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Revisiting Heroes and Villains at Hot Docs, 2014

Hot Docs is a wonderful opportunity to look more intensely into lives we might not otherwise visit. In just four days, I was privy to Pamela Smart, Whitey Bulger, Viktor Bout, George Takei, Katie Stagliano, Allan Law and Narayanan Krishnan. It is the last few about whom I wish to focus as they restore one’s faith. Too often the self-serving and selfish Donald Trumps, Pamela Wallins, Rob Fords and their ilk make us despair, and we fear there is little good left anywhere.

The Russian Viktor Bout is the topic of The Notorious Viktor Bout by joint filmmakers Tony Gerber and Maxim Pozdorovkin. Bout, international purveyor of arms, is amazed that he is indicted; as he believes he has committed no crime in transporting lethal weapons across countries. With scant reflection on his deeds, only exercising his mind and body in jail ( as contributed by filmmakers in Q&A’s ( April 26, 2014),he refuses to share in responsibility for genocides in Liberia, Ruanda, Angola, Afghanistan, Liberia, Congo, Kenya, Libya – where he had ferried guns back and forth. This is the dark side of humanity, those who unlike Conrad’s protagonist, Kurtz, refuses to acknowledge or reflect on “the horror, the horror”.

Ironically home movies that showcase an amicable Bout underscore an easy culpability, perhaps similar to an affable Paul Bernardo, the likable guy next door an those kindly Nazis who cuddled their dogs. And so we wish we could turn our heads from the perpetration of evil that surrounds us, sorely depressed by the barrage of evil doers.

Similarly in The United States Of America Vs. James J. Bulger by filmmaker Joe Berlinger, the FBI in covering their tracks to avoid the re-rise of Boston mafia, are complicit in the death of a 32 year old man,Michael Donoghue , who unwittingly and kindly offers a ride to a neighbor. All roads lead back to Bulger and he is responsible for untold murders in South Boston. The families of other victims have had to wait almost 20 years for Bulger’s arrest and trial. Donoghue’s wife, Patricia, screams at Bulger, “Coward”. And so he is. How often I have reflected on those worse-than- scoundrels who destroy the lives of others, then run away, refusing to accept culpability .

However, the antidote to the darkness in the world eventually arrives in the joyful presentation of To Be Takei by filmmaker Jennifer M Groot. We quickly experience a resurgence of idealism in both George Takei (of Captain Sulu fame from Star Trek) and the everyday subjects of the film, The Starfish Throwers.

Takei as a child after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, is incarcerated for being a Japanese-American, uprooted to harsh conditions in Arkansas and Northern California. He immediately engages us. Takei does not shy away from describing the triple layers of barbed wire, or the guards whose machine guns followed him on his nightly sprint to the latrines. Not only an outspoken advocate for the protection of civil rights, his involvement as a proponent for gay marriage reveals the depth of his commitment to causes that matter. One wonders from where his resiliency is derived. He speaks in a forthright manner with no pretense. Simultaneously he exudes compassion, understanding and humility. He leads unpretentiously on many platforms and in presentations that encourage the public to confront issues of equality and discrimination. Takei’s writing, lectures and roles target all stereotypes, extending even beyond those aimed at Japanese- Americans.

At the Q & A ‘s after the film’s showing on Saturday April 29, a question prompted him to discuss his involvement in changing attitudes in schools in California along with the creation of McGehee a forgotten town in Arkansas, that now houses a museum showcasing the wrongful internment of Japanese-American to the camps.

Watching Takei makes one feel proud. He uses his stardom to communicate in numerous forums and in diverse ways. He’s likeable, friendly and unlike Jenny McCarthy or Alicia Silverstone, he does not promote personal biases or incorrect health information because of his film fame or television roles.

Similarly, in The Starfish Throwers, Allan Law from Minnesota, a former Grade 5 teacher goes out nightly to feed the homeless. Like Takei, there is no pretense and he does not suffer fools. Giving a homeless man $5.00 for a prescription, he expects to see a receipt. In one scene, two elderly ladies in a retirement home express that helping make sandwiches for Law’s nightly trek makes them feel good. Law sleeps maybe 4 hours as he cruises the streets with his sandwiches, mittens and socks. Not a particularly warming personality, Law opens refrigerator after refrigerator in his apartment to reveal the thousands of sandwiches that must be defrosted before he can deliver them every to the poor on the streets. His van is inscribed with the words “Love One Another” and his cell phone number is stenciled on the door. The presence of goodness not wrapped in facade is palpable in this simple, straight forward man, not a do- gooder( although he does very much good), an ordinary human whose values are the ones we laud but do not always emulate.

In India, we meet Narayanan Krishnan, a Brahmin, who dispels the notion that religion and caste make a difference. Once a five star chef, he has left his profession to cook and feed the hungry. His chagrined parents insist he see a psychiatrist, try black magic, and encourage him to change his mind. Finally they accept that feeding the hungry is not the act of a crazy man.A modern day Siddhartha, he truly tends to the poor, clasping them by the shoulders, kneeling by their side, tenderly putting food in their mouths. He even spends three months learning how to cut hair so he can tame the unruly locks of those on the street. He offers both water and meals to thousands, driving the streets in search of the needy. Eventually he opens a “campus” and brings the destitute to a place of clean beds, nutrious food, care and love. No halo illuminates from behind although it might.

Finally there is Katie Stagliano, of Katie’s Krops in South Carolina, a non-stoppable, incorrigible 13 year old. Her journey began with a seed that sprouted into a 40-pound cabbage and was used to feed 140 people. Inspired by such a simple act, Katie planted more crops in her own backyard, eventually expanding her project with more gardens at her school, and on to many more gardens : all to feed the sick and the famished. Her self-effacing and straight forward parents provide the supportive backstory to Katie’s endeavours.

Maybe it is always the way , children who can inspire us, touching us beneath the years of cynicism we have used to insulate ourselves from the world’s trials. Katie’s naturalness, like the others, makes us see deeply into the human soul that intuits a need and simply, naturally and honestly responds. When she receives an email that berates her to use her talents on those who deserve it more than the homeless, she seems to ignore it, wise that life’s reversals can befall any one of us.

The filmmaker presents real faces of homeless people, who have been helped and encouraged by Katie, providing us with stories that are touching: such as a woman who gave Katie a dress she had carried with her when she had nothing else, encouraging Katie to wear it one day, to celebrate and remember how she had changed that one woman’s life.

Similar to the others in these films, Katie demonstrates no nonsense behavior, no cloying, no annoying, self- aggrandizement or self-consciousness that she is doing good. These heroes make it look so simple. Both Narahja and Katie have been honoured for their work, his by Keifer Sutherland at CNN and hers by Matt Damon at the Clinton Foundation. Their acceptance speeches are simple, their responses almost surprised at being singled out for their actions.

These people are remarkable: for their concern, their honestly, their ability not to talk, but to do and continue on doing. Captured by the filmmakers, these films are testimonies to the better society to which we aspire. Jesse Roesler, director, producer and cinematographer of The Starfish Throwers says it best,

“The experience [of making the film] has been both humbling and unforgettable. Seeing them reject cynicism and transcend mass apathy with every act of kindness they committed reminded me of the lost idealism of youth. While many of us have put aside some of those innocent dreams of changing the world and making a difference, I believe that sharing these stories will help us all to rediscover our own potential to affect positive change”.

Amen.

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