Now with last night’s opening night shindig out of the way, it’s time for Hot Docs 2013 to kick into high gear. Be sure to check out our other four batches of reviews posted earlier this week, but today we have our biggest and widest ranging batch of festival reviews yet. Here are 17 reviews for your reading pleasure and viewing information.
Be sure to stay with us all week as we’ll continue bringing the latest news, reviews, and interviews from one of the largest all documentary film festivals in the world.
For a full list of films, tickets, and information, please head to the Hot Docs website.
Let the Fire Burn
Director: Jason Osder
Program: Special Presentations
In 1985 in Philadephia, police conducted an improper and wholly botched raid on a compound of an African American liberation group. Things escalated quickly and by the time the explosions and shooting ceased, five adults and six children were killed in one of the bloodiest and disheartening moments of Regan era America.
There’s no bullshitting about the situation and the power of Jason Osder’s film comes from only using primary sources as his text. There’s not a heck of a lot of context from the outset, but there no denying that the film has an almost visceral and shocking immediacy. It’s a tragic look back and an invaluable historical time capsule that doubles as a thoroughly engrossing and sometimes outrage inducing film. It gets especially intriguing late in the film when questions are brought up regarding the legitimacy of the motives of both sides. (Andrew Parker)
Monday, April 29th, 9:30pm, Bloor Hot Docs Cinema
Tuesday, April 30th, 1:00pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 2
Friday, May 3rd, 9:30pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 1
Director: Freida Mock
Program: Special Presentations
Recommended: Sadly no. The film takes too much of a position of hero worship towards Ms. Hill and doesn’t tell a very balanced story.
Anita goes back to Anita Hill’s powerful testimony at the confirmation hearings for then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. In many people’s minds this was the event that brought sexual harassment into America’s national spotlight. Twenty years later, Ms. Hill revisits those hearings and for the first time on film speaks about the nine-hour experience of confronting an all male jury who demonstrated little sensitivity towards sexual harassment, and how that testimony shaped her life and a nation.
A landmark moment for better or for worse in the annals of human history, this film serves as a reminder of how far we have come yet how little has changed. Director Frieda Mock paints a somewhat slanted film, where the truth gets told yet the wrong angle of the story gets the ultimate focus. Her work on helping to change our world where harassment is tolerated is obviously a noble thing, but the film spends far too much time painting Hill as a crusading heroine, rather than someone who was simply trying to do the right thing. If you can sift through the overwhelmingly blunt message that the movie is delivering, you’ll see at its roots that this was always about a genuine miscarriage of justice where politics got in the way of telling the truth. It’s a somewhat interesting time capsule of a film but it’s not as interesting or as vital as it thinks it is either. (Dave Voigt)
Friday, April 26th, 6:30pm (RUSH ONLY), Bloor Hot Docs Cinema
Saturday, April 27th, 1:30pm (RUSH ONLY), Isabel Bader Theatre
Saturday, May 4th, 4:00pm, Isabel Bader Theatre
The Kill Team
Director: Daniel Krauss
Program: World Showcase
Recommended: Yes. It sure isn’t fun and it’s sure to get the blood boiling, but it’s a great watch
What if doing the right thing came with only two possible outcomes: getting killed or going to prison for standing idly by? Those are the only choices presented to American infantryman SPC. Adam Winfield in this soul crushing look inside a fractured and twisted platoon on the ground in Afghanistan.
Winfield, torn between duty to his squad and his own personal unease, tried to tell his parents about how his roguish sergeant and several members of his team were purposely setting up unarmed civilians that pissed them off to be murdered by young men simply looking to get the first kill they were promised. Not wanting to be a whistleblower because of the constant threat of retribution, Winfield gets arrested the second he steps foot on American soil for being implicated in the murders along with his fellow soldiers because his inactivity was deemed cowardice.
There isn’t a single easy answer to be gleaned from Daniel Krauss’ film. Even when other members of the platoon are interviewed openly and candidly, the actions are still thoroughly inexcusable and reprehensible. It’s also interesting (and a slight demerit) just how much Winfield’s parents seem to be openly acting almost to cover their guilt for not helping their sone. Overall, it brings to question how often such teams of almost alarmingly fresh faced young men operate, and while it’s been explored in other films before, this one comes with a real human element that sets it apart. Still, it’s somewhat disheartening to see from a quick online search there are a lot more conflicting viewpoints over what happened than just this one. (Andrew Parker)
Tuesday, April 30th, 8:15pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 1
Thursday, May 2nd, 2:00pm, Hart House Theatre
Friday, May 3rd, 4:30pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 1
The Punk Singer
Director: Sini Anderson
Recommended: Yes. This fascinating portrait of the very talented feminist and recording artist Kathleen Hanna that will satisfy fans and newcomers alike.
The Punk Singer is the highly anticipated documentary on Kathleen Hanna, lead singer of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre, who became synonymous with the riot grrrl movement and one of her generation’s most outspoken feminist icons. Through 20 years of archival footage and very personal interviews, director Sini Anderson brings to light an intimate side of the fearless Hanna, whose music and leadership still inspires today. Filled with interviews with music icons like Joan Jett, Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth and Hanna’s husband Adam Horovitz, aka Beastie Boy Ad Rock, Hanna’s influence is still felt strongly today.
It’s an inspiring and energetic tribute to one of punk music’s most unique and unfaltering voices. The performance footage really serves to highlight Hanna’s dedication to smart and proactive dialogue in her music as well as the forwarding of women in the punk scene by not allowing rowdy mosh pits drive women away from the stage. But after Hanna was forced to step back from recording and performing back in 2005, Hanna stayed ill, and misdiagnosed, until 2010. The documentary shows Hanna completely open about all of her life and her home with Ad Rock. (Kirk Haviland)
Monday, Apr 29th, 9:30pm, The Royal Cinema
Wednesday, May 1st, 8:00pm, Hart House Theatre
Friday, May 3rd, 6:30pm, Scotiabank 3
Free the Mind
Director: Phie Ambo
Program: Rule Breakers and Innovators
Recommended: Indeed. It’s a fascinating look at how the power of the mind and how our psychological state can greatly affect our physical ones.
Free the Mind takes a look at Richard Davidson, an expert in the field of brain research who’s devoted his life to the study of meditation as a method of restoring mental health and happiness. A traditionally trained scientist and practitioner of meditation rooted in Buddhist practice, Davidson’s work employs brain imaging to support the idea that an ancient technique offers new hope for treating psychological illness. This film documents Davidson’s most challenging experiment to date, employing the technique of Mindfulness to treat Attention Deficit in children and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in veterans.
Writer/director Phie Ambo takes us into the complex mechanisms of the human psyche as we follow two very different cases. She stays separated from her subjects, maintaining a certain level of detached objectivity, particularly with a young child who has ADHD. We see them actively training him to regulate and control his emotions through a variety of exercises in order to break the cycle of feelings that they don’t want and to ultimately take control. The cases of post-traumatic stress in soldiers play out similarly as they acknowledge how war broke them and they need this help to get back to normal. The brain is such a complex organ and system in the human body that we may never know all of its mysteries, however this film is a real eye opener and even inspirational to show what we as people are truly capable of, if only we put our minds to it. (Dave Voigt)
Thursday, May 2nd, 6:30pm, Bloor Hot Docs Cinema
Friday, May 3rd, 6:00PM, ROM Theatre
Saturday, May 4th, 11:00am, Isabel Bader Theatre
Dead or Alive
Director: Mathieu Fontaine
Program: Canadian Spectrum
Recommended: It’s okay. Great subject but the approach might be a bit too cutesy
A look into the lives of funeral directors, embalmers, and pallbearers both on and off the job in Quebec, Dead or Alive happens into some intriguing and likeable subjects, and while the goal here is to be as lighthearted as possible, a lot of the quirk here feels heavy handed and forced.
Patrick is a funeral director that likens himself a bit to being a PR person in terms of his coordinating skills. Erika is a 21-year old skater girl and dirt bike enthusiast who loves her job as an embalmer so much that she lives above her work (and surprisingly she still isn’t all that morbid of a person). Jean-Claude is a chatty pallbearer and retired cop who treats these gatherings like his own social occasions.
These are interesting people and the interviews with them are engaging and amusing, but there’s something far too deliberate about how Fontaine pieces it all together. It’s more like the illusion of getting at the essence of people than the real thing. Also, those interstitial moments with a ghostly marching band need to be cut immediately as they are too goofy to even fit with the already established tone of the film. They’re distracting and grind the film to a halt when they come on screen. (Andrew Parker)
Tuesday, April 30th, 9:30pm (RUSH ONLY), TIFF Bell Lightbox 4
Thursday, May 2nd, 8:45pm, Scotiabank 3
Rent A Family Inc.
Director: Kaspar Astrup Schroder
Program: Special Presentations
Recommend: Sure, it’s definitely fascinating. You will leave the theater deeply depressed though.
In an age of immense economic turmoil, it’s nice to know that someone, somewhere has developed a successful new means income. Unfortunately Mr. Ryuichi, the subject of Kaspar Schroder’s new film, has created a new niche that won’t appeal to everyone. Ryuichi runs I Want To Cheer You Up Ltd. in Japan. For a set fee, you can call him up to impersonate your father or husband for any business meeting, court appearance, wedding, or family gathering. If one middle-aged man isn’t enough to suit your faux-family needs, Ryuichi has a full staff of potential family members of various ranges of age, sex, and physical attractiveness. He’s even organized an entire fictional family tree for weddings and it works, every single time.
Rent A Family Inc. starts out as a fairly funny doc given how strange Ryuichi’s business is and how well it serves the shame-based and image conscious aspects of Japanese society. Yet, as Schroder’s movie wears on those giggles give way to crushing depression once the scope of deception extends to Ryuichi’s own family who are not only unaware of his business, but disrespect him so severely that he works a up to five jobs at a time and often sleeps on the floor. The film harshly exposes the lack of connection in Ryuichi and most contemporary families, while also exploring the extremes many people are willing to go in Japan to avoid simple embarrassment. A fascinating film, if a bit soul-crushing.
Sunday, April 28, 9:00pm, Scotiabank 4
Tuesday, April 30, 1:00pm, The ROM Theatre
Sunday, May 5, 1:00pm, Scotiabank
Director: Amy Finkel
Recommended: Mostly. There’s a great discussion to be had overall and there’s certainly some quirk, but there’s still some fluff.
For locals, a bearded American taxidermist in his shack-sized business mounts recent trophies, deer, birds, celebrating their death. For mourning pet owners, coming as far as Singapore, this same taxidermist performs a freeze-drying process, turning their dead animal into an eerie statue, celebrating their life. “These people can’t let go,” says the taxidermist, who sees clear through his odd side-job, “a burials not enough… They actually want their pet back.” When he dies, the taxidermist hopes to be cremated
Amy Finkel’s Furever is about a wave of North Americans who will pay any cost to memorialise their passed-on pets. In this morbid American road trip, we meet people who have had their dogs, cats and creatures mummified, turned into glass art, diamonds, fireworks and bullets. Some have even been cloned. Some act like caricatures out of Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One. Some say they miss their dead pets more than their dead family. All of them struggle with accepting mortality.
Finkel’s film hovers over the wide, strange rainbow of pet funeral rituals, spanning from the quaint, to off-putting, to exceptionally excessive. None are meditated on too much, there’s a lack of focus. Some visitations, cloning, mummifying, could have supported their own film easily, and the moral quandaries are passed by quickly. That said, Finkel’s panel of scientists, writers and historians do support a healthy general debate, supplying arguments about the dire mental straits of the American pet owner, while others believe they’re the victim of the human brain’s stranger functions. (Zack Kotzer)
Saturday, April 27th, 11:30pm, Bloor Hot Docs Cinema
Monday, April 29th, 1:00pm, ROM Theatre
Sunday, May 5th, 6:30pm, The Revue
Tales from the Organ Trade
Director: Ric Esther Bienstock
Program: Canadian Spectrum
Recommended: Heck, yeah, but it’s not a feel good film as you could have probably guessed from the title.
In what could just as easily be retitled “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Human Organ Trafficking, But Were Too Afraid to Ask…”, Canadian director Bienstock takes viewers inside the highly lucrative and even more highly illegal and shady business of selling some of our most prized and valued body parts. (Unless you live in Iran, where this kind of thing is apparently totally cool.)
The degree of access Bienstock has been given is both astounding and frightening. The subjects profiled are either too poor to have other options or are openly exploiting the chance a big money, making it decidedly less than a feel good film. The tone is matched by an almost menacing voiceover from director David Cronenberg. It’s a true eye opener that it’s impossible not to have a gut reaction while watching. (Andrew Parker)
Sunday, April 28th, 7:00pm (RUSH ONLY), Isabel Bader Theatre
Monday, April 29th, 1:00pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 2
Thursday, May 2nd, 4:00pm, Scotiabank 4
Director: Penny Lane
Program: Special Presentations
Recommended: Not really. History buffs will get a kick out of all the archival Super 8 footage but it doesn’t explore any new territory that hasn’t been examined a fair bit already.
Our Nixon takes a unique look at one of the more controversial world leader’s in modern history. It’s January 20, 1969. As Richard Nixon prepares to take the oath of office, three of his closest associates fire up their cameras. Young, idealistic and dedicated, they had no idea that a few short years later they’d find themselves in jail. Obsessed with Super 8 home movies, Special Assistant Dwight Chapin, Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman and Domestic Affairs Advisor John Ehrlichman set out to capture everything with the enthusiasm of novice aficionados: Nixon’s historic visit to China, man’s landing on the moon, the Vietnam War protests…until the Watergate scandal broke. The footage, over 500 reels, confiscated by the FBI as part of the investigation, inexplicably sat forgotten for decades in a government office until now.
With her first feature length outing, director Penny Lane takes some historically fascinating footage and audio recordings and turns it into an entertaining look at the man’s presidency despite stretching the concept a little farther then it maybe should have been. History buffs will find the archival footage interesting, but Lane drags things out in too many spots trying to making a political statement about the man’s presidency that didn’t need 85 minutes to get its point across. It does, however, highlight the naive enthusiasm that everyone involved here had towards the political process at the time, making their ultimate downfall not only a little tragic but cinematically satisfying. It’s just rather uneven. (Dave Voigt)
Saturday, April 27th, 7:00pm, Royal Cinema
Monday, April 29th, 3:00pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 1
Sunday, May 5th, 1:30pm, Bloor Hot Docs Cinema
Director: Cheryl Dunn
Recommended: Sure. Any amateur shutterbug or photo enthusiast should revel in the information and pictures presented here.
Celebrated filmmaker and photographer Cheryl Dunn turns her lens on the pioneers and masters of New York street photography. Dunn profiles artists spanning six decades, including Bruce Davidson, Mary Ellen Mark, Jill Freedman, Jeff Mermelstein and Martha Cooper, revealing that these shooters are as colourful and unique as the subjects they’ve relentlessly documented. The film is a definitive look at the iconic visionaries of this often imitated art form.
Cheryl Dunn has sculpted a love letter to street photography and the innovators of the art form that have been publishing and exhibiting their work for decades. The people interviewed here are the heavy hitters of the scene and truly do represent the cream of the crop. The issue with the film comes in the very dense amount of information provided, that feels denser with the standard seated interview delivery of the subject matter. This leads the film to dry spells that will affect those that are not fascinated by the photography on display. The inclusion of a decent soundtrack here helps to break up the film here though.
A lot of the photos displayed here are gorgeously rendered, intimate pictures of everyday life on the street, though the film does sway a bit into the whole ‘celebrity’ photo as well. Dunn being a photographer herself, the photos are staged extremely well. (Kirk Haviland)
Sunday, Apr 28th, 8:30pm (RUSH ONLY), ROM Theatre
Tuesday, April 30th, 5:30pm, Hart House Theatre
Friday, May 3rd, 11:00am, Isabel Bader Theatre
Director: Alex Winter
Program: Rule Breakers and Innovators
Recommend: Pffft…does Lars Ulrich hate file sharing? The answer is a big, fat YES (in caps).
When you hear the word “Napster” it tends to spark one of two reactions: either “awesome, that’s when music became free on the internet” or “ugh, that’s why the music industry collapsed.” The creation and destruction of Napster was one of the defining moments of a generation and even though co-creators Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker were all over the media at the height of the controversy, the true story never seemed to slip out. Enter director Alex Winter (a.k.a. Bill as in “And Ted”) who spent years putting together this documentary about the Napster saga that instantly feels like the definitive take on the tale.
Through surprisingly candid interviews with Fanning, Parker, the rest of the major Napster players and music industry veterans (though thankfully not Lars Ulrich), the Napster history emerges as a somewhat tragic story of two genius teenagers who created online music distribution, but came out of the experience with only notoriety and legal debt because the dinosaurs of the music industry couldn’t see it’s money-making potential (i.e. iTunes). Downloaded is an equally fascinating and entertaining account of a vital slice of modern history told with a level of honesty rarely found in these sorts of retrospective docs. It would have been easy to elevate or demonize anyone in the film, yet Winter’s approach is refreshingly honest and the entire Napster debacle plays out in shades of grey. If Hollywood studios are seeking a follow up/knock off of The Social Network, the story is right here and it’s arguably an even more intriguing and insightful examination of founders of internet culture. (Phil Brown)
Saturday, April 27, 9:00pm, Isabel Bader Theatre
Sunday, April 28, 3:30pm, Scotiabank 3
Friday, May 3, 9:30pm, Fox Theatre
A Dream in the Making
Director: Bartosz M. Kowalski
Program: Made in Poland
Recommended: Yes, it’s an hour you won’t even feel go by.
Pawel and Bartek are close friends who grew up together in a rough part of Warsaw, where keeping fit isn’t done for vanity, but for the more practical purposes of survival. One of the few things their neighborhood offers is a school that trains stuntmen for movies. When Bartek sees this is a way out, Pawel has a hard time coming to terms with his friend’s decision.
What’s most striking about A Dream in the Making is how it doesn’t feel like a documentary at all. Scenes are cut together using what appears to be multiple camera set ups, none of which are ever acknowledged by those being filmed. Moments of intimacy and acts of vandalism are shown which you would think the presence of a film crew would prevent. A score by David Lynch’s frequent collaborator Angelo Badalamenti also adds a lyrical element to the film.
Pawel is the only one who addresses the camera, and when he does it’s always about Bartek. Despite being friends, Pawel clearly sees himself as a father figure. He has a particularly difficult time grasping why Bartek would want to learn how to pretend fight yet still helps him along in his journey as a self appointed trainer.
Produced by HBO Poland, A Dream in the Making comes across more as a social realist film than a documentary. If you’re seeing a lot of talking head docs then this should come as a welcomed break. (Noah Taylor)
Thursday May 2 9:45pm TIFF Bell Lightbox 4
Friday May 3 5:30pm TIFF Bell Lightbox 4
12 O’Clock Boys
Director: Lotfy Nathan
Program: International Spectrum
The 12 O’Clock Boys are a group of dirt bike riders who cruise around Baltimore, whenever possible while popping wheelies (like you do). It began as friends who filmed their antics for YouTube notoriety. Then as tends to happen in Baltimore, the African American dirt bikers were labeled a gang by the police and became targets. That attention led to the 12 O’Clock Boys living up to their reputation and now they are a major presence in the city who gleefully toy with the police. Ages range from original members hitting their 30s to twelve year olds looking to sign up for a teenage identity who are even more anxious to earn outlaw status than their forbearers. The gang is on the news almost every night, chased by police on foot and in helicopters with vast amounts of Baltimore police resources dedicated to tracking down boys and their bikes.
Lotfy Nathan shoots the 12 O’Clock Boys and the community surrounding them with impressively candid intimacy. Most members seem like kids having fun, but the police presence can turn them into a gang seeking revenge in a second. Nathan captures police brutality and disturbingly vulgar violent rants from pre-team members with ease and his movie feels like an honest slice of their lives. The only real drawback of the movie is no fault of the filmmakers. Sadly these stories of repressed African American youth and antagonistic police are all too easy to find and there is a sense of depressing familiarity to the whole story. Still this specific group hasn’t been shown before and they are pretty entertaining lot. Just don’t expect any particularly fresh insights into an unfortunately common conflict. (Phil Brown)
Monday, April 29, 8:15pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 1
Wednesday, May 1, 1:30pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 2
Saturday, May 5, 9:30pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 2
William and the Windmill
Director: Ben Nabors
Program: Rule Breakers and Innovators
In Malawi, self-taught 14 year old prodigy William Kamkwamba has done something most of us would never be able to accomplish in his life and he now has to live with the pressures of being labelled “gifted” in this thoughtful and subtly heart wrenching look at a young man doing good and not knowing how to deal with his own notoriety.
After becoming an inspirational story around the world for crafting a hand made windmill to power his family’s house, William begins to experience the crushing weight of expectation and not being allowed to live a normal life outside of being branded for only doing one great thing. Over the course of the five years Nabors follows him, it all ultimately leads to William landing a book deal and a movie deal, but for what, really? It’s a fascinating look at how the media machine can make life hell for even the most true hearted of souls.
I suppose the biggest and most interesting question audiences will have to ask is if Nabors has actually brought a lot of this on himself simply by being there with his camera crew from the near start and drawing attention to it all. (Andrew Parker)
Friday, April 26th, 9:00pm (SAME DAY TICKETS ONLY AT VENUE BOX OFFICE), Scotiabank 4
Sunday, April 28th, 11:00am, Isabel Bader Theare
Friday, May 3rd, 7:00pm, Fox Theatre
Last Woman Standing
Directors: Lorraine Price, Juliet Lammers
Program: Canadian Spectrum
Recommended: Yes. It’s a fascinating portrait of 2 focused and driven women letting nothing, even friendship, get in the way of their dreams.
For seven years, amateur boxers and close friends Ariane Fortin and Mary Spencer have fought side by side in different weight categories on Canada’s national team, winning numerous world championships side by side. But that all changes with the historic announcement by the International Olympic Committee that women’s boxing will finally be included in the 2012 London Games. Both women are thrilled at the chance to achieve their Olympic dream, until they discover they will have to compete against each other for the single spot on the Canadian team in their now-shared weight category.
Last Woman Standing is a compelling look at the competitive nature of amateur sport and how the Olympics and the fight for funding can create and, more frequently, destroy friendships within sport. The one spot the two women need to fight over drives a wedge between the two built of competitive fire and bitterness that takes years to recover from. Not willing to give up on her dream after losing her government funding and the Team Canada spot ends up driving one of the women to extreme measures. (Kirk Haviland)
Friday, Apr 26th, 6:30pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 3
Sunday, Apr 28th, 12:30pm, Bloor Hot Docs Cinema
Friday, May 3rd 1:30pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 2
I Will Be Murdered
Director: Justin Webster
Program: World Showcase
Recommend: Absolutely, especially if you don’t know the story.
Three years ago a Guatemalan lawyer named Rodrigo Rosenberg posted a video on YouTube saying that if you were watching it, he had been murdered by the current president and hoped his death could bring an end to the corruption. Then like clockwork Rosenberg’s body was found shortly after, seemingly having died from a bike accident. Justin Webster’s documentary turns police procedural from there, studying the authorities and Rodriguez’s family’s actions in great detail. The retired cop-turned-hitman (apparently a common Guatemalan career shift) responsible for the murder is quickly arrested thanks to a trail of bread crumbs left by Rosenberg. From there things get a bit strange in a mystery as gripping as any high octane TV procedural, even without David Caruso and/or his sunglasses.
The case is solved, but the answers are even more bizarrely disturbing than the questions. The story was widely reported, so if you already know it there are no new revelations here; however, simply following the detectives as they learn the truth is an undeniably fascinating experience. Even though Webster’s film is primarily comprised of static interviews with the occasional brief reenactment, the director generates incredible levels of teeth-grinding suspense. Hopefully I Will Be Murdered gets a theatrical release after making the film festival rounds because it’s one of the most intriguing murder mysteries to hit screens in quite some time, non-fiction or otherwise. If M Night Shyamalan could write twists this good, his name wouldn’t be a punch line. (Phil Brown)
Wednesday, May 1, 3:30pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 2
Saturday, May 4, 8:00pm (RUSH ONLY), TIFF Bell Lightbox 4
Sunday, May 5, 9:00pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 2