Every year at Toronto's Hot Docs International Documentary Festival, I get blown away by one film -- usually a documentary that hasn't gotten much attention and when I watch it, it's like being under a spell.
Such is the case this time with A Different Path -- an inventive and illuminating documentary made by American artist and musician Monteith McCollum. I don't have enough adjectives to describe the immersive, mesmerizing and magical ride the director brings you on in highlighting the efforts of activists in four locales, challenging our car-centric culture.
McCollum, who also teaches filmmaking at the State University of New York (SUNY), uses the idea of the White Rabbit going down the hole in Alice in Wonderland throughout the film -- it's an apt metaphor for a surreal documentary.
There are three intersecting storylines -- one concerns seniors in Seattle who are fighting for a sidewalk in their industrialized, cemented neighbourhood, another comes in the compelling figure of Toronto's Michael Louis Johnson of Streets are for People and the last is the tale of two commuters -- one in the U.S. and another in Europe -- who decided to use a kayak to get to work.
"This is about living," kayak commuter Miguel Cameos asserts when considering the industrial culture that has cropped up all over the world. By the way, Cameos is a bridges and building engineer in Portugal.
McCollum blends artful cinematography (extreme close-ups, portrait-like wide shots, video versions of still-lifes etc...), various animation techniques and even cell phone footage to weave the stories of the people into the film. Besides face-on interviews, there are voice-overs of the characters speaking through a phone. It's a skilful device, infusing an intimate tone to the film.
The documentary starts in Seattle with seniors Richard and Delta who live in an area populated by low-income people and renters. It's a stark landscape of low-slung malls, car dealerships and empty stores.
Using their walkers, wheelchairs and their feet, the seniors are forced to share the road with giant trucks and cars -- a menacing environment.
The delightful, Voltaire-quoting couple -- who are as in love as they probably were 40 years ago -- are on a quest to get a sidewalk on their street. Richard refuses to give up the fight, writing his city and organizing protest walks where the seniors are often threatened and shouted at.
"The Red Queen is in charge," declares Richard in yet another Alice reference.
'Cycling is very rhythmic. It has flow.'
Over in Toronto, Johnson laments the good old days when people used to set up tables in the streets to play cards. Then came the auto revolution and now the streets are unsafe for people.
"It's a freedom of mobility issue," he says pointing out that in cities, if there were more bike lanes, seniors could get out more and become part of their community instead of being shut-ins.
His enthusiasm is infectious, it permeates beyond the screen and it's this passion that is the soul of the film.
"Cycling is very rhythmic," describes the trumpeter and singer. "It has flow, it's a musical way to get around."
With his fellow sh*t disturbers at Streets are for People, Johnson thinks up creative protests, taking over streets with masses of cyclists, banging pots or playing instruments. At one point, they dressed as clowns. His group was responsible for shutting down Ossington (a popular strip of restaurants and bars in west Toronto) for about one hour in 2009.
Johnson's motto is "the angrier we get, the more creative we become" and indeed this slogan is put to good use when he visits the seniors in Seattle.
Taking a walk in the neighbourhood, Johnson points out that even with the advent of eco-cars, the road-heavy environment won't change -- there is still a colossal need for more pedestrian and cycle-friendly cities, something that got lost in the past 50 years or so.
As Richard aptly says, "We are late for an important date."
Johnson counsels Richard and his group to create a crazy event in order to get media coverage. Realizing that they like to polka, he recommends they stop traffic for a little while and dance in the middle of one of the busy intersections.
Richard takes up the idea and in the end, it does have a desired result.
Kayaking the Hudson River in NYC
Over in Portugal, a philosophic Miguel ponders what kind of world he is building.
"Is this what human kind needs? More buildings? I'm pretty sure we don't need these things."
Miguel shoots his side of the story with a cell phone camera -- a technique the director has seamlessly fused into the film.
Miguel says he was inspired to think outside the box after reading about a man in New York City who was tired of his 90-minute commute to his workplace -- located just across the Hudson River from his apartment -- and instead, used an inflatable kayak.
Dan Hughes' commute was sliced by one hour.
"Kayaking across the Hudson is like a game of Frogger," reminisces Hughes, who had to weave between giant barges and other boats. He now lives in Vermont and has a home office.
The act of defiance was not lost on Miguel, who now uses a fibreboard kayak to get to work. He tried to get his colleagues on board -- literally -- but their response was that they were "adults" and couldn't do that kind of thing.
"Every day I wake up and I'm like a kid at Christmas time," notes Miguel. "My work is the same, but the attitude is different."
The documentary is gripping in its humanity. The people come across in an emotionally tactile manner and that's what's so beautiful about A Different Path.
It's comforting to know there are people like this among us. People like Toronto's Urban Repair Squad who, in one year, painted in 8.5 km of bike lanes, outstripping that of the city's 6 km.
"There's no way you are going to kill the dragon with the thorn," explains Johnson at one point in the film.
"But it's the trying that matters, because then, there's hope."
Perhaps, I can provide one more adjective about this film: soulful.
A Different Path screens on May 7, 7:15 p.m. at the Royal cinema and on May 9, 6:30 p.m. at the Cumberland cinema. By the way, the director is doing a CD release at the Toronto Free Gallery after the May 7th screening. He's leading a ride from the theatre to the gallery.
Other documentaries of note at the festival include the Finnish films Freetime Machos and Steam of Life, Enemies of the People (Cambodia) and Waste Land from Brazil. Canadian films getting lots of buzz include Life with Murder, Mark, Leave Them Laughing and In the Name of the Family.
Check the Hot Docs schedule for show times.
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