Hot Docs Day 4: About Face, The Job, Ping Pong

Day four offered a very good trio of screenings. All were very fun and enjoyable, and had unique, original stories.

About Face: The Supermodels, Then and Now
(USA, 75 min.)
Dir. Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
Photo by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, About Face
Famed portrait photographer and filmmaker Timothy Greenfield-Sanders orchestrates a beautiful and insightful documentary about modelling – or the beauty – of the fashion industry. To best explore the industry, Greenfield-Sanders assembles some of fashion’s greatest legends. He photographs and interviews a range of veteran models to reflect upon their contribution to the industry and to discover how fashion shapes who we are. Among the beautiful faces assembled in the film are Isabella Rossellini, Jerry Hall (hilarious!), Beverly Johnson, Christie Brinkley, Marisa Berenson, China Machado, and Paulina Porizkova, just to name a few.

The women offer a wide range of opinions on modelling and the fashion industry. Some of the models describe shaky starts to their careers. (Bethann Hardison describes how her mother accepted her as a model even though she thought her daughter was actually a prostitute who was just being modest.) Others explain how they simply fell into the job by chance. As much as their beginnings differed, so too do their opinions on the industry in their later years. Some of the models reject any notion of manipulating their appearances via cosmetic surgery. Others, however, embrace the idea of nipping and tucking their bodies in order to encourage the longevity of a career they enjoy. “When the ceiling in your living room starts to sag,” explains Carmen Dell’Orefice (pictured), “would you not have it repaired?”

About Faces: The Supermodels, Then and Now benefits from receiving such a wide varitey of testimony from models of different ages, backgrounds, ethnicities, and experiences. Such diversity splices together a perceptive portrait that allows the film to probe all aspects of the job, such as the shaping of body image and the health problems that arise from such pressures, the ideological emphasis on youth in society, the ongoing racism and white-washing in modelling, and more. The models offer different perspectives on what constitutes proper self-esteem or self-confidence, but they all suggest that they are stronger and more self-aware from surviving and succeeding in a career that entails so much scrutiny and puts so much emphasis on self-doubt.

All of the women who appear in the film, moreover, are still as beautiful as they were when they began their respective careers. Even though some might have more wrinkles than others, they all speak from a strong place of assurance and acceptance. Overall, About Face is one of the better studies of fame and the fashion industry – it’s better than The September Issue and should satisfy fans of last year’s Bill Cunningham New York. As with Bill Cunningham, About Face is also one of the more celebratory studies of aging in documentary film. Using the longevity of some familiar faces from the fashion industry, About Face shows that beauty is ageless.

Rating: (out of ★★★★★)
About Face screens again Friday, May 4th at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema at 6:30 pm.

The Job
(France, 94 min.)
Dir. Didier Cross
The recruiters (from left to right): Rodgers Teunkam, Caroline Bertrand , Grégory Anton, Béatrice Garnier, Didier Babayou.
Arguably the most unusual film I’ve seen so far at Hot Docs, The Job is a fascinating study of what happens when people find themselves in the hot seat. The film takes ten job-seekers and puts them in one of the most stressful experiences of all: the job interview. The candidates are all uneasy because the circumstances of the job offering are spotty at best. None of the applicants actually know what job they are interviewing for. None of them know the company who is seeking to hire, nor do they know the salary or conditions of the job.

The real selling point of the film is the highly unorthodox nature of the interview. The applicants are faced by five recruiters who offer some cutting remarks and provoke the candidates at random. Making the interview process more irregular is the confession from the recruiters that they have yet to look at any of the candidates’ résumés. Instead of reviewing applicable skills, the recruiters have the candidates interact like a freshman business class. They rehearse interviews and simulate some sales pitches. As the candidates reveal in their after-the-fact interviews, they all felt a sense of unease over promoting their revivals even though they desperately needed the job themselves.

The interview ultimately becomes more of a psychology experiment, with each of the contestants pushed to their limits. It’s perversely captivating to watch the competitors unravel. As the two-day interview progresses, the candidates begin to turn on one another and the competition goes from politely cordial to bloody competitive. For example, one scene sees the confrontational Gérard squabble with the cool and collected Julie (the only female applicant), and the exercise turns into a cutthroat debate when the candidates are asked to choose one person (living or dead) to serve as a reference. Gérard picks Napoleon and Julie selects Victor Hugo, and their debate rages to the point where all the other bodies in the room simply sit back and watch. The argument even sees the candidates go so far as to attack a rival for submitting his own brother as a reference, arguing that said brother offers little worth as a human being. The debate gets so out of hand that that nobody speaks to one another during the coffee break that follows.

Using a mix of fly-on-the-wall observational techniques and reflective interviews, The Job is like a greater version of reality shows like The Apprentice or Survivor, except that the stakes are real for these candidates. It might seem borderline exploitative to turn unemployed workers into lab rats for some sort of Zimbardo-type psych experiment, but it’s compelling to watch and see how many competitors simply accept the rules of the recruiters and comply out of politeness and/or necessity. The dynamics of the group interview also raise all sorts of provocative questions about social roles and social order, and of perceptions of class and gender. The Job is an altogether absorbing and riveting study of the human psyche under pressure.

Rating: ½ (out of ★★★★★)
The Job screens again Sunday, May 6th at the Cumberland 4 at 1:15 pm

Ping Pong
(UK, 75 min.)
Dir. Hugh Hartford
Ping Pong
The biggest crowd-pleaser of the festival so far is the hilarious sports saga Ping Pong. Ping Pong made for a great bookend with About Face. Another tale of aging gracefully, Ping Pong chronicles a group of seniors as they compete in the World Championship of table tennis for persons over the age of eighty. And boy, can these geriatrics every crank that little plastic ball! The players range from a youthful eighty-years-old to the ripe age of one-hundred. (One-hundred!) As one spectator says while watching Dorothy, the centenarian ping-ponger from Australia, it’s a blessing to even be walking at her age.

The film follows nine players as they prepare for the event.The players range from a youthful eighty-years-old to the ripe age of one-hundred. (One-hundred!) As one spectator says while watching Dorothy, the centenarian ping-ponger from Australia, it’s a blessing to even be walking at her age. Also among the players are two friends from Britain, and two friends from Germany; one player is Swedish (and extremely jealous of the reigning Briton), and another one is from Inner Mongolia. Finally, there is also a colourful Texan in the group and she packs a mean backhand and a sporty-do. In addition to being extremely competitive, all the contenders explain how they became passionate about ping pong because it helped them get through a difficult periods in life. One woman, for example, cites it as the medicine that helped cure her from a deep depression after she lost her husband of forty-years.

The film then transitions to its second act and brings all the players together for the big tournament in China, which is a much larger event than one expects for a tournament of table tennis for the over-eighty crowd. As the players face off, the hopes of some are quickly dashed while others move on to claim victory. With all the players and all the rounds, one watches with equal parts delight and suspense. It’s undeniably funny to watch so many elderly folks hobble around the table and then slam the paddle with surprising force; on the other hand, one can’t help but feel a bit dejected when some of the players are eliminated, since the likelihood of winning another title after the age of ninety seems unlikely. All the players share this same passion, though: they all play each game as if it could be their last.

As with the supermodels of About Face, the athletes of Ping Pong offer an inspiring example of lust for life. Like the models, the ping-pongers prove Bette Davis’s famous line that "growing old ain’t for sissies." All this aged wisdom and all these years of experience show that even when one approaches eighty (or one hundred years) of age, one can still have a youthful vitality and spirit. Both films show that aging is all in the mind.
The Record Breaker
Ping Pong was paired with the short film The Record Breaker by Brian McGinn. A good accompaniment to the feature, The Record Breaker is an odd account of an eccentric individual named Ashrita Furman who holds the Guinness record for holding Guinness records. Furman’s records are all sorts of strange ones like long-distance pogo-sticking or running laps with a bottle of milk on his head. The film sees Furman work to attain a new record: climbing Machu Picchu on stilts. Like Ping Pong, The Record Breaker is a fun, quirky glimpse into the passion of a unique athlete.

Ping Pong: (out of ★★★★★)
The Record Breaker: (out of ★★★★★)

Ping Pong and The Record Breaker screen again on Wednesday May 2nd at the Isabel Bader Theatre at 1:30pm and on Sunday May 6th at the Bloor Hot Docs Theatre at 1:15.

Ping Pong opens in Ottawa at The ByTowne on Dec. 14

For info, show times, and tickets please visit www.hotdocs.ca

***Note: star ratings will be assigned after the festival. (So check back next week to see how these films rank!)