The Arts

Hot Docs Report #2

Hot Docs Report #2 featured image

By Marc Glassman

Dish: Women, Waitressing and the Art of Service. Maya Gallus, dir.
Leave Them Laughing. John Zaritsky, dir.
Bhutto. Duanne Baughman & Johnny O’Hara, dir.
Women in Docs

Part one of our Hot Docs coverage looked at three films about men—Freetime Machos, Steam of Life and The Kids Grow Up. This time, we look at docs starring women.

Taking control of your life is inherently dramatic. If you don’t think so, look at the struggles of the women in three of the most watchable films at this year’s Hot Docs festival.

Bhutto is a classic tragedy, one that can be compared to the dramas of the ancient Greeks or Shakespeare. The shock is that this amazing tale of a woman who rose twice to become Prime Minister of a profoundly sexist and traditional Muslim country took place in reality, not in a novel or a fiction film.

Despite her worldwide fame, Benazir Bhutto’s story is not known in detail in the West. The eldest child of the gifted, charismatic Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, she inherited control of his Pakistani People’s Party when he was executed, two years after a military coup, in 1979. Overcoming prejudice against her in Pakistan because she was a woman and a democratic socialist, the Harvard and Oxford educated Benazir led her party out of the political wilderness to force Pakistan’s first free elections in a decade and become Prime Minister in 1988. Deposed controversially in 1990, she became PM again from 1993-1996. Forced out of office again with her husband Asif Ali Zardari imprisoned under charges of corruption, she was forced into exile until 2007.

When she returned again, there were fears that she would be assassinated while running for Pakistan’s highest office. That proved to be true: Benazir Bhutto was killed soon after her return to Pakistan. Now her husband Asif Ali Zardari is President of the country and her family is back in power in Pakistan. But she, of course, has become a martyr, a daughter who defended her father’s ideals and memory; someone who maintained a family’s tradition and created a legacy for her husband and children.

Bhutto covers this woman’s remarkable life with an impressive array of archival footage and rare interview material. Benazir Bhutto comes alive as an eloquent speaker, a trusted friend, beloved mother—and an attractive but tough woman.

Not cleared up or adequately explained, though, are her failures as a politician. Her first term as PM is glossed over as a time when she was “too naïve” to truly run the country while the corruption charges that plagued her second time in office are never seriously refuted. Nor—in fact—are the claims that her husband might have had something to do with the assassination of Benazir’s radical brother Murtaza.

Benazir Bhutto lived through the execution of her father, the mysterious poisoning of one brother and the bloody shooting of her other brother, the very political Murtaza. She gave her life for her country. What could be more tragic?

Bhutto is—in keeping with her—told in the grand style, with lots of music and big scenes on the campaign trail or in exile, in London and Dubai. If we never truly know her, it’s because she was a political animal, determined to live out her legacy at whatever cost. She may never have controlled her life, but—for at least five years—she was the most influential force on the lives of millions of others.

Leave Them Laughing is a beautifully rendered portrait of Carla Zilbersmith by Oscar winner John Zaritsky. The 40-something woman has ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease, and is dealing with her death sentence with devastatingly dark humour, style and honesty. A cabaret singer and comic, Zilbersmith has to deal not only with her own mortality but also with the loss of her sexual attractiveness. Suddenly she’s a figure to be pitied, not to be desired—and that loss is quite tough for her.

As she gradually weakens, Carla Zilbersmith concentrates her energies on the two men left in her life, her teenaged son and aging but still vigorous father. Both show her unflagging loyalty and devotion, which she happily reciprocates. While a clutch of female friends also takes care of her in a set of scenes grouped as “driving Miss Crazy,” they’re never characterized as well as Zilbersmith’s son and dad.

A heart-rending film, the only major drawback to loving Leave Them Laughing is the inevitable nature of the tale. We know that Carla Zilbersmith will die and after getting a grip of her cranky strategy for staying happy—essentially making fun of every potentially tragic situation—the viewer and filmmaker are left with little room to maneuver. When the film and Zilbersmith turn maudlin, it’s hard to condemn the subject or the director. But it’s also hard to watch.

Dish: Women, Waitressing & the Art of Service is hardly tragic but the film also clearly deals with women coping with life and destiny. Director Gallus, a former waitress, offers a diverse group of women working in the field, from topless or scantily clad servers in Montreal “restos” to truck stop and “greasy spoon” old pros to elegant purveyors in haute cuisine Parisian restaurants.

Sexism rears its head everywhere, from the denial of equal employment possibilities for women in the best French eating establishments to the difficulties encountered by women in sexier spots. Gallus sympathetically draws out the waitresses, getting them to describe the delicate line between being professionally courteous and actually offering friendship—or more. The most curious case is the Tokyo “milk” restaurant, where women dress as teenaged girls and offer food to their “masters.” Truly, this is role-playing taken to the extreme.

Emerging as the heroine of the film is Ash, an intelligent, professional Irish-Canadian who has taken over the George Street Diner in downtown Toronto. She leads a group of women who offer service without losing their dignity. Ash is a role model that Carla Zilbersmith would enjoy exchanging quips with—and, one hopes, Benazir Bhutto might have appreciated, too.

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