Susan Morris | Essays

Observed at Hot Docs 2021

The Hot Docs Film Festival from Canada is the largest documentary festival in North America screening over 200 international films. This has been a great year to experience film festivals around the world without leaving home, and finding films of design interest was particularly rich in this year’s Artscapes, DocX and Shorts categories.

Starting with films that explore design subjects or art genres, a standout was Citizen Minutes: Excluded by Design, a screed on public notices directed by Gabriel Tougas and Simon Madore. You know, those sheets posted in public places or printed in newspapers to invite locals to weigh in on relevant public matters, but are so mundane or impenetrable you barely take notice. The film’s whimsical style is displayed right off with a colorful birthday party invitation featuring cake and candles, which is then contrasted with the same message in a public notice format: boring, confusing and uninviting. The analogy is appropriate since a public notice actually is an invitation to participate. Poor public notice design is a bugbear of Dave Meslin, a self-described "professional “rabble-rouser” on grassroots politics and the arts. who did a TED talk on the subject.

Two graphic designers, Marcelle Lussier and Arielle Villarin, critique the notices negatively, and list the four things we should expect: from the form 1) Look good, 2) Highlight the most important information: What is this about? 3) Clarify points of engagement: Is it a survey, meeting, etc.? 4) A call to action: This is your chance to make a difference. These notices are a passive negligence; officials are not necessarily actively trying to exclude the public, but it ends up being “exclusion by design.”

Proving that any activity can become a competition, Set! turns the art of setting a dining table into a virtual Olympic sport. Scott Gawlik’s film follows a handful of fierce women (and one man) who compare “tablescaping” to brain surgery (veteran Bonnie Overman say it takes the same level of seriousness) or producing a baby since it takes virtually the same amount of time. Themes range from Dinner at the White House, New Year’s Eve, Breakfast in Bed, Breakfast at Tiffanys, Pirates of the Caribbean, Gone with the Wind and A Night at the Opera, and the competitors treat it like creating a movie set. Another contestant, Hilarie Moore, goes into a floatation tank to think up ideas, and Tim Wyckoff, the lone male says "This is the whitest thing I do as a white person.”

Lee Kim, a designer, engineer and certified LEGO® Serious Play® Facilitator created a social experiment for herself in Wearable Tracy. Inspired by Tracy Brandenburg, an anthropologist who introduced her to the notion of “design thinking” to see the world from other people’s perspectives, she devised a 365-day project to make a daily crown or mask from colored pipe cleaners which she wore and then gave away. Filmmaker Emily McAllister follows Kim throughout New York City where her unusual garb invites conversation as she rides the subway and walks the streets. On day 364, her young daughter Hannah convinced her not to stop. When COVID started, Kim fabricated her fanciful creations for Zoom calls. Interestingly, Kim’s day job is at Pfizer, a maker of the COVID vaccine.

Jim Denevan has trail-blazed his own art forms. He makes land art by drawing on beachfront sands in Spiral Jetty-like configurations, and he stages elaborate site-specific dinner experiences on farms, parklands, and the shore connecting to where food is grown. It not farm to table, rather it is table at farm. Director Patrick Trefz shows how Denevan sometimes combines his two practices, like a semi-circular table on the beach set over his sand drawings, enhanced with concentric fan-shaped lights. Occasionally he does go indoors to art museums, and he did a beachfront dinner at Art Basel in Miami Beach. HIs place settings are well conceived (he could compete on Set! ); out West he used green, ochre and transparent glass plates, in the Midwest unique antique crockery, and at the rooftop Brooklyn Grange in the Navy Yard he employed a stark modern style. Denevan works out of a red & white streamlined vintage bus whose destination signage says “Outstanding“ referring to the company name, “Outstanding in the Field.” Denevan’s artwork is meditative, made by raking and scoring the sand, hard work that seems graceful in his hands. As a child in the woods, he made art using natural materials like a young Andy Goldsworthy. He says, “You’re like a bullfighter, if you can do it really gracefully.”

At first, Portrayal seems to be about two disconnected artists, Oz Almog, an Israeli based in Vienna, and Vladimir Dvorkin, a Russian who emigrated to Israel, now deceased. Almog’s provocative, confrontational painting series ranged from Blood Addict - Bloody scenes of Murder 1949-1960 (1997) on crime scenes, Birth of a Myth where he portrays himself as a Nazi, and Kosher Nostra. Jewish Gangsters in America 1890–1980, It is another series that binds the two artists, Him too? ... A Chronicle of a Cultural Obsession, 400 small-scale portraits of Jews including Bob Dylan, Anne Frank, Albert Einstein, Madeleine Albright, Fred Astaire, Frida Kahlo, Bugsy Seigel, Lenny Kravitz and other expected and unexpected figures. Turns out although these portraits are attributed to Almog, they were painted by Dvorkin, who was desperate for work when he emigrated and agreed to keep his role secret. His grandson, Roman Lapshin, in cahoots with filmmaker Billie Mintz, discovers this family secret with photographic and video evidence, and struggles with how to confront Almog and to view the original artworks which remain in Almog’s possession and which he contemplated burning as performance art. Almog says that he was practicing “fabrication,” the concept of hiring artists to do your work, much the way studio assistants carry out the work of masters.

Shānzhài Screens directed by Paul Heintz shows “simulation painting” rather than “fabrication.” Here, an army of blue-collar artisans in Shenzhen, China paint reproductions of famous paintings like Van Gogh’s Sunflowers and Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Western art in bulk for export. Although these works are clearly reproductions, they are painted by hand and signed with the name of the original artist. “In a way, the signature itself is marketing. I can’t remember how many names of painters I’ve signed as they were such big orders.“ says one of the workers. In keeping, the city itself has a mock Arc de Triomphe, and replicas of Michelangelo’s David and the Venus de Milo.


Another rich category is the biographical portrait. The now 91-year old Israel sculptor Dani Karavan, winner of the Israel Prize, the country’s highest honor, and responsible for more than 70 installations around the world, is the subject of High Maintenance. This refers as much to this feisty artist as well as his site-specific architectural monuments and memorials he has created, and which he complains are not being kept up as per his instructions — “It’s disrespectful towards a piece of art.” Filmmaker Barak Heymann takes Karavan on trips to see his body of work. At the Monument to the Negev Brigade, Be’er Sheva, Israel (1963-68), which memorializes fighters lost during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, with 18 cast concrete geometric elements including a tall cylinder with holes like a flute that play with the wind; the interior of a sphere has circular holes and a slit that permits sunshine to illuminate 324 soldiers’ names carved into the wall; and a spherical dome bisected by a water channel, honoring the body of water defended by the soldiers, which is dry and makes him livid. The same problem occurs in Kikar Levana (White Square), Edit Wolfson Park, Tel Aviv, Israel (1977-1988). The half sphere, one of the geometric shapes along with a square tower, a monolith, and a pyramid all on a white square field, is bisected with a center-cut channel through a staircase where water is supposed to flow but is bone dry. At Esplanade Charles de Gaulle, Nanterre, France (1989-2000) cubes on the pavement permit sunlight to penetrate to the parking garage below, and at night artificial light from below beams to street level. But now most of the squares are unlit. “It’s not my actual piece. It has to be clear this isn’t how a piece of art should be maintained….It’s an outrage. I won’t allow it. I am furious.” he declares. At Axe Majeur, Cergy-Pontoise, France (1980-), the heart of an urban new town outside Paris, is an urban sculpture structured around a 3.2 km long red-walled promenade with squared-off archways that don’t meet. Karavan complains that the red paint is peeling, the vegetation is overgrown, and his 35 meter -high Belvedere tower is filthy. “They should have their arms and legs cut off for this. It breaks my heart.”

Of his Way of Human Rights, Nuremberg, Germany (1989-1993). Karavan says “It’s one of my most important works, especially because of its political impact. This work changed Nuremberg from the city of the [Nazi] racial laws to the city of human rights. Sitting with his friend filmmaker Wim Wenders at Mifgash, Villa Lemm, Berlin, Germany (2004-2005), a marble circle with l9 large slab thrones in a riverside parkland, Wenders declares “I love that in his work, that he leaves so much space for every viewer to dream himself or herself into it. …I mean, I could come here every day and sit here and be happy.”

The inventive Canadian artist Max Dean, who specializes in interactive kinetic installations and performance-based work, is at it in full force in his 70s in Still Max, a portrait by Katherine Knight. One of his best-known works, The Robotic Chair (1984-2006) with a “brain in its seat” collapses, parts disperse, and then reconnects into an upright chair, all without human hands. It is a metaphor for his life, and all of ours. Another project, The Gross Clinic (2016), based on the 1875 Thomas Eakins painting of an operating theater in Philadelphia, is made with discarded mannequins gathered from an abandoned Wilderness Adventure Ride at the defunct Ontario Place Amusement Park that surround a photograph of Dean, who had been diagnosed with prostate cancer.

Recorder virtuoso Genevieve Lacey romps through her musical career In an Elizabethan ruff with recorders fanning out from her face among the lace. Director Sophie Raymond captures her life as an athletic “note machine” in both live action and animation.

In Remembrance of József Romvári, Isvan Szabo (Mephisto, 1981) recalls this Hungarian production designer who created sets for over 140 films from the 1960s to early 2000s. Directed by his granddaughter, Sophy Romvari, we see drawings, photographs and maquette showing his realistic, historically precise sets for his films including Evita (1996), The Josephine Baker Story (1991) as well as Hungarian films Mephisto (1981), Confidence (1980), Colonel Redl (1985).

Rockin’ the Coffin is the portrait of a man crafting his own final resting place. Starting as a project during COVID isolation, Ronald Grimes, Professor Emeritus of Religion and Culture at Wilfrid Laurier University and a seminal figure in the interdisciplinary field of ritual studies, thinks confronting death is a natural part of life. He films his son and daughter Cailleah Scott-Grimes, the film’s director, answering questions about death when they were children. She made animated drawings and live-action pastiches to chronicle her father's process.


A final category of films on design is places. Here we find histories and settings for stories that reflect the impact of design and the arts. Rift Finfinnee refers to the Oromo name for the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, that means “natural spring.” The countryside is being overtaken by vast shoddily built new apartment buildings for “the poorest of the poor.” Daniel Kötter starts his film with people walking through a natural gorge, and the film is comprised of long and wide shots, so we only hear people talking from a vast distance as if being overheard, which emphasizes the impersonality of the new construction. Not everyone gave up land willingly when the government seized land from farmers to make room for the apartment blocks for settlers, so there was much bloodshed. We see endless trucks, construction, and the dismantling of cliff faces to make gravel. Then, we see an upscale development of identical pseudo-Palladian villas. The question posed is: how should this country be urbanized?

Director Ronja Yu visits artists active in the democracy movement around the time of the 1989 Tienanmen Square massacre in You are the Days to Come. Artists recall the early attempts to present independent artwork which was crushed. Sculptor Wang Keping recalls artists did not exhibit in galleries, rather they showed works in people’s homes and then hung artworks on a metal fence outside the National Arts Museum and called the display Xingxing, or The Stars; it was closed after three days with works confiscated. Their Democracy Wall was demolished and a government campaign against “spiritual pollution” started. Li Shuang, the only woman in the group, who married French cultural attache Emmanuel Bellefroid, was sent to a labor camp for 3 years. (Both Li Shuang and Wang Keping moved to Paris.) Cui Jian, the “father of Chinese rock’n’roll” and artist Wen Pulin, organized a Woodstock for 1,000 people at the Great Wall in 1988. With provisos about not challenging the party, the exhibition Cina/Avant-Garde showing 186 avant-garde artists making experimental work opened in 1989 at the National Art Museum using the “No U-Turn” sign as its symbol. However, the museum was shut down when performance artist Xiao Lu fired a handgun at her phone booth artwork Dialogue at the opening. She later recreated the piece and called it “The First Shots of Tienanmen”; two months after the closure, the Tienanmen Square massacre happened. Held aloft during the demonstrations was a Goddess of Democracy sculpture, holding a flame like the Statue of Liberty made by students at the Central Art Academy. “For our own life, on our own face, cuts are left. Since there is nothing else to be our witness,” wrote Hai Zi, the poet who committed suicide at age 25 that year.

A big, modern shed is where we spend Four Days at the National Preservation Centre which “employs professional conservators to inspect, stabilize, and repair…250 km of textual records, more than 30 million photographs, upwards of 22 million books, more than 3 million maps, 550,000 hours of audio and video recordings as well as 4.5 billion megabytes of digital content” of Canada’s heritage.

Directors Andrew Bateman, Lindsay Fitzgerald and Sean Stiller show the characters who do the work including a man who wears buttons that say “Ask Me What I’m Conserving” and, advocating celluloid film, “Tape is Evil!”

Sophie Bruneau’s film Cezanne takes place in his home-cum-museum in Aix-en-Provence. Paul Cezanne was a seminal artist whose work transitioned from the 19th century (Impressionism) to the 20th (Cubism) and who PIcasso said was “the father of us all.” Starting with the annual cleaning of the studio with long-poled dusters, we see the objects captured in his paintings: crockery, metalware, apples (laid out daily), onions, and the nearby Mt. Sainte-Victoire, the mountain he painted endlessly. Cezanne gave life to an object (a face, to him, was just another object) and tried to express life, not beauty; he thought objects talked to each other, and communicated to people. He used the same three colors and the same three shapes: the sphere, the cylinder and the cone. The studio has neutral tones and he removed tomatoes and red floor tiles to take away any distractions. Cezanne said “I don’t paint a landscape, I paint a canvas.” His house directly reflects this approach to art.

Posted in: Arts + Culture

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