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Hot Docs 2012: Five Capsule Reviews, including “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry”

April 26, 2012

By John C.

The 19th annual Hot Docs Film Festival starts tonight, running from April 26th until May 6th at eleven venues around Toronto, including the newly renovated Bloor Cinema.  Below are my thoughts on five good documentaries that I’ve already had the chance to preview, including Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, which screens this evening as the opening night selection.

This year’s festival is made up of 189 documentaries from 51 countries around the world, including ones that show us the life of a controversial artist, the creative passion that drives independent video game developers as well as the extreme poverty and disgusting wealth that is lurking beneath the surface in America.  I hope you all find something to see over the next eleven days and please come back next Tuesday and Thursday for more rounds of capsule reviews.  You can get more information on the festival and purchase tickets right here.  Enjoy!

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry:  After gaining worldwide notoriety for designing the stadium for the 2008 Olympics before protesting the actual games, unapologetic visual artist Ai Weiwei is facing house arrest after upsetting the Chinese government on multiple accounts and trying to sue the police department for attacking him.  Some of the best scenes come from the camera fights between government officials and Ai Weiwei’s always filming crew, and the deeply moving project that he set up to pay tribute to the many students who were anonymously killed in the 2008 earthquake.  Although some of his most experimental art is a little too weird for my liking, I admire Ai Weiwei’s fight for justice and free speech for an entire country, even if it means sacrificing some of his own freedom in the process.  Working well as a piece of investigative journalism, director Alyson Klayman’s Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is a good choice to open the festival because of the interesting political message that it ultimately sends.

Thursday, April 26th – 6:30 PM @ Bloor Hot Docs Cinema

Thursday, April 26th – 9:30 PM @ Bloor Hot Docs Cinema

Saturday, April 28th – 4:15 PM @ TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

Finding North:  When it comes to the developed countries, the United States has a shockingly high level of food insecurity, meaning that about a quarter of the American population doesn’t know where their next meal is going to come from.  Directors Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush delve into this widespread hunger crisis that is leading to higher rates of obesity, bringing the root of the problem back to the government offering higher subsidies to mass market grain farms and not putting enough money into school lunch programs.  Playing to an excellent soundtrack of country songs from The Civil Wars, the powerful call to arms that the film offers comes from deeply moving interviews with young parents struggling to make ends meet and kids in small towns who barely have enough to eat.  Against all odds, Finding North is a heartbreakingly affective documentary that manages to end on a quietly hopeful note, making us want to help turn around the hunger crisis happening all around us.

Tuesday, May 1st – 7:00 PM @ Isabel Bader Theatre

Thursday, May 3rd – 1:00 PM @ Isabel Bader Theatre

Saturday, May 5th – 1:30 PM @ The ROM Theatre

The Queen of Versailles:  When The Queen of Versailles opens, filthy rich timeshare mogul David Siegal and his former Mrs. Florida trophy wife Jackie are in the midst of constructing the largest private home in America.  Christmas shopping for their eight kids consists of four overflowing shopping carts, and they see the thirty bathrooms and skating rink of their new house as an essential part of life.  Nobody needs to be this rich, but the economic downturn threatens to finally dethrone this family.  I have nothing but respect for director Lauren Greenfield and the way that she so eloquently captures these characters and this story, crafting an effortlessly involving and immensely entertaining documentary that deserves a big audience.  Expertly showing the rift between the disgustingly rich and middle class homes of America while powerfully demonstrating how both are hit by the recession, The Queen of Versailles is one of the quintessential documentaries to make us seriously rethink our tough economic times.

Wednesday, May 2nd – 7:00 PM @ TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

Thursday, May 3rd – 9:15 PM @ Isabel Bader Theatre

Friday, May 4th – 8:45 PM @ Bloor Hot Docs Cinema

Indie Game: The Movie:  Canadian directors Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky dive into the world of independent video games in the brilliantly edited documentary Indie Game: The Movie.  Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes have spent much of their adult lives working together on the quirky Super Meat Boy, while Jonathan Blow uses the success of his breakout game Braid to philosophically question what it means to be an artist.  Montreal’s Phil Fish has been struggling for years to bring the ambitiously designed 3D world of Fez to mainstream gamers, hitting road blocks both mental and physical.  But Indie Game: The Movie is more than just an entertaining documentary about video game developers and the worlds they create to socialize without actual human interaction.  This is a fascinating and timely look at obsession, depression and the pressure of what can happen when independent artists both do or don’t make it big.  Even if you aren’t much of a gamer, anybody who has ever been consumed by creative passion will find themselves hooked by the surprisingly human story of this excellent film.

Thursday, May 3rd – 9:00 PM @ Bloor Hot Docs Cinema

Also screening as part of Hot Docs Live, at 35 Cineplex theatres across Canada

Detropia:  Back in 1930, Detroit, Michigan was one of the quickest growing cities in the USA.  Now it’s among the fastest shrinking in America.  With a sympathetic eye, directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady capture personal interviews with a young blogger who is determined to document the rapid decline of her city, an auto union worker who shares some good ideas about how to turn things around and two young artists who recently moved in because of the affordable real estate.  Scenes of houses being torn down, abandoned apartment buildings with the walls ripped out and young guys salvaging scrap metal for recycling will stick with you long after the credits roll.  A haunting and profoundly humanistic portrait of a city on the brink of disaster, Detropia is a brilliantly filmed documentary about Detroit and the dystopia that it could unfortunately become.

Saturday, May 5th – 5:45 PM @ Bloor Hot Docs Cinema

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