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Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival 2017 Round-Up

May 10, 2017

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The Hot Docs International Film Festival wrapped up this past Sunday in Toronto, after eleven days of showcasing documentaries from all around the world. This 2017 edition, the festival’s 24th year, boasted record-breaking audiences of 215,000, with over 450 public screenings of 218 films. In addition to the regular public screening series, Hot Docs featured a broad slate of guest appearances, discussions, live performances, networking events conferences, and workshops. They also ran the Docs for Schools program, an educational initiative that serves an estimated 95,000 students with screenings throughout the festival run. With so much to see I was only able to a get to a small selection of it, which I’ll detail further down, but first let’s look a few other highly-acclaimed films of the Fest.

 

A Moon of Nickel and Ice (Dir: François Jacob; Canada)
This film explores the Soviet-era Russian city of Norilsk and the people who still live there even as they’re buffeted by polar winds and industrial pollution. It is a bleak portrayal of an isolated Siberian city. Director François Jacob was bestowed the Emerging Canadian Filmmaker Award for this feature.

A Cambodian Spring (Dir: Chris Kelly; United Kingdom)
The Special Jury Prize for International Feature Documentary went to this complex exploration of activism and political corruption in Cambodia. The film details the work of three activists and the international complicity in maintaining a status quo of oppression for Cambodian citizens.

69 Minutes of 86 Days (Dir: Egil Håskjold Larsen; Norway)
Three-year-old Lean’s are the wide eyes through which this humanist portrayal of migration is told. The film, for which director Egil Håskjold Larsen was awarded Emerging International Filmmaker, deals with the Syrian refugee crisis through the story of one family’s attempt to find a better life in Sweden.

Death in the Terminal (Dirs: Asaf Sudry & Tali Shemesh; Israel)
Not for the faint of heart, this ‘Rashomon’-esque study of a 2015 shooting at a bus terminal in Be’er Sheva reconstructs events from various points of view, revealing the fallibility of memory and casting light on the shocking truth of a corrupt state. This film won Best Mid-Length Documentary (and topped the audience ranking in the same category), with honorable mention going to The Lives of Thérèse (Dir: Sébastien Lifshitz; France), a poignant celebration of the life and activism of French LGBTQ activist Thérèse Clerc.

Sovdagari (Dir: Tamta Gabrichidze; Georgia)
Winner for Best Short Documentary, this 22-minute film follows Gela in his travels around rural Georgia as he sells secondhand clothes and trinkets out of his van and searches the countryside for treasured potatoes.

Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World (Dir: Catherine Bainbridge; Canada)
The Hot Docs Audience Award went to this Sundance favorite exploring the hidden contributions of Indigenous musicians to the history of rock ‘n roll. This doc comes from the same studio who brought you ‘Reel Injun,’ which unpacked the history of Indigenous representation in film. I sense the potential for a great double-feature.

 

 

Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World

I work for an organization that promotes Canadian films in high schools and other places and since I can’t possibly get to every doc, I took a quick poll around the office to see what films my co-workers were most impressed by. Here are a few titles they came back with that aren’t mentioned elsewhere:

 

Unarmed Verses (Dir: Charles Officer; Canada)
This local production was a hit around the office and throughout the festival, winning Best Canadian Feature Documentary. It explores issues of community “revitalization” efforts by focusing on the lives of those living in Toronto’s Villaways neighborhood. It captures the spirit of the unique souls living here, asking who these efforts truly benefit.

La Chana (Dir: Lucija Stojevic; Spain/Iceland/USA)
This film uses archival footage and new interviews of the title flamenco pioneer, who vanished from the spotlight at the peak of her career. The film explores why she suddenly disappeared from the scene, and how creativity can transcend abuse as the film follows her preparation to return to the spotlight for one last show years later.

Let There Be Light (Dirs: Mila Aung-Thwin & Van Royko; Canada)
In a world where we’re fast approaching a tipping point in our use of fossil fuels, the need for sustainable energy is paramount. This film follows a group of international scientists as they attempt to harness the power of the sun to develop nuclear fusion power on earth. Potentially one of the biggest breakthroughs in human history, this project blends science fiction-like ideas with realities of working in a time when science is limited by political will and funding shortfalls.

Tokyo Idols (Dir: Kyoko Miyake; United Kingdom, Canada)
This is a cheerier film than you might expect about an industry that many outsiders might view with paternalistic alarm. Exploring Japan’s “pop idol” phenomenon in which young lip-sync performers vie for the attention (and money) of middle-aged men, ‘Tokyo Idols’ complicates notions of exploitation and fantasy fulfillment.

Give Me Future (Dir: Austin Peters; USA/Cuba)
Part behind-the-scenes concert doc, part exploration of the changing relationship between the USA and Cuba, ‘Give Me Future’ follows electronic dance act Major Lazer, who became one of the first major American performers to play Cuba as tensions between the nations have eased in recent years. With pulsing beats, stunning performance footage, and honest stories, this film is a love letter to Cuban youth and the power of music to inspire meaning and change. At the film’s premiere on Tuesday night, Major Lazer founder and frontman Diplo made an appearance for a Q&A, and gave a surprise performance later at Queen St. West’s upscale hybrid venue Apartment 200.

Step (Dir: Amanda Lipitz; USA)
Not just your regular dance documentary, ‘Step’ finds a dance is a means of escape for the three young women at its center. This inspiring story follows the Baltimore girls navigating dreams, lessons, and temptation as they prepare for being in the first graduating class from their school. This film was the students’ choice award winner for the Docs for Schools program.
Manic (Dir: Kalina Bertin; Canada)
Unlike anything you’ve seen before, ‘Manic’ is Kalina Bertin’s attempt to examine her sister’s mental health struggles by way of delving into their father’s mysterious past. Does their family history—seated in this enigmatic cult figure—hold the key to understanding present issues? My colleague called this “the gutsiest, most vulnerable film at this year’s festival by far.”
The Road Forward (Dir: Marie Clements; Canada)
An unconventional musical that blends documentary filmmaking, performance art, music, and history, this film tells the story of generations of Indigenous activism in British Columbia through song. It takes the viewer through the history of the Native Brotherhood of Canada, the Constitution Express, and the creation of Canada’s first Indigenous newspaper, The Native Voice, each topic with its own musical number. As a documentary, ‘The Road Forward’ is a bold challenge to expectations of the medium—as a document, it is a poignant and powerful story of resilience.
Mommy Dead and Dearest (Dir: Erin Lee Carr; USA)  
Murder and lies characterize this engrossing film about a wheelchair-bound young teen, her dead mother, and a shocking mystery revealing dark family secrets. This story of a rural Louisiana community rocked by violence and questions is not to be missed.
116 Cameras (short film) (Dir: Davina Pardo; USA/Canada)
This 16-minute short film immerses audiences in a groundbreaking fusion of history and technology. It showcases a project in which a Holocaust’s survivor’s experiences are captured in “the cage”, a green screen space surrounded by 116 cameras. An innovating new storytelling method that could change education forever, this process is intended to preserve her stories for future generations in an interactive hologram.
unarmedverses
Unarmed Verses
What I saw: 
Engaged volunteers, heavy corporate sponsorship, and a broken escalator at Scotiabank Theatre made the Hot Docs 2017 experience typical of the Toronto festival scene. In general, Hot Docs draws a less anxious, more cerebral crowd than TIFF. Critics seem less exhausted and there is a presence from high school students, partially thanks to the Docs for Schools program and free screening admission for students and seniors before 5 pm. But the films themselves seemed especially good this year, a refrain I heard from multiple festival attendees. Full reviews of the features I saw are available on Letterboxd, but brief thoughts on those follow here….
Bee Nation
Bee Nation (Dir: Lana Šlezic; Canada)
The world premiere ‘Bee Nation’ was also the festival’s opening night selection on April 27. This documentary about a group of First Nations children in Saskatchewan vying to compete in the National Spelling Bee fundamentally feels like a crowd-pleaser, a feel-good film. Yet here, in this small corner of the world, the stakes are high. Often ignored if not outright scorned, these rural First Nations kids (living on-reserve) are aware even at ten years old that, between social stigma and misalignment in government funding, the odds are stacked against them. The storytelling here is focused and simple, with care paid to the people involved. These are human stories of regular folks, unencumbered by grand aspirations. In contrast to the many narratives focusing on Indigenous family dysfunction, ‘Bee Nation’ celebrates the intimate moments of pride and grace between parents and their children. Many of these parents express a desire for their kids to succeed both professionally and culturally, though to do the former seems to mean leaving the reserve for better economic and educational opportunities. At least, for a while. “As much as it pains me to admit,” says the principal, “it’s more important that I teach these kids math and English than that I teach them Cree.” It’s a heartbreaking reminder of the ways neo-colonialism continues to deprive Indigenous peoples, wrapped in a feel-good underdog story shot and edited with sports-like intensity.
RATING: *** 
Loving Lorna
Loving Lorna (Dirs: Annika Karlsson & Jessica Karlsson; Sweden)
‘Loving Lorna’ is ostensibly a film about an Irish girl who is one of the last of a dying tradition of keeping horses in the Dublin suburb of Ballymun. This culture is a fascinating one, as at this particular moment during economic recession it almost represents a form of privilege. And in that respect the film might as well be following any working class family through the coming-of-age of their oldest child. Lorna’s dream is to become a farrier, someone who shoes horses. Remarks are made about how rare this job is for women to do, but the film seems largely indifferent to the gendered aspects of Lorna’s experiences or any sexism she might encounter. It’s a small, intimate story of a life unconcerned with anything outside this small suburb. Even more than a story about a family’s relationship with horses, ‘Loving Lorna’ explores the ways our aspirations and dreams are limited by our physical reality. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film is Lorna’s relationship with her mother and the way it symbolizes lost dreams. Extinction threatens everything, especially in a world changing as rapidly as ours.
RATING: **1/2 
‘Loving Lorna’ screened with the 30-minute short, ‘Urban Cowboys‘ (Dir: Pawel Ziemilski; Poland). Horses are plentiful in Clondalkin, another suburb on the west side of Dublin, where where poverty and a lack of opportunity similarly plague those residents. This is a portrait of a troubled boy and his relationship with a wild horse that is a proxy for his feelings of rage, grief, and confusion stemming from the death of his mother. With seemingly few adult role models, the boy takes refuge in his time with the horse—which may or may not be named for his mother. It becomes clear through watching that efforts to tame the horse are really unknowing attempts to tame himself in the absence of a care figure. ‘Urban Cowboys’ is maybe a tad long, but it is complex, unsettling, and deeply sad.
The Other Side of the Wall
The Other Side of the Wall (Dir: Pau Ortiz; Spain)
When ‘The Other Side of the Wall’ opens, Ale and Rocío’s mother has been recently been sentenced to prison. Though we’re not told why until the very end, we’re given the impression that it is on bogus charges, as she keeps assuring her children in regular phone conversations that she’ll be out soon and just needs them to keep up hope. Hope is a double-edged sword, though. It is only by abandoning the hope that his mother could come back any day that he will be free to live his life. In this case, that means trying to walk the dangerous path to undocumented residence in the US, where he can more easily get work to provide for the family. The question of how long he can keep up appearances hangs over the film, and we get the sense this limbo acts as a sort of prison that he is projecting onto the rest of the family. Rocío’s pleas to get out of the house as more and more she takes over the role of mother to her two younger siblings are rebuffed by an older brother who may be one part protective, one part punishing. The film alternates between depictions of daily life and talking head interviews with the two older siblings, giving a look into the anxieties, hopes and dreams that they may not make evident in their behaviour. The awareness that this is but one story of countless undocumented immigrant experiences, and that so often these stories are reduced the word “illegal,” makes the film bigger than the story of one family. It speaks to the need for films that put a human face on social issues that are debated without care for the people involved. ‘The Other Side of the Wall’ was the festival recipient of Best International Feature Documentary Award.
RATING: ***1/2 
Airing as a pair with ‘The Other Side of the Wall’ was ‘Durango‘ (Dir: Matt Sukkar; USA), a 15-minute short similarly exploring the life of close siblings. Here, the two boys at the story’s center clash over their fraught relationship with their mother, which is pushing the older toward the possibility of moving to Seattle. ‘Durango’ is kind of a beautiful little capsule of brotherhood, shot nicely by Instagram photographer Matt Sukkar in his familiar DIY-as-Americana style. The brothers are compelling characters, but there is an element of their on-camera personas that feel, in the fashion of social media in general, overly performative.
Resurrecting Hassan
Resurrecting Hassan (Dir: Carlo Guillermo Proto; Canada)
“Resurrecting Hassan” was awarded the Special Jury Prize for Canadian Feature Documentary, but I did not particularly care for it. This film follows the story of the Hartings, a sight-impaired Montreal family of three grieving the loss of their youngest, fourth member, Hassan. The trio – parents Denis and Peggy and their daughter Lavish – make money by singing in the Metro. It starts as a film about grief and the family’s belief in the “esoteric.” They attend cult meetings with spiritualists who promise the ability to resurrect Hassan through the teachings of Russian mystic Grigori Grabovoi. The film itself never seriously considers that resurrection might be possible, but more what that possibility represents to a family who feels fractured by Hassan’s absence. But the spiritualists – and even Hassan himself – are pushed aside for large sections of the film. Throughout much of “Resurrecting Hassan” it feels like the filmmaker can’t decide what to anchor the film to. When the film is at its best—like the radio interview in which the family talks about their violent past and the ways Hassan’s death has affected them—it is appropriately, even uncomfortably intimate. But for much of it director Carlo Guillermo Proto fails to give us a reason to be invested in his subjects and, in effect, makes them as unsympathetic as possible.
RATING: **
Birth of a Family
Birth of a Family (Dir: Tasha Hubbard; Canada)
Like director Tasha Hubbard herself, the siblings at the heart of “Birth of a Family” were adopted during a period known as the “Sixties Scoop,” when the Canadian government permitted Indigenous children to be forcibly removed from their families and adopted by non-Indigenous parents. After a lengthy search by the family’s eldest, Hubbard documents the few days during which the siblings Betty Ann, Rosalie, Ester, and Ben, now all in their 50s, are gathered all together for the first time. What follows is a mess of emotion that comes from sitting across someone who is a stranger you know you should rightfully have spent a life with. These complicated mixed emotions can be part of any story of adoption, as people are forced to reckon with the extent to which our notion of family is based on blood or bond. But this particular story is a product of a concerted state effort to dissolve Indigenous cultures. The conversation inevitably comes around to the government’s apology and the notion of Truth and Reconciliation. It’s perhaps the best scene in the film, in which the siblings confront the intergenerational impact of Canada’s colonial history. There are some talking head segments with each member of the family, and some voiceover from Betty Ann. But it’s really when Hubbard just lets the camera stay on the interactions between the four siblings that the film is at its best. The relational subtleties that emerge even from the beginning establish these characters as immediately endearing and relatable. Hubbard’s voice feels almost non-existent in the film, except to the extent that her own experiences mean she understands the complex feelings of her subjects enough to know the story is not in the telling but in the capturing. This is a beautiful, tender film on a personal level. It’s also an important document that puts names and faces to a national tragedy.
RATING: ***1/2 
Before “Birth of a Family”, a 5-minute film called ‘Sweat‘ (Dir: Kristin Snowbird; Canada) was screened. Thematically similar, this nice, brief autobiographical film plays like a story slam entry, telling of how the director first came to partipcate in an Ojibwe sweat ceremony at an adult age. While the visuals aren’t particularly interesting, the story is a touching exploration of coming into one’s culture identity. During a brief introduction to the film, Snowbird spoke to the benefits of a mentorship program that helped her in making the film, and of the importance of Indigenous women filmmakers supporting each other in telling their stories.
Ghosts of Our Forest
Ghosts of Our Forest (Dir: Daniel Roher; Canada)
“Ghosts of Our Forest” follows the Indigenous Ugandan Batwa people as they struggle to maintain ties to their traditional culture since being forcibly relocated from their ancestral lands by the government in the 1990s. Now living in poverty, the Batwa long to be connected to their past home, which was annexed to establish a pair of national parks under the mandate of protecting the area’s gorilla population. Music and dance are important expressions of culture for the Batwa, and a large chunk of the film follows the efforts of musical group Batwa Music Club to preserve their traditional stories through music. The musical scenes are fantastic, imbued with expressions of joy. The film touches on questions of government agenda, land claims, cultural reliance on geography, colonialism and religion, and resilience through music. The personalities of the Batwa on display here always make for compelling viewing, but there might be too many of them, as I never felt like I truly knew any of these people by the end of this 63-minute film. Still, as an anthropological document it works in showing the audience a culture most people will be unfamiliar with.
RATING: **1/2 
Mother Canada (Dir: Craig Jackson; Canada)
Screened before “Ghosts of Our Forest”, this was a short exploring the public responses to a proposed war memorial on the coast of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. On the surface, these two films may not make for the most cohesive pairing. However, they both deal with the issue of national parks, who they’re for, and how the creation and maintenance of them can affect the lives people living nearby. Far from being the simple puff piece about the statue itself that it appears to be for its first couple minutes, ‘Mother Canada’ delves deep into the complex and contradicting philosophies at work in the situation. We hear from townsfolk who hope the monument will bolster tourism in a struggling community, from activists and environmentalists concerned about the integrity of national park lands, from war veterans, and the designers hired to develop the project who increasingly butt up against its mastermind, a figure who comes off as a wealthy madman. What severs the pairing of these two films (and hurts ‘Mother Canada’ on its own) is the complete absence of any mention of the Indigenous Mi’kmaq people on whose traditional territory the park exists. The film opens a perfect set-up to introduce this variable when it shows townsfolk express dissatisfaction with the way the park’s creation removed the people living there with minimal compensation—an ironic complaint considering how Canada was built in the first place. The director admitted after the film that this was a factor he planned to include, but the film’s ballooning run time (22 minutes from an originally-planned 15) required him to make cuts. He told the audience that he still wonders whether he made the right decision. I don’t think he did. It’s an omission only made more noticeable when paired with ‘Ghosts of Our Forest,’ which is so much about the consequences of such displacement.
In conclusion…
With so many great docs at this year’s Hot Docs Festival, there was no shortage of screenings to choose from, many of which were world or international premieres. Keep an eye out for these films as they start to make rounds in other cities!
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