Hot Docs: What to See During Sprawling (And Way Cool) Documentary Festival

By Jim Slotek, Liam Lacey, and Kim Hughes

It’s hard to argue with a good documentary. Even middling ones at least send viewers off with more information than they arrived with, which is more than you can say for a typical Hollywood blockbuster. And there is arguably no better place on the planet to see docs from around the planet than Toronto’s Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival — or Hot Docs for short. 

Now in its 25th year, Hot Docs is the preeminent showplace for established and emerging filmmakers to connect with audiences and industry. The numbers speak for themselves: this year’s festival will present 246 films and 16 interdisciplinary projects from 56 countries in 14 screening programs, with work by female filmmakers representing 50 per cent of overall programming. 

Scanning the extensive list of participating titles, it almost seems as if every topic under the sun has been covered, which is a fancy way of saying there really is something for everyone. And the festival remains highly accessible, offering free same-day tickets for all screenings before 5 pm to seniors and students with valid photo I.D. at the venue box offices. Single tickets to screenings are a manageable $17 each, or $19 -$24 each to special events.

While it’s impossible to screen every film, Original-Cin’s intrepid reviewers have seen a bunch, and here offer snapshot reviews.  We'll be updating them daily. But don’t be afraid to take a chance on a film that sounds interesting, or has a cool poster, or is from a country you’ve never seen a film from before. Chances are better than average you will be delighted, dazzled or at the very least, educated. View on! 

 1999.

1999.

1999
Montreal-based Samara Grace Chadwick’s artful debut film follows the filmmaker as she examines a wave of student suicides that took place at the École Mathieu-Martin in Dieppe, New Brunswick, in the late-90s. Chadwick, who left at 16 to go to an out-of-province high school, meets and talks with classmates and teachers, revisiting the state of shock, denial, and reactions that engulfed the town and marked its residents’ lives.  She deliberately avoids a journalistic investigation (exactly why, how, where, how many) in favour of conversations over dinners, a symbolic act of communion, where the subjects switch, apparently randomly, between English, French, and the local dialect, Acadian-Chiac. Their talk is mixed with journals, photographs, and student footage in this tenderly curated memorial. Screening Sat April 28, 3:15 pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 3; Sun April 29, 8:30 pm, Scotiabank Theatre 3; Friday, May 4, 4 pm TIFF Bell Lightbox 3. – LL

THE ARTIST & THE PERVERT
Austrian Georg Friedrich Haas is reputedly “the most important living composer.” He may now also be the most famous open exponent of master-slave BDSM relationships. That’s been the case ever since his wife, kink expert/storyteller Mollena Williams-Haas, came out on both their behalves on Facebook. Suddenly, the New York Times had something to ask him about other than atonality. Beatrice Behn and René Gebhardt’s doc is certainly different, and affectionate in its portrayal of the couple. They’ve suffered slings and arrows (Mollena being black makes the “slave” part of their relationship especially unacceptable to some) and finally incorporated their relationship conceptually into his music. Screening Fri, Apr 27, 8:30 pm, Scotiabank Theatre 3; Sun, Apr 29, 11:45 am, Hart House Theatre; Fri, May 4, 6:30 pm, Hart House Theatre. -JS

 The Artist & The Pervert.

The Artist & The Pervert.

BISBEE ‘17
Documentaries about historical re-enactment are almost a sub-genre of their own, though the specifics of Bisbee ‘17, a centenary event held last year in a small Arizona town, is distinguished by a biting topicality. In 1917, the local sheriff, backed by mining companies and a posse of 2,000 men, rounded up 1,200 striking mine workers at gunpoint, put them in cattle cars and shipped them out to the desert to die. Filmmaker Robert Greene and the townsfolk create an entertaining documentary feature with a definite point of view. Switching smoothly between dramatic recreations and interviews with residents, the film suggests a snapshot of America, with the descendants of the historical winners (the Bisbee older families) defending an indefensible history. On the other side, a gentle young Mexican-American man, Fernando Serrano, playing a miner, contends with memories of his own mother’s deportation. As well-prepared as we are, the culminating mass deportation scene is unexpectedly wrenching. Screening Apr 27, 2:45 pm, Hart House Theatre; Mon, Apr 30, 11:30 am, Scotiabank 7; Fri May 4, 5:00 pm, Scotiabank Theatre 3. – LL

CHEF FLYNN
As if culinary TV shows hadn’t already left the humble home cook feeling inadequate, in comes Flynn McGarry, a kiddo cooking prodigy with an apprenticeship at Eleven Park West and gushing features in the New Yorker and New York Times under his tiny belt. All can be traced back to a restaurant young Flynn launched to massive acclaim in his parents’ suburban California home. Flynn’s otherworldly artistry with food is spectacular if daunting; director Cameron Yates does a good job of showing the enormous pressure to raise the stakes on presentation and innovation, asking us to consider when young is too young in the fiercely competitive world of food. Screening Sat, Apr 28, 6:45 pm, Isabel Bader Theatre; Sun, Apr 29, 10:45 am, TIFF Bell Lightbox 1; Sat, May 5, 1:15 pm at Isabel Bader Theatre. -KH

COMMANDER ARIAN - A STORY OF WOMEN, WAR AND FREEDOM
It’s perfect that the most hateful regime towards women, ISIS, has been kicked out of its strongholds in large part by a tough brigade of women soldiers. Alba Sotorra got dangerously close to the action following the Kurdish-Syrian Women’s Protection Unit (a.k.a. the YPJ) as they made their way to liberate the city of Kobane, and followed her title character from the battlefield to a field hospital as she recovered from five (!) gunshot wounds. The movie ignores the complications of the Syrian/ISIS/Kurdish triangle (Assad’s name is never mentioned). The doc restricts its theme to how the struggle gives these women’s lives meaning. Screening Sun, Apr 29, 6:30 pm, Scotiabank Theatre 4; Mon, Apr 30, 10:30 am, TIFF Bell Lightbox 2; Sun, May 6, 6:15 pm, Aga Khan Museum. -JS

 The Heat: A Kitchen (R)Evolution

The Heat: A Kitchen (R)Evolution

THE HEAT: A KITCHEN (R)EVOLUTION
The opening night doc by Maya Gallus introduces us to some famous kitchens and world famous women chefs – including Anne-Sophie Pic, the highest-Michelin-rated woman in the world, Gordon Ramsay acolyte Angela Hartnett, New York pioneer and role model Anito Lo and scrappy Toronto locals like Charlotte Langley and Suzanne Barr – all of whom seem to have had to deal with some level of abuse within the military-based chain of command that traditionally governs restos. You’ll see Injustices and triumphs and practically taste the soulful cooking. Screening Apr 26, 9:30 pm, Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema; Sat, Apr 28, 1:15 pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 1; Sun, May 6, 3:30 pm, Isabel Bader Theatre. -JS

LAILA AT THE BRIDGE
The story of Afghanistan’s “mother of addicts,” Laila Haidari, who trolls for lost souls under an infamous bridge in Kabul habituated by opium and heroin addicts. Though she’s provided sanctuary and Narcotics Anonymous treatment for 900 addicts (including her brother, now her operating partner), she is at war with her own government, whose complicity in the drug trade is an open secret. She finds herself in the media spotlight while running a restaurant with her residents for both therapy and fundraising. It’s the true story of a truth-to-power heroine whose crusade remains steadfast through death-threats and setbacks. Screening Mon, Apr 30, 6:30 pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 2; Tue, May 1, 10:30 am, Isabel Bader Theatre; Fri, May 4, 8:30 pm, Scotiabank Theatre 7. -JS

THE LONELY BATTLE OF THOMAS REID
A David and Goliath story for the modern age, Feargal Ward’s sombre but riveting film follows Thomas Reid, a solitary man living a solitary life on his family’s farm in Ireland. Thomas’ days are decidedly his own: he tends his cows, listens to the radio, and stockpiles old newspapers like a champ. When Thomas is approached to sell his farm so microchip manufacturer Intel can expand, he refuses; thus begins a pitched battle not just for land but for the notion of stewardship and community. Does the promise of multiple jobs trump one man’s right to maintain the property that’s been in his family for generations? And what right does the state have to intervene? Ward uses actors to verbalize court proceedings, brilliantly recreating the inherent disembodiment of the action. Yet it is Thomas — taciturn, anti-social but fully present in his life — who beguiles. Screening Sun Apr 29, 5:15 pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 4; Mon, Apr 30, 3:45 pm, Scotiabank Theatre 3; Sun, May 6, 8:00 pm Scotiabank Theatre 7. - KH

LOVE, SCOTT
At once heartfelt and heart-breaking, filmmaker Laura Marie Wayne’s soulful portrait of her friend Scott Jones scans as a lesson to humanity about the power of forgiveness in the wake of unfathomable violence. The film follows Jones, an openly gay Nova Scotia-based musician, in the aftermath of an attack that left him paralyzed from the waist down. His mistake? Making doe-eyes at homophobe Shane Edward Matheson at a bar. Wayne pads her film with impressionistic montages that don’t always dazzle but there’s no denying the power of the subject or the film’s straight-up refusal to let Jones’ attack be regarded as anything short of a hate crime. Screening Sat, Apr 28, 6:30 pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 1; Sun, Apr 29, 10:15 am, Isabel Bader Theatre; Thu, May 3, 9:15 pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 2. -KH

 Love, Scott

Love, Scott

OF FATHERS AND SONS
Syrian director Talal Derki’s second Sundance-winning doc (after 2013’s The Return to Homs) sees the filmmaker returning to his home country to live with a family in a desert compound near the battle-front. Under the guise of making a jihad-friendly documentary, Derki achieves extraordinary access in showing how a soldier father, Abu Osama, indoctrinates his sons into a military-religious cult of the Al-Nusra Front (a Syrian Al-Quaida branch).  As the boys grow, modern education is abandoned in favour of a system of apocalyptic fantasy and the celebration of violence. Scenes of bullying, abuse, and intense basic training for the boys are shocking in themselves, but perhaps more so because they are balanced with scenes of fatherly affection. No women or girls appear in the film, which was presumably a pre-condition for shooting, but also serves as its own cultural commentary. Screening Fri, Apr 27, 3:45 pm, Isabel Bader Theatre; Sat, Apr 28, 10:15 am, TIFF Bell Lightbox 2; Sat, May 5, 5:30 pm, Scotiabank Theatre 3. – LL

PRIMAS
One of the great ethical challenges of contemporary non-fiction filmmakers is to find ways to tell stories of trauma that don’t exploit or augment the original suffering. That challenge is addressed by Montreal’s Laura Bari in this visually striking, intensely personal story about her two inspiringly resilient teenage Argentinian nieces, Rocío and Aldana, close friends who share histories of sexual violence. At 10, Rocío was abducted, struck with a hammer, set on fire by her assailant, and left for dead. Aldana, in a more familiar scenario, was abused for years by her father.  Through Bari’s stylized, dream-like approach, we see how the young women are drawn to rituals — theatre and movement therapy, fairy tales, litanizing their physical and mental scars — to move through the life-long process of recovery. Screening Wed May 2, 8:45 pm, Scotiabank Theatre 7; Fri May 4, 6 pm TIFF Bell Lightbox 4. - LL

THE SILENCE OF OTHERS
The rocky terrain of Spain is covered with the unmarked graves of people murdered during the 40-year Franco regime. Directors Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar’s The Silence of Others follows the six-year struggle to force the government to acknowledge the regime’s crimes against humanity following a handful of elderly men and women and their legal team, led by Chilean judge Maria Servini. Their goal is to recover the bodies of relatives and convict Franco torturers who still walk the streets of Madrid. For those who have followed the story, some elements are scant: there’s little attention to the momentum provided by the 2007 Historical Memory Law introduced by the Socialist Workers Party and the role of Judge Balthasar Garzón. The focus here is first-person stories of the elderly accusers, the ongoing zealotry of the pro-Francoists, and the ignorance of the post-Franco generation.  Though not definitive, the film is a moving primer on the legal wrangles and struggle for Spain’s conscience. Screening Fri Apr 27, 6:30 pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 2; Sat April 28, 12:30 pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 3, Sat. May 5, 11:45 am, Scotiabank Theatre 3. - LL

 Slut Or Nut: Chronicle Of A Rape Trial

Slut Or Nut: Chronicle Of A Rape Trial

SLUT OR NUT: CHRONICLE OF A RAPE TRIAL
Presented as part of Hot Docs “Silence Breakers” sidebar on sexual assault, Slut or Nut (the title refers to the standard legal attacks on rape complaintants) follows the case of York University student Mandi Gray, who was raped by a fellow graduate student, Mustafa Ururyar. Gray’s story is presented as a handbook for sexual assault victims, as experienced by Gray in her battle with the York University administration and the legal system before the eventual successful conviction. At times, the film has an oddly jaunty tone, having real-life assault victims speaking through animated cats (including “Jane Doe,” the woman who won a landmark 1998 case against the Toronto police force for using her as “bait” a decade earlier). The approach, while distracting, aims to show Gray’s irrepressible spirit, and also echoes the judge’s remarks that rape victims are not obliged to conform to any stereotypical behaviour. Screening Wed May 2, 9:00 pm, Isabel Bader Theatre; Thu May 3, 8:45 pm, Scotiabank Theatre 7; Fri May 4, 6:45 pm, TIF Bell Lightbox 3. -LL

TAKE LIGHT
So how does Nigeria, the most populous African country and its biggest energy producer, leave half its people without power? Canadian documentarian Shasha Nakhai takes us to her hometown, Port Harcourt, to paint a picture of the complex disaster. There’s a disruptive civil war in the Niger Delta. The state-owned power company has been sold and is now for profit. There is a war of sorts between users and power company employees, who spend much of their time trying to get money from people who literally climb poles to steal juice. We see it sympathetically through the eyes of these employees, on the front lines of a system almost designed to fail. Screening Fri, Apr 27, 6:45 pm, Hart House Theatre; Tue, May 1, 3:15 pm, Scotiabank Theatre 3; Thu, May 3, 6:30 pm, Scotiabank Theatre 3. -JS

TRANSFORMER
Two kinds of body transformation come together in this engaging film about Janae Marie Kroczaleski, a trans woman who, until recently, was known as world-famous male body builder Matt “Kroc” Kroczaleski. The film follows Kroczaleski through her transformation and her particular dilemma — a love of weight-lifting that gave her a massive 250-pound body, countered by an idea of being accepted as a woman. The film takes its cue from its charismatic star, who maintains an affectionate relationship with her three sons and weight-lifting gym buddies while watching her old career collapse. As Janae’s switches between identifies, her new mannerisms and voice reveal both her vulnerability and new emotional openness. Screening Fri Apr 27, 6 pm, Scotiabank Theatre 3; Sun April 29 12:30 pm, Thu May 3, 8:15 pm, Scoitabank Theatre 13.
 

 Yours in Sisterhood 

Yours in Sisterhood 

YOURS IN SISTERHOOD
An interesting idea, undercut by a lack of consistency, Irene Lusztig’s Yours in Sisterhood is the record of a project to present letters that were written to the mainstream feminist publication Ms. Magazine in the 1970s, read aloud by contemporary women (and one man) from the same parts of the United States where the letters were sent. The readers then respond to the letters with varying amounts of insight: the most interesting are coloured by contemporary perspectives on race and sexuality. The strength of the film, like the #MeToo movement, is to reveal the extent of women’s experience of subjugation across all walks of life. Screening Sat Apr 28, 6:45 pm, TIFF 2; Sun Apr 29, 3:45 pm, Scotiabank 4; Sat May 5, 5:45 pm, Fox Theatre. – LL