Our First Ten Must-See Picks from Hot Docs 2020

by Andrew Parker

Although it looks like there won’t be any mass gatherings in movie theatres anytime soon, Hot Docs has – like many other film festivals around the globe – found a temporary home online this year until they can start welcoming audiences back for an in house look at some of the best non-fiction programming in the world.

For the past month or so, and since the March 13th postponement of the perennial late April/early May event, the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival has partnered up with CBC and documentary Channel to broadcast a variety of selections from what was meant to be this year’s line-up on Thursday nights. Starting this week – from May 28th to June 6th – Hot Docs will use their own in-house VOD service to screen over 135 festival selections that were meant to make their local, Canadian, international, and world premieres earlier in the month.

Like any year at Hot Docs, the festival showcases some of the very best in documentary filmmaking and stands as a testament to the strength and growing appetite for non-fiction cinema from around the world. This year’s films are no different, once again ranging from stories so entertaining that they couldn’t possibly be true, to avant garde reflections on life, love, and mortality, to hard-hitting, laser focused journalism about issues past and present.

Perhaps more poignantly, this year’s Hot Docs selections – purely through circumstance – help to remind us of the world we’ll all be coming back to very shortly. In this year’s films are memories that seem distant now, but ones that many of us would love to get back to soon. There are also reminders of the various ways that the world has become broken and inequitable, and these films will hope to remind us of the things we need to change going forward. There are histories that should never be forgotten and stories of personal struggles that help to put modern life into perspective. There has never been a better time to watch a documentary (as the runaway successes of The Last Dance and Tiger King have certainly shown).

With that, we’ll be taking a look throughout the run of the festival at some of our top picks for must-see Hot Docs. Films will be available to screen through the Hot Docs online festival from May 28th to June 6th, with some select titles extending that availability until June 24th (with videos geoblocked to work only in the province of Ontario, sorry). Hot Docs members and ticket package holders can currently book their tickets in advance, and the public on sale for single tickets begins today, May 26th. Tickets are $8 each for Hot Docs Members and $9 for members of the general public. Much like a normal film festival, there are a limited amount of tickets available for each title screening, so act early and accordingly. (And much like most VOD services, viewers have 48 hours to finish watching their purchase once they’ve pressed play.) Viewers can also still vote for the Rogers Audience Choice Award for the best Canadian documentaries, with the top five vote getters receiving $10,000 each.

Here now (in alphabetical order) are ten films from this year’s Hot Docs online festival that you don’t want to miss. Stay tuned tomorrow for ten more films worth checking out.

Cane Fire

Recommended if you like: Hollywood folklore, indigenous and migratory histories, stories of labour movements and social reform

Old Hollywood and the scars of colonialism and capitalism collide in Anthony Banua-Simon’s comprehensive and educational documentary Cane Fire, which looks at the Hawaiian island of Kauai and the dark history of its tourist friendly outward appearance.

Cane Fire started off as a way for Simon to connect to the roots of his extended family, while looking at the island’s rich tradition of serving as a bucolic locale for scads of big budget Hollywood productions. Simons’ documentary gets its title from a long since lost and censored epic – also known as White Heat – that was suppressed due, in part, to review boards thinking its climax could incite unrest and revolt in the island’s highly lucrative sugar cane plantations. 

Hollywood and the tourism boom it spawned serves as a bridge to a larger examination of various ways that the sugar industry has exploited and marginalized indigenous locals and millions of Filipino immigrants, most of it taking root long before Hawaii became the most recent American state. The talk of labour on “the garden isle” and its designation as a tourism hotspot link together in a pointed and globally relevant discussion about real estate. Five corporate entities own much of the land on Kauai, and fifty percent of all homes on the island belong to non-locals, pushing those with ancestral or migratory roots further to the margins of their land.

Simon’s editing is sometimes shaggy, but the structure of his look at modern day advocates and activists striving for reform in the face of realtors hawking “plantation elegance” is rock solid. Cane Fire uncovers not one, but several underreported histories at the same time with equal parts reverence, relevance, and rage. I can also guarantee you that it’s the only films at Hot Docs this year that includes clips from Dinocroc vs. Supergator. (Screens from May 28th to June 24th with a pre-recorded Q&A)

City So Real

Recommended if you like: messy political quagmires, representation, social reform, electoral reform, longform storytelling, cinematic epics, wild twists and turns, colourful characters, the city of Chicago, the work of filmmaker Steve James, Succession

Since a lot of us have plenty of time on our hands these days, there’s no better time to get an advance look at master documentarian Steve James’ latest and one of his absolute best: a four part, four-plus hour deep dive into the city of Chicago’s messy and redefining mayoral election campaign of 2018-19.

Chicago has been a city in a constant state of rebuilding for decades, mired in scary looking crime statistics, rampant economic inequality, open corruption, countless policing issues, antiquated “Chicago way” practices that only enhance its poor reputation politically, and a mass exodus of young people that leaves the viability of large scale gentrification measures in serious doubt. When a news reporter early on states that the race to take over from “retiring” and controversial mayor Rahm Emanuel will be akin to a barroom brawl, that might actually be giving the gracelessness of the campaign more credit than it deserves.

James (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters, Life Itself) is no stranger to portraying Chicago’s positives and negatives at great length, but City So Real gives the filmmaker his grandest canvas yet and no shortage of heroes and villains to profile. James embeds himself with some of the campaign’s most interesting and varied candidates: a former police superintendent who seems incapable and unwilling to reading the room for racial tension, a young black woman backed by both Chance the Rapper and Kanye West, an overly eager self-made businessman driven by faith and deep pockets, and a well meaning, but politically naive teacher with a tech background, just to name a few. It doesn’t take long for the mudslinging and back-stabbing to commence, compounded by the city’s draconian, patently unfair, and easily exploitable guidelines to merely get on the ballot in the first place.

James gets the pulse of the city from his candidates, but more pointedly from everyday people at fancy dinner parties, barbershops, greasy spoons, underground punk clubs, tailgating get-togethers outside sporting events and everything in-between. What emerges from City So Real isn’t a tale of two cities, but rather seven or eight that are fighting to be heard and acknowledged. Chicago, as portrayed in James’ latest, is a mess at the moment, and the series examines those who either want to invite radical change or reinforce the status quo. It’s one of the most wholly engrossing films at the festival this year, and like any great limited series, it’s compulsively watchable and enthralling. (Screens from May 28th to June 24 with a pre-recorded Q&A)

Dope is Death

Recommended if you like: harm reduction, black and Latinex history of the 1960s and 70s, alternative medicine, oral histories that come straight from the people who lived through it

Mia Donovan’s Dope is Death is a bit like two movies in one, and while the second half focuses on a broader topic that could sustain a full length feature on its own, one can’t tell one half of this story without the other.

Dope is Death looks at how one community based treatment centre in the South Bronx employed acupuncture to help curb the spread off a massive heroin epidemic that was ravaging the community. A joint effort spearheaded by the Black Panthers and the Latinex run and founded Young Lords, it turned a local hospital formerly known around the neighbourhood as “The Butcher Shop” into a vital detox centre that the community had been demanding for years. It was still an uphill battle, however, as attitudes towards acupuncture have been sometimes dismissive and the groups helping to run the centre were constant targets of FBI and CIA surveillance.

Throughout the first half of Dope is Death, Donovan weaves an airtight oral history of the centre’s creation, ethos, and practices straight from the people who lived through the era (including a Canadian connection to a Montreal acupuncture pioneer), with an eye towards similarly inspired practitioners and addicts who’ve picked up where the Panthers and Lords left off. That’s fascinating on its own, but the film starts tackling bigger topics of race, class, and economics in the second half when talk switches to the difficulties of funding large scale social reforms and revolutions. That’s a much larger topic that leaves the briskly paced Dope is Death feeling a little too short, but hopefully this is the kind of work that inspires a new generation of social advocates just the same. (Screens from May 28th to June 24th)

First We Eat

Recommended if you like: Canadian perspectives from the Northern territories, sustainability practices, experimental journalism that feels true to life rather than rehearsed or hokey

With her previous documentary, All the Time in the World, Canadian filmmaker Suzanne Crocker showcased a lot of the challenges – both mental and physical – of raising a family just 300 kilometres shy of the Arctic Circle in the Yukon. First We Eat feels like a more specified continuation of her previous work, as Crocker tries to coax and convince her family to join her on a year long experiment to eat only locally sourced fruits, vegetables, grains, and meats. It’s easier said than done, especially when one considers that 97% of the food in the nearby community of Dawson City is food trucked in on a regular basis. Despite the hemming and hawing, Crocker’s husband and three kids join their mother on her quest to live a healthier, more sustainable life. 

In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, First We Eat could’ve come across as a cloying piece of stunt journalism wrapped in a message about valuing one’s community. In Crocker’s skilled and empathetic hands, the film doesn’t pull any punches about the difficulties faced by her family and the push-back she often receives. It’s also a rather brilliant look at how people can find countless food sources outside the local supermarket and the people working to bring nutritional sustenance to their communities.

It’s certainly not for the squeamish at times (with full on animal butchery explored, moments of palpable hunger, and a method for creating natural salt that’s certainly outside the box), but the film also isn’t about Crocker’s experiment succeeding or failing. It’s about making an honest effort honestly. (Screening until June 6th with a pre-recorded Q&A)

Landfall

Recommended if you like: searing indictments of the ways capitalists like to cannibalize hurting populations under the guise of “economic rebuilding”

Much like fellow Hot Docs 2020 selection Cane Fire (see above), Cecelia Aldarondo’s wrenching, incendiary, and universally relevant look at Puerto Rico’s long road to economic recovery shines a light on the various ways money hungry opportunists can make a terrible situation worse for middle and lower class people who just happen to live in what many see only as a tropical paradise.

Problems in the American territory of Puerto Rico started long before Hurricane Maria devastated the island back in 2017. Corruption within local government was rampant, compounded by mismanaged austerity measures meant to counteract Puerto Rico’s crippling debt. In the wake of the hurricane, already overtaxed and demoralized locals fear losing their land to predominantly white and young capitalists drunk on cryptocurrency and blockchain money who arrive to set up “resorts” for wealthy outsiders (just don’t call them “gated communities,” or one of them might pop a fedora or get their beards in twist), thanks in part of ludicrous tax breaks for outsiders that make the island an alluring proposition for those seeking to protect their riches.

Set between the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Maria and last year, Landfall is designed by Aldarondo to foster empathy and anger in the viewer, and it’s undeniably effective, poignant, and sometimes frightening to behold. Aldarondo uses a relatively relaxed tone throughout that makes anger and sadness grow throughout the film, with Landfall building to a cautionary message that holds more relevance now than when filming probably commenced. 

Landfall should be shown to audiences as evidence showing why “restarting the economy” as soon as possible and placing priority on profits and cash flow over human rights is dangerous and disgusting. If the world wasn’t going through a global crisis at the moment, it would be a must-see documentary. At this current moment in history, Landfall is an indispensable work of journalism. (Screens from May 28th to June 6th with a pre-recorded Q&A)

The Painter and The Thief

Recommended if you like: stories of people being people, warts and all, uniquely humane mysteries, seeing the beauty in things others look down upon

Struggling, but occasionally successful Czech-Norwegian artist Barbora Kysilkova was shocked to learn that two of her best known paintings – valuing approximately $20,000 – were stolen from a loading dock at Oslo’s Nobel Gallery. The culprits – a pair of struggling drug addicts – were caught not long after the theft. When Kysilkova attended the trial of one of the thieves – Karl-Bertil Nordland – the artist (known for her photorealistic style of painting) asked the accused if he wouldn’t mind sitting and becoming the subject of her latest piece, sparking an unlikely companionship in the process.

Directed delicately and empathetically by Benjamin Ree, The Painter and the Thief examines the various ways that both of the film’s subjects are broken and driven to sometimes self-destructive lengths. Karl often wonders what Barbora sees in a self-professed junkie with former gang connections and the words “Snitches Are a Dying Breed” tattooed across his upper torso, but he also sees things in the artist and her tragic past that she isn’t willing to talk about. They’re friendly towards one another, and Barbora will often go out of her way to make sure that Karl stays on the right path, but there’s always a sense that something isn’t being said. Getting people who are reticent to talk about their darker sides isn’t easy, but Lee finds a way to get both of them to open up to viewers, even if they can’t do it in front of each other.

Lee has built The Painter and The Thief as a mystery of sorts, but any big reveals about the robbery are made to pale in comparison to the things these people learn about themselves along the way. The Painter and The Thief is a film about two highly unlikely friends who bring out the best and worst in each other, and how they slowly, but surely trust each other enough to bring their darker qualities into the light. It’s a unique and poignant look at trauma recovery and interpersonal relationships. (Screens from May 28th to June 24th. It’s also currently available on most VOD platforms across Canada.)

Prayer for a Lost Mitten

Recommended if you like: snowy Montreal nights, simple ideas that spiral out into larger philosophical quandaries, long conversations with friends that are filled with plenty of deep thoughts

Shot in gorgeous black and white, Jean-François Lesage’s Prayer for a Lost Mitten (winner of this year’s Best Canadian Documentary Feature Award at Hot Docs) takes a simple observational concept and spins it off into larger philosophical conversations about human connection, loss, and fears of alienation.

Prayer for a Lost Mitten starts off unassumingly enough at the Lost and Found office of Montreal’s Metro transit centre. People come in to pick up things that have been found on subways and busses, while others root through boxes of mittens and hats trying to find lost items of sentimental value. Lesage sits down with some of the people who come into the Lost and Found at their homes to ask them a much broader sort of question: what have you lost that you wish you had back?

For some subjects, the answers are easy and material in nature, tying back to whatever object brought them into the Lost and Found in the first place. Others, however, use Lesage’s prompts as a chance to talk about something more longing and meaningful. Sometimes long conversations ensue about what it means to love something and lose it, building a bridge between the film’s objective concept and a more uniquely humanist push towards contemplation. What does it mean to lose something? Everyone in Prayer for a Lost Mitten has a different answer, and while I would’ve loved more time simply observing people walking into the Lost and Found office on its own, Lesage’s film is an ode to exactly the sorts of things we should be reflecting upon at a time when we shouldn’t be leaving our houses very much. (Screens from May 28th to June 24th with a pre-recorded Q&A)

Wintopia

Recommended if you like: inside looks at what make a documentary filmmaker tick, father-daughter stories, tearjerkers, Don Quixote

Both the introspective journey of a daughter seeking to better understand her artistic and frequently absent father and a fitting tribute to one of Canada’s finest and best known documentarians, Mira Burt-Wintonick’s Wintopia might be the biggest crowd pleaser to be selected for this year’s festival, and it earns every bit of that good will.

When Peter Wintonick (co-director of the world renowned documentary Manufacturing Consent and countless others) passed away suddenly from a rare and aggressive form of cancer at the age of 60 in 2013, he left behind his still unfinished pet project, code named for the time as “Utopia.” It was a collection of 300-plus videotapes shot around the world over the course of 15 years, ostensibly as a meditation on whether or not the concept of a utopia or perfect society could ever exist. Not long before his passing, Peter asked his daughter and fellow filmmaker Mira to help with the completion of his final opus, but outside of some illegible, handwritten notes, not much work was done before he died.

Comprised entirely of archival footage narrated by Mira and those who knew Peter best, Wintopia is the story of a daughter reconciling with her father’s relentless globetrotting past and finding closure in the meandering mess he left behind. As Mira describes their relationship, there was always “a lens between us,” and she’s clearly not the optimist who sees beauty in everything that her father was, but Wintopia is more than a mere collection of a dead man’s travels and a daughter’s attempts to make sense of it all. It’s an overwhelmingly moving ode to love and living life to the best of one’s abilities.

Peter never knew what his final film would be about, but he always knew what the ending would be, and thanks to his daughter’s open heart and attention to detail, it hits with an emotional wallop that ties everything together perfectly. He would be proud of Mira in every way. Make sure you have tissues ready. (Screens from May 28th to June 24th, with a live Q&A scheduled for June 4th at 8:30pm)

The World is Bright

Recommended if you like: shining a light on gross miscarriages of diplomacy and justice, stories about the intersection of mental health issues and cultural demands

Winner of this year’s Emerging Canadian Filmmaker award at Hot Docs, Ying Wang’s The World is Bright follows the debilitating journey of a family from China seeking answers following the mysterious death of their adult son in Richmond, British Columbia.

In 2005, not long before he was supposed to return home to Beijing for the holidays, Shi Ming Deng, a permanent resident of Canada, fell suddenly out of touch with his parents. He had been acting strange and distant for some time before that, but it wasn’t until just around Christmas that Shi’s elderly parents learned that their son had died in November, the result of an apparent suicide by overdose. The Dengs weren’t allowed to come to Canada without a death certificate, and no one from city or provincial authorities bothered to tell the Chinese consulate about Shi’s passing to speed up the process. One year after getting the devastating news and still not knowing where their son was even buried, the Deng’s received their son’s belongings, including a backpack that contained an ATM receipt dated two days after his recorded death. What ensues is a fifteen year cross-border struggle for answers, compounded by the fact that the police refuse to meet with the family or acknowledge any wrongdoing in their investigation.

Through slickly constructed reenactments and interviews with friends, family, lawyers, former lovers and roommates, Wang tells the story of a a young man whose parents barely knew or understood him at all. Revelations about Shi’s mental well being come to light, and sometimes it’s hard to tell if there’s more to this story than meets the eye or if the Dengs have been in denial about their son’s troubles. 

There’s a lot of grey area throughout The World is Bright, and either reading holds a considerable amount of truth. It’s a complex and emotional story delicately handled by a truly dedicated and patient filmmaker. It’s an insightful and powerful look at how mental health issues can be compounded by cultural demands and the various unsettling ways that immigrants and their families are treated differently from the rest of the Canadian population. (Screens from May 28th to June 24th)

Zero

Recommended if you like: stories about veteran doctors, growing old, love stories, unflinching looks at mental health therapy, slow and contemplative cinema, the works of Yasujir? Ozu or Hirokazu Koreeda

Observational Japanese documentarian Kazuhiro Soda returns to a subject from one of his previous films (Mental) for Zero, a look at small town 82-year old doctor and therapist Masatomo Yamamoto as he prepares to retire after over fifty dedicated years on the job. Leaving to take care of his ailing and aging wife, Yoshiko, Yamamoto is making the push to make sure all of his patients are seen one final time and assuring that they’ll be properly cared for going forward. His belief that everyone deserves an equal amount of respect and compassion has endeared Dr. Yamamoto to his patients, and it’s clear that he’ll be deeply missed.

The first half of Zero predominantly spends time with Dr. Yamamoto in his office, meeting with patients and tying up loose ends. Soda – who’s given a lot of intimate access by his subjects – rarely cuts away from the long, sometimes meandering and repetitive conversations between a doctor and their patients, offering up a unique and startling accurate look at the process of therapy and healing. It’s brave on the part of doctor and patient alike to offer such unfettered access, and the results are a film that could genuinely show viewers who might be on the fence the value of having a professional to talk to in times of crisis.

If the first half of the film is brave, the second half of Zero – set largely in Dr. Yamamoto’s home and illustrating his life with Yoshiko – is resoundingly emotional and even weightier. After watching how the doctor cares for his patients, the love and support he provides for his slowly slipping away wife is nothing short of small scale heroism and strength. Soda films this portion of his story in the same unforced, long take style as the first half, but by rarely cutting away, the director finds and revels in powerful grace notes that other directors might take for granted. It’s a film about the healing power of helping in its purest (and perhaps rarest) form. (Screens from May 28th to June 6th with a pre-recorded Q&A)

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