warm, rich-voiced, gutsy women with fascinating and varied life stories whose trusting connection to their offscreen interviewer creates an intimate rapport with the audience.


Contemporary Color (Special Presentations, USA)
Directed by Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross
20160428Contemporary_Color

Screenings:

Monday, May 2, 9:30 p.m.
Bloor Hot Docs Cinema (506 Bloor Street West)

Wednesday, May 4, 4:15 p.m.
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)

Sunday, May 8, 1:00 p.m.
Bloor Hot Docs Cinema (506 Bloor Street West)


David Byrne serves as an all-purpose snake charmer and ringleader in Contemporary Color, the latest experimental documentary from the infinitely talented and unpretentious team of Bill and Turner Ross. The first concert film from the directors of the marvellous Tchoupitoulas, a hit at Hot Docs a few years back, the doc chronicles the Byrne-produced and -shepherded multidisciplinary performance of the same title, a massive event staged in 2015 in Toronto courtesy of Luminato, and then performed a second time at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center a few days later, then captured by the filmmakers.

Unlike Jonathan Demme’s approach in Stop Making Sense, probably the most celebrated concert film of all time and certainly the highest profile to feature Byrne up to now, the Ross brothers stray from straightforwardly capturing the concert, which pairs the gorgeous and incomparably athletic choreography of the top ten colour guard teams from across North America with new musical performances from artists as diverse as St. Vincent, Devonté Hynes, and tUnE-yArDs. The filmmakers alternate between those performances—usually captured through a mix of impressionistic on-the-ground footage of the colour guard teams’ glitter-blasted baton twirls and steadier shots of the musical artists singing on an elevated stage a hair above them—and, no pun intended, a number of colourful backstage scenes, both improvised and semi-scripted (the latter pumped through the theatre’s monitors).

Returning to the aesthetic they mined so beautifully in Tchoupitoulas—which found three young boys roaming through New Orleans’ music scene on one strange carnivalesque night that resembles Bart and Milhouse’s candy acid trip in The Simpsons—the brothers also briefly escape from the stage each performance to a dream-like segment where individual team members perform their routines solo at night within their respective communities, the most beautiful of these reserved for “Body Code,” a futurist robot stomp co-created by tUnE-yArDs and the New Jersey colour guard. The result is a beautiful conceptual melange of preparation and performance, individual and group effort, and finally, solo and collaborative art.


Tower (World Showcase, USA)
Directed by Keith Maitland
20160428Tower

Screenings:

Sunday, May 1, 9:30 p.m.
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)

Monday, May 2, 1 p.m.
Isabel Bader Theatre (93 Charles Street West)

Friday, May 6, 3:15 p.m.
Hart House Theatre (7 Hart House Circle)


Austin filmmaker Keith Maitland made a splash at this year’s edition of SXSW with Tower, his mixed-media recreation of the campus shooting that turned the University of Texas into a sniper’s killing grounds one day in 1966, which won him the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at the fest. Maitland uses a combination of animated dramatizations of the day’s events and contemporary monologues with survivors transcribed and performed by actors—aesthetically, imagine something between Richard Linklater’s Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly and Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir—and live-action interviews. Through these, the film attempts to capture something ineffable and hard about the communal wound of surviving a catastrophe that brought so many disparate people together in dire straits in one space and time.

Tower’s first hour is a gripping procedural that glides effortlessly between the developing stories of the wounded and the first responders, both professional and amateur; that he makes room not just for the heroes who protected the injured from further harm but the terrified bystanders who could only muster enough courage to find shelter for themselves is to the film’s credit as a generous work of history that doesn’t stop at memorializing the most extraordinary. Maitland also captures a certain refined Texan realism in his animated recreation of details like the logo on a Lone Star beer bottle, which nicely roots the film in a minimalist, regionalist framework despite its ostentatious style.

The film is so strong for so long that it’s a shame when it loses the plot a bit in its back half. Once that involving recreation ends with the death of the shooter—who goes unnamed and unsung, in another nice decision that survivors’ families will surely appreciate—the doc unfortunately lapses into a maudlin and fairly aimless retrospective survey of what it means to be a survivor that doesn’t land with the same force or the same sense of specificity and urgency of what preceded it. Still, Maitland deserves real props for his unique vision and respectful decision-making about whose lives he memorializes and how.

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