Hot Docs 2011 reviews: Wiebo’s War // The Redemption of General Butt Naked // Empire North // Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop

previously: Hot Docs 2011 preview & thoughts

Wiebo’s War – ★★★★½

94 minutes | Canada | Language: English | North American Premiere | Rating: 14A

Like any fair story of a struggle, Wiebo’s War doesn’t force us to side with either the victims, or who we perceive as the perpetrators of their grief. Instead, director David York manages to give balance to the Trickle Creek residents as they are faced with increasingly deadly effects of an oil well built near their Alberta farm. At no point in the film are fingers pointed at Wiebo Ludwig or members of his family for the explosions, vandalism or shootings that the media originally villified them for.

But this is by no means just a touching portrait of a family in strife. There are scenes that are incredibly hard to take. In particular, York’s decision to show the effects the sour gas well had on unborn babies and livestock drew uncomfortable gasps from the crowd, but did have the desired effect of showing the family’s justification for the supposed vigilante acts against “Big Oil” (they never actually own up to any of the acts, but the fact one of the bombs went off 2 days after one of the women suffers a miscarriage allows you to draw your own conclusions).

In a Q&A following our screening, York explained how his apathy to religion was seen as an obstacle, with Wiebo, who is a proud Christian, telling him early on that “if you’re an atheist … you’re living in terrible darkness. And until your eyes are opened and you give yourself to that you can’t begin to understand who we are.”

In the end, we’re left with the image of the Wiebos as a family trying to strike a balance between the fight against their reputation as one of Canada’s most villified families, and the ongoing battle with the oil and gas corporations.

The Redemption of General Butt Naked – ★★★★

83 minutes | USA | Language: English | Canadian Premiere | Rating: 18A

General “Butt Naked” claims to be responsible for the deaths of 20,000 people during the Liberian Civil War in the early 1990s. He led his men into battle wearing nothing but shoes and an AK-47 and trained child soldiers to fight, dubbing them the Butt Naked Brigade. They said being naked made them feel invisible and resistant to enemy fire. Having finding Jesus in 1996, he is now known as the Evangelist Joshua Milton Blahyi spreading the word of God.

Safe to say, we’re dealing with pretty interesting subject matter…

Eric Strauss and Daniel Anastasion’s portrait of Blahyi’s journey around the slums of Monrovia talking to the families of his victims is fascinating. At one point he meets a former body-guard who he shot and locked in a room for days, resulting in the need for surgical amputation of both legs. The sight of his former general kneeling down to embrace him in his wheelchair is an incredibly powerful image (in image posted above).

And as so many of the families of his victims accept his apologies, you begin to really question the nature of forgiveness.

But amidst all this, you do begin to develop a niggling suspicion that Blahyi’s salvation may all be an act to avoid appearing at a war crimes tribunal. Debating the virtues of guerrilla warfare may be central to the story, but it’s the questions of redemption and absolution that really stick with you when the credits roll.

Empire North – ★★★½

58 minutes | Denmark | Language: (Subtitled) Danish English | Canadian Premiere | Rating: 18A

In 2001 Danish artist Jakob Boeskov built the “ID sniper rifle” which could shoot GPS trackers into protesting crowds allowing police to monitor movements of potential targets. He travelled to fairs in China and received serious email enquiries from the Chinese and US governments. The gun turned out to be a fake, conceived as a playful ruse by Boeskov.

The real elements of Boeskov’s 58 minute documentary consist of footage of his attendance at arms fair in Beijing (changed to Qatar in the film) and genuine emails and business proposals. The rest of it has been dramatised, filmed on a Nokia N82 to add a grainy spy-like quality. And amidst this madness is Jack Nicholson’s daughter Holly Hollmann playing Jakob’s girlfriend.

Despite the mixture of re-enactment and documentary footage the film flows well, and only slows down with a few un-necessary “avant-garde” scenes of home sex tapes and long pondering moments, presumably only captured to fill out the running time.

Empire North is a funny, farcical and frightening story of a hoax which goes to show just how easy it is to get governments and military leaders to bite when you dangle an enticing carrot in front of them.

Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop – ★★★★½

89 minutes | USA | Language: English | International Premiere | Rating: 18A

Everybody had an opinion on last year’s Conan V Leno debate. To summarise… i) after years of waiting, Conan took over NBC’s legendary Tonight Show, ii) Jay Leno was moved to a new experimental 10pm slot, iii) Conan’s show wasn’t getting the ratings NBC felt it should and, most importantly, iv) No one cared about Leno’s 10pm show. NBC’s way of fixing this problem was to move Leno to 11.35pm, Conan to 12.05 and Jimmy Fallon to 1am. Conan felt this was unfair on him and Fallon, so he took a stand and walked away from the network, in the process accepting a redudancy settlement of $33m and agreeing not to appear on TV for 6 months. He eventually ended up hosting a new late-night show on TBS, imaginatively titled “Conan”.

Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop deals with the period between The Tonight Show and Conan, as our hero embarked on a nationwide 43-date trek across North America dubbed the “Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour”. It was directed by an old college friend of Conan’s, Rodman Flender, and the level of intimacy he allows him is great and, as he confirmed in the Q&A after the screening, nothing is really off limits with Conan O’Brien.

At times the documentary reminded me of the D.A. Pennebaker’s Bob Dylan films of the mid 1960s, the legendary Don’t Look Back and the un-released Eat the Document. Seeing someone who is so driven by his craft that he is willing to just run himself into the ground. We see a snippet of Conan saying how drained he was from that night’s show and how he couldn’t wait for his next day off. Cut to his day off. He’s playing a secret fans-only show. Dude just can’t help himself.

A special mention should also go to his PA, Sona Movsesian, who emerges as one of the stars of the show as she puts up with endless abuse but somehow holds things together. It’s to people like her, Andy Richter, and the rest of the Conan machine that he turns to when he’s worn out in exotic locales like Eugene, Uncasville or Boulder.

This could easily have been part-vanity project, part-emotional breakdown. Glad to report it is neither. From start to finish it’s potentially the funniest movie I’ve seen this year and is a fascinating insight into the mindset of one of America’s most popular comedians going through a crisis the only way he knew how; by poking fun at it.

Reviews still to come: Hell and Back Again, Being Elmo, Better this World and Superheroes!

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