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article imageReview: Globetrotting at Hot Docs to overlooked places

By Jason Marcel     Apr 29, 2014 in Entertainment
Toronto - Perhaps the greatest value of documentaries is their ability to help us bring empathy to the lives and the values of people who are different than we are. "Virunga" and "Happiness" are two shining examples, screening at the Hot Docs Film Festival.
A riveting geopolitical thriller built on thoughtful, investigative journalism, "Virunga" offers a unique perspective of the ongoing civil strife in the Congo with its focus on the major players involved in the preservation and the exploitation of the Virunga National Park.
Established in 1925 as Africa's first national park--and declared a World Heritage Site in 1979 by the United Nations--it stretches almost 8,000 square kilometers (or nearly 2 million acres) from north to south along the Rwandan border in eastern Congo.
Known for its rich biodiversity and breathtaking vistas, the primary function of the park's founding was the protection of the last remaining mountain gorillas on Earth, numbering roughly 800.
The film's opening montage is a whirlwind through the Congo's troubled history that serves as a warning of what becomes of many countries when their self-determination is forever impeded by foreign occupiers and corporate plunderers.
The major players: Appointed in 2008 by the Congolese government, Belgian Emmanuel De Merode serves as director of the park while his immediate subordinate is Rodrigue, a former Congolese government army lieutenant now serving as the park's warden. They oversee some 700 guards, a tightly-knit group who understand that sudden death is an unfortunate side effect of the job (we learn that 130 guards have been killed in recent years either by anti-government rebels or poachers).
There is Melanie, the French war journalist who gathers information from rebel army players as well as SOCO, the major UK energy corporation the rebels are in cahoots with in a scheme to exploit the park for its oil; and there is Andre, the scientist and surrogate parent to four gorillas whose parents were killed in renewed civil strife a few years back.
Director Orlando von Einsiedel does a terrific job of listening to his subjects and of making sense of an incredible amount of information. His cinematography work along with Franklin Dow is spectacular in a movie that you can drink in while the narrative gathers intensity with scenes of Melanie and Rodrigue being shown from the perspective of hidden cameras on their bodies in meetings with rebels and SOCO energy representatives.
"Virunga" is urgent, provocative, and insightful. A must-see.
From the Virunga Mountains in the Congo to the mountains of Bhutan, "Happiness" tells the story of young Peyangki, an 8 yr-old boy who resides with other fringe dwellers in the remote village of Laya, the last community set to receive electricity after their Fourth Dragon King announced in 1999 that t.v. and the internet would come to his people--who are shown in throngs of thousands cheering loudly at the proclamation. He observes dryly, "Nothing I've said has ever earned applause until this announcement that you will get t.v. and the internet".
A plot develops: Peyangki has five brothers and sisters, but since the untimely death of his father, mom, a simple woman who earns money selling goods she makes from wool, can't provide on her own to meet the needs of all her children. Watching her hands at work in this movie is captivating. In a scene with Peyangki's uncle, Kinley, she reveals her plan to send her son to the local monastery where he'll become a monk--and be clothed and fed for free. "That will be an auspicious day", Kinley reports, with some melancholy.
The film plays as a docudrama, elegiac but not without a kind of goofy, droll energy beneath the surface in the way it reveals ironies among the villagers. They uphold their way of life as being more noble than corrupted city dwellers, but they yearn for and feel deserving of the distraction that t.v. and other modern conveniences will bring them because of how hard their lives are. Even the most senior monk appears to go against his long held teachings when it is implied he is leaving the village in order to move to the city.
Most scenes are staged in such a way that its subjects are observed speaking to one another and carrying out daily routines seemingly unaware of the camera's presence. Many documentaries do this, though they remind us they are docs when characters are shown addressing the camera and the filmmakers directly in scenes where they are being interviewed. It has the effect in "Happiness" of warning us against the notion of leading unexamined lives (detailed very effectively in a series of shots showing refracted light from a t.v. set shining on the faces of villagers gathered round to watch American wrestling).
Peyangki is a polite, wide-eyed kid, often seen daydreaming. Director Thomas Balm├Ęs, who also lensed the picture with Nina Bernfeld, create a series of glorious images that envelop the boy in those mountains. Their cinematography award at Sundance was well-deserved. I was particularly drawn to shots of Peyangki on rooftops and, seemingly, on a mountain's precipice. They capture the razor's edge where a boy's fun flirts sometimes with a sense of testing his threshold for danger.
"Happiness" is melancholy, wise, and has a touch of sly in the way it sees a place that time forgot.
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