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Hot Docs 2012: 'Canned Dreams' + 'Pushwagner' + 'Punk Syndrome'

Pushwagner (2011)

Three films at Hot Docs focus on process -- how food and art and individuals are made.

Canned Dreams (Säilöttyjä unelmia)

Director: Katja Gauriloff
Cast: Neuci de Souza, Sebastian Laustsen, Lise Lorenzen, Andrzej Biskup, Maria Rosa, Kryvochenko Roman, Zubareva Valentina, Damitov Victor, Dumitru Florentina
Rated: NR
Studio: Oktober Oy
Year: 2012
US date: 2012-05-02 (Hot Docs)

Punk Syndrome

Director: Jukka Kärkkäinen, J-P Passi
Cast: Pertti Kurikka, Kari Aalto, Sami Helle, Toni Välitalo
Rated: PG
Studio: Mouka Filmi
Year: 2011
US date: 2012-05-04 (Hot Docs)


Director: Even Benestad, August B. Hanssen
Cast: Hariton Pushwagner
Rated: PG
Studio: Indie Film
Year: 2011
US date: 2012-05-03 (Hot Docs)
You have to press on like a bulldozer to reveal the man behind the mask for future generations.

-- Hariton Pushwagner

In Brazil, workers pick rocks. The younger ones, boys holding plastic bags, scamper and slide into newly formed mini-pits, just created by a bulldozer. As they sort for pieces that will yield metal -- the goal of this enterprise -- the bulldozer backs up for a moment, then targets a new area, the toothy scoop plunging into view. The boys scatter, then converge again on the new mini-pit, picking rocks again, before they have to elude yet another plunging scoop.

It's a cycle, you see, one of many observed by Katja Gauriloff's superb documentary, Canned Dreams. Screening on May 2 and 4 at Toronto's Hot Docs, the film shows how a can of ravioli is produced, from the metal that makes up the can to the foodish parts that go inside -- the pork, beef, and tomato sauce, as well as the eggs and wheat that make up the pasta. Each step of this process, the film reveals, requires workers who have little notion of how their labor leads to an end. By the time the camera pauses, in long shot, to show a supermarket shelf in Finland stacked with cans and more cans, you’ve seen workers all over the world.

Canned Dreams' focus on process links it to two other films showing at Hot Docs this week, Pushwagner, screening May 3 and 4, and also The Punk Syndrome, which screens on 5 May. All three consider how something is made -- canned food, art (or more precisely, an artist named Hariton Pushwagner), and a punk band -- but each presents the process to emphasize different costs. For the workers in Gauriloff's film, costs are both obvious and suppressed, as rock pickers and pig and wheat farmers must bear up under hard labor, crushing routine, and daunting immobility. For Pushwagner, the process is performance, presenting an ongoing, if erratic, persona. And for the members of the band Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät (Pertti Kurikka’s Name Day), the process is expression.

Of the three films, Jukka Kärkkäinen and J-P Passi's The Punk Syndrome is the most conventional in structure, even as it presents an unusual subject, a punk band comprised of four musicians with a range of handicaps. They struggle each day not only to say what they mean, to define themselves in language and music, but also to keep hold of what they're saying, to understand themselves and each other. The struggle has to do with their differences from so-called norms, which lead to their frustrations. Guitarist Pertti Kurikka writes in his diary, he says, "Because I can release my anger." If he has a bad day, he goes on, if someone calls him a "faggot" or tells him he should be stabbed or punched in the face, he finds release in writing down his response, in making order of the chaos.

In this, being in Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät is much like being in other rock bands, and perhaps especially, in other punk bands. For Pertti and his fellows, making music is a way of expressing themselves, constructing an identity for which they'll be rewarded rather than berated (or sometimes, as can be common in punk, both at the same time). “We’re one of the best bands in Finland," announces singer Kari Aalto at film's start, "According to us.” Self-declaration is self-constitution: punk seems an ideal format for them, as the focus is noise and communication, not necessarily virtuosic skills. The movie tracks them on the road, on stage and backstage, in rehearsals and at home. They bicker, they fret, they act out -- just like other rock stars, and maybe, "just like us."

But in presenting the guys' resemblances to more familiar figures, the spectacularly dysfunctional individuals you might see on Access Hollywood, for instance, The Punk Syndrome doesn't so much make them familiar as it makes us strange. The process of making a punk band -- or a syndrome -- is one of definition, by comparison and contrast, naming inside and outside, us and them. The film offers glimpses of what might be very regular domestic lives, say, drummer Toni Välitalo's parents wearing noise-killing headphones in their kitchen, and later suggesting to their son that he find a way to move out. It also makes clear how such regular experience is, by definition and in all circumstances, never wholly regular: each moment has a stake, each interaction a peril or a return.

A similar lesson might be drawn from Even Benestad and August B. Hanssen's portrait of Terje Brofos, whose alter ego, Pushwagner, seems wholly alien. The documentary suggests that he works at this self-presentation, and includes its own images of labor to underline. As Pushwagner interacts with Benestad repeatedly, calling his name, quarrelling with him, offering his own directing ideas, the film at times seems like a kind of Herzogian argument, concerned not only with the personal investments of each player, but also with an impossibly broad and undeniably intriguing idea of how the world works.

Canned Dreams (Säilöttyjä unelmia) (2012)

For Pushwagner, one of Norway's most famous artists, this is a matter of truth and artifice, their essential sameness and utter difference, at the same time. His art -- his drawings, his music, his addicted body as an experiment -- shows the process of these collisions. The film announces its own multi-layered interest in process at its start, with shots of the director at an elaborate console, monitor before him. This frames recorded images of the subject, who speaks directly to the camera -- the director, you -- arranging the set to maximum effect, moving flowers, determining shot angles and distance.

Pushwagner challenges the film and the makers, to find, reveal or represent him, but also to give up the idea that such discovery or revelation or art is possible. "The fun thing about it isn’t whether it's true or false," Pshwagner lectures, "It's the story itself." The process might be more complicated when "the story itself" is the effort to delineate (of make up) the distinction, to claim truth or fiction for a given moment. The film follows Pushwagner during his court battle with a former assistant over ownership of some 500 of his artworks. Throughout this process -- legal, moral, and deeply emotional -- Pushwagner recollects his childhood and youth, his lovers and artistic efforts, as the film shows evidence, photos and animated drawings and a pile of scenes in which he's drunk or drinking or otherwise high.

Shots of the artist as a youngish man are disconcerting: he's striking and assertive. Now, he's aging badly, his body collapsing after all the abuses. If the juxtaposition of past and present Pushwagners suggests the long, hard work it took to debilitate him so. As he contemplates the change, he swings between horror and cynicism. As he makes his way outside one morning, he coughs and staggers a bit. The camera jostles along behind him, then slides into the front seat of his car alongside him. "Are you starting to feel old?" Benestad asks. "It doesn’t help to see myself in the mirror," the artists notes, reaching under his seat for a bottle of booze. "I just have to defrost a bit."

By the time Pushwagner calls words a virus (pace Burroughs, something of a model for this man's life and work), you're not surprised. And when he veers off still further, adding that "you must like you read," you're wondering why the filmmaker might seek a logic. "How do you live like you read if words are viruses?" Benestad wonders. You can sympathize with the artist's annoyance, even if it's unsurprising. A few scenes later, Pushwagner confronts the camera: "It annoys the hell out of me that your filming me and I don’t want it," he snarls, then adds, ever the artist "It's good if you're satisfied, if you get something out of it."

Getting something out of it is how process might be justified. Still, as the process in Pushwagner becomes circular, you see how life and reading, or life and words, don't produce answers, or meaning, or satisfaction, so much as they lead to more questions. This might resemble the something you get out of Canned Dreams, that is, the stories of each step in the process, tragic and brutally comic, common and startling.

Repeatedly, the film sets individual against industry, personal history against collective. A woman at the Brazilian rock pit recalls her own childhood, her father's abuse and her mother's absence. Of her 12 children three work with her in the pit, not a life she'd choose for them. Her voiceover serves as a kind of musical soundtrack as you see rocks and trucks and boys too thin. She shields her eyes from the sun as she wishes her mother might have advised her. " "If I had stayed with my mother, she would have helped me. She wouldn’t have let me give my children away and suffer like this." A long shot shows her alone on the road to the pit, but not headed in a direction.

A next step takes you to Denmark, where a girl describes her efforts to look after the pigs she's raising, in tiny pens and squalid conditions. "Since they didn’t choose to be here themselves," she reasons, "I think that by taking care of them I can give them a better day." That day leads to another, when they're hauled off to slaughter in Romania. In these scenes, as well as those at the Polish facility where cows are killed, you're shocked and not to see the brutality of the methods, the pigs shuddering as their heads are zapped with electricity, the carcasses hanging to bleed out, the slicing and cutting and skinning and the burning, the eyes pulled out, the blood everywhere. It's a horrifying way to live, with all this death -- and killing -- quite beyond words. And yet the workers tell their stories, of lost loves, of children who move them, of betrayal that ignites fantasies of brutality against a human.

The film doesn't press connections, it observes efforts and offers stories. The associations between people and work shape both, the process that makes them is as startling as it is ordinary. They indicate a future, and that is frightening.

Punk Syndrome (2011)


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