The Hot Docs fest (running Fri, Apr 22 to May 1) shines a spotlight on sex this year. Because of their dependence on funding from and distribution through television, most if not all of the sex documentaries have the same visual style – talking heads mixed with illustrative footage – that one would find on The Fifth Estate. They all bank on the quirky interest of their subjects rather than pushing documentary in new directions to distinguish it from its obnoxious country cousin, reality television.
Synthetic Desires: Living With Dolls, directed by Matthew Hanson, features an unlikely collector of life-size and expensive sex doll companions – a middle-aged, married bisexual woman named Adriana. Molested as a young girl, Adriana sees the dolls as a means of recuperating a childhood stopped short by abuse, but her coterie of human-shaped objects are also clearly a source of erotic power. You constantly teeter between empathy and discomfort at her provocative revelations on the enormous emotional power that these silicone surrogates have (2pm on Sun, Apr 24 at the Bloor).
A Perfect Fake by Marc de Guerre is also concerned with these “real” dolls, but it fails almost from the outset. While the narrator declares that technology has now made it possible to create representations of people – mostly women – who look real but have no will of their own, every example they trot out looks laughably unrealistic. From anime-influenced Japanese sex dolls and shockingly ridiculous “virtual-reality” cartoon porno to that great scapegoat, video games, this doc is a mishmash of technophobia and half-hearted feminist critique. While the goal of creating a virtual sex partner under one’s control is unsettling, sex toys and pornography have been arguably fulfilling the same purpose for ages. And the concept that we have emotional relationships with fictional characters is so old as to be prehistoric (9:30pm on Wed, Apr 27 at the Bloor; 7:15pm on Fri, Apr 29 at the ROM).
That Man: Peter Berlin by Jim Tushinski is a biography of Peter Berlin, a San Francisco neo-dandy from the 1970s who had a successful career of photographic and cinematic self-portraiture. He embodied decadent sex for a generation of gay men bored by the attack of the clones. His images and films are boldly experimental, documenting his own aesthetic excess, extreme narcissism and cocktease exhibitionism. Intelligent and articulate, if still self-absorbed, in his 60s, Berlin claims to have eschewed sexual intercourse from the time he arrived in America. The filmmakers could have explored this apparent paradox more, though it seems his reason was simply that he never met a man who could turn him on as much as his asteroid-sized package turned on others (11:30pm on Thu, Apr 28 at the Bloor; free).
The Education Of Shelby Knox by Marion Lipschutz and Rose Rosenblatt is a sweet and sassy must-see, especially for fans of campy red-state religiosity like Hell House or Saved. Shelby is a 15-year-old Baptist girl in Lubbock, Texas who pledges virginity until marriage while crusading for more comprehensive sex education in the abstinence-only school system. When a local gay/straight alliance is banned by the school board, Shelby champions its cause too. The atmosphere of slutty teenagers hanging out in parking lots and fucking because there’s nothing else to do may be a Larry Clark wet dream but the combination of boredom and dogmatic ignorance has led to skyrocketing rates of teen pregnancy and STDs. Shelby is an Andrew Lloyd Weber-singing little princess with a heart of gold. You’ll leave the theatre cheering the naïve but endearing Shelby and cursing the evil walking stereotype of a young, hip, bleach-blond pastor Ed Ainsworth with his woefully ignorant one-liners about sex (1pm on Sat, Apr 23 at Innis Town Hall). Go Shelby!