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Hot Docs 2004 - UPDATE #1

Directed by Jason Young

One of the most harrowing sequences in years isn't courtesy of John Carpenter or some other horror maestro, but rather documentarian Jason Young's coverage of the brutal murder of...a bunny rabbit. Not content to simply eat meat without thinking of the consequences, Young made the decision to begin raising (and eventually killing) his own animals. The film follows his exploits on the farm as he surrounds himself with expected barnyard staples, including pigs, cows, and sheep. The most impressive aspect of Animals is how well made it is; Young brings a cinematic quality to even the most ordinary surroundings, treating a simple shot of a barn as though he were filming an ornate European church. There's no denying that he's a genuinely talented filmmaker - after a particularly gruesome bunny homicide (yep, another one), he cuts to a montage of his animals being fed and cared for - though his frequent use of black-and-white photography is unnecessary and pretentious. Animals is undeniably entertaining throughout, but ultimately, there are just too many sequences that are too difficult to watch - despite Young's best efforts to shoot such moments discreetly. In particular, the film's final couple of minutes - devoted to the execution of one of his animals - is cold and clinical, and far more unflinching than anything that's come before. But then again, that's probably the point.

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Arna's Children
Directed by Juliano Mer Khamis and Danniel Danniel

Gripping virtually from start to finish, Arna's Children is an examination of several Palestinian children living in a refugee camp within Israel. Arna Mer was an Israeli woman who married a Palestinian, and - at some point after that - eventually switched sides and started a theater group for kids in Jenin. But, true to the film's title, the film isn't about Arna as much as it is about her "children," several of whom we follow from their youth into adulthood. Co-director Juliano Mer Khamis shot a lot of footage in the early '90s of some of the kids, and then returned to Jenin in 2002 with Danniel Danniel to discover what happened to them. We soon learn many took up the Palestinian cause and subsequently died for it; in one of the film's most heart-wrenching moments, a mother discusses the death of all her sons save one (and even admits that she'd rather see him killed than captured). Arna's Children is chock full of emotional revelations like that one, including Khamis' realization that one of the "children" gave his life for the cause - and even left behind a farewell tape for his friends and family (which we see portions of). In the end, that's what makes Arna's Children so riveting; as a rare glimpse into what life is like for Palestinians on a day-to-day basis, the film is clearly an important work that deserves to be seen.

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Word Wars
Directed by Eric Chaikin and Julian Petrillo

Word Wars is a surprisingly entertaining look at the competitive world of Scrabble, which one is amazed to learn even exists. Like last year's Spellbound, the film introduces several players and follows them around their daily lives - while building up to a national tournament. The primary difference between the two movies is that none of these four people - Joe Edley, Matt Graham, Marlon Hill, and Joel Sherman - ever become as compelling as the majority of the kids that were featured in Spellbound, probably because there's something inherently sad about a group of adults that have devoted their lives to Scrabble. Still, these four guys are remarkably well-adjusted, all things considering - with the exception of Sherman (nicknamed G.I. Joel, as in gastrointestinal), a neurotic, long-suffering nerd who seems to live for the game. Directors Chaikin and Petrillo clearly aren't taking too much of this very seriously, as evidenced by their propensity for comedic moments (which isn't a complaint, mind you; their light-hearted touch perfectly complements the sometimes absurd nature of the film). By the time the $10,000 tournament rolls around, we've got a lot invested in the fates of these disparate men. Word Wars isn't particularly informative nor does it encourage viewers to run out and play a game of Scabble (what, and end up like these guys?), but it's engaging enough to warrant a recommendation. And hey, just in case you were ever wondering why "tup" is an illegal word (look it up)...

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© David Nusair