Hot Docs 2013: What Makes a Movie Powerful?

By  · Published on April 28th, 2013

While introducing Austin Peck and Anneliese Vandenberg’s Tough Bond at Hot Docs this weekend, a programmer called it “powerful.” That’s an adjective we tend to take for granted, especially at a film festival devoted to documentaries, and I accepted the claim for whatever my mind tends to associate with the word. Which might be nothing. Halfway through the film, I wondered what we really mean when we call a film powerful. There are actually a few different possibilities.

An orange glue bottle hanging from the mouths of Kenyan street kids like its an extension of their face. That’s an image I’ll never get out of my head, which means its an image with power. And its an image recurring throughout Tough Bond, which focuses on a national problem of huffing and the societal changes leading youths to turn to the intoxicating adhesive. But that doesn’t make the film itself powerful, does it? It’s not as if the filmmakers created this picture of modern Africa. They just recorded it.

Similarly, their loud employment of the music of Afro/Euro dance duo The Very Best and an overwhelming soundscape of beats and buzzing is also a powerful aspect of the doc but not a reason for the doc to be considered powerful as a whole. Elements do add up, however, and altogether this is a film that takes you over. It leaves you feeling powerless, which pretty much literally means it is powerful.

Tough Bond doesn’t just dominate the senses, though. The feeling of powerlessness comes primarily from the broad-scoped narrative of Kenyan kids who are abandoned by their mothers and ignored by their community at large. “It takes a village…” no longer appears to be the case in East Africa. So there are homeless children roaming about in Nairobi and other parts of the country. They perpetually get high on Tough Bond glue, they steal for money to buy more, they have unprotected sex… what do they care if they live or die?

Powerful can also mean something completely different. If this film were to influence change in Kenya, that would involve the power of the medium as an agent for a cause. Tough Bond does indeed end with a title card urging us to “take part” on the issue, despite the fact that we’ve just watched 80 minutes of hopelessness illustrated. With growing slums, young people in a constant haze unconcernedly getting HIV, devastating drought in the rural areas, garbage so common in the urban centers that it’s just a part of the landscape – there’s not a lot of reason to be optimistic about the fate of this place and its people. To make matters worse, in an interview for the film, Kenyan Vice President Kalonzo Musyoko gives us every reason to believe there’s no chance of anything turning around anytime soon.

We often mistake the word powerful as meaning the same thing as empowering, and there is a tricky distinction. Tough Bond might provoke some viewers to want to help, and that’s an effective power, but it doesn’t really inspire us in a way that gives us any power. To a large degree, this film presents itself as being powerless for the most part as well. The camera lingers on these kids with bottles stuck (literally?) to their lips and nose. Peck and Vandenberg do not interfere, and through their lens we feel paralyzed behind this sort of glass wall that only allows for observation. It’s a documentary that stuns with its imagery and sound and helplessness.

Another kind of power I witnessed at the festival this weekend involved a documentary called Fatal Assistance, which is best described as the No End in Sight for the 2010 Haiti earthquake. That is to say it’s not about the initial disaster – for No End in Sight that’s the 2003 Iraq War; here it’s the devastating act of nature that killed more than 300,000 people – but the tragedy of disorganized clean-up and reconstruction that followed. Director Raoul Peck (Lumumba) takes us through three years of failed and faulty programs of aid, and it is deeply powerful in the way it affects us.

This is the first time in a while where I’ve walked out of a film and for many blocks there were people in front and in back of me just letting all their anger out. They screamed about celebrity humanitarian culture, spouted disappointment with the need for quick, visible results that are equivalent to film set facades in terms of their reality. I certainly hadn’t heard so many negative comments about Bill Clinton, who is a U.N. Special Envoy to Haiti and a key leader for and face of the international relief efforts, since the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

But Fatal Assistance, as inciting and indicting a report as it is, again makes us otherwise simply feel powerless. It is the sort of documentary that presents a systemic problem with no solution. Because there really is nothing to do than restructure that whole system, and that’s certainly never going to happen. Part of the reason for this is that the issue isn’t merely to do with NGOs and other humanitarian channels. It has to do with humanity. We need to rewire an entire species and restart whole norms of our society. That will never happen, obviously.

So, we should just give up and be complacent. Or own up to our complacency, which is a central theme in the certainly yet subtly powerful Oil Sands Karaoke. Directed by Charles Wilkinson, it’s a brilliantly depressing documentary hidden inside an enjoyable crowd pleaser. We meet a handful of people living in Fort McMurray, Alberta, where most work at the controversial Athabasca tar sands. Other characters run a local pub that hosts karaoke nights and is about to hold a contest for its many talented voices.

Strangely enough, some of these singers had been on track to be professionals but due to circumstances had to give up that dream and settle on driving massive “heavy haulers” or building structures on the dig site, jobs that can pay loads of money yet come with another price. These people not only let go of aspirations – nearly all admit they’d like to be stars – but they also throw away moral concerns for the environment. Usually they find ways to defend their employment even if they can’t honestly justify it to themselves completely. It’s a job, and those are hard to come by, and they’re in debt. It would continue whether they worked there or not, so they might as well. One guy shares a common joke response that they’re there cleaning up an oil spill that happened millions of years ago.

On top of their personal excuses, we’re reminded of the whole world’s complacency on the issue. As characters explain that they’re just part of the supply for global demand, Wilkinson presents a montage of locals with their “toys” and entertainments – big SUVs and boats and monster truck shows and jets and jet skis and gadgets and other things people continue to purchase with disregard for their ecological impact as well as for their financial troubles (we’re told people go to McMurray to temporarily save or pay off debts yet tend to spend and spend and accrue more debt instead). We also see these as evidence of our preference for leisure and satisfying our legal addictions. On our days off we’d rather have fun and consume than worry about money or the future of the planet.

And that ties into the karaoke part of the film, which is very dominant and quite a gas. As noted, we mainly meet talented singers, including a would-be country star, another guy who does amazing renditions of Bill Withers and a drag queen going by the name Icesis Rain (who doesn’t work on Athabasca) who sends chills into the audience with her emotional performance during the climactic competition (actually, the event is depicted rather anticlimactically and without much significance to anyone). This is their outlet, it makes them happy and it elevates their lives from the usual contentment they’ve come to accept. That’s not as sad as it sounds (or maybe it’s sadder) if you consider it rather universal, how the people of this planet just want a little pleasure to balance work and whatever that work stands for in their lives and to the world.

Of course, to many film viewers it probably won’t seem sad at all anyway. Because we love to witness real people shining on a stage as a way of conquering their regular life troubles. On the surface what these karaoke fans are doing appears to be powerful, perhaps even inspiring. Yet the true power they display is in their interviews, admitting to a kind of defeat and standing by it as the only thing to do. People might hate them for their upfront complacency, and maybe people will hate the film for its evenhanded treatment of the oil sands issue and recognizing its oft-cited pros (job creation, mainly) above its well-tread cons.

Oil Sands Karaoke is powerful for being so challenging, for tackling a complicated subject and being so bold as to acknowledge the futility of the situation and the incurable parts of mankind that feed that futility. That sounds awfully cynical, but it’s the reality. And the fact that its being talked about more for the karaoke stuff just goes to show how powerfully the film is proving a point about our priorities.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.