Hot Docs 2014: The Last Season & Self(less) Portrait
The Last Season
The Last Season, an engrossing, layered documentary by Berkeley, CA filmmaker Sara Dosa, captures the poetic beauty of a father-son relationship between two damaged, former soldiers–Roger, an American sniper who fought in Vietnam and Kouy, a Cambodian who resisted the Khmer Rouge–who forged their loving bond while hunting for rare mushrooms in Oregon. Stories as unique as theirs are few and far between.
Every fall in Chemult, Oregon (population 300-ish), a group of seasonal migrant workers, most of them Southeast Asian, set up shop and scour the surrounding woods for matsutake mushrooms, one of earth’s rarest gifts from the soil. The Japanese cherish the fist-sized fungi and used to pay hundreds of dollars per pound for the stuff in the ’90s, though the price has dropped to around $46 on the high end these days. Still, matsutake hunting is a decidedly lucrative endeavor. Each mushroom season, the hunters erect a tent community called “Mushroom City”, which is where Roger and Kouy met.
The two shared with each other the war stories that haunt them daily–Kouy is accustomed to sleeping with a rifle and Roger has been known to block out the memories of his lost friends with buckets of whisky, a temporarily dormant habit that scares his good-hearted wife Theresa to death. The ex-soldiers gravitated toward each other out of shared empathy for certain, but more remarkably they illuminated a path of healing for each other they’d have never found had it not been for those magical mushrooms. They grew so close, in fact, that Kouy humbly asked Roger and Theresa to be his adopted parents, a request the couple warmly accepted.
We only hear of these formative events through stories told by the three subjects, but what Dosa does capture on camera is a loving family dynamic that breaks ethnological norms in the most heart-warming way. Hunting for mushrooms is a fitting metaphor for Kouy and Roger’s long journey to find each other, and The Last Season is as precious as a basketful of matsutakes.
In Self(less) Portrait, a flat, tedious documentary, 50 people participate in an experiment: They’re each sat down on a stool in front of a plain white background and asked to share the unbridled truth about their darkest, most personal life experiences. The film, a Quebecois production by Danic Champoux, is a collage of stories stripped of all context, jumping in and out of the myriad interviews whenever Champoux feels a cut would be most artistic or enticing. It’s a simple concept that has the potential to be fascinating, but in the film’s desperate, distracting attempts to be mysterious and unnecessarily cryptic, it loses its teeth.
The stories shared are mostly interesting. In a fascinating confession, a transgender woman explains her inner struggle with the fact that, in a way, she’s left her daughter fatherless. One man, a professional wrestler who sits in the stool in full gear, face paint and all, gushes tearfully about his passion for entertaining his fans, some of whom consider his performances the highlight of their year. All manner of ugly human issues are covered–rape, spousal abuse, suicide, gender inequality–and the stories themselves are not what make the film such a dud.
The major issue here is Champoux insistence on littering the film with ridiculous visual effects like placing random shadows or lens flares on the subjects’ bodies. There are pretentious interludes scattered throughout consisting of indecipherable images of light barely penetrating a dark abyss that only serve to distract from the confessionals rather than frame them symbolically, as was clearly intended. Even more infuriating is the score, a series of long, low rumbles meant to underline the blackness or suspense of the stories.
The film is sorely in need of Errol Morris’ Interrotron system, which allows interviewees to look into the eyes of the interviewer and the camera lens simultaneously, to striking effect. As the film wears on, the desire to lock eyes with the subjects as they share their hyper-personal anecdotes becomes almost unbearable. Their sat right in front of us, and yet the lack of eye contact and Champoux’s array of audio-visual adornments makes them feel miles away.