One day in 2008, Louis Ortiz discovered he looked like Barack Obama. It happened in a bar in the South Bronx where Louis, a divorced, unemployed phone technician from Puerto Rico, was imbibing some liquid comfort. The bartender told his customer he bore a resemblance to the then-senator campaigning for the U.S. presidential nomination. Ortiz wasn’t convinced at first, perhaps because he had a beard – but once he shaved, damned if he didn’t think there might be something to it.
Today, Ortiz is eking out a living as an Obama look-alike. And tomorrow? If director Ryan Murdock gets his way, some time in 2013 Louis Ortiz will be the star of a feature-length documentary . Which is why Murdock will be in Toronto for the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, starting Thursday, where The Audacity of Louis Ortiz is one of 27 cash-needy projects vying for flush investors and buyers among the festival’s 500 registrants.
Time has always been of the essence in the documentary game, of course – and especially for a festival that since 1993 has prided itself on the “hot” in Hot Docs. Time has changed, though, from the days when a paperback published 72 hours after a momentous event could be called “an instant book.” Today’s media milieu is predicated on anticipation and acceleration; it’s a terrain of smartphones, YouTube, “the 24/7 news cycle” and Facebook, Twitter and crowdsourcing. Thanks to this technology, anyone has the potential to make what could be called a documentary. Thousands can now swarm an event, major or minor, iPhones on “record,” and supersaturate the electronic ether with images and sounds.
Even history seems to have speeded up, shifted: Thirty-six months ago, the financial meltdown seemed to be about mortgages and collateralized debt obligations; today it’s about the collapse of entire economies, in Greece, Italy and Spain. Last year, we were trumpeting the Arab Spring; now we’re fretting about the Islamist Spring, the bomb in Iran, brutality in Syria. Ai Weiwei, the subject of Hot Docs’s opening film, Never Sorry, was named ArtReview’s “most powerful figure in contemporary art” for 2011. But in six months from now? Remember being occupied by Occupy? That was only seven months ago.
Films about change in contemporary China, the tumult in Egypt, Afghanistan and Yemen, and the myriad effects of the Great Recession in North America and overseas are among Hot Docs’s 180-plus entries, giving the fest a patina of now-ness. But in an environment of seemingly ever more rapid change, frenetic, feckless consumption and almost instant obsolescence, “How do documentary filmmakers keep up?” asks Elizabeth Radshaw, director of the Toronto Documentary Forum, the festival’s major marketing showcase. “How do they keep their content valid and relevant to buyers and audiences?”
Intriguingly, Radshaw poses these questions not in “a dark and gloomy way.” She believes a bright new day is dawning. “The relationship between filmmaker and audience is ... more direct, more connected and active than ever before,” she says, all as a result of digital technology. It’s through the Kickstarter funding platform, for instance, that Murdock has been able to raise close to $30,000 (U.S.) from almost 800 investors online for The Audacity of Louis Ortiz, and he’s not the only one.
Gone as well are the days when an audience, fired up by an issue in a documentary, would find no way to channel its concern or outrage afterwards. Websites now provide links for direct action.
Moreover, Radshaw, insists, “it doesn’t really matter if a story’s been covered through umpteen postings and the 24-hour newsreel.”
Hot Docs’s head programmer Charlotte Cook explains that people come to documentaries – or at least the point-of-view, story-based, auteur-driven films that are Hot Docs’s meat and potatoes – for a “bigger viewpoint.”
“They’re looking for a human way into a story or an all-encompassing view of the story,” she says.
So, yes, the Stanley Cup riots in Vancouver in 2010 may have produced thousands of videos for Web and TV consumption, to the point of seemingly exhausting the story. But, to Cook’s mind, people are “desperate to find out the context why something has happened or is happening,” whether that something appears to have ended or shows no sign of ending. “What matters is how the story is told.”
Sometimes, Cook acknowledges, a documentarian does get caught out by events – an unavoidable occurrence, given that “when something is happening, that is when people are going over to make films about it.” But is that necessarily a bad thing?
Shortly after We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists, an exploration of the Anonymous movement that is getting three screenings at Hot Docs, had its world premiere in January at Utah’s Slamdance Film Festival, one of the key members of Anonymous was outed as an FBI informant.
“So,” Cook asks, “as a filmmaker, do you go back and include that, or do you not?”
Director Brian Knappenberger opted not to, figuring, in Cook’s words, he’d “sufficiently laid the groundwork for Anonymous and what they are,” so that whatever happened next could be seen within that context.
On other occasions, a documentary filmmaker will use cutting-edge technology to get ahead of the pack on a significant story, only to be overtaken by the story. This happened to Nikos Katsaounis , co-director of Krisis – GR2011 – The Prism, another Hot Docs presentation, who, with Nina Maria Paschalidou, decided in 2010 to undertake a hybrid online/documentary project about Greece and its “crisis of identity” in the wake of joining the European Union in 1981 and the eurozone 10 years later.
But he and Paschalidou weren’t interested in “historical nuances, lines of credit, deficits, austerity measures,” Katsaounis says. Their concern was the human story, “a scan of the country” told more from an anthropological or sociological perspective than a newsy-current affairs one. To do this, they gave 14 photojournalists Canon EOS 5D Mark II cameras, coached them on the cameras’ video capabilities, then sent them across Greece to make three short films each.
Of course, by this time, the Greek debt crisis was peaking and demonstrations were rocking the country. Still Katsaounis insisted to his photojournalists: “I don’t want to see any shots of burning buildings or people throwing rocks.... What I want to see is the psyche of the people.”
By the spring of 2011, as the duo were running out of money, they began posting the photojournalists’ films, five each week, on a website, supplemented by photos and articles. Then in September, they started to “distill” the footage into one film, finishing in November with the 62-minute feature that is now Krisis. Today, Katsaounis sees the enterprise, its collectivity and multimedia character, as a sort of metaphor of “where the world is at in terms of information-gathering. We don’t use one source of information; you read 10 blogs, follow 100 other people on Twitter.... It’s that pastiche or collage of perspectives that shapes our view. We wanted to formalize that.”
“Sure,” he adds, “you can see thousands of videos about the riots in Athens. But the point is you need a curator, someone to say, ‘This is the beginning; this is the end. If you see these 10 clips you’ll get a really good idea of what’s going on. You don’t need 11 or 12 and if you see seven or eight, you won’t get as much.’ ”
Murdock, in the meantime, has two dates on his radar – Nov. 6, U.S. Election Day, and Jan. 20, 2013, Inauguration Day. Will Obama prevail over Mitt Romney? Will Murdock have sufficient money in hand for his documentary to encompass those dates? Can he, in fact, start doing a preliminary edit before Nov. 6 to see where his narrative’s loose ends are?
And what about Ortiz? He knows it’s not enough to just look like the 44th president of the United States; he has to move and sound like him. In short, if he wants the next four years to be profitable rather than a downward spiral into one-offs at car-dealership openings, he has to become a professional impersonator. If he can’t, well, he can always become Louis Ortiz again.
Time and the whims of the American electorate will tell, and time, as the American philosopher Steve Miller once put it, “keeps on slippin,’ slippin’, slippin’ into the future.”
The Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival runs until May 6 in Toronto. For locations and times, visit hotdocs.ca .