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This year’s Hot Docs festival is highlighting influential documentaries of the last decade in their Ripping Reality program. I was very happy to see that one of this series is Chris Smith’s American Movie (1999), possibly one of the funniest, most engaging documentaries I’ve ever seen. Of course, it’s not a new film, and it’s widely available on DVD, but if you’ve never had a chance to see it on the big screen, laughing (or wondering whether you should be laughing) with a theatre audience, you should definitely take advantage of this opportunity.

This film tells the story of aspiring independent filmmaker, Mark Borchardt, who is trying to finish his horror film, Coven , a project that has stalled too many times for Mark’s comfort. We watch him scrounge and finagle resources (actors, sets, props, and financial assistance) from friends, local theatre, and his family members. As he grapples with set-backs, Mark spends a great deal of time hanging out on couches in trailer park living rooms with his friends, getting drunk and/or high. At other times, when he’s been galvanized into action by something going right for a change, he is impressive in his ambition and productivity. Watching Coven ‘s production through Smith’s lens is fantastic, a behind-the-scenes exploration of independent filmmaking, and an interesting mirroring of Smith’s own production of American Movie .

The first time I saw American Movie was at the 1999 Toronto International Film Festival, not a documentary festival. So I could almost, perhaps, sort of be forgiven for having doubts that it was even a documentary. They were so silly. Like crazy Reality TV before it really took hold of prime time. Several times during my first screening of the film, I kept thinking that it couldn’t be real – that it was that decade’s Spinal Tap . But no. Mark and his hapless, mustachioed best friend Mike, are hilarious, lovable, and real. Surreal. Sometimes sad. Overall, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

American Movie will be screening Saturday, May 1st (that’s TOMORROW!) at 4pm at the Cumberland. See the Hot Docs website for more details.

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