This week we’ve been looking some of our favourite selections from the 2020 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, which was forced to move to an online screening format and out of theatres for the time being. Just like in past years, the selection of non-fiction films on display at Hot Docs is unparalleled, and we’ve already taken a look at a total of twenty great documentaries that are well worth your time.
So instead of ten more, why not look at twelve today? Here’s another batch of documentaries to check out from home, listed as always in alphabetical order. And don’t forget to check out our first and second lists of must-see Hot Docs.
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.
Recommended if you like: gut-wrenching and heartbreaking looks at a trauma survivor’s fraught (but still hopeful) road to recovery
One of the most honest and unflinching looks at young people recovering from trauma, Tone Grøttjord-Glenne’s gorgeously shot, expertly paced, and overwhelmingly emotional documentary All That I Am is the kind of film you hope everyone sees because it might make the world a more understanding and empathetic place.
Norwegian eighteen year-old Emilie is moving back in with her mother and siblings after five years away from them. She’s instructed by her mother not to broach the reasons why she was living away from the rest of the family to her younger siblings. The reason for her absence: she was sexually abused by her stepfather. All That I Am joins Emilie six months after she has moved back home and not long after her abuser has been released from prison. In addition to adjusting to “normal life” again, Emilie is embroiled in a civil suit for damages against her abuser, and she’s also being pressured by the country’s welfare system to find a job and get off supports as soon as possible.
All That I Am is an eye opening look at the way society wants to rush trauma sufferers through unimaginable amounts of mental anguish and anxiety. Emilie isn’t ready to go back to school, and she doesn’t think that she’ll be able to work alongside a large group of people. She wants to be a writer (and she’s a fairly good one already), but she’s constantly being told that she needs to hurry up and become a productive member of society again, frequently by counsellors who deliver terrifying news with smiles and cloying tones.
While Norway’s system of dealing with sexual abuse survivors is better than many countries in the world, All That I Am shows that even some of the most progressive cultures have difficulty understanding how trauma can manifest over an indeterminate amount of time. It’s impossible not to feel for Emilie as she tries her best to get her life back, and despite the unnecessary pressures being placed on her, this young woman is strong enough to keep going. There’s an inspirational undercurrent throughout All That I Am and Glenne’s dark subject matter, but the film should also serve as a call to action around the world. We need to believe survivors and give them time to heal. (Screens until June 24th with a pre-recorded Q&A)
Recommended if you like: films that depict just how terrifying it is to be a kid in America these days, debates about gun control, observational documentaries where images and everyday situations speak volumes
Director Todd Chandler is well deserving of this year’s Emerging International Filmmaker Award at Hot Docs for his work on Bulletproof, an equally detailed and subtle observational look at “protecting” students in American public schools.
Metal detectors, surveillance cameras, and active shooter drills are now commonplace in many American schools, but the debate rages on whether or not certain methods of safeguarding students from the next (sadly inevitable) mass casualty incident are effective. Chandler crosses the country to observe and occasionally interview those trying to keep schools safe, and while the tenor is generally fearful and tense when it comes to asking hard questions about protection and policing, no two schools seem to have the same answers.
In Texas City, Texas, a local high school that received credible threats of violence has cameras in every possible location, ID badges that can tell staff where every student and faculty member is at all times, and enough AR-15s to constitute a small armory. In Las Vegas – home to every type of convention imaginable – contractors try to sell school boards on everything from fake flash-bang grenades to bulletproof dry erase boards. Teachers travel to seminars where they learn how to handle firearms in case they ever need to become heroes. Chandler sits in on a heated school board meeting in Pittsburgh where police in schools are demanding to carry guns and backhandedly blaming all mass shootings on teens taking antidepressants. And surprisingly, in Chicago, one of the most violent cities in the U.S., meditation and deescalation have become cornerstones of their safety plans, and in New York, a math teacher openly allows their students to engage in a dialogue about how lockdown drills make them feel.
There’s a lot to think about in Bulletproof, but Chandler always makes his points clear without overstating his hand or turning his film into a soapbox, because the points trying to be made should be obvious and not outside the margins. No matter the intentions of any of the schools or subjects involved, one of Chandler’s subjects astutely states that if someone wants to commit murder, it’s hard to stop them with any amount of firepower or surveillance. All these measures seem to do is traumatize kids further into thinking they could die any day. There’s one right answer to the problems faced in Bulletproof, but it’s also the one many Americans don’t seem to want to talk about. (Screens until June 6th with a pre-recorded Q&A)
Recommended if you like: frank discussions of female sexuality told with equal parts humour and anger, women talking about how they learned to love their own bodies, science, looks at the many ways patriarchal oppression manifests itself
Quick question: How many penises have you seen in your lifetime, either in person, in textbooks, or in art? Probably a lot more than you want to think about. Now as a follow-up to that, how many times have you seen even a picture of a clitoris? Probably not nearly as many, especially when one stops to consider that scientists never paid much attention to this delicate part of the female anatomy until the late 90s.
Maria Finitzo’s documentary Dilemma of Desire wants to change that, offering undeniable proof that male desire dominated culture and science has stunted a woman’s ability to learn more about one of her body’s most misunderstood organs. Using conceptual artist Sophia Wallace’s famed “100 Natural Laws of Cliteracy” as a framing device, Finitzo talks to women about their sex lives and the various ways social structures, cultural debates, advertising, religion, and any other methods of control have led them astray or left the confused about their own desires. Some of Finitzo’s interview subjects have know exactly what they want from a sexual relationship, but everyone profiled in Dilemma of Desire remembers a point in their lives when they were made to feel guilt, shame, and confusion by their natural urges.
Dilemma of Desire could stand a bit more editing, and Finitzo starts to devolve into repetition in the film’s later stages. Too much time is also spent with Wallace, who’s a fascinating artist and person doing boundary pushing work, but she’s also the least interesting and engaging subject in the film. But Dilemma of Desire uses the deeply human and relatable stories of all its other interviewees so empathetically and brilliantly that it’s easy to overlook the film’s padded out running time. The stories told by these woman – some of whom rushed into marriage, struggle to fund scientific research, and were shamed for showing off their bodies – need to be heard, and Dilemma of Desire is a solid platform for them to share. These narratives are indispensable when it comes to talking about sexual equality in the world today. (Screens until June 24th)
Recommended if you like: exposing the ways marketing and PR have led to some of the most disgusting political and social debacles since the late 20th century
Lord Tim Bell, founder of the elite public relations and marketing firm Bell Pottinger, will go down as one of history’s greatest, but perhaps least remarked upon villains, and directors Richard Poplak and Dianna Neille get the full scoop on how he helped skew elections around the world straight from the horse’s mouth (and ass) in Influence, a jaw dropping look at how democratic processes are often won by the highest bidder.
Influence sits down with the chain smoking Bell not long after his career and reputation as an ace political strategist and marketing wizard has been ruined forever. Influence isn’t so much a chance for the British power broker to come clean, but rather for him to be as unrepentant as possible; sorry only in so much as he got caught doing the very underhanded things that helped the likes of Margaret Thatcher and F.W. de Klerk stay in power for a long time.
Although he clings to his own warped moral compass (which proudly and selfishly screams “I got paid well, so who cares what happens to anyone else?”), Poplak and Neille use their time with Bell to start a broader discussion about the history of misinformation and campaigning that’s conducted through fear and omission. Bell isn’t unique in the political landscape, but he’s one of the best to ever sell populaces on nationalism, protectionism, segregation, and other far right ideals.
Influence is tough to watch if you have a heart, but it’s also a form of evil that needs a greater light shone upon it. It’s also totally worth the effort to see Bell’s spectacular fall from grace; a reminder that even the mightiest monster can be taken down by an everyday person who believes in doing the right thing. (Screens until June 24th with a pre-recorded Q&A. It’s also currently available to view across Canada on the CBC Gem app.)
Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist
Recommended if you like: lengthy interviews with fascinating artists, film studies, deep dives on your favourite films, The Exorcist (naturally)
Almost a decade ago, I had the pleasure to interview esteemed director William Friedkin, and I still believe it to be one of the smartest, most effortless, and entertaining conversations I’ve ever had with anyone. He was generous with his time and willing to talk about pretty much anything he ever made. Alexandre O. Philippe (who’s fast becoming one of the best documentarians to make movies about other filmmakers, following recent looks at Ridley Scott, Alfred Hitchcock, George Lucas, and George A. Romero) lovingly recreates what a joy it is to sit down with Friedkin for a little under two hours, with The French Connection and Sorcerer director holding court and dishing out almost all there is to know about one of his most successful and beloved films.
Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist is exactly what it says on the tin: a long form sit down interview that’s ostensibly about a single topic. The beauty of watching an interview with William Friedkin is how intelligent he is without sounding condescending, and how he pulls no punches about the things he likes and doesn’t like. He values what the viewer thinks, even if he doesn’t always agree with them. He wants his films to be viewed by intelligent, thoughtful audiences. The Exorcist is one of the most critically, religiously, and psychologically analyzed movies in history, and Friedkin isn’t shy about listing off the paintings, texts, and music that influenced his adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s bestselling novel of faith and fate. He’s a detail oriented filmmaker, but he’s also unafraid of gently shooting down various theories about his work, sometimes attributing moments critics hail as highly symbolic as happy accidents or coincidences. He’s also self-reflective, stating that he thinks one of his “masterpieces” has some obvious flaws.
Philippe simply has to wind Friedkin up and let him go, and the director obliges with plenty of technical discussions, behind the scenes anecdotes (especially a KILLER story about meeting legendary composer Bernard Herrmann, who almost did the score for The Exorcist), and where this movie links up to the rest of his filmography. If you enjoy rousing, informative, and sometimes hilarious conversations with master filmmakers, Leap of Faith is definitely your cup of pea soup. (Screens until June 24th)
Recommended if you like: political documentaries with equal parts suspense and humour, a realistic and honest look at daily Palestinian life, movies set (partially) at Christmastime, scenes that make great use of Celine Dion
Director, cinematographer, and editor David Osit’s darkly comedic, richly textured, and sometimes harrowing documentary Mayor is an inside look into the day to day dealings and struggles faced by Musa Hadid, mayor of the Palestinian city of Ramallah.
Osit follows Hadid for the better part of a year, starting with large scale preparations for a Christmas parade and tree lighting ceremony up through an attack on the city by an increasingly emboldened Israeli army that occurs in the wake of President Trump’s decision to acknowledge Jerusalem as the true capital of Israel. In addition to the struggles to keep local schools funded, long discussions with marketing teams about how to “brand” the city for tourists, cleaning up trash, dealing with insistent contractors, and meeting with foreign diplomats, Hadid has to struggle with the limited amount of power he’s been given to rule in an occupied state.
It’s sometimes funny to behold how Hadid seems to be the last person informed about everything going on in the city, and the grand tragedy comes from the fact that most of the issues facing Palestinians isn’t his fault. He’s a man who’s tirelessly trying to make his city a better place; meeting with anyone who wants to talk. The few moments of solace he gets seem to come from his omnipresent eCigarette or looking forlornly out a window while listening to Celine Dion.
Osit strikes an expert balance between the serious and humorous, building to a climax – set during a violent siege in Downtown Ramallah – that’s overwhelmingly emotional and terrifying in the wake of everything that comes before it. It’s the kind of tragedy where things are often so bad that one has to laugh to keep from crying, and even then, tears are usually inevitable before life has to go on again like nothing happened. (Screens until June 6th with a pre-recorded Q&A)
Recommended if you like: game changing scientific and nutritional advancements, sticking it to megacorporations
There’s no way that the meat industry can possibly keep up with growing demand across the globe. Even when production is at its highest levels, the meat industry is a sustainability nightmare. To help solve this growing problem and to hopefully reduce animal slaughter, Memphis Meats – led by CEO and co-founder Dr. Uma Valeti – have created “clean meat” produced in a lab through the use of animal cells. It doesn’t come from killing an animal, but it has all the flavour, texture, and cooking capabilities of the real thing.
No stranger to films that revolve around issues of animal rights and environmental sustainability, Canadian documentarian Liz Marshall (The Ghosts in Our Machine) is the perfect filmmaker to bring Meat the Future to the screen. Marshall captures the excitement people feel about Memphis Meats, while also looking at certain drawbacks (an extremely high price point, the tough job of selling a product often dismissed as “lab grown meat”) and societal barriers to bringing a project backed by the likes of Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Tyson Foods, and Cargill to markets everywhere.
Meat the Future is at its best when Valeti and his team are at their most consternated and dealing with outside meat industry lobbying groups who seek to overregulate this cruelty free upstart. Marshall makes viewers feel for the people working behind the scenes at Memphis Meats as they struggle to legally define their product under close scrutiny from critics with deep pockets. What emerges is a larger picture of an industry that paradoxically loves innovation, but hates change. (Screens until June 24th with a pre-recorded Q&A. It’s also available to stream across Canada on the CBC Gem app.)
Recommended if you like: big personalities with bold, outspoken opinions, Indian music and culture, critical discussions about patriarchal influence on religion, commerce, and philosophy
Sona Mohapatra is not someone to be trifled with, and she doesn’t suffer fools. Although she’s a popular singer in the Indian music scene, she’s also one of its most controversial figures. Repeatedly standing up for women amid India’s almost perpetual culture of toxic masculinity, Sona refuses to play festivals where she’d be forced into co-headlining with a male counterpart, turning down such requests on sight as being beneath her. She’s attacked online and threatened by people of the Sufi faith that find her outfits (which aren’t all that skimpy when compared to other female and male artists in her country) and songs blasphemous. Sona gets a lot of negative press for daring to remind people that a lot of Indian culture and religion is based on the works of female deities that aren’t as renowned and revered as their male counterparts. In the salacious, male dominated press, Sona is branded as being unreasonable at best and crazy at worst.
And despite all this, filmmaker Deepti Gupta’s Shut Up Sona is a perfect picture of a woman refusing to give up on what she believes in just to gain more fame and success. Mohapatra is more than willing to engage with people on any number of topics, as long as they’re respectful and not dismissive. There aren’t many fights she’ll back down from, and she’s willing to face legal charges if necessary. She’s a perfect subject to build a documentary around, and also a great guide through India’s inequitable pop culture scene.
Most importantly, however, Gupta deftly illustrates the various ways that women who stand up for themselves can be branded as angry monsters all the time by the patriarchy. Watch Shut Up Sona closely, and you’ll see something deeply humane and universal: a person who doesn’t get angry unless absolutely necessary. (Screens until June 10th with a pre-recorded Q&A)
Recommended if you like: people who fight for what they believe in (no matter how much it could cost them), stories of families trying to stick together under trying circumstances, exposing Kenya’s corrupt elections system
In a more perfect world, Sam Soko’s Softie would’ve been the opening night film at this year’s festival. If it had played in that coveted slot, it would’ve been one of the absolute best openers in the history of Hot Docs: a poignant and eye opening look into the messy, violent landscape of Kenyan politics and one grassroots activist’s fight to change what might be an irreparable system.
Boniface “Softie” Mwangi, a family man, activist, and award winning photojournalist, has decided to run for his country’s parliament following years of protesting governmental corruption and hypocrisy, continually escalating and increasingly brutal tribal and police violence, and a culture where the votes of the poor are bought with handouts instead of earned through hard work. Elections in Kenya often don’t come down to who’s the better candidate, but rather “who’s the nicer thief.” Intimidation and threats against Boniface’s life abound in his showdown against a flashy, well connected, but woefully unqualified candidate (a music producer known only as Jaguar), leaving his long supportive wife, Njeri, to make tough decisions about the future and safety of the family.
The political escalations are as intense as the family drama throughout Softie, and while Soko might not have any answers about how Kenya’s crumbling government can be fixed, he clearly finds a lot of inspiration in Boniface and Njeri. It’s an often gruelling film to watch, but Softie is built around loving and caring people who genuinely want to make the world a better place. It’s an inspirational film that never shies away from showing how hard it can be to win over the hearts and minds of people who’ve continually been told that they hold little worth by the deep pocketed power brokers desperate to maintain their stranglehold over the populace at all costs. (Screens until June 24th with a pre-recorded Q&A)
There’s No Place Like This Place Anyplace
Recommended if you like: Toronto history, skeptical looks at the local housing market, films that remind us about important questions to ask in the very near future
A neighbourhood is only as strong as its people, and that was certainly true of Toronto’s venerable – and currently missed – Mirvish Village. Built largely around Ed Mirvish’s charmingly low priced megastore Honest Ed’s, the neighbourhood was once rich in immigrant, black, and artistic history, and for the longest time was home to some of the most affordable housing retail spaces in the city. That all changed when David Mirvish, Honest Ed’s heir, sold the land to Vancouver based developes Westlake Properties, who tore down (nearly) all of the buildings on the block and commenced the construction of rental-only towers and mixed-use spaces, leaving many former residents, business owners, and community advocates to wonder if the new high-rises could even come close to matching the sense of community and history the neighbourhood once had.
One of those former residents is filmmaker Lulu Wei, who lived in an apartment with her partner facing Bathurst Street. Her latest effort, There’s No Place Like This Place, Anyplace, is an ode to what the neighbourhood used to be and a critical, skeptical, but still relatively impartial look at what the future holds. Wei weaves her own story of being displaced from a home she deeply loved with the remembrances of others who had deep roots in Mirvish Village. Although There’s No Place Like This Place, Anyplace sounds like the film might be a deep dive into the history of Honest Ed’s wacky, charitable, and iconic discount shop, Wei has made something a lot more poignant and bittersweet. In her talks with people from the neighbourhood (shot before, during, and after the razing of almost the entire block), attitudes range from hopeful to mournful about the future. Wei has created a great look at what it’s like for an entire block to be stuck in a state of suspended animation for several years.
Somewhere down the road, I would love to see Wei pick up her camera again and make a sequel to this. The current construction at Bloor and Bathurst continues, and the promises made by developers to provide a certain number of “affordable housing” units is laughable at best and a cruel joke at worst. There’s a lot more to be told about Mirvish Village, but for now, Wei has produced a wonderful look at what was and what might be. (Screens until June 10th with a pre-recorded Q&A)
Recommended if you like: big personalities, reality television, stories and people that are far more complicated than they initially appear to be
The plastic surgery industry has been thriving and growing for decades, and few people have made as much of a name from tweaking and overhauling the outward appearance of others than Dr. Michael Salzhauer, a.k.a. Dr. Miami. From his offices in South Beach – one of the most image conscious neighbourhoods in the world – Dr. Miami has built a social media driven empire. He’s regularly shouted out by rappers. He has a brash, in-your-face personality that makes his followers hang on his every Snapchat update (many involving live surgeries). He shoots his own music videos and sketches, and even has his own reality television show. He even has a team of similarly minded doctors in other cities who essentially run branch offices for his burgeoning brand. He’s the definition of a “local legend.”
Many of Salzhauer’s critics and colleagues dismiss his buffoonery as shallow posturing by someone hoping to make a quick buck on the backs of people with body image issues and insecurities, but They Call Me Dr. Miami looks at the complicated life of a man who isn’t constantly hyped to get into the O.R. Outside of his brash, vulgar on screen antics, Salzhauer is a practicing Orthodox Jew and family man.
Director Jean-Simon Chartier creates an entertaining and thoughtful exercise in contradictions with They Call Me Dr. Miami. On one hand, Salzhauer is exactly the kind of image obsessed guy you’d expect to have a throne in his office and stacks of Yeezy boxes on his desk. On the other, he cares deeply about his faith whenever he’s “off the clock,” and Slazhauer works in an industry with countless villains far less qualified than him. It’s hard to tell where the Dr. Miami schtick ends and where the real Salzhauer begins, and Chartier might not have all the answers that viewers are looking for (and I don’t think the film’s subject does, either), but that doesn’t make his profile of this complicated character any less fascinating. (Screens until June 6 with a pre-recorded Q&A. It’s also available across Canada on the CBC Gem app.)
The Walrus and the Whistleblower
Recommended if you like: animal advocacy, complex characters, looks at how social media and lobbying work
Although it has been a cornerstone of the tourism industry in Niagara Falls for decades, theme park Marineland has been constantly plagued by accusations of animal cruelty, some of these charges brought against the family run and owned businesses by its own employees, who were fed up at seeing living creatures living in substandard or dangerous conditions. One of these employees, Philip Demers, a.k.a. the park’s resident “walrus whisperer,” quit in a justifiable and understandable rage back in 2012 after over a decade on the job. Citing his fatherly love for a walrus named Smooshi (who imprinted on Phil at a young age), Demers began a massive social media campaign against Marineland, joining a growing number of voices against the waterpark. Almost immediately, Demers, and other former handlers and employees who dared to speak out, were hit with outrageously large lawsuits. Many settled, but Demers declined and still refuses to back down in his campaign to be reunited with the close animal friend that he remains deeply worried about.
Nathalie Bibeau’s The Walrus and the Whistleblower is the perfect (and gorgeously shot) marriage of a cracking legal drama and a vital social advocacy documentary. Bibeau follows Demers – who now works various labour jobs to pay his mounting bills while continuing to speak out openly and loudly about Marineland’s practices – as he navigates an all out smear campaign to attack his character. Granted, Demers isn’t a perfect person: he’s always wanting to fight, his anxiety sometimes gets the better of him, and some animal rights advocates dismiss his status as an ally because he continues to eat meat. At the same time, his testimony and legion of followers are something that Marineland – which is now registered as a lobbying group in Ottawa to protect themselves from legislation – should be terrified of.
The Walrus and the Whistleblower doggedly and poignantly exposes the archaic nature of for-profit waterparks and zoos that place profits far above animal welfare and the mental health of the humans that work there. It’s not the first film of its kind to do so, but for Canadians, and especially those in Eastern Canada, it’s the one most likely to hit home. (Screeninging until June 24th with a pre-recorded Q&A. It’s also available to stream across Canada on the CBC Gem app.)
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