By Jim Slotek, Liam Lacey, Kim Hughes, Thom Ernst, Karen Gordon and Bonnie Laufer
It’s a truism about good documentaries that, if they were fiction, no one would believe them. In that regard, they are often more entertaining, intriguing, and provocative than a typical Hollywood blockbuster.
And there is no better place better than Toronto to see the best docs on the planet, at the city’s Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival.
Now in its 26th year, Hot Docs is the premiere showplace for established and emerging filmmakers to connect with audiences and industry. Running from April 25 through May 5, the festival will show 234 films and 18 interdisciplinary projects from 56 countries.
While it’s impossible to screen every film in advance, Original-Cin’s veteran reviewers have seen some very good ones. And here, we offer a collection of snapshot reviews, plus a few we intend to see, and so should you. We’ll be adding more reviews throughout the festival, so please check back often.
For the full schedule and ticket information, go to hotdocs.ca
When we meet Israeli human rights lawyer Lea Tsemel, she’s bargained the sentence of an Arab-Israeli who stabbed 11 people on a bus down from life to a dozen years. Tsemel is the embodiment of the idea that everyone deserves a defence. An anti-occupation activist since the ‘70s, she courts death threats and fights cases that seem more and more driven by social media outrage. Directors Rachel Leah Jones and Philippe Bellaïche bounce between her controversial past cases, and a confounding contemporary one, that of a 13-year-old Palestinian boy who carried a knife of his own while his older brother committed a stabbing (and was killed on scene). The clock ticks as Tsemel has only a few months leeway before the boy can be sentenced as an adult. A vivid portrait of a memorable contrarian following her conscience. Screening: Sun, Apr 28, 6 pm ScotiaBank Theatre; Mon, Apr 29, 3:30 pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 2; Sun, May 5, 6 pm, Isabel Bader Theatre. – JS
John Walker’s documentary is inspired by the 2012 bestseller by philosopher Aaron James who says an “asshole” is a moral class of person whose “entrenched entitlement” makes him immune to others’ complaints. Walker interviews James (who thought of the concept when someone cut him off while surfing) and focuses on locales where homo anus flourishes: High finance, fraternities, social media, the RCMP, Hollywood, Silicon Valley and politics. There’s hopeful evidence of social pushback, including a company that has a “no assholes need apply” policy. Screening: Tues, Apr 30, 7 pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 1; Wed, May 1, 3:45 pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 1; Sat, May 4, 12:45 pm, Isabel Bader Theatre. – LL
At 90 years young, Dr. Ruth Westheimer is as much a spitfire as she was over 50 years ago. Ask Dr. Ruth is a touching and very personal look at the famous sex therapist and Holocaust survivor. Director Ryan White gives us amazing access into Dr. Ruth’s personal life, which she has kept surprisingly quiet about despite being so open and willing to discuss anything to do with sex. Her story of growing up and narrowly escaping death by the Nazis is beautifully told through illustration and animation. We see how her struggles as a survivor has affected and inspired her career path and extraordinary life. I defy anyone not to shed a bucket of tears while watching this documentary. Screening: Fri, Apr 26, 6 pm, Isabel Bader Theatre; Sat, Apr 27th, 10 am, TIFF Bell Lightbox. – BL
The enduring awesomeness of dogs is clearly illustrated in this gentle German-language doc about canines assisting humans dealing with a variety of issues, from autism to blindness to PTSD, who would otherwise lead lessened lives without their four-legged assistants. The person/dog bonds traced by director Heddy Honigmann are powerful though Honigmann’s unobtrusiveness approach decelerates the narrative. There is also no discussion about the ethics of pressing animals into a life of service though perhaps that’s another film altogether. Screening: Fri, Apr 26, 3:15 pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 1; Sat, Apr 27, 3:00 pm, Isabel Bader Theatre; Tue, Apr 30, 10:30 am, TIFF Bell Lightbox 3. – KH
Life behind bars from the inmates’ perspective drives Conviction, which seeks to understand why women are the fastest-growing segment of Canada’s prison population. While the answer to that question remains murky, this doc clearly shows why recidivism rates are depressingly high. Once released, the women depicted have scant support networks — or even secure housing — to rely on. Prison, for all its dreads, fast emerges as comparatively safe place to go “home” to. Filmmakers Ariella Pahlke, Nance Ackerman, and Teresa MacInnes weave together fly-on-the-wall footage with footage captured inside by the prisoners who appear troubled, yes, but also multifaceted, coherent, and determined to challenge a failing system. Screening: Sun, Apr 28, 6:30 pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 2; Mon, Apr 29, 1:15 pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 3; Thu, May 2 12:30 PM Hart House Theatre. – KH
The claim that the USA and other governments are under the influence of corporate special interests is hard to argue against and various celebrity old-school lefties — Chris Hedges, John Ralson Saul and Cornell West — repeat the film’s title enough times in this documentary from Fred Peabody (All Governments Lie) to make it sound freshly ominous. But the hoary clips from Network and Wall Street fall flat while Hedges’s reflexive anti-globalism lament for the lost manufacturing jobs and critique of “elites” sound positively Trumpian, while constructive responses to the crisis are disappointingly lacking. Screening: Mon, April 29, 9:30 pm, Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema; Tues, Apr 30, 10 am, Isabel Bader Theatre; Fri, May 3, 12 pm, Hart House Theatre. – LL
Irony was never more mordant than a scene in the Punjabi town of Jhojhu Kalan, where no girls have been born for decades and sad bachelors bemoan their state. “If I could get married, I could have a son to carry on my name,” one says, as if it’s never occurred to him why they have no women. Rama Rau’s film about the ongoing practice of aborting female foetuses identified by ultrasound (illegal but still prevalent) hops from story to story, revealing upheavals like the reversal of dowries (desperate men paying for brides, often from lower castes), and showcasing a heroine, midwife Neelam Bala, who unleashes profanity on men whose attitudes she battles while struggling to save unborn girls. A powerful and personal film. Screening: Sat, Apr 27, 6:30 pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 2; Tues, Apr 30, 10:15 am TIFF Bell Lightbox 2; Thur, May 2, 9 pm, Hart House Theatre. – JS
Waad al-Kateab is a Syrian woman who was one of the last people to leave Aleppo in 2016, along with her baby girl and doctor husband before the city fell to Assad’s forces. In the preceding five years, beginning with protests and ending in the city’s destruction, al-Kateab maintained a remarkable video blog of life during wartime: marriage, childbirth, moving into a new house, her husband’s work in a makeshift hospital, all in a city pounded by shelling and littered with corpses. For Sama, made with co-director Edward Watts, is a compilation of her videos, dedicated to her baby daughter. The film, which will be shown on PBS’s Frontline, has also been accepted for screening at Cannes next month. Screening: Mon, Apr 29, 9 pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 3; Tues, Apr 30, 12:30 pm, Hart House Theatre; Sun, May 5, 12:45 pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 3. – LL
More homage than deep dive into Gordon Lightfoot’s private life, If You Could Read My Mind benefits from extensive commentary by Lightfoot contemporaries including Steve Earle, Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, Anne Murray, Randy Bachman, Murray McLauchlan, Burton Cummings, Sarah McLachlan, Sylvia Tyson, biographer Nicolas Jennings and… uh… Alec Baldwin, all testifying to the legendary singer/songwriter’s kingly place in the canon. Add to that lineup Lightfoot himself, who — when not driving around hometown Toronto giddily scoping out landmarks — offers context and recall on an extraordinary career seemingly impervious to trend. What the film lacks in dish (drink and women problems are addressed oh-so-lightly) is remunerated by star-power and eye-popping archival footage. Screening: Sat, Apr 27, 6:45 pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 1; Tue, Apr 30, 6:30 pm, Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema. – KH
This doc is about Haydee Oberreuter Umazabal, a Chilean woman who launched a lawsuit against the naval officers who tortured her following the 1973 Pinochet coup. Their sadism caused her to lose her four-month pregnancy and suffer lifelong physical and psychological damage. Oberreuter’s multi-year crusade for justice - aided by various relatives, friends and a legal team - is moving, though director Pachi Bustos’ poetic and tender approach (the camera lingers on still photographs) and absence of chronological markers can be confusing. Tuesday, April 30, 6:30 p.m., TIFF Bell Lightbox; Wed,, May 2, 12:30 p.m., Scotiabank; Sat. May 4, 5:30 p.m. Scotiabank. - LL
Among the millions of people who suffered from the 2008 financial meltdown, a few even worked for the companies who perpetrated the crisis. Jennifer Deschamps' documentary focuses on whistleblowers at the giant Lehman Brothers investment firm, whose bankruptcy played a major role in the global crisis. The subjects include a former vice president who was fired for challenging dubious practices, a lawyer who met the same fate and several women working for a Sacramento subsidiary who were subjected to sexual and racial harassment because of their concerns. Despite a tabloid-TV style, the documentary makes a convincing case that what happened was deliberately criminal. Fri. May 3, 6:15 pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox. - LL
In rural Latvia, teenage Inga is the youngest child and the only hearing member of her family. She grapples with resentment over the fact that she is her family’s de facto interpreter to the hearing world, her conflicted approach to her realization of being gay, and what seems an impossible dream to become her family’s first college graduate. Not surprisingly, she begins acting out anti-socially. Kaspars Goba’s film touches on themes of the differently abled, LGBTQ and surprising aspects of living with hearing impairment (Inga gets to play her music as loud as she wants, and we see punk non-hearing kids wear t-shirts of their favourite bands as angry statements regardless). One girl’s fascinating story. Screening: Tues, Apr 30, 6:45 pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 4; Thur, May 2, 3 pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 4. – JS
Many of us, gay and straight, are still haunted by the loss of loved ones during the AIDS epidemic, and remember the rampant fear of the strange plague. This film by Laurie Lind exposes one of the greatest injustices to a single person. The myth of “Patient Zero” posited that an Air Canada steward named Gaétan Dugas was personally responsible for spreading the disease. The film fleshes out Dugas’s life via his friends and traces the banal typo that led to the Patient Zero theory (an error compounded by author Randy Shilts of The Band Played On fame). Dugas, it is proposed, was an epidemiological hero, cooperatively providing the CDC with valuable early information about how AIDS spread. A fascinating study of “fake news” in the absence of facts. Screening: Fri, Apr 26, 8:30 pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 1; Sat, Apr 27, 12:30 pm, Scotiabank Theatre 4; Fri, May 3, 2:45 pm, Hart House Theatre. – JS
The extent to which mammoth corporations criminally use developing nations as their private sandboxes has seldom been seen more forcefully than in this story of Máxima Acuña an illiterate subsistence farmer in Peru whose family bought a meagre plot of Andes hillside land in 1994, only to have the land sold out from under her to a predominantly American-owned gold company (with a 5% stake by the World Bank!). The company has used violence to try to evict her, knocked her child unconscious, repeatedly destroyed her crops and tried to cut off access to her property. In between, they’ve spilled mercury and destroyed pristine lakes that were discovered to have gold deposits under them. The fact that Maxima keeps winning hollow court victories doesn’t make Claudia Sparrow’s film a feel-good story by any means. Screening: Sat., Apr 27, 5:45 pm, Isabel Bader Theatre; Sun, April, 28, 10:30 am, TIFF Bell Lightbox 2; Sun, May 5, 3:30 pm, Isabel Bader Theatre. – JS
Indigenous filmmaker Tanya Hubbard offers a personal and historical perspective on the shocking 2016 killing of 22-year-old Colten Boushie, an Indigenous man shot by a Saskatchewan farmer Gerald Stanley, after Boushie and his friends trespassed on Stanley’s land. Hubbard, raised by white foster parents, brings her personal history and fears as a mother to the subject along with the historical background of land disputes, while intimately documenting the wrenching sense of loss and injustice experienced by his family and community. Screening: Thu, Apr 25, 9:45 pm, Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema; Sat, Apr 27, 1 pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 2; Sat, May 4, 10 am, Isabel Bader Theatre. – LL
In the densely populated city of Caloocan, in Metro Manilla, Philippines, a new police chief takes charge. He promises to install discipline following local protests against President Rodrigo Duterte’s violent anti-drug campaign, which has jammed the prisons and the morgues with bodies. For a while, the numbers of killings drop and then, in 2018, people start to die again, in a rash of drive-by shootings. In this grimly lurid, thriller-like documentary, filmmakers James Jones and Olivier Sarbil have open access to both police and their victims in a town where beat cops have been promoted into death squads. Screening: Sat, Apr 27, 8:30 pm Scotiabank Theatre 3; Mon, Apr 29, 3:15 pm, Scotiabank Theatre 4; Sun, May 5, 6 pm, Hart House Theatre. – LL
Some 14 years after The Game, journalist Neil Strauss’s shattering exposé on the so-called seduction industry —men “teaching” men how to bed women through a dubious series of costly seminars and “field trips” to bars and nightclubs — and nearly three decades after Ross Jeffries’s how-to manual How to Get the Women You Desire into Bed comes The Pickup Game. But those reference points aren’t the only time warp here. The knuckle-draggers pedalling pickup techniques operate as if the 21st century and a little thing called #MeToo never happened. (To his eternal credit, Jeffries saw the light, denouncing his self-published book and the movement it sparked). Though fascinating to rubberneck on one hand, The Pickup Game is also close enough to commercialized rape culture to be revolting. Which may be the point. Screening: Tue, Apr 30, 8:45 pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 2; Wed, May 1, 10:15 am, TIFF Bell Lightbox 2; Sat, May 4, 3:15 pm, Isabel Bader Theatre. – KH
With Prey, director Matt Gallagher crafts a courtroom drama as gripping as any fiction without compromising the integrity of its subject. The story is sadly familiar: As a child, Rod MacLeod had the misfortune (as did many boys before and after him) to cross paths with convicted sex offender Father Hons Marshall, leading to a life compromised by shame and guilt. Enlisting the aid of civil lawyer Rob Talach — a man given the ominous moniker The Priest Hunter — MacLeod prepares for the fight of his life, a battle to restore his integrity, his dignity and self-worth. The odds are stacked against him. His case is over 50 years old, his abuser is dead, and the accused is represented with calculated warmth by Father David Kataluski, who claims to be only interested in the truth. Prey is an emotionally charged documentary on the fall-out of child sexual abuse, the insidious ways institutions keep it a secret, and a man determined to tip the scales. Screening: Fri, Apr 26, 9 pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 2; Sat, Apr, 27 1 pm, Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema; Thu, May 2, 1:30 pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 1. – TE
Larry Weinstein’s film about mass manipulation is here, there and everywhere, from Neanderthal handprints to religious symbols, totalitarian films, to The Bachelor with supporting commentary from a host of commentators. Though sweeping, Propaganda misses a lot (surprisingly little attention is paid to advertising) and is far too attached to George Orwell’s ironic provocation that “all propaganda is art.” The best segments are stories from political artists, from the Irish bartender who created the iconic Che poster to a Norwegian culture jammer who brought a mock fascist rock band to North Korea. Screening: Sun, Apr 28, 9 pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 1; Tues, Apr 30, 3:15 pm, Isabel Bader Theatre; Fri, May 3, 9 pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 2. – LL
Beleaguered Toronto residents can take some comfort (albeit cold) in the knowledge that skyrocketing property costs — and their adverse impact on anyone hoping to live in a major city let alone buy a home in one — are hammering people across the globe. Push follows Leilani Farha, the UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, as she touches down in North and South America and across Europe. Everywhere Farha goes, the story is the same: deep-pocketed corporations snap up properties, driving out renters and would-be buyers in the name of gentrification. Fancy, empty dwellings and deeply diminished communities are the result. A documentary and rousing battle-cry in one. Screening: Fri, Apr 26, 9:15 pm, Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema; Sat, Apr 27, 4 pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 1; Wed, May 1, 1 pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 1; Sat, May 4, 9:15 pm, Hart House Theatre. – KH
When Kevin Hearn of the Barenaked Ladies discovered a painting by acclaimed Anishinaabe artist Norval Morriseau he’d bought for $20,000 from a reputable Yorkville art gallery was a fake, he asked the gallery for a refund. When the owners refused, Hearn took them to court. That’s the starting point for Toronto filmmaker Jamie Kastner’s (The Skyjackers Tale, The Secret Disco Revolution) engrossing documentary. What starts as a simple court case takes a series of unexpected twists. From Toronto to Thunder Bay, serious criminal activities including (and beyond) art forgery, issues of art, culture and commerce, and revelations about the very complicated life of Morriseau. Screening: Mon, Apr 29, 6 pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 1; Wed, May 1, 8:15pm Scotiabank Theatre 3. – KG
Most women have long suspected there might be something insidious lurking in the beauty products they slather on their faces and bodies, if only because the ingredient lists read like a chemistry nightmare. But the idea that these products — expensive and tied to uncomfortable notions of what beauty looks like and that its pursuit is non-negotiable — never seemed like they might actually be deadly. Toxic Beauty lays the reality bare. Pivoting on the landmark class action brought against Johnson & Johnson and their apparently carcinogenic baby talc products, Toxic Beauty digs deep into the troubling science of lipstick and lotion, revealing an industry operating with virtually no independent oversight. Screening: Mon, Apr 29 12:45 pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 1; Thu, May 2 5:45 pm, Scotiabank Theatre 3. – KH
In her first non-fiction feature, Ingrid Veninger (Porcupine Lake) rolled the dice on what she’d find when she decided to follow up on a pair of identical twin breakdancers she met while on vacation at a resort in Cuba. Now couch-surfing on their cousin’s couch in Barcelona, Rubert and Rubildo edit their dance videos and post them on YouTube, celebrating each incremental few hundred more views and dreaming of stardom. They don’t entirely come up empty in the course of the film, but there’s something about their intense drive for fame, on the cusp of too-old at 29, that seems slightly sad. It feels like there’s a world of Ruberts and Rubildos out there seeking online fame. Screening: Sat, Apr 27, 8:45 pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 3; Sun, Apr 28, 1:15 pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 2; Thur, May 2, 3 pm, Hart House Theatre. – JS
This doc about Willie O’Ree, the first black player in the NHL, is an eye-opener and inspiration. But it also merits a side-eye at the NHL, with whose production arm it was produced “in association.”. Set against a campaign by friends and fans to get the pride of Fredericton inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, this is a portrait of a dignified and determined man finally getting his due and mentoring young players of colour. But it took 60 years to get O’Ree into the Hall… 21 years after the NHL launched its “diversity program.” And there’s no mention that it would take 16 years for the second black player to play. This is a sport where, in 1978, an owner in Birmingham of the WHA reneged on Tony McKegney’s contract because of a fan petition against signing a black player. And why, I wonder, is hockey so popular in the U.S. South? These are questions for a doc not endorsed by the NHL. In the meantime, three cheers for Willie! Screening: Tues, Apr 30, 4:30 pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 1; Fri, May 3, 10:15 am, TIFF Bell Lightbox 1. – JS