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.

Quest

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.

 

 

Film Review: Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World

There is a rather profound moment in Werner Herzog’s latest documentary, Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, where an astronomer named Lucianne Walkowicz gives a prediction of the way the internet can potentially evolve in the future. She explains the notion of using radio waves or visible light to carry internet signals, which she notes can be a relatively cheap process, as a way of creating a web of interconnectivity between planets. By developing this web of communication between potentially hospitable planets, perhaps we can not only learn about new life, but also gain a deeper appreciation for our own world and what it means to be human. It is a segment of the interview that is surely meant to spawn a feeling of wonder surrounding the vast and mysterious possibilities the Internet still contains, and how we can perhaps become a more enlightened society.

But that moment is then quickly undercut by a transition to entrepreneur and Space X founder Elon Musk, the man who more than anything wants to send people to live on Mars in seclusion and communicate with earth via satellite, in light of disasters of apocalyptic proportions.   Sitting quietly in a deep, ponderous stance, he says “I’m sure I have good dreams sometimes, but I don’t seem to remember the good dreams. The ones that I remember are the nightmares.”

These two moments combined raise a question that audiences will likely be haunted by throughout this documentary—is the internet currently evolving is ways that is making our society slowly forget how to dream of a more positive future? It isn’t the most original question posed about our growing reliance on technology, but Herzog is able find moments of surprising emotional heft in a subject that on the surface, can be perceived as cold or difficult to grasp.

This documentary focuses on how the internet has evolved since its’ beginnings in 1969, and as a result changed the way people have largely related to each other the world around them. The film is littered with awe-inspiring moments similar to the interview with Walkowicz. For example, there is an interview with a scientist who developed an online game where people can help solve the puzzle of how certain molecules are shaped or “folded”—thus assisting in combating major diseases. Another being a conversation with an internet pioneer who dreamed of creating a program where internet links would automatically form as a person writes new content, creating an infinite web of past and present connections. These ideas seem exciting and trailblazing, making it all the more tragic when he delves into the subjects of artificial intelligence and nuclear weapons, thus painting a portrait of just how insignificant human connections may have become. As a result, one is eventually left to wonder if those original internet pioneers would have approved of our actions in the present. The people interviewed by Herzog cover a fairly large spectrum of jobs and backgrounds, as they range from internet hackers, astronomers, nuclear weapons researchers and kids addicted to video games. The varied perspectives of those people make for a very engaging hour and forty minutes, as feelings of optimism and dread are constantly being evoked and shifted.

But one of the biggest reasons as to why it is so easy to become emotionally invested in this documentary is, of course, Herzog himself. When he asks questions or makes observations, he sounds as though he knows very little about technological advances of recent years, and thus offers an easily relatable perspective. His speaking tone often conveys a wide-eyed enthusiasm towards many of the subjects being discussed. A subtly funny moment occurs during a conversation with an engineer, who is explaining the inner workings of a self-driving car, that can download new information regarding car crashes as a way to learn about human values. Herzog eagerly wants him to open up the trunk so he can see all the intricate machinations inside, only to find the trunk empty with a row of computers placed under the rug. It is that unawareness of the technology that perhaps allows him to ask the most interesting questions, that at times resonate the most deeply. For example, even though the self-driving cars can learn from their mistakes— making the future generations of cars all the more perfect—who is liable for that one crash, and what does that say about our willingness to forgo personal responsibility in today’s society?

 Even though he asks uncomfortable questions, he always comes across as incredibly empathetic, and willing to share in a person’s glee or excitement, which can be quite infectious when watching the film. When he is shown a robot that is part of an automotive soccer team that can potentially rival the world’s best soccer players in the future, he says it’s “beautiful” before one of the engineers professes their love for it.

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Image: Rotten Tomatoes An engineer, beaming with happiness over the possibility of creating robots that can beat the world best soccer players in 50 years.

 

 One may wonder if he, just like the audience, is left in a state of confusion or fear as to what the future for the internet holds, as he can also shift to being genuinely bewildered by the cruelty with which people can enact. The most heart-wrenching moment in the film comes when he interviews a family who lost a daughter in a car crash, who were then emailed pictures of the dead body from an anonymous source. It’s an interview that lingers over the rest of the film. It not only is a worst-case scenario regarding people not willing to take responsibility for their actions in a digital world, but it also exemplifies Herzog’s humanist choices, that suggests a deep affect on him, as he refuses to show any pictures of the girl. Just showing her favourite area of the house. The image of an empty living room with a dusty piano is a quick but punch-to-the–gut reminder of the richness of life that was treated to trivially. For anyone who grew up surrounded by computers, such cruelty should come as no surprise, but hearing his genuine reactions of sadness or perplexity can be a reminder of how we may have come to accept those negative aspects, when perhaps we shouldn’t.

 

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Image: Rotten Tomatoes

 

However, Herzog’s seemingly unawareness to the subject also acts as a double-edged sword. The film unfortunately gets bogged down when it explores themes and ideas that are overly familiar. When he is interviewing subjects who discuss the danger of solar flares, which can harness the power to instantly cripple our society through the disruption of our satellites, or younger people addicted to video games, he doesn’t offer a perspective that hasn’t already been previously explored by other media outlets or documentaries in far more detail.

Nevertheless, the amount of moments that resonate far after viewing Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World do overshadow those that seem derivative and Herzog makes for a surprisingly impactful audience conduit.

 This documentary just completed an extensive month-long run at Bloor Hot Docs but is also available to download on iTunes!

Featured Image: SFWeekly

Film Review: Hieronymus Bosch, Touched by the Devil

 

From the middle panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights. Image credit: Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema.

In 1516, Dutch master painter Hieronymus Bosch died. 500 years later, the Noordbrabant Museum hosted an exhibition of his work, drawing the lion’s share from all across Europe and America back to Hieronymus’s home town of Den Bosch. The event took years of preparation by an eclectic team, from art historians to computer scientists, to a pair of wood experts brought in to help date the paintings. While these men and women furrowed their brows into the masterpieces, a documentary crew was there to capture the action in what became Hieronymus Bosch, Touched by the Devil, opening today at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema.

Bosch is legendary for his busy and surreal triptych paintings, bursting with imagery that is fantastic, sinister and sometimes inexplicable. The most famous is The Garden of Earthly Delights, a trippy Where’s Waldo of medieval theology in which nude figures salaciously grope oversized berries and gallivant on birds, boar and unicorns, riding past great structures that look like candy-coloured cartoon moon bases.

These paintings are, in a word, lively. The same cannot be said so easily for this unapologetic slow-burner of a documentary, which throws the wackiness of the art into stark relief against the mundane atmosphere behind the scenes. We watch the experts measure wood grains and compare right leg to left, hunched for gruelling hours of analysis.

From the side panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights. Image credit: Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema.

Mercifully, director Pieter van Huystee zeros in on art historian and exhibition ringleader Matthis Ilsink, whose quiet charisma and sex appeal make him something of a rarity in the room of senescent Bosch specialists. With a twinkle in his eye and a heartfelt meditation at the ready, Ilsink guides us through the channels of international gallery politics, a world of cluttered offices, fluorescent-lit boardrooms, and stuffy government buildings.

Moments of drama do spark up, or seem to, as the team confronts clashes of theory and ego with gallery pooh-bahs and raise apparently scandalous questions over Bosch’s artistic identity. But the plotline of the exhibition’s painstaking assembly becomes little more than a sideshow, and every brass-tacks gallery conversation has us waiting to return to the art at the centre of it.

In this story, all the real drama takes place on the paintings’ wood surfaces, and the most captivating moments are when the experts turn back to Bosch’s works to consider the personalities of the prancing demons, the expressions of the sinners, the biblical stories at play, the echoes of the artist’s boyhood in Den Bosch.

Who was Hieronymus Bosch? This is the enigma floating in the background of everything. Was he a scholar? A madman? Or just a draftsman with a quirky imagination and a firm sense of sin and its consequences? The documentary sets out, not so much to answer these questions as to illustrate the depth of their ambiguity.

All told, this isn’t really a film about Bosch, but rather about the life that his paintings carry on centuries after his death. It isn’t a film about the splendour of genius, and it isn’t, despite some pretense, an inspiring against-all-odds tale of curatorial triumph. Instead, van Huystee gives us hardcore, nitty-gritty curating, not for the faint of heart. He deliberately leaves us wondering, along with our protagonist Dr. Ilsink, what was going on in the mind of Bosch, a mind obsessed with a world beyond this one.

“It’s always hell, with a little bit of heaven,” Ilsink muses of Bosch’s work as the camera follows a painted figure ascending into a halo of light. And while this documentary keeps its feet firmly on earth, its very workaday feel conveys the profoundness of this medieval illustrator’s vision.

For full film listings and show times, visit the website here.

Review: League of Exotique Dancers

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Photo Courtesy of Hot Docs Film Festival

As they prepare to return to the stage as legends at the Burlesque Hall of Fame in Vegas, director Rama Rau traces the past lives of aging burlesque dancers and discovers a level of empowerment and strength in these women that might have never been given the deserving attention.

The women featured in Rau’s documentary share notions of eccentricity and fierce independence and make it clear that their choice to strip, in a time when full nudity was illegal and lap dances and porn had yet to ‘pollute’ the industry, was theirs. Honest, beautiful, smart, and funny, these characters that Rau interviews inspire an appreciation for all bodies and provide powerfully positive insight into the oldest industry in the world.

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Photo Courtesy of Hot Docs Film Festival

The film enables these women to provide context about their lives and their choice to work in the sex trade industry. Their amazing stories shed light on the golden age of burlesque and the strength of the women at the core of it all. You will come out smiling and with a new understanding of exotique dancers.

Showing at the Bloor Hot Docs Theatre from May 20-June 2, 2016.