The Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, whose most recent edition drew to a close in Toronto last weekend, is celebrating its 20th year as North America's largest documentary showcase. The question of what is documentary has only become more complicated throughout those 20 years, and it remains alive and gloriously unresolved in 2013. It seems fitting then that, more than in previous years, the highlights of my Hot Docs 2013 experience are drawn from films whose adherence to documentary differentia lies some distance from those elements we often think of when we think of documentary: advocacy, journalism, social studies, popular history and biography. The two films I most want to tell you about—films made by brilliant young women, films that I dearly hope you will soon have a chance to see, preferably on a big screen—are unambiguously works of non-fiction, but they're grounded in a poetic use of the form, and in personal stories with no obvious pre-conceived social agenda.
Petra Costa was born in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Her mother always told her she could do anything she wanted, except acting, that she could live anywhere she wanted, except New York. Costa began acting at 15. She studied anthropology and theatre at New York's Columbia University. Elena, Costa's heartbreaking and gorgeous feature debut, begins with woozy nocturnal views of New York. Over these images we hear Costa's voice. “Elena,” she says, “I had a dream of you last night … ” In this dream Elena is atop a wall, tangled in electrical wires. But soon the one being dreamed of becomes confused with the dreamer. It is the dreamer who is now atop the wall. She touches the wires, receives a shock, falls and dies.
This is the story of two women, one an elusive ghost, the other trying to find this ghost, to know her—and very much in danger of becoming her. (Make that three women, as Costa's mother also plays a pivotal role in the lives of both Elena and Petra, and in the narrative conveyed in this film.) Elena is a memoir of devastating loss and fortifying self-knowledge. Elena was Costa's big sister, already entering her early teens when Costa was born. Elena wanted to act and sing, to live only for art, and moved to New York to realize this. But Elena's promising career was thwarted by her own paralyzing despair. Petra, too, would grow up to act, sing, make art, go to New York, all the while struggling not to succumb to precisely the same demons that consumed her sister.
Elena received her first camcorder at 13 and, out of her desire to hone her creativity and out of her perfectly healthy, even endearing adolescent vanity, immediately set about creating a trove of home movies—movies that, unbeknownst to her, would, along with other remarkable archival materials, become the foundation of this film named in her memory. Costa weaves together all this found footage with her own beguiling, at times astonishing images of water and drifting bodies, of herself looking lost in a vast city, of interviews with those closest to Elena, and with the most poignant use of the Mamas and the Papas' “Dedicated to the One I Love” I've ever come across. Elena is drenched in much sadness, but it also flows with tremendous beauty—beauty and fluidity are Costa's sources of consolation. The film is so intrinsically personal that it's difficult to imagine what Costa might do next, but I can't wait to find out.
In the fall of 2011, as part of her graduation project, Tinatin Gurchiani, a film student at Germany's Konrad Wolf University, returned to her native Georgia, where she put out a casting call for young locals who felt their biographies were “exclusively interesting for film.” In The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear, Gurchiani's fascinating, lyrical, arrestingly intimate feature debut, a nominee for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, we see several respondents stand before Gurchiani's camera in a sort of elegantly rendered screen test. (I couldn't help but think of Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf's wonderful 1995 quasi-doc Salaam Cinema, in which auditions for a film wind up becoming the film itself.) They are often shy and uncertain, yet so articulate about their lives in this infamously fraught former Soviet region that, within moments, we feel immersed completely in their very particular world.
Then the camera follows them as they enact some aspect of these lives. But what we see doesn't resemble cinéma vérité; rather, Gurchiani has selected key events from her subjects' lives and, to some ambiguous degree, staged these events for her camera in rooms suffused with natural light. An ex-military officer visits friends and family, asking them to not abandon his incarcerated brother; a bride speaks of her aspirations on her wedding day; a 13-year-old tends to cows and corn, and to his injured father; a young puppeteer confronts the mother who abandoned her. All these stories blend into a seamless panorama of contemporary Georgia, form a tribute to struggles both ordinary and extraordinary—and announce the arrival of a bold new talent in world cinema.