Ten More Must See Films at Hot Docs 2020

by Andrew Parker

Yesterday, we took a look at this year’s online version of the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival – which kicks off tomorrow, Thursday, May 28th, with tickets and ticket packages on sale now – and made our first ten selections for must-see movies from one of the world’s foremost platforms for showcasing non-fiction filmmaking in all its various forms.

Today, we’re back with ten more films you won’t want to miss from this year’s festival (once again listed in alphabetical/numerical order), and we’ll have even more recommendations throughout the festival.

All films screening at the Hot Docs online festival will be available to stream from at least May 28th to June 6th, with some extending their online availability until June 24th (where noted), with either live or pre-recorded Q&As available for many titles. Tickets are $8 each for Hot Docs members, and $9 for members of the general public. All videos are geolocked to be viewed only in the province of Ontario, and once a viewer has pressed play, they have 48 hours to complete their watching of the film purchased.

The 8th

Recommended if you like: female and reproductive rights issues, films about people fighting against decades of religious based oppression for their rights

The 8th, from directors Aideen Kane, Maeve O’Boyle, and Lucy Kennedy, looks at the historic 2018 fight to repeal Ireland’s controversial, but longstanding ban on abortions in all forms. For decades, women seeking abortions would have to travel to England for the procedure or illegally import pills. The Irish government’s stance on abortion was so hard-line and immovable that women in life and death situations wouldn’t be given the procedure, even if the mother would die without having it done. Things would become so bad that the UN would declare the country’s 8th amendment as a human rights violation.

The 8th, which does spend some time with pro-life advocates for the sake of context and comparison, predominantly revolves around a social movement built on the backs of young women who fear for their futures, older women who don’t want to see their country make the same deadly mistakes over and over again, and the stories of the dead whose testimonies live on.

Through old school door-to-door canvassing and any number of religious, semantic, philosophical, and medical debates, the filmmakers paint a picture of a “nation under God” that has lost all sense of reason when it comes to the health and well being of half its populace. What emerges is a battle on both sides to show who’s more empathetic and compassionate, but those siding with the church have to do some pretty huge mental gymnastics when it comes to forgetting past abuses perpetrated by the Catholic power structure.

Kane, O’Boyle, and Kennedy have created an expert walk through history and modern politicking filled with lessons that should never be forgotten or ignored, and they do so with overwhelming compassion, empathy, and righteous anger. The 8th a staggering and vital work of social justice filmmaking. (Screens from May 28th to June 6th with a pre-recorded Q&A)

Coded Bias

Recommended if you like: healthy skepticism towards the rampant usage of algorithms and AI to determine human worth and value, representation issues, science and technology viewed through the lens of sociology and psychology

The dangers of society putting its destiny in the hands of big data and algorithms is laid bare in Shalini Kantayya’s vital, unmissable, and purposefully anger inducing documentary Coded Bias. It’s possibly the best and most cautionary look yet at the price human beings are paying for convenience.

Coded Bias starts with a black, female MIT researcher wondering why her new facial recognition experiment doesn’t recognize her face. It perhaps isn’t surprising that most data sets – outside of those sadly used by law enforcement agencies with deeply flawed and suspect programs of their own – skew white and male.  From that initial revelation, Kantayya exposes how data sets and algorithms are designed by human beings with either conscious or unconscious biases against various races and genders. Many of these large scale oversights (notably performed by the likes of Amazon and many other megacorporations like them, who use computers to scan resumes for key words they deem undesirable) turn into human rights embarrassments, but the use of these programs continues unabated.

Coded Bias will shake viewers to their core and make them a lot more careful about sharing their information and the types of companies they deem to be trustworthy, especially in a world that moves closer and closer to the large scale implementation of biometrics. There’s little to no judicial or human rights oversight when it comes to algorithms, and no line of code can adequately determine what’s right or just, only what the programmer deems to be most efficient. This also says nothing about the various ways that AI and algorithms can be use to spread propaganda. You should be terrified by all of this, and also very, very pissed off that things have gotten as far as they have. (Screens from May 28th to June 24th, with a live Q&A – as part of the Scotia Wealth Management Big Idea Series – scheduled for June 4th at 7:00pm, featuring director Shalini Kantayya and author Meredith Broussard)

Dark City Beneath the Beat

Recommended if you like: serotonin, to turn up and dance in your own living room, feeling pride for both the good and bad parts of your city, reminiscing about going to the club

No film that I watched for the festival during the lockdown is more life affirming, vibrant, propulsive, and joyous than TT The Artist’s ode to the Baltimore club scene, Dark City Beneath the Beat.

Co-produced by Issa Rae, Dark City Beneath the Beat is a brief, but lovingly guided tour through the streets and clubs of Baltimore. With multihyphenate talent and director TT the Artist, record producer Mighty Mark, and the dedicated performers of  the Bmore Than Dance arts collective as guides, the film is a dedicated look at the unique sound and scene of urban and club music in one of the United States’ most misunderstood and maligned cities.

The subjects of Dark City Beneath the Beat put the music, personalities, and positives front and centre, offering up some truly kinetic and uplifting performance numbers throughout. But TT and company never rest on their laurels or look at their city through rose coloured glasses, most notably during a poignant, low key, and respectful remembrance of one of the scene’s brightest and most sadly departed stars.

I truly wish every city and every music scene would attempt to do what TT the Artist has accomplished here. It’s an excellent primer on a very specific regional form of art, and it leaves the viewer wanting more in the best way possible. It runs just barely over an hour, but I’d happily watch a 15 hour PBS miniseries on the history of Baltimore club music if it was even half as good as Dark City Beneath the Beat. It also goes without saying that the tracks selected for inclusion in this mash-up of documentary, music video, and jukebox musical styles are certified bangers from wall to wall. (Screens from May 28th to June 24th with a pre-recorded Q&A)

For the Love of Rutland

Recommended if you like: richly detailed looks at the opioid crisis, nuanced (and sometimes not-so-nuanced) discussions about American policies regarding refugees, warts and all views of small town North American life from numerous perspectives, seeing a politician who loves and hates his own hometown with equal aplomb

Early on in Jennifer Maytorena Taylor’s complicated and engrossing documentary For the Love of Rutland, someone refers to the titular Vermont town as something outsiders might see as “an absolute craphole.” The person making that bold admission is the town’s mayor, but from reading the tone and tenor of the community, the long past fed-up politician might be speaking for a great deal of his constituency. They just might not all agree on the definition of “craphole.”

For the Love of Rutland is a great example of a filmmaker learning to adapt their initial reason for making a movie when they realize there’s more to the story than meets the eye. Taylor’s film starts off with a desire to look at the town’s decision to settle 100 Syrian refugees in 2016. As is the case with many small, conservative leaning towns, racists and fearmongers come out of the woodwork to try and squash the humanitarian deal, but there’s a bigger picture in play than mere bigotry and hatred. Rutland has been one of the communities hardest hit by the opioid crisis, due in part to an economic depression that started in the early 1970s and never really ended. While the goal of resettling refugees into affordable and available housing to help jump start a flagging economy is somewhat noble, the question has to be asked: can a community that can’t really help itself be asked to care for the needs of others? More importantly, how does one get an entire populace that has grown complacent in their collective misery to accept changes for the better?

It’s a difficult question to answer with any degree of certainty, but Taylor finds a core subject that provides a full and rich view of life in Rutland. Stacie Griffin is a mother of two teenage boys who struggles with a long list of financial woes and the lingering effects of past addiction. Although skeptical at first, Stacie is the type of person who’s willing to help whenever she can, despite the fact that she has nothing to give. She’s not a perfect hero to rally around, but that just makes For the Love of Rutland more compelling to watch. None of the issues facing Rutland and it’s perpetually declining and decaying social systems any time soon, but somewhere in this “craphole” is promise for the future that will hopefully grow over time. (Screens from May 28th to June 24th with a pre-recorded Q&A) 

The Forbidden Reel

Recommended if you like: forgotten chapters in the history of world cinema, being introduced to films you’ve never heard or or see, examinations of how film shapes the way people view their country, film studies of any kind

Filmmaker Ariel Nasr takes a deep dive into the little talked about – and in many cases, little seen – world of Afghan cinema with The Forbidden Reel, a documentary that seeks to help preserve a wealth of movies that are in perpetual danger of disappearing forever.

Through interviews with various directors, scholars, actors, and film buffs, The Forbidden Reel weaves a detailed and comprehensive history of cinema in Afghanistan, parsing many specific works and auteurs while showcasing the numerous ways that the country’s filmmaking output adapted and evolved with ever changing and volatile political and religious swings. A specific light is shone on the works produced by Afghan Film, which was virtually the only major motion picture studio around. Their archives speak to the lush and varied history of cinema in Afghanistan; one that was almost entirely wiped out by Taliban forces not so long ago for being “anti-Islamic.”

The Forbidden Reel leaves no film studies stones unturned, discussing Afghan approaches to drama, the evolving role of women in cinema, works that were subversive or outright governmental propaganda, and everything in between. Nasr’s film might be a bit dry for some tastes, but it’s also an impeccable volume of scholarship and stories. One of the ultimate goals of the film is to help preserve and digitize the archives of Afghan Film (with some help from Canada’s National Film Board) and prevent it from any future attempts to destroy or erase what’s left of the country’s cinematic legacy. The Forbidden Reel should go a long way towards accomplishing that goal. (It also boasts one of the most unlikely and unpredictable twist endings of any film at Hot Docs this year; one that underlines the true power and importance of cinema.) (Screens from May 28th to June 24th with a live Q&A scheduled for June 5th at 4:00pm)

The Forum

Recommended if you like: balanced, critical views of frequently shadowy and inscrutable  superpowers and corporations, films about large scale event planning, economics, stories of fragile egos in constant battle

Marcus Vetter has become the first filmmaker in fifty years to gain access to the high profile World Economic Forum, an event where world leaders and billionaire titans of finance and industry travel to Davos, Switzerland to discuss the changing face of wealth in the world. Plenty of problems are discussed every year at the controversial, but undeniably influential meetings conducted in the Alps, but one has to question if anything is really being solved by these talks or if it’s just a bunch of showboating, back patting, and reassurance. The forum purports to be a useful tool to keep the world from backsliding into blind consensus and tyranny, but it’s also a place where megacorporations can hobnob with their best and wealthiest customers.

Vetter spends time with the WEF’s octogenarian leader Klaus Schwab and his team as they prepare for both the 2018 and 2019 conferences (where Donald Trump and Greta Thunberg were the star attractions, respectively). The director finds the most interesting material for The Forum during the conference’s “down time” between events, as Schwab and his team try to balance the delicate egos of world and corporate leaders, and trying to maintain a friendly tone while asking sometimes harsh questions of the powerful people being invited to speak.

It’s also startling to see just how greatly the tone and tenor of the conference changed over the course of a year, and to think about how it’s going to transform yet again in a radical way. The access given to Vetter is staggering, and he makes the most of it to portray the WEF and all of its various contradictions as comprehensively as possible. It’s also one of the best looking movies to ever be set predominantly in static offices, conference rooms, and banquet halls. It’s really impressive work on multiple levels. (Screens from May 28th to June 4th, with a live Q&A – as part of the Scotia Wealth Management Big Ideas series – scheduled for June 6th at 3:00pm, featuring Jennifer Morgan, director of Greenpeace International, in conversation with CBC host Anna Maria Tremonti)

I Love You I Miss You I Hope I See You Before I Die

Recommended if you like: fly on the wall documentaries, family narratives told across multiple generations, examinations of addiction and financial despair

I Love You I Miss You I Hope I See You Before I Die, Danish filmmaker Eva Marie Rødbro’s artful observation of marginalized American family life, would pair rather nicely with fellow Hot Docs selection For the Love of Rutland (see above). Both are expert examinations of families struggling to live while hovering around the poverty line, while dealing with addiction issues and generations of dodgy decisions.

Rødbro embeds herself with a family in Colorado Springs, Colorado and follows them without judgment or much in the way of questioning. Betty is a young mother trying to raise two kids while living in the converted garage of a house where eleven other family members are living. Betty struggles with the responsibilities of parenthood at times, thanks to the limited input from her selfish, obstinate partner and her own desire to party and live life like a normal young person. Betty’s mother, Wilma, has her own issues, but is generally better adjusted; preferring that her kids and grandkids stay close so they don’t get hurt by the outside world. Meanwhile, Jade, Betty’s oldest, tries her best to be a normal, everyday American kid who might not fully understand the severity of her family’s existence.

Rødbro bounces around between various situations and scenarios like she’s creating an entire gallery of impressionistic works on modern American life. It’s a strong approach for an already brave and bracing film. I Love You I Miss You I Hope I See You Before I Die is undoubtedly the type of film where the viewer’s mileage may vary depending on what preconceived notions and prejudices they bring to it, but it’s also painfully authentic and uncompromised. (Screens from May 28th to June 24th)

The Reason I Jump

Recommended if you like: stories about the representation and rights of people with autism, visual poetry

Adapted in part and spun off from Naoki Higashida’s groundbreaking and deeply personal book about living with autism, Jerry Rothwell’s documentary The Reason I Jump looks at people and families facing similar struggles to those outlined by the Japanese author – who penned his eloquent and insightful thoughts on living as a non-verbal person when he was only a teenager – and how they communicate to the outside world.

Rothwell travels to world to profile a young woman in India who communicates through her paintings, a young man in England who can hear electrical currents from a great distances, a pair of lifelong best friends in Virginia that had their lives changed by using spelling and letter boards to learn and communicate, and a family in Sierra Leone that’s trying to fight against ignorant, fearful, and violent prejudices when rumours spread within the highly superstitious community that their daughter is bewitched. The Reason I Jump doesn’t strictly stick to Higashida’s words, but rather returns to them every now and again to help underscore the need to break down prejudices and misconceptions about non-verbal forms of autism.

Whenever Rothwell (How to Change the World, Sour Grapes) does return to visual representations of Higashida’s text, he does so with spectacularly gorgeous cinematography and inventful staging that serve as a beautiful showcase of the various ways people living with autism see finer details that neurotypical people tend to overlook or dismiss. The profiles of people living with autism and the more straightforward and artful adaptation sequences marry together expertly, with The Reason I Jump creating something that’s as emotional as it is educational. 

Breaking down prejudices surrounding any form of disability is a constant struggle, but The Reason I Jump effectively calls for something many living with autism have been crying out for: equal civil rights and the space to be themselves. (Screens from May 28th to June 24th with a pre-recorded Q&A)

The School of Housewives

Recommended if you like: subverting gender expectations, Good Housekeeping, alternative learning

Since 1942, Reykjavik, Iceland’s School of Housewives has taught basic life skills for everyday living: cooking, cleaning, ironing, gardening, sewing, etc. But if you ask many of the people who enroll at the school today – including men who wish to learn the same skills – they’ll say that they aren’t going there to learn how to please a spouse. They’re going out of a general desire for self-improvement.

Stefanía Thors’ The School of Housewives looks at this curious cultural institution with a rather unfortunate and outdated name with plenty of love and good humour. While many might deride the school as nothing more than an intensive and wholly immersive home economics course, the film actually shows how such criticisms speak to the nature of privilege and how such arguments talk down to the desires of young people to better themselves on practical levels. It seems like a pretty great place to learn life skills, environmental awareness, and ways to boost self-esteem, especially if you come from a background where such lessons are in short supply.

It’s a perfect film to watch when you’re stuck at home, although the camaraderie displayed might make you a bit nostalgic. It’s sounds like a film about a sexist, outdated institution, but it’s really an unlikely tale of empowerment and realizing your own self-worth. (Screens from May 28th to June 24th with a pre-recorded Q&A)


Recommended if you like: warnings about the dangers of rampant nationalism and propaganda, people fighting to be represented in their society in the face of longstanding and overwhelming odds and hurdles

Winner of the Special Jury Prize for Best Canadian Feature Documentary at this year’s festival, Michèle Stephenson intense and incendiary Stateless examines the growing (but always present) racial divide between the nations on the island of Hispaniola.

Despite having a somewhat open border between economically impoverished Haiti and the comparatively better off Dominican Republic, relations between the countries couldn’t be frostier. Dating back nearly a century, DR governments have sought to cleanse their country of any Haitian influence. In 1937, then dictator Rafael Trujillo ordered the outright slaughter of Haitians in an effort to “whiten” the Dominican Republic, and as recently as 2013 (despite token advancements), the country revoked the citizenship of Dominicans of Haitian descent retroactive to 1929, leaving thousands of people without a country.

Stephenson looks at this frequently unreported genocide by way of exclusion through the eyes of a lawyer and family woman turned political hopeful, a man trying desperately to be reunited with his children, and a middled aged, privileged, female backer of an increasingly empowered protectionist movement that believes efforts to divert the tide of Haitian immigrants don’t go far enough.

Outside of the obvious racist and nationalistic tendencies exhibited throughout Stateless, Stephenson also makes note that 80% of the Dominican Republic’s population identifies as black or biracial, and there are countless untold stories of people getting caught in the crossfire. It’s a chilling and important look at how hate speech can lead to outright violence and a populace that’s fearful of speaking up against outright injustice. It doesn’t help that the country’s bureaucracy skews towards helping the rich, powerful, or light skinned or that the Dominican is a republic where many politicians literally buy their votes. 

These issues aren’t unique to the Dominican Republic, and other countries (most notably Kenya, which is showcased in several other documentaries this year) are facing similar human rights struggles. But between the margins of Stephenson’s heartbreaking and evocative documentary lies a warning that this type of thinking and irrational policy making could slowly be creeping into a country near you. (Streams from May 28th to June 24, with a live Q&A scheduled to take place on June 3rd at 7:30pm)

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