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#HotDocs21 Audience Award Winners

May 10, 2021

By John Corrado

Dear Future Children

Hot Docs has officially come to a close, with the final announcement of the coveted Audience Awards revealing the top twenty films that resonated the most with viewers during the virtual festival. In first place is director Franz Böhm’s Dear Future Children, which follows three young female activists in Chile, Hong Kong and Uganda. While I haven’t seen the film, I’m looking forward to watching it in the future, and was able to catch fully half of the Top 20 titles.

Additionally, the winners of the Rogers Audience Award for the top five highest rated Canadian films were announced last night, which were FANNY: The Right to Rock, Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy, Someone Like Me, Still Max, and Hell or Clean Water. This award carries a cash prize of $50,000, divided evenly between the five films for $10,000 each. I’m a bit surprised that FANNY: The Right to Rock came in so high, and that One of Ours just missed making the top five, though I’m very pleased with the other four.

All of the winners are listed below, with links to my reviews of the ones that I’ve seen.

Rogers Audience Award Winners

  1. FANNY: The Right to Rock (Review)
  2. Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy (Review)
  3. Someone Like Me (Review)
  4. Still Max (Review)
  5. Hell or Clean Water (Review)

Top 20

  1. Dear Future Children
  2. Writing with Fire
  3. FANNY: The Right to Rock (Review)
  4. Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy (Review)
  5. Someone Like Me (Review)
  6. Still Max (Review)
  7. Hell or Clean Water (Review)
  8. Subjects of Desire
  9. Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street (Review)
  10. One of Ours (Review)
  11. A Once and Future Peace
  12. We Are the Thousand (Review)
  13. Firestarter – The Story of Bangarra
  14. Imad’s Childhood
  15. It Is Not Over Yet (Review)
  16. Rebel Hearts
  17. With Drawn Arms
  18. Spirit to Soar
  19. In the Same Breath (Review)
  20. Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

Top 5 Shorts

  1. A Concerto Is a Conversation
  2. The Hairdresser
  3. Mary Two-Axe Earley: I Am Indian Again (Review)
  4. Recorder Queen
  5. TIE – The Train Station and The White Death of the Black Wizard

Top 5 Midlengths

  1. Spirit to Soar
  2. Becoming
  3. Holy Bread
  4. Only I Can Hear
  5. Dropstones

Top Films by Program

Artscapes: We Are the Thousand (Review)

Canadian Spectrum: Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy (Review)

The Changing Face of Europe: Raise the Bar

Deep Dive: Philly D.A.

International Spectrum: School of Hope

Made in Colombia: Rebel Love

Markers: Faya Dayi

Nightvision: Cannon Arm and the Arcade Quest

Persister: FANNY: The Right to Rock (Review)

Special Presentations: Subjects of Desire

Systems Down: It Is Not Over Yet (Review)

World Showcase: Dear Future Children

#HotDocs21 Review: Threshold

May 9, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The 2021 Hot Docs Festival is running virtually from April 29th to May 9th, all films are available to stream for audiences across Canada

Brazilian filmmaker Coraci Ruiz crafts a low-key and deeply personal portrait of her first born child Noah’s gender transitioning process in Threshold. Shot over several years, the documentary follows her adolescent son as he goes through the process of name changes and other decisions regarding his body.

The film’s most interesting moments are the conversations between Ruiz and Noah, who candidly talks about where he personally falls on the spectrum between non-binary and masculine, offering a revealing glimpse into his thought process during this exploratory phase. Ruiz interviews her own mother as well, showing how three generations understand ideas surrounding feminism and gender identity, as she admits to having to change her own thinking that gender is only a biological determination.

Ruiz gets into more complex issues as well like parental consent for surgery and hormones, and it’s very interesting to hear these things being discussed in such an open and honest way. The film also looks at how the political climate in Brazil was shifting towards the far right during this time, impacting the social landscape in regards to LGBTQ rights. Mixing intimate interviews with home movie footage shot over the years, Threshold is an interesting look at gender identity, that explores these timely themes in a thoughtful and and emotionally sensitive way.

Threshold is available to watch from April 29th until May 9th. It includes a Q&A. Digital tickets and more information can be found right here.

#HotDocs21 Review: We Are As Gods

May 9, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The 2021 Hot Docs Festival is running virtually from April 29th to May 9th, all films are available to stream for audiences across Canada

Titled after his old motto “we are as gods and might as well get good at it,” the documentary We Are As Gods offers an intriguing look at the ideas of Stewart Brand. A life-long conservationist, Brand is now at the forefront of the modern de-extinction movement, and is determined to bring back wooly mammoths using their DNA.

Directed by David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg, and serving as a natural progression from their previous documentaries The Immortalists and Bill Nye: Science Guy, the film works as both an engaging biography of Brand, as well as an interesting introduction to his work. A former hippie, the film touches upon Brand’s time as part of Ken Kesey’s Merry Band of Pranksters, his experiments with psychedelics, and his founding of the Whole Earth Catalog, a countercultural publication that gained him prominent followers such as Steve Jobs.

Brand was at the forefront of the modern environmental movement in the 1960s and ‘70s, only to start breaking away from it when many in the movement started opposing technological advancements. His support of genetic modification and using biotechnology to help reverse extinction still puts him at odds with many environmentalists, believing that the solution to climate change lies in repopulating certain areas with wooly mammoths and other large grazing animals that will help cool the ground.

The film takes us into Pleistocene Park in Siberia, where the permafrost is melting due to climate change, causing methane gas to be released. Founded by Russian scientist Sergey Zimov, the park is being cultivated as the future home for wooly mammoths, which Brand hopes will help reverse the warming process. While Brand concedes that mammoths are still quite a ways off, advancements in biotechnology have already allowed scientists to bring back American Chestnut trees, which were all wiped out due to a fungus in the 1900s.

Working with a ton of archival footage, as well as new interviews with Brand and some of his contemporaries, including both supporters and detractors, Alvarado and Sussberg have crafted an involving portrait of him. The film not only focuses on his scientific work, but shows his past struggles with depression as well, allowing it to work as an engaging character study. The film is complimented by a good musical score by composer Brian Eno, an admirer of Brand’s who also appears briefly as one of the film’s subjects.

Seen as a visionary by some and an irresponsible mad man by others, Brand is shown to be someone who has always been on the leading edge of science, whether it be environmentalism or computer technology. What We Are As Gods offers is a good introduction to his ideas, that opens a thought-provoking debate about whether or not animals should be brought back from extinction.

We Are As Gods is available to watch from April 29th until May 9th. It includes a Q&A. Digital tickets and more information can be found right here.

#HotDocs21 Review: In the Same Breath

May 8, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

The 2021 Hot Docs Festival is running virtually from April 29th to May 9th, all films are available to stream for audiences across Canada

There have been several documentaries made so far about the COVID-19 pandemic, and filmmaker Nanfu Wang’s In the Same Breath is by far the best one that I’ve seen. The film began from a personal place for Wang, who left her young son with family near Wuhan and flew back to the United States on January 23rd, 2020, the same day that the city got locked down to stop the spread of the virus.

Wang’s film specifically looks at how China’s communist government utilized propaganda throughout the pandemic, both concealing the severity of this new coronavirus in its early stages, and using it to push a patriotic message and encourage blind trust in authorities once it started to spread. She opens the film on New Year’s, showing regular celebrations unfolding in Wuhan to ring in 2020. Meanwhile, that same day, Chinese state media reported that eight people were arrested for spreading “false rumours” about a new pneumonia.

Sensing that the pandemic was worse than authorities were letting on, Wang hired freelance camera operators to start filming in the city during the aggressive lockdown. They capture covert footage inside overcrowded hospitals, where doctors and nurses weren’t allowed to speak without permission, and patients are too scared to talk. Through this footage from inside Wuhan, along with a trove of censored social media posts that she combs through from late 2019, Wang shows how the virus was allowed to spread through censorship and misinformation.

We also hear testimonies from citizen journalists and those who had family members die from the virus, painting a much, much bleaker portrait than what we even know. The film itself traces cases of the virus back to at least December 2019, through security camera footage of sick people coming into a clinic near the wet market. Wang also calls into question Wuhan’s “official” death toll of just under four thousand, determining through reports from funeral homes and crematoriums that the actual body count could easily be up to ten times that.

Wang also draws a comparison to how misinformation about the virus was allowed to spread in the United States, with mixed messaging from the CDC in the early stages, including initially discouraging mask use, helping it take hold in major cities. In one heartbreaking sequence, she charts the explosion of cases in New York, showing how many, including herself, were blindsided by the pandemic despite many warning signs. Equally devastating are scenes of nurses breaking down in tears, with the film observing that the trauma they experienced through the pandemic will likely never leave them.

This is a gripping film that cuts through the partisan slant to offer both a compelling look at the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as a fearless piece of investigative journalism that peeks behind the curtain of carefully curated government propaganda. Yes, In the Same Breath provides invaluable documentation of this unprecedented moment in modern human history. But Wang’s film also becomes a powerful rebuke of authoritarianism, showing how propaganda is used to make people feel safe while keeping them from being truly free.

In the Same Breath is available to watch from April 29th until May 9th. It includes a Q&A. Digital tickets and more information can be found right here.

#HotDocs21 Review: Wuhan Wuhan

May 8, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The 2021 Hot Docs Festival is running virtually from April 29th to May 9th, all films are available to stream for audiences across Canada

Directed by Yung Chang, who was brought onboard to assemble the film out of three hundred hours of footage that was shot by a filmmaking team that ended up being locked down in Wuhan as COVID-19 started to spread, Wuhan Wuhan serves as a valuable snapshot of life in the Chinese city in the early stages of the pandemic.

The film takes us into the hospitals to show us those on the frontlines of battling the virus, while also introducing us to ordinary citizens stuck in the middle of it. We follow a variety of subjects, including a chief physician working in the ER; a young ICU nurse and one of her older patients whom she affectionately refers to as a “grumpy grandpa;” a travelling psychologist providing support to patients; as well as a mother and son who are stuck quarantining in one of the temporary field hospitals, unable to be discharged until three tests come back negative.

The narrative and emotional through-line of the documentary is a young couple that we intimately follow, Yin and Xu, who are going to have a baby. Yin volunteers as a driver for healthcare workers, allowing him to hear first hand about the severity of the virus, while Xu faces the added pressure of having to give birth in the middle of a pandemic. In one sequence that feels like something straight out of a social realist film, Yin struggles to find a crib to purchase in the shuttered city.

Compared to the handful of other documentaries made up of footage shot during Wuhan’s strict lockdown, Wuhan Wuhan feels more relaxed than 76 Days, which took place entirely inside hospitals, and it’s not a politically charged film like In the Same Breath (also at Hot Docs), which focuses on the role of government propaganda. But Chang’s film holds value as an observational portrait of what it was like to live in the city at the beginning of the pandemic. The result is an interesting and often poignant look at how life continued to unfold in Wuhan during the lockdown.

Wuhan Wuhan is available to watch from April 29th until May 9th. It includes a Q&A. Digital tickets and more information can be found right here.

#HotDocs21 Review: One of Ours

May 8, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The 2021 Hot Docs Festival is running virtually from April 29th to May 9th, all films are available to stream for audiences across Canada

Josiah Wilson was born in Haiti and adopted as a baby by a Heiltsuk father and a white mother, and raised as part of an Indigenous community in Calgary. But, despite being a member of the Heiltsuk Nation and having legal Indian status, Wilson was barred from competing at the All Native Basketball Tournament in 2016, due to an old, colonial “blood quantum” rule requiring players to have at least 1/8th Indigenous blood.

Director Yasmine Mathurin, delivering a well crafted feature debut, examines the fallout from this decision in her fascinating documentary One of Ours. Wilson’s disqualification from the tournament became a national news story that sparked a wider debate about how Indigenous identity is defined in Canada, but Mathurin’s film looks more specifically at how the decision impacted Wilson on a personal level, shifting his own sense of belonging and exacerbating existing tensions within his family.

Gaining intimate access to Wilson’s personal life, and capturing some candid moments with his family and friends, One of Ours becomes a powerful look at a young man struggling to balance his Black and Indigenous identities. As more details are revealed about Wilson’s unique family, including the events surrounding the divorce of his parents, the portrait becomes even more complex. The film also reveals the disconnect that he is feeling towards his two younger siblings, who pass as white.

Mathurin does a good job of tying this all together with home video footage of Wilson as a child, including some touching images that show the bond he shared with his Indigenous grandfather, affirming his deep roots to the First Nations community that he was adopted into. What emerges is a fascinating and thought-provoking look at issues of racial identity and self-acceptance, with a lot of different layers to unpack.

One of Ours is available to watch from April 29th until May 9th. It includes a Q&A. Digital tickets and more information can be found right here.

#HotDocs21 Review: Still Max

May 7, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The 2021 Hot Docs Festival is running virtually from April 29th to May 9th, all films are available to stream for audiences across Canada

Filmmaker Katherine Knight crafts an engaging portrait of acclaimed Canadian artist Max Dean in her documentary Still Max, which offers an interesting look at his unique response to being diagnosed with prostate cancer. Rather then going for chemotherapy or surgery to have his prostate removed, Dean instead opts to use the diagnosis as inspiration for his art, a process that is captured in Knight’s film.

We watch as Dean works with broken mannequins that he collected from the abandoned Wilderness Adventure Ride at Ontario Place to recreate Thomas Eakins’ classic medical painting “The Gross Clinic” at his waterfront studio nestled in the Toronto Port Lands, staging scenes of himself undergoing invasive surgery. When Dean’s partner, fellow artist Martha Fleury, is diagnosed with ovarian cancer, he starts creating a new art project built around a massive tumour, to visually show how cancer overtakes your life.

The film builds towards a nicely edited crescendo, drawing strong visual comparisons between the artist’s work, his declining health, and the redevelopment of the Toronto Port Lands. The result is both a fascinating glimpse into Dean’s unconventional artistic process, as well as a thought-provoking look at a different approach to confronting mortality and dealing with changes in your body. It’s also fitting that Knight directed Still Max, since Dean was a close personal friend of Arnaud Maggs, the subject of her earlier documentary Spring & Arnaud. This film serves as a nice companion piece to that one, which also explored how artists approach death.

Still Max is available to watch from April 29th until May 9th. It includes a Q&A. Digital tickets and more information can be found right here.

#HotDocs21 Review: Faceless

May 7, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The 2021 Hot Docs Festival is running virtually from April 29th to May 9th, all films are available to stream for audiences across Canada

Shot during the 2019 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, which saw hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets to fight against the extradition bill being pushed by mainland China, director Jennifer Ngo’s documentary Faceless introduces us to four of the young people who were on the frontlines of the movement.

The subjects, who appear masked and are given nicknames, include The Student, a high schooler who went as a photographer to document the protests with his camera; The Artist, a young queer woman who is using art to protest against government overreach; The Believer, who was in university during the 2014 Occupy Movement and wants to provide spiritual support to the new wave of protesters; and The Daughter, a teen girl whose police officer father doesn’t approve of her taking part in the movement.

Ngo, a reporter who is making her directorial debut with this film, interviews these young activists, who talk about why it is important for them to defend the sovereignty of Hong Kong, as well as the risks they are taking to be involved in the movement and how it is impacting their personal lives. The director mixes these interviews with harrowing, on the ground footage of the protests, including some powerful slow motion shots of running crowds, as police violently crack down on the protestors, and escalate the situation by firing tear gas into the crowd. This is matched by a dramatic soundtrack.

These protests against the extradition bill, a direct threat to the “one country, two systems” promise that was made when Hong Kong was handed over by the British in 1997, spanned hundreds of days and were a watershed moment for ordinary people standing up against the government, even as their efforts seemed increasingly futile. Sadly, Beijing forced through a version of the bill in 2020, with far-reaching consequences that are detailed in a series of postscripts. Playing like a companion piece to last year’s Hot Docs film Hong Kong Moments, Faceless offers a powerful look at four young people risking everything to fight for their freedom.

Faceless is available to watch from April 29th until May 9th. It includes a Q&A. Digital tickets and more information can be found right here.

#HotDocs21 Review: It Is Not Over Yet

May 6, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The 2021 Hot Docs Festival is running virtually from April 29th to May 9th, all films are available to stream for audiences across Canada

At Dagmarsminde, a nursing home in Denmark for people with dementia, the staff operate on principles of kindness and compassion, instead of just using medication to subdue the residents. They sit with them, don’t correct them when they talk about their deceased parents still being alive, and allow them to drink alcohol and eat cake.

As a result, the residents are on less than one medication a day, where most homes have them on upwards of ten. The home is run by May Bjerre Eiby, a nurse who started it after becoming distraught over the conditions of the nursing home that she worked in as a teenager, where her father eventually had to go live. She came up with the idea to treat people with dementia as people, striving to meet them where they are at instead of trying to force them back into reality.

This person-focused way of dealing with dementia is explored in director Louise Detlefsen’s highly compassionate documentary It Is Not Over Yet. With an unobtrusive approach to filming inside the home, Detlefsen allows us to patiently observe interactions between the residents and staff. We see how the staff are determined to maintain quality of life for the residents at all times. Moments of confusion or agitation are met with calm understanding, instead of sedatives. When one of the men tries to wander out at night to check on the chickens, the nurses don’t try to stop him, and just makes sure that he has the right coat on instead.

It’s an approach that is seen as radical by some, and revolutionary by others, and Detlefsen’s respectful film, which was shot by her cinematographer husband Per Fredrik Skiold with a very small crew, allows us to see the effects for ourselves. The documentary also raises some deeper ethical questions about end of life care, and how much should be done for someone in their final days, leading to some of the most challenging and heart-wrenching onscreen moments. This is a thought provoking and often touching look at a different approach to caring for people with dementia.

It Is Not Over Yet is available to watch from April 29th until May 9th. It includes a Q&A. Digital tickets and more information can be found right here.

#HotDocs21 Review: Acts of Love

May 6, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

The 2021 Hot Docs Festival is running virtually from April 29th to May 9th, all films are available to stream for audiences across Canada

After leaving his older boyfriend in Mexico City, young filmmaker Isidore Bethel returns to Chicago, where he embarks on a new film project. He starts interviewing men that he meets on dating apps, and writing short films around their stories, getting them to star in these reenactments with him. This is the concept behind Acts of Love, a daring and exciting hybrid documentary that Bethel co-directed with French actor Francis Leplay.

The result is a unique film that defies easy categorization, mixing scripted scenes, intimately captured and at times uncomfortable personal moments, photo montages, and reflective voiceover. As Bethel goes through the process, we are left asking, is this is a profound meditation on love, relationships and hook-up culture, or a self-centred vanity project made only for himself as a way to deal with a breakup? For Bethel’s mother, it’s the latter. In some of the film’s most candid moments, he films conversations with his mother on speaker phone, and she isn’t shy about voicing her disapproval of the project.

Along the way, Bethel asks questions and reaches some greater truths about himself and relationships in general, which we find ourself reflecting on as well. What we are left with is a film that is amorphous yet extremely personal and always engaging, straddling the line between modern art project, experimental documentary, and mumblecore indie film. Bethel’s project both does and doesn’t take shape as it goes along, but the film itself becomes surprisingly moving, building towards an incredible final sequence of images that ends this journey on a deeply resonant note.

Acts of Love is available to watch from April 29th until May 9th. It includes a Q&A. Digital tickets and more information can be found right here.

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