Hot Docs 2013 Preview: Canadian Edition

Hot Docs 2013 Logo copy

Opening day of the 2013 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival is now upon us, and in honour of the opening night film being both local and Canadian, our opening day coverage is devoted entirely to those films made about and by talents from our home and native land.

But don’t think we’re done yet. We’ll have looks at more films – Canadian and otherwise – throughout the week. For a full list of films, information, tickets, venues, and showtimes, head to hotdocs.ca.

The Manor

The Manor (Opening Night Film)

Director: Shawney Cohen

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Program: Special Presentations

78 Minutes

Recommend: Yes, yes, a million times yes. Documentaries that mix delicate observation, genuine family insight, cringe comedy, and full frontal nudity are all too rare.

Shawney Cohen pointed his camera at his family for his first feature length documentary and thankfully his subjects were worth the effort. When he was six, Cohen’s father purchased a strip club in Guelph called The Manor that remains the family business. His father runs the club from a throne built of gastric bypass-inducing high calorie food, his brother works the club and commits the cardinal sin of dating the staff, his 85-pound mother is suffers from an eating disorder she’s had since (surprise, surprise) strippers entered her life, and even Shawney works the bar against his best wishes. Then there’s extended family like a French Canadian ne’er do-well the father semi-adopted who works the club whenever he isn’t incarcerated and an ex-stripper who runs the motel attached to The Manor when she isn’t dealing with drug problems.

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So it’s a strange family, but a warm one that Cohen films unflinchingly. The Manor could have easily been a mean-spirited freak show comedy if made by a cynical outsider; however Cohen invites the audience into his family so openly that it’s hard not to fall for the collection of lovable outsiders. Stripping is simply business for the Cohens and it’s amazing how quickly the director makes all the naked flesh feel mundane. The family drama never feels forced either, playing more like the inevitable tragically funny series of uncomfortable events that would befall any close-knit family over a year with cameras rolling. Granted not every son goes through the experience of having an already awkward girlfriend/father introduction interrupted by a drunken naked woman clutching a fistful of sweaty 20s. I suppose that’s what makes The Manor a compelling film and not a slickly edited home movie. (Phil Brown)

Screens

Thursday, April 25th, 9:30pm (RUSH ONLY), Bloor Hot Docs Cinema

Monday April 29th, 12:00pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox

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Fight Like Soldiers Die Like Children - Hot Docs 2013

Fight Like Soldiers, Die Like Children

Director: Patrick Reed

Program: Special Presentations

82 minutes

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Recommended: Yes. Aside from the obvious message of child soldiers, it’s an even more layered portrait of a man’s inability to move on after seeing atrocities first hand.

If you’re a Canadian and you haven’t heard the name of retired Lieutenant General Romeo Dallaire at least once over the last two decades, you might want to skip Hot Docs and pick up a newspaper, read a book, or watch the news. The former head of the UN mission to Rwanda during that country’s historically tragic civil war, now spends most of his energy giving talks on finding ways to rid the world of child soldiers throughout Africa.

Reed, the lead researcher for Dallaire’s last filmed effort Shake Hands With the Devil, adapts the general’s latest book and follows him to still dangerous areas looking for ways to rehabilitate and comfort those trained to kill at a young age. But what’s happening around the periphery of the film’s message is even more fascinating. Dallaire still feels everything he’s witnessed so deeply and he’s never fully adjusted to the spotlight that’s been placed on him by the world. He’s an important figure, but he still sees himself as just one man trying to do what’s right. It’s a humanist crusade in the truest sense and his inability to stroke his own ego raises this above that of the average documentary of this kind. There are still some openly manipulative touches (including some animated segments that seem to be openly courting mainstream sentimentality), but it’s still a powerful look at a man with might and right on his side. (Andrew Parker)

Screens

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Saturday, April 27th, 5:00pm (RUSH ONLY), Bloor Hot Docs Cinema

Monday, April 29th, 2:00pm (RUSH ONLY), Hart House Theatre

Sunday, May 5th, 5:30pm (RUSH ONLY), TIFF Bell Lightbox 2

15 Reasons to Live - Hot Docs 2013

15 Reasons to Live

Director: Alan Zweig

Program: Canadian Spectrum

83 minutes

Recommended: No one would have probably expected one of the most life affirming documentaries in this year’s festival to have come from the likes of Alan Zweig, yet here we are.

Toronto’s favourite curmudgeon Alan Zweig trades in a bit of his trademark snark for a healthy dose of sincerity in the disarmingly touching 15 Reasons to Live. After a chance encounter with an acquaintance at a record store who shares their reasons to live, Zweig uses it as a chance to document the lives of others and the special moments that make life worth living even when it gets to be incredibly difficult.

There are still funny moments and the topics being broached here cover a wide range of human existence from love to death and everything in between, but there’s an undeniable warmth to everything. Zweig’s subjects are all truly special and could be worthy of their own films. One wishes more time could be spent with them and while some “purists” might think the film to be a bit precious, Zweig doesn’t have a twee or hamfisted bone in his body. It’s real feel good filmmaking without all the bullshit. (Andrew Parker)

Screens

Saturday, April 27th, 6:30pm (RUSH ONLY), TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

Monday, April 29th, 1:30pm, Isabel Bader Theatre

Sunday, May 5th, 1:30pm (RUSH ONLY), TIFF Bell Lightbox 3

NCR Not Criminally Responsible - Hot Docs 2013

NCR: Not Criminally Responsible

Director: John Kastner

Program: Canadian Spectrum

99 minutes

Recommended: Yes, but the first ten minutes or so are decidedly less than promising. You have to stick with it.

An examination of the criminal side of the mental heath care industry courtesy of Emmy winner John Kastner, NCR takes a look at the thorny issue of rehabilitation for violent criminals that were remanded to forensic hospitals instead of prison.

Focusing predominantly on the case of Sean Clifton – a man previously seen as well meaning who stabbed a woman repeatedly in a Cornwall, Ontario Wal-Mart parking lot because the devil told him to – the film shows Sean’s release and his struggles after 8 years in the hospital and stabilization.

It’s an intriguing look at the regulation and questions that arise over the concept of unregulated medicating and the question of remorse. There are also looks at what the victims feel about all this and Sean’s interactions with a former patient and roommate that’s closer to relapse than he is. It’s some great journalism, but a ten minute opening that sets up the crime that sets the story in motion is far too salacious and sleazy. It doesn’t fit the movie at all with its hokey recreations and string section heavy musical score. Axe that section and this is a great film. (Andrew Parker)

Screens

Sunday, April 28th, 9:30pm (RUSH ONLY), Isabel Bader Theatre

Tuesday, April 30th, 3:30pm, Scotiabank 3

Sunday, May 5th, 1:00pm (RUSH ONLY), TIFF Bell Lightbox 2

The Auctioneer - Hot Docs 2013

The Auctioneer

Director: Hans Olson

Program: Canadian Spectrum

58 minutes

Recommend: No way, despite some lovely photography this documentary doesn’t engage the audience at all.

The Auctioneer lets the familiar refrain of “Going, Going, Gone”  gain new meaning as Dale Menzak helps families part with century-old farms as the agricultural lifestyle begins to come obsolete.  Aside from being an auctioneer, he also doubles as the town’s funeral director.  This is a portrait of the last gasp of small town Prairie living. The days of knowing everyone’s name and the general friendliness of rural living gets over run by modern technology and our always connected social universe.

It’s easy to understand the focus and idea that director Hans Olson was trying to get across, but this film is simply far too dry and ineffective.  The fly on the wall observational style of documentary filmmaking can be quite effective at times, but shooting scenery of the Prairies and the wide open spaces while very pretty, doesn’t make for a compelling movie without some kind of story for us to grab on to.  Dale as everyday man seems likeable enough in his wide variety of his professions, but nothing about his day to day activities are all that interesting. There’s just not enough to build a tangible narrative around.  Creating a window into a slice of rural life has the potential to be compelling, but everything about the execution in this film is sleep inducing. (Dave Voigt)

Screens

Thursday May 2nd, 7:30pm (RUSH ONLY), TIFF Bell Lightbox 4

Saturday May 4th, 3:30pmTIFF Bell Lightbox 3

The Ghosts in Our Machine - Hot Docs 2013

The Ghosts in Our Machine

Director: Liz Marshall

Program: Canadian Spectrum

92 minutes

Recommended: Yes. It’s beautiful and moving in ways that few films on this subject even come close to.

Coming hot on the heels of Denis Cote’s far slicker and wordless Bestiare last year comes Liz Marshall’s look at animals living in deplorable conditions as a perfect companion piece, and actually a better film on the subject of how animals can think and feel just like the rest of us.

Marshall tags along with photographer and animal rights activist Jo-Anne McArthur as she documents the disturbing conditions some animals are subjected to and the suffering placed on them for fashion and progress. The point is to make the audience sympathize with the animals and their plight, and Marshall and McArthur make for a perfect team in this respect. It’s not a film designed to make you feel good. It’s one designed to ask questions of the audience to look within their own hearts and make a connection to another living creature and offer empathy and mercy. It’s equally tragic, vital, and essential viewing. (Andrew Parker)

Screens

Sunday, April 28th, 6:30pm (RUSH ONLY), Bloor Hot Docs Cinema

Wednesday, May 1st, 11:00am, Isabel Bader Theatre

Saturday, May 4th, 11:00am, Bloor Hot Docs Cinema

Occupy the Movie - Hot Docs 2013

Occupy: The Movie

Director: Corey Ogilvie

Program: Canadian Spectrum

90 minutes

Recommended: Well, it’s not poorly made, but there’s not much new here for anyone familiar with the topic to grab onto

It’s probably too soon to have this in-depth of a historical look back on the worldwide Occupy movement. It’s not a poorly assembled or ill informed film in any way, but the memories are still fresh and the information so plentiful elsewhere that little new context or insight ever gets brought up.

Corey Ogilvie does do an admirable job of crafting an oral history based around something as malleable and leaderless as the protests that broke out across the globe in the wake of enormous American bailouts for the banking system, but it’s never clear if the film is memorializing the movement or documenting how it’s merely gone to sleep. If it’s doing the former it isn’t really going beyond what’s already been established. If it’s doing the latter it dwells too much on the past to show where things could be heading next. It’s fine in it’s own way, but this 90 minutes could be spent reading articles across other forms of media that could say the exact same thing. (Andrew Parker)

Screens

Monday, April 29th, 8:45pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 2

Tuesday, April 30th, 2:00pm, Hart House Theatre

Special Ed - Hot Docs 2013

Special Ed

Director: John Paskievich

Program: Canadian Spectrum

100 minutes

Recommended: Absolutely. It might be a bit long, but you’ve never seen this story before. I think that’s a pretty safe guarantee.

Ed Ackerman is a fascinating person to watch, but he isn’t exactly the easiest person to like or support. Equal parts admirable, risible, and irritating, Paskevich takes a look at Winnipeg resident Ackerman’s personally romanticized quest to turn a trio of derelict houses into a film studio. Problem being that Ed has rarely finished anything he’s ever started, his projects are sometimes outlandish in scope, and when he doesn’t get his way, he lashes out in sometimes strange ways… like running for elected office.

Not just Ed’s story, but a story about those around him, Paskevich has a lot of ground to cover and it couldn’t have been an easy film to cut down. It’s such a fascinating kind of modern day Don Quixote story (complete with requisite amounts of crazy, misguided notions), but thankfully viewer’s notions of Ackerman as a person won’t colour the enjoyment of the film because it’s such a rich premise. It’s the kind of documentary that’s just real enough to feel like it could never happen, but there’s the evidence on screen to the contrary. Also, it’s incredibly funny and in a sea of really serious documentaries, it’s a near perfect palate cleanser. (Andrew Parker)

Screens

Monday, April 29th, 6:00pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 3

Tuesday, April 30th, 10:30am, ROM Theatre

Saturday, May 4th, 9:15pm, Innis Town Hall

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