HotDocs 2020

Several years have passed since I last published any reviews on this site from Toronto’s two main film festivals: TIFF and HotDocs.

This year, HotDocs (which would have already ended by now on its normal April-May schedule), is going completely online. Moreover, there is a more generous window, four weeks, to get through most of the films, and this leads to a less hectic schedule (not to mention the opportunity to see more films).

This article will grow as I add more reviews, and I will add them at the top of this article so that readers can check back and avoid scrolling through stuff they have already seen.

Having purchased an all-you-can-eat pass, and with more screening time, I will be streaming a lot. This is on top of the rich diet of opera, theatre, concerts and recitals that are also available online.

All that said, the online experience is not like actually “being there” in a theatre enjoying and reacting along with tends, or hundreds, or even thousands of people and watching the artists as they react to the audience. Those feelings will come back some day, and there will a big warm reunion over and over.

Meanwhile, one doc from the festival has already screened on the CBC, and I will include a review here.

My rating scale:

  • ***** Absolutely the best. Often awarded retroactively once I have seen enough films to get a sense of which one(s) actually deserve this.
  • **** Very good, definitely worth seeing.
  • *** Good but with some reservations.
  • ** Poor, possibly a film with the makings of something better that went astray.
  • * Don’t bother
  • Unrated: Bad enough that I gave up before the end, or should have.

Wood

Directed by Monica Lãzurean-Gorgan, Michaela Kirst and Ebba Sinzinger
Austria/Germany/Romania

***

Wood is a story of environmental activism on a large, professional scale working against the theft and destruction of trees around the world by a timber industry always eager to find cheap raw materials.

The principal characters should be the trees, but they are the activists and investigators of the Environmental Investigation Agency (aka “EIA”), especially their Executive Director, Alexander von Bismarck. They are well organized in tracking wrongdoers in many portfolios, and we are seeing only one part of their scope here. Despite the name, they are not a government institution (can one even imagine such a think in a Trump administration?), but are a privately funded NGO.

The film begins part way through one of their investigations where they track trees illegally harvested from woods in eastern Russia, shipped to China, and processed into wood products for sale in the USA. Some cloak and dagger is involved, but the situation is less threatening that it might have been because the loggers are nowhere to be found when EIA drives into the woods.

The heart of the story is in Romania where local activists are working to stop the stripping of national forests for export to an Austrian company, Holzindustrie Schweighofer. The company’s aim, the film asserts, is to take timber wherever they can get it, strip a resource and then move on to another location.

Finding illegal logging in Romania, a country with a history of political corruption, is relatively easy, but the challenge is to prove that Schweighofer knows about and actively encourages the practice. This requires sleuthing both on the ground, documenting the movement of timber, and at the corporate level by posing as a seller of raw materials who is hamstrung by regulations limiting production. For more backround on this story, there is a Guardian article.

Finally, we are in Peru where an aboriginal village is threatened by illegal logging. This segment includes an odd comment where the problem seems to be as much that the bad guys are not paying for trees, just taking them. Is this really an environmental fight, or simply one of resource exploitation?

Watching Wood, I could not help wondering about other aspects of the world forestry industry that went untouched such as the scale of business as a whole and what proportion depends on illegally sourced timber. There is no mention of massive cutting of forests under legally authority and the role this plays in the global environment.

That lack of context gave me the sense that Wood winds up being, probably unintentionally, something of a commercial for EIA. Spy thrillers can be fun, but I came for the trees.

Two Gods

Directed by Zeshawn Ali
USA

****

Two Gods is a story of life, choices and the challenge of living in a black neighbourhood in Newark, NJ. Director Ali was first intrigued by Hanif, a man who was once a drug addict and did jail time, but now wants to give back to his community. His primary job is building caskets and assisting with ritual body washing, but Hanif is also a mentor, a father or older brother figure to boys in his community who are coming of age. The street environment is not helpful. At the very least, masculine posing and physical strength are important traits, and crime is never far off.

Ali picks up the stories of two boys. Furquan is a 12 year old with attitude, but basically a good kid who lives with his grandmother.

Naz is an only child, a more difficult case who at 17-going-on-18 has already fallen in with a street gang and been arrested. That sets him on the path to being a convenient suspect when anything goes awry.

Hanif is a mentor to both with varying success, but relations with his own son Tyler are strained after Hanif’s years in prison.

The casket building and body washing are a running thread in Two Gods , a touchstone Ali uses to pace his film and bridge segments. But this is not just a cinema trick. The dignity of the dead, the calling of respecting and serving them – these are part of the skills Hanif hopes to pass on to his protegés along with the basics of assembling a simple wooden casket.

There is a pervading sense of sadness and frustration running through Two Gods with an uphill battle for Hanif’s redemption and the challenges of mentoring where doing good works might bring little visible reward. The brighter side, the laughter and humour, comes from the women we meet, Hanif’s neice, Furquan’s grandmother and Naz’ mother.

I could not help seeing Two Gods in our current social and political context. The film shows us a neighbourhood that tries to work, hopes for better things, but the larger world is always just out of frame.

Zeshawn Ali shot Two Gods in black and white. In the Q&A after the screening, he mentions the same search for nostalgia in that medium that Jean-François Lesage hoped for in Prayer For a Lost Mitten reviewed below.

Prayer For a Lost Mitten / Prière pour une mitaine perdue

Directed by Jean-François Lesage
Canada

Winner: Best Canadian Feature Documentary Award

*****

Winter. Montreal. Night. Snow.

These and the lost articles office of the Montréal Métro are the linking presences through Prayer for a Lost Mitten, a beautiful film from Jean-François Lesage.

What can we learn from people seeking their lost wallet, their bus pass, their purse, their toque? They arrive at the wicket hopeful and yet resigned. If their missing objects are found, a small joy. If not, maybe try tomorrow?

One woman’s bus pass turns out to be more than a pass. Behind it, she has tucked a treasured photo of her parents with her, as a child, behind them in a photo. This takes us into a much more complex world of “lost and found”. What are those things we have lost that we would dearly like to get back?

Objects have meaning beyond themselves through association, but there are also those who are “lost”: relatives, friends, loves who are no more. Hope might be lost, and then found again through friendship or love. The innocence of childhood, the ability to see the world through curious eyes. The particular loss of expecting to die from HIV before one’s life partner, but now being alone to face the world.

Throughout Prayer, the music by Tom Brunt is superb, but the sequence that touched me deeply was a song about love and loss, about the touch of a hand, the presence of another, that ran under a series of faces waiting at the wicket. What are they thinking about? What hidden meanings do the treasure they seek have?

Late in Prayer several of the subjects are gathered in a church (Notre Dame in Montreal judging by the credits). Each sings of their loss: “J’ai perdu mon …” and then exhultantly “J’ai trouvé … !”. This may seem corny and staged, but the idea grew out of a performance Lesage attended where each audience member was asked to sing their name, growing into a choir grew of their overlapped voices. The same artist animated the prayer for the lost and found.

The post screening Q&A filled in some of the background including the choirmaster’s story. Lesage started with the idea of lost objects, and convinced the STCM to let him film for two days. Some of his subjects agreed to be interviewed in more detail, and from them we get a much more complex background to their lives and those of their friends. “What would you like to find again” is a question that touches everyone.

Prayer is shot in black and white, and that has the advantage of not getting in the way of what we see. Our concentration is on the faces, the expressions, the voices, not on whatever might be elsewhere in the frame.

I would love to see it in a darkened theatre on a big screen where the effect of night and winter would be strong. Lesage’s crew – who were really, really cold – shot beautiful sequences as snow fell in a park as a lone plough made its way too and fro along the paths. He wanted both the season and the lack of colour to bring an antique feeling, a sense of time past and a desire for the warmth of others.

This is quite easily my favourite film so far.

There’s No Place Like This Place, Anyplace

Directed by Lulu Wei
Canada

***

Honest Ed’s was a one-of-a-kind that occupied block on the south side of Bloor Street from Bathurst to Markham for nearly 70 years until it closed in 2016. It was the kind of place where one could find anything at a cheap price, and it was the shop of choice for waves of immigrants to Toronto’s working class west end.

David Mirvish sold the store his father had built, no doubt for a tidy sum, for a development that will include several towers at a key intersection right at a subway station. Location is everything, as they say. With the store itself went many nearby houses that the Mirvishes had purchased nearby over the years, homes for an odd collection of stores with an artistic bent at rents the businesss could afford. They are gone now too.

This is a story about change, about the effect of removing a major landmark, a centre thousands visited regularly, from the city. Who will live, work and shop at this new neighbourhood? Who will be able to at Toronto real estate prices?

The story began simply enough when Lulu Wei and her partner, living together in a flat in one of the old buildings south of Honest Ed’s on Bathurst Street decided to document the store’s disappearance. This evolved into a wider question of how people related to the store, and how the community would change without it. The story became personal when they discover that their own building has been bought by the developer. The pair must move from their cosy spot where they lived with their first partner. That first home will be a place they can visit only in memory and on film.

The neighbourhood is not entirely welcome of the change. What will be the effect on low-cost housing? The City of Toronto secured 85 “affordable” units as part of the development agreement, and a few hundred more will come through federal housing grants. However, the term is defined relative to prevailing Toronto rents, but to actual incomes. Who can afford the “affordable” units?

Gentrification of central Toronto continues, but it is best known a few kilometres to the south in the Bathurst/Niagara, Liberty Village and waterfront communities. The area east and north of Honest Ed’s is The Annex, a district that has been expensive, but low rise, for years. This is the first development on its scale near Bathurst Station (although their are a few major sites also under development further west along Bloor). How much of working class Toronto will survive?

As with any proposal, there was community consultation, and hundreds turned out. However, the actual effect on the proposal was unclear in the film, and because the construction is still very much in progress, we will not see the final effect for a few years. Nearby, on the east side of Bathurst across from Wei’s flat, is a midrise building only a few years old, and it was this type of structure the city had hoped to see on the Mirvish site. Instead they got towers.

A political topic Wei does not explore is the degree to which the city can actually control development, let alone the reduced municipal planning and review powers brought in by Ontario’s business-friendly government. This is a first feature documentary by a young director who, in the Q&A, acknowledged that she needs focus, the challenge of what to include, what to leave out in telling a story. Her extensive use of archival footage about Honest Ed’s role fills in the history, and we get to see a much younger Ed, but I’ve seen that doc before and there was a bit too much reliance on that material.

Including herself and her partner as characters was a challenge for Wei, but it gives a personal touch to what might otherwise be a visiting camera trying to understand local feelings.

A good first feature even if it leaves some threads unexplored.

Judy vs Capitalism

Directed by Mike Hoolboom
Canada

**½

Mike Hoolboom has a unique style which shows up in Judy vs Capitalism as an impressionistic sequence of images, but often this does not serve a story taken from an extended interview with its subject, Judy Rebick. Several episodes tell her early life story, through the battle to legalize abortion in Canada, her discovery of long-buried memories of childhood sexual abuse and her rise to head the National Action Committee on the Status of Women.

The problem here is that this is 60 minutes of Hoolboom indulging his filmmaking, not a story about Judy Rebick, and certainly not about a fight against capitalism. As the film goes along, it becomes more documentary than imagery, but could easily lose its audience along the way. The real story is the parallel of two fights: one against social conservatism and the other against unseen personal demons.

I rewatched the second half to solidify my feelings and make sure I had not missed something. The major episode covers the pro-choice and fight for legalized abortion and Toronto’s Morgentaler clinic. The film becomes more reportage using contemporary news footage, but the images are at least germaine to what is being discussed. But there is a sense that the depth of any segment is limited by whatever interview footage Hoolboom had available. Once Rebick becomes takes her position at the NAC, the story ends quite abruptly.

It is ironic that what should have been a dénoument comes in the Q&A when we learn about Rebick’s decision to go public about sexual abuse abuse, how the film interview was made, and some of her recent history. One should not have to watch a festival-only follow-up interview to get a sense of closure to a film.

Landfall

Directed by Cecilia Aldarondo
USA

****

Disasters bring out the best and the worst in individuals, in society and in governments. Media coverage hungers for the most photogenic, the most horrific footage, but once the event ends, the cameras turn away.

In Landfall, Cecilia Aldarondo looks at Puerto Rico in the two years following Hurricane Maria in 2017.

Before the storm, the island was deeply in debt thanks to a long history of borrowing, and the end of years of direct and indirect funding. Until 2006, Puerto Rico’s economy was supported by a favourable tax environment for US corporations. When that ended, companies closed up shop, unemployment rose, and the debt crisis turned even worse.

This history is only hinted at by Aldarondo, but it underlies much of what will follow. The government cannot pay its way, services are slashed and the business environment is a shadow of former times. Then came Maria. The government was deeply corrupt, and much post-Maria aid went to well-connected friends of Governor Ricardo Roselló.

Aldarondo tells her story not as a political exposé (there is lots of that elsewhere online), but from the viewpoint of those affected. People were still waiting for food, water, electricity. Health care systems were stretched and not a top funding priority.

There is a moneyed ruling class, and when we see them, the contrast to devastated areas is almost surreal. The island still has a market for high-end real estate developers providing a haven for offshore money. Con men who would be right at home in a bad crime movie push a bitcoin scheme looking to exploit the locals. Right wing financial rhetoric touts a chance to profit from disaster. Privatization is the “solution” to every problem, and a chance for big profits in a low-tax environment.

By July 2019, the government was deeply unpopular. Huge demonstrations coupled with collapsing support from his former allies forced the Governor from office. But the problems go much deeper. After the demonstrations, the walls are white-painted and the slogans disappear. Will there, can there be real change?

All the way through I could not help thinking that this is our world post-covid. Governments cherry-picking who will benefit. Privatization as the solution to bankrupt states. Con artists sweeping in with “recovery” schemes intended to fleece people desperate to believe in anything. Political battles between a corrupt government with physical power, but little support from the governed beyond a privileged few. Puerto Rico may be a largely ignored corner of the US, but is it a sign of what will come as the devastations of pandemic and political upheaval sweep across the mainland?

Mayor

Directed by Davit Osit
USA/UK

**½

In an interview following Mayor, director David Osit explained that his purpose was to show Palestine’s major city, Ramallah, as a modern, lively, thriving place with aspirations for a brighter future, by contrast to so much daily news coverage of the Middle East. Osit, an American, had lived in the region for several years, and used the daily work, hopes and frustrations of the Mayor, Musa Hadid, to illustrate his thesis.

Hadid sits in meetings like any politician or bureaucrat aiming for change, but achieving it in small steps constantly frustrated by limits on what he can do. Ramallah is under Israeli occupation, and many things lie outside of the Mayor’s control. Moreover, he, a municipal official, must avoid stepping on sensitive toes.

The mayor is well liked, although not charismatic, and is greeted happily wherever he goes. Many people ask him to fix things – sticking doors in an old school, overflowing sewage systems – and he is always saying “yes, I will look after this” but we never find out if that was just political glad-handing or if genuine improvements flowed from his interventions.

Ramallah is a Christian city, and among the arrangements we follow are those for Christmas celebrations. Incongruously a large, artificial Christmas tree sits in the square near City Hall and there is a lighting ceremony with fireworks, and a new fountain. We would expect this is the sort of thing in many places, and it is as much about City pride as for the seasonal celebration.

During the course of filming, the USA announces that it will recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and moves its embassy to this disputed city. Inevitably protests grow in Ramallah and the Israeli military suddenly assumes a much stronger presence. The magic is broken and we might wonder whether the city will become one more piece of newsreel footage. But Ramallah picks itself up and continues onward, and Mayor ends on a hopeful note.

We, unlike those in Mayor, have the advantage of hindsight and know that the Israeli political stalemate and Palestine occupation continue to this day with little hope they will end.

Watching Mayor, I had a sense that the film didn’t really find its focus, that we spent too much time just following Mayor Hadid around his city. Indeed were it not for the shift forced by the protests, Osit would be left with much footage of day-to-day troubles mayors face in many cities, but no compelling story.

My feelings gelled with the interview that followed in which Osit’s background and aims became clear. One should not need a post-screening chat to understand just what a director was trying to accomplish, and that’s why I did not give this a full three-star rating.

The 8th

Directed by Aideen Kane, Maeve O’Boyle and Lucy Kennedy
USA

****

In an 1983 referendum, by a 2-to-1 margin country-wide, Ireland passed its 8th constitutional amendment. This gave full rights to an unborn foetus and made abortion impossible under any circumstances.

A long, very uphill battle for repeal began then, and 35 years later, in May 2018, the 2-to-1 margin was on the pro-choice side.

The 8th follows the period leading up to the 2018 referendum, but looks back at historical events that shaped the debate. A striking point about this documentary is that it is largely free of the poisonous arguments we hear in North America, and both side are presented with respect even though the filmmakers are clearly on the pro-choice side.

Many women were involved in the activism which led to a decision to hold a new referendum, and then to win it convincingly. The 8th follows two of them.

Ailbhe Smyth was an activist for gay rights and women’s rights going back to the 1980s, and for her the fight is the long haul with disappointments and small victories along the way.

Andrea Horan is a political neophyte, the operator of a nail salon and one of a generation that had ignored politics. She is caught up by the repeal campaign and brings women of her circle into an issue that affects them all personally.

The political battle is not easy and for a time the question seems too close to call. We know the outcome as a matter of historical fact, but there is still the thrill of seeing the win when it comes. It was fascinating to see internal debates about how strongly aspects of the question should be pushed, and the “yes” campaign for repeal is almost quaintly genteel at times.

Two important flashbacks illustrate tragedies of the old law. These were flashpoints both for political action and slow changes through court-granted exemptions. I omit details here to leave their heartbreak and importance to anyone who views this film.

Equally important was the declining credibility and political strength of the Church rocked by child abuse scandals, and by horrific tales of the treatment of unwed mothers and their children.

This was a great victory for human rights in Ireland, but The 8th comes at a time when conservative forces seek to undo pro-choice achievements in both the USA and Canada. That is the real undertext of the film, although it is never mentioned.

Bulletproof

Directed by Todd Chandler
USA

***

Schools in the United States were changed forever by mass shooting incidents that left students and teachers dead, and communities reeling. Safe havens for children became sitting targets for anyone with a grudge against fellow students or the school, or society in general. This launched not only a change in how schools operated, but the birth of an industry to stoke and exploit fear.

Chandler tells his story mostly without narration and the viewer must stitch together the threads of events and attitudes he shows us. The context is, of course, a macho gun-filled country where the risks are higher than in Canada. An underlying question is whether the drills, the lockdowns, the armed school staff and the pervasive security presence are, pardon the term, overkill for the actual level of risk, and might even do more harm than good.

Many overlapping interests feed off a climate of fear, of the sense that someone from “out there” could terrorize a school. Police forces, private security companies, weapons makers and politicians all profit in a context that more security is always better, that those in charge will protect “us” from “them”.

Meanwhile, students live with routine lockdown drills that not only interrupt their lessons, but reinforce the idea that disaster could arrive at any time. One of them wisely observed that there is more trauma from all of the drills than from any real event.

One cannot help noticing that this mindset, and by extension the marketing of a secure world, is overwhelmingly middle class. We are not in poor schools filled with people of limited means and colour. Schools in well-off districts have, or at least can try to find, money for the extra layers of security hardware, personnel and training. They have parents for whom the threat of “the other” is strong.

Around the edges, there are nagging questions from some in the film. When money becomes available to improve schools, it might arrive with conditions on how it is spent – hardware and security, not assistance and counselling for troubled students. Any difficult student, including those with social or physical problems, can be targets of the very system that is supposed to protect them.

There is always money to buy new stuff, but once the systems are up and running, ongoing maintenance is another matter, and it competes with basic school needs for funding.

Recent events put the presence of police in schools in a stark light that Chandler could not have anticipated. The police are very much “them” for many students, an unwelcome, occupying force and a threat, and they are another non-academic cost draining school budgets. Those who oppose more spending on security have an uphill battle against a pervasive culture.

As I said earlier, the viewer has to pull these threads together, and a bit more examination of the politics behind the militarization of schools would have been welcome.

Bulletproof is a sad commentary on the evolution of American society, at least part of it, with obvious links to the evolving right-wing gun culture that has not, yet, found its way to Canada. With a culture of fear and violence, what is the future for these students?

Bulletproof was co-produced by the PBS program Independent Lens, among many others, and will likely appear sometime in the future on air. Todd Chandler won the HotDocs Emerging International Filmmaker Award.

499

Directed by Rodrigo Reyas
Mexico/USA

****

499 opens on a seemingly empty beach. A soldier washes up on the shore, an obvious victim of a shipwreck. He is dressed as a conquistador, and we might think that this is an historic recreation until the camera turns to reveal modern day beach-goers and vendors who are as surprised by him as he is by them.

The soldier is dismissive of the people he encounters, and soon we find him addressing a group of schoolgirls as a conqueror, a man with the combined force of Spain and of God who will either turn them to his will, or annihilate them. Part way through this speech, he loses his voice and that moment begins his discovery of the fate, five centuries later, of the people he so cavalierly dismissed.

Reyas stitches together stories from real people of varying backgrounds who are victims of poverty and violence. His thesis is that the current state of Mexico (and by extension all colonized lands) derives from that original invasion and conquest. This is not a happy tourist view of Mexico, but one where brutal suppression of the underclasses by government and drug lords is routine.

By the end, the story joins migrants fleeing to the promised land, the United States, where our conquistador himself becomes part of the underclass, a restaurant dishwasher.

This is an unsettling and dispiriting view of life in Mexico. The linking thread of a character who begins as a condescending European and ends in the American underclass works. Without him, there would be broken episodes needing narration, but no mechanism for an evolving vision. Narration is not the same as experience, even if it is at times fanciful.

The premise behind Reyas’ film is that this man out of time, 499 years after Cortez defeated the Aztec empire, is a surrogate for colonialism and its historic aftermath. This implies that things might have been different without the invaders and their brutal, dismissive ways. Possibly. But I cannot help thinking that there have been conquests throughout history, oppressors and oppressed. The larger problem is of economic inbalance and exploitation that happens both between and within countries and peoples.

I hope that 499 returns when we can see it theatrically with its wide-screen cinematography intended to mimic the style of historical epics.

499 received the HotDocs Special Jury Prize for International Feature Documentary.

Influence

Directed by Richard Poplak and Diana Neille
Canada / South Africa

***

The pitch for Influence is that it will reveal the evolution of advertising and public relations into message packaging and outright interference in the political process. The primary subject is the British firm Bell Pottinger and its founder Lord Tim Bell. Conveniently, Lord Bell died in 2019 and is not around to dispute how he is portrayed in this film.

Bell started out at Saatchi and Saatchi, but his major political success was to get Margaret Thatcher elected three times. His friendship with her provided a springboard to other campaigns notably one in South Africa. Bell is quite amoral about his clients and has only the faintest sense that he might not be serving a good cause.

The film runs 108 minutes, neatly fitting into a two-hour screening time with commercials on CBC which, even on fast forward thanks to my PVR, I found upset the flow. That’s a sign that my attention was less than riveted to the screen.

If I were only reviewing the first half, I would give it good marks as an interesting historical review including manipulation of public opinion in the first post-apartheid election in SA and failed attempts to win minds in Iraq. The second half bogs down in extended coverage of two issues and left me with a feeling of “and then what …” by the time the credits rolled. It felt as if the director was padding out the film with available footage. He hints at Cambridge Analytica around the margins but this never comes into clear view.

Bell Pottinger was expelled from the U.K. Public Relations and Communications Association for its role in fomenting racial discord in South Africa to the advantage of the Gupta family whose scandalous pillaging of public resources is now well-known. That said, I never had the sense of a hammer coming down hard on Bell himself.

We know the business of unscrupulous PR campaigns continues to this day, and one can only wonder how many interventions occurs today closer to home. Never mind Russian or Chinese meddling, teams that are supposed to be on “our side” have lots of help from image peddlers. This, the logical conclusion of Influence is not explored at all.

Available free on CBC Gem

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