5 Must-see Movies from This Year’s Hot Docs Festival

There’s a reason we love documentaries: their beauty, power, influence and impact cannot be argued. They can cover any subject and be made by anyone, anywhere. There are no rules not really, except your movie needs to be true. Mostly true, anyway.

Documentaries can be transportive and awe-inducing, like the Planet Earth series or The Eagle Huntress. They can be unexpected and emotional like The Wolfpack. They can be terrifying, mystifying and ridiculous. They can also keep you up into the early hours of the morning, clicking next video after next video, winding up on conspiracy theory films about lizard people and the Illuminati.

I’m speaking from personal experience here.

It’s no wonder why we love watching documentaries and why events that honour them garner a fair bit of attention and excitement. I’m talking, of course, about the Canadian International Documentary Festival, which will take place at the Hot Docs theatre in Toronto from April 27th-May 7th.

This year’s festival packs a stellar line-up into its 11-day run. The documentaries being shown cover continents and topics. I can guarantee you’ll find at least one that interests you, but if you’re stuck, here’s our shortlist of some of the must-see documentaries playing during this year’s festival.

Becoming Who I Was

Via Hot Docs Box Office

Directed by Jin Jeong, Becoming Who I Was tells the story of Padma Angdu, an impoverished boy who discovers he is the reincarnation of a prominent Tibetan monk. The movie covers eight years of Padma’s life, from when he is banished from the local monastery, to his powerful bond with his godfather and journey to return to his rightful place.

Find showtimes and tickets here.

Rat Film

So, there’s a documentary about rats. Specifically, there’s a documentary about how the infestation of rats in Baltimore is a problem born from the segregation of ethnic minorities into impoverished neighbourhoods. Directed by Theo Anthony, this film uses a city’s rodent problem to demonstrate the ways a society has failed its people in the most basic ways. Rat Film is not one to be missed.

Find showtimes and tickets here.

Tiger Spirit

North Korea has become a modern boogeyman to the world, but Min Sook Lee’s 2007 documentary goes beyond the usual narrative of fear and dystopia to look at two nations struggling with closed-off borders and the after-effects of war. Lee also incorporates her own experience shooting the documentary while six months pregnant into the subject matter, asking the question of who is and isn’t allowed to report from unstable countries. In our current political climate, this documentary needs to be seen again.

Find showtimes and tickets here.

Tokyo Idols

In a society where youth and celebrity are vital, Tokyo Idols is a highly relevant look at a culture that makes an industry out of these phenomena. In Tokyo, teenage idols perform lip-synch dance shows for an audience filled with middle-aged men who drop vast amounts of cash to be able just to meet and see them. Competition between the idols is fierce and the criticism from their dedicated fan base is relentless. Kyoko Miyake’s documentary dives into this world of fantasy fulfillment through following a 19-year-old performer and her 43-year-old fan.

Find showtimes and tickets here.


Via Facebook.

In a basement in Northern Philadelphia, Christopher “Quest” Rainey and his wife Christine’a “Ma’ Quest” create an artistic getaway for their community, allowing young people to express their feelings and frustrations through song on “Freestyle Fridays” and serving as role models to their own children and those that visit them. Director Jonathan Olshefski shot Quest over a 10-year period, following the family in their day-to-day lives. It is an honest, hope-filled look at good people living in a country that is more uneasy than ever.

Find showtimes and tickets here.



Canada’s Top Ten Film Festival at TIFF


A man and his son track down a band of outlaws who has kidnapped his wife and daughter across the Arctic in Zacharias Kunuk’s Maliglutit (Searchers). Its plot takes inspiration from John Ford’s seminal 1956 western, The Searchers, but the similarities soon fizzle away to the aesthetics and elements of the genre. Kunuk’s long shots of the Arctic — the film was shot in Nunavut — are certainly reminiscent in their magnificence of Ford’s famed landscapes of Arizona; and the environment is itself a character, a violent and all encompassing force that shapes the story. However, the searchers of the original are by no means precursors of Kuanana (Benjamin Kunuk) and his son who share none of John Wayne’s Ethan Edward’s violence and racism.

Kunuk transposes the western to the Arctic landscape and gives it meaningful twists; Animals and their spirits — the loon’s in particular — replace Christianity; the chase is pointedly outside the colonial narrative; and, perhaps most importantly, violence is at best a questionable means to an end. With sometimes frustratingly claustrophobic close ups to the action, Kunuk refuses to give the satisfaction of watching simple — and frankly often entertaining — displays of violence on screen. At others, as in the shooting of a caribou or the rape of Kuanana’s wife and daughter, the violence occurs off screen. What we do see leave us thinking about lives led parallel to the continual presence of violence and its many faces.; the moral implications of abduction, rape, and retribution.

There are many beautiful pauses in the movie to help you mediate on them.

Maliglutit (Searchers) is now playing at TIFF Bell Lightbox as a part of the 16th annual Canada’s Top Ten Film Festival. The festival presents feature films, shorts, and student films to celebrate Canada’s diverse cinema. As Adam Cook has noted in the New York Times, the festival this year features a more independent and fresh roster of filmmakers. Alethea Arnaquq-Baril’s Angry Inuka documentary on seal-hunting, Johnny Ma’s Old Stone, a drama about a cabdriver in the middle of a bureaucratic nightmare, and Kevan Funk’s Hello Destroyer (debut), about a minor-league hockey player, are among the A-list. Xavier Dolan’s It’s Only the End of the World, starring Léa Seydoux, Marion Cotillard, and Vicent Cassel, is also on the list if you’re looking for more familiar names.

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ICYMI: SummerWorks 2016 Recap

This year’s SummerWorks Performance Festival boasted a truly incredible line-up. Over the course of two weeks, 69 shows were performed in venues across Toronto. These shows included everything from musicals, to multimedia performances, to art installations.

This was the first year with Laura Nanni at the helm as creative director, but as Nanni told us, she stepped into the position in May, only a couple of months before the festival opened.

“I inherited the programming,” says Nanni. “Things were in full swing. When I stepped in, it was about learning what the projects were.”

SummerWorks’ previous creative director, Michael Rubenfeld, brought together the acts before his departure. Nanni was the undisputed choice of the search committee for his successor.

Nanni has a history of working in the indie theatre scene here in Toronto. She’s previously worked on the Rhubarb Festival with Buddies in Bad Times, as well as Nuit Blanche and Luminato. Nanni worked the SummerWorks front of house while in school, and later on collaborated with artists at the festival.

Rubenfeld’s vision for SummerWorks curated a diverse line-up, both in subject matter and in the types of performances. Phrases like “mixed media” and “experimentation” are commonly used when describing the performances.

Nanni says the acts lined up for the festival lead into the vision she has for SummerWorks.

“I couldn’t have walked into a festival that better exemplified some of the values I’ve always admired,” says Nanni. “I want us to be continually opening ourselves to nurturing artistic innovation and artistic risk, and responding to what our community needs.”

Show Reviews: Our Top Three

When we talk about “artistic risk,” there are a number of ways it can be defined. While there were so many memorable and groundbreaking performances this year, there are three that, to me, exemplified “riskiness.” These shows were risky because they did something theatre often aims to do, but isn’t always able to carry out: they forced us to engage in a dialogue about things that make us uncomfortable.

Sometimes, we just want theatre to be a lovely experience. We want to go see a performance of a big-ticket musical, with catchy numbers and enormous casts. We want to be entertained and to not have to think too hard.

Sometimes, we want to think. We want to be asked questions or ask the questions.

At SummerWorks, there were performances that asked questions, but there were also ones that made statements. Direct statements to the audience, pointing out problematic human behaviour. Direct callouts that leave no room for questioning.

Curtain call from Bleeders. Photo from twitter.com
Curtain call from Bleeders. Photo from twitter.com/dbi333/status/762688881682681856

Bleeders, the brilliant futurist dub-opera by d’bi.young anitafrika, shows a world where humans can no longer procreate due to radiation poisoning. A young woman who finds herself with the ability to get pregnant, a Bleeder, goes on a journey to speak with her animal ancestors, to find out how to fix the mess the world has become. Each animal she comes across has a different song to express an element of their relationship with the human race.

Here is where anitafrika points directly at the audience, at all of us with music and movement. One particular song tells us, “climate change is coming for you.” These are scientific facts not up for debate. With this performance, all humans are being called out for their behaviour towards the Earth and towards animals. We are told through Bleeders we need to have more respect for life: for animal life and human life. Anitafrika goes one step further by closing the show with a full-cast song supporting Black Lives Matter. This is another statement, with a fully black cast speaking to a mixed audience. They have the space to address a collective with hard truths and use it to their full ability.

Thea Fitz-James performing Naked Ladies. Photo from inthegreenroom.ca
Thea Fitz-James performing Naked Ladies. Photo from inthegreenroom.ca

Naked Ladies is a completely different show. It’s a one-woman comedic performance piece, but it could also act as a thesis, albeit an untraditional one. Written and performed by Thea Fitz-James, Naked Ladies is an examination of depictions of female bodies throughout art and history, sprinkled with personal anecdotes from Fitz-James’ life.

At the opening of the show, Fitz-James stars completely naked on stage and looks into the eyes of every single person in the room. This act tackles firstly, any personal issues any of us could have with making eye contact and also asks us how we view the naked female body, how difficult it could be for us to meet her eyes and see the person, not her nakedness. She is fearless in her performance, baring both body and mind for the audience to see. In a memorable moment, Fitz-James touches herself on stage, slowly and while still meeting the eyes of the audience. If there was ever a moment to make the audience uncomfortable, such an overt act of female sexuality would be it. Fitz-James leaves the audience with questions, about how we view women’s bodies and how politics, race and our narrow perceptions of beauty warp that.

Shadi Shahkhalilli in The Unbelievers. Photo from summerworks.ca
Shadi Shahkhalilli in The Unbelievers. Photo from summerworks.ca

The Unbelievers is, again, a very different show. It’s the most stage play-typical performance out of these three, but is also a profoundly intimate view of two women, one a Yazidi refugee and the other a Canadian journalist, in captivity. In the span of one hour, playwright Hannah Rittner and director Marina McClure pose the audience with their own questions, on who we become in the darkest, most desperate times of our lives, of our preconceived notions of those living in war-torn countries and our own North American “good samaritan” complexes. When the show ends, it leaves you with even more questions: how will these two women survive? How can we wrap our heads around this when this show is only a single snapshot in an entire album of stories just like this one? How do we react? How are we supposed to?

One of theatre’s greatest abilities is to open up its audience to a dialogue. While there is often not direct speaking between performers and audience, there is a dialogue occurring. There are ideas being presented, questions being asked, truths we are being forced to face. Like most audience members, I left these three shows deep in thought, unable to let the performances I just witnessed leave my mind.

These are all brilliant shows: beautifully written and performed, but part of what makes them brilliant is their ability to linger with you and make you question your own perspective.

Taste of Toronto 2016 Recap


In case you missed it, the third annual Taste Of Toronto showcased the best of the city’s culinary scene at Garrison Common on June 23-26. With more than 70 exhibits in the marketplace, there were still some returning favourites.

Opening night ribbon cutting ceremony with over 20 of Toronto’s best chef. Photo credit: Sam Santos, George Pimentel Photography


The opening night began with the ceremonial ribbon cutting along with the top chefs participating this year’s event. Followed by the best in taste ceremony, announcing the winners of the Best in Taste award and Best Dressed Stand hosted at the VIP lounge while tasting some amazing smoked salmon finger food.

After that, marketing intern Jennifer and I couldn’t wait to try out what the food scene had to offer. We tried as many top dishes as we could over the night. Some of our favorites include Miku Restaurant’s Aburi Oshi Sushi, Kinka Family Inc’s takoyaki, and The Drake Hotel’s True north Salmon Fried Rice.

Miku’s Restaurant’s Aburi Oshi Sushi

With live cooking demonstrations, and Metro master classes, Taste of Toronto is indeed a foodie’s paradise. I definitely feel like I could become a chef myself from what I’ve seen! The event overall was a lot of fun, seeing everyone trying out varieties of food with bellies full leaving. I’m excited for what next year’s Taste of Toronto will bring.


ICYMI: A Love Letter to the Great Lakes

TEXT: Snigdha Koirala

A Love Letter to the Great Lakes, a festival which ran all through last week, used public art to spark conversations about environmental issues surrounding the Great Lakes. Organized by PangeaSeed Foundation, it brought together renowned street artists who painted murals around the city – each piece of work acting as a love letter to the lakes. I spoke with two of the artists involved in the project, Kirsten McCrea and Alexa Hatanaka (who created her piece with Patrick Thomson) to talk about their work in the festival.


We met under the busy Don Valley Parkway, where McCrea and Hatanaka were creating their murals. As we stood amongst freshly painted murals, speedy cyclists, and the occasional flock of geese peeking into all the human commotion, McCrea and Hatanaka spoke of their art: how creating it has made them think and what they hope will resonate with others.

Snigdha Koirala: Can you talk a bit about your work with this project?

Kirsten McCrea: Yeah, so I always work with layered patterned images, but for this one I’ve chosen to do patterns that are all based on flowers that are native to Toronto’s river valley system.

Alexa Hatanaka: For this project, the topic was about bringing the Atlantic Salmon back to the Don River… Even as a Torontonian, I have to admit I didn’t know that much about this issue and the efforts of what’s being done to bring the salmon back. So that’s the piece [Patrick and I] are working on. We have a human hand there gesturing, giving the sense that it’s a human impact and now it’s also a human effort to make the change to bring the salmon back.

SK: What prompted you to be a part of this project?

KM: You know, I think we live in a visually saturated culture and society, but most of what we see that is visual comes in the form of advertising so I’m always eager to be a part of something that has a message beyond ‘Buy Something!’ and I think art is really powerful and a really great way to inform people about specific issues.

SK: Was there anything specific about the content that prompted you to think, ‘Yes, I have to get on board with the project’?

AH: Yeah kind of. It feels very much in the vein of other projects I’ve been working on with Patrick…We’re working on collaborative projects with other artists and writers right now up in the Moosonee area in Northern Ontario where it’s a heavily dammed area. The environment, specifically the fish populations have been very much affected by dams up there…The dams have been detrimental to the fish population here in Toronto in the past, so that was an interesting link of things.

SK: Why do you think something like a mural is the best way to convey this project’s message?

KM: Well, what’s great about this location is that people who come down here are already on bicycles, or rollerblades, or on foot – they’re already experiencing nature. So I think this particular site is a really good way of connecting with an audience who already appreciates nature and hopefully, though these murals, will get a bigger sense of the issues this festival is trying to bring attention to.

SK: What has been the most challenging aspect of this project?

KM: That’s a great question. You know I would say is my own lack of awareness at the beginning. I had to do a lot of research to learn more about the issues. PangeaSeed and Love Letters, very fortunately, brought in a water scientist who spent a day educating all the artists about the issues and that – I thought I knew a little bit because I’d been doing research the week before — but that experience of her talking to us really opened my eyes to some major issues that I wasn’t aware of. I love going to Toronto Islands and swimming in Lake Ontario and to learn that it’s a lake in decline and that if the current situation continues – if the status quo continues – then Lake Ontario might be un-swimmable and undrinkable is super concerning.


SK: And what would you say has been the most rewarding on this project?

AH: Many things. It’s nice being out in nature and it’s good to participate a festival that’s using public art in such a specific way as a platform to bring awareness to these issues…But it’s easy to turn your mind off to it everyday…You should probably be walking around thinking about [climate change], but you don’t…so it’s a good prompt to remind you ‘Okay yeah, let’s think about that. Let’s think about solutions – what can I do in my life to contribute to a better shared environment.’ So I think it just feels good to contribute to something that’s positive and engages people in ways art that isn’t outdoors kind of struggles to in many ways just because public art is just there and you come upon it when you’re not planning to and it pulls you in…it’s a very effective way of reaching more people, and reaching people maybe art wouldn’t.

SK: Lastly, when people see your piece, what do you hope resonates the most with them?

KM: I’m hoping at the end to put a little name tag on each section of pattern that says the local flower that it’s based on so I hope that people, as they go around, see them and learn a little bit about what’s in their environment.

AH: I think it’s important to make a piece that, first of all, is a stand-alone beautiful piece of work that people can appreciate on a formal level. And that’ll be a way to draw someone in [to] make them more curious and make them think about maybe doing a little bit more research on their own. It’s kind of like a prompt to discover more and I think, in that way, public artwork can be very effective.