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Hot Docs Celebrates Twenty Years with an Outstanding Festival

May 6, 2013

By John C.

Lucy Walker answers questions after The Crash Reel on May 2nd @ Hart House

Director Lucy Walker answers questions after The Crash Reel on May 2nd @ Hart House Theatre

I saw forty films throughout the 20th edition of Hot Docs and published a review for every one of them, an achievement that I am proud to have accomplished.  The fact that many of them still stand out so clearly in my mind is a testament to the quality of the films that screened in Toronto over the past eleven days.

Although I saw a single disappointment and a couple of them were merely pretty good, I also had the pleasure of seeing ones that blew me away in one way or another, with so many great films that I find it near impossible to pick a clear favourite.

The festival opened back on April 25th with the world premiere of The Manor, an incredibly entertaining documentary that seamlessly moved between comedy and tragedy with its intimate portrait of a unique family running a strip club in Guelph.  From the moment I left the press screening of the opening night selection, I just knew that this would shape up to be an outstanding festival, but there were still countless surprises left in store.  There was a very cinematic quality to many of the films that I saw, with filmmakers finding unique ways to follow the documentary formula, as evidenced by the breathtaking cinematography in the fantastic Maidentrip and the awesome camerawork in the captivating 12 O’Clock Boys.

There were also films with remarkable stories that unfolded with a strong narrative sense, including the much discussed Unclaimed, which served as a powerful and moving look at how far someone would go to help a stranger reclaim their rightful identity.  With an intricate real life plot that keeps turning in on itself, I Will Be Murdered was a masterpiece of documentary filmmaking, a shocking and multilayered mystery that shed fascinating light on deeply rooted corruption in a world where literally nothing is as it seems.  Both as a documentary and an activist call to action, Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer rocked, offering a balanced view of an important political message.

The festival also offered many films that opened our eyes to issues around the world, including three that all shed light on problems that are primarily faced in India.  Following one man on his inspiring journey to help others, Blood Brother was by turns heartwarming and incredibly sad, offering a story of hope along with heartbreak.  The similarly titled Blood Relative was a thought provoking look at a genetic disease that can trap adults in the bodies of children.  At just over an hour, Menstrual Man used great humour to shed light on an important cultural issue, offering an incredibly entertaining film, made all the better for its serious treatment of the subjects.

The use of child soldiers was the subject of Fight Like Soldiers Die Like Children, a thought provoking documentary with the fascinating Romeo Dallaire.  There were many emotional films at this year’s festival, offering some unforgettably powerful experiences.  A haunting and achingly sad film about the small ways that we are all remembered after we die, Spring & Arnaud was a beautiful portrait and just one of the many ways that the title couple will continue to live on.  Delving deep into a shocking case, Valentine Road was a heartbreaking, disturbing and vitally important film about the need for widespread acceptance of sexuality and gender identity.

But the festival also gave me life metaphors that I won’t soon forget, like the way that Chris “Wonder” Schoeck bends steel to build confidence in the surprisingly inspirational Bending Steel.  The title of 15 Reasons to Live was inspirational on its own, offering a resonant collection of stories that ended on a moving note.  The pure enjoyment of a film like We Cause Scenes offered a fun change of pace from all of the heartbreak on display, and Alphée of the Stars was an incredibly sweet film about a father’s love for his daughter who has a disability.

There were also small films that immediately got spots on my list of personal favourites, including Trucker and the Fox, an immensely appealing hidden gem that entertained while posing a fascinating question about how far is too far when it comes to caring for a wild animal.  At just over an hour, Tiny: A Story About Living Small was an absolute delight from beginning to end, a thoughtful and inspirational redefinition of home that was lovingly crafted and highly recommended.  We have never seen anyone quite like Ed Ackerman, and Special Ed was an excellent portrait of this interesting man who truly is something special, and a film that I look forward to revisiting.

I’ve always loved music documentaries and the sheer amount of them at this year’s festival was another highlight for me.  The very entertaining Good Ol’ Freda finally gave the remarkably humble Freda Kelly an opportunity to tell her own story, providing an invaluable document of a lesser known chapter from The Beatles history.  The story of how two young Scottish guys pretended to be from California and gained notoriety as a rap duo in England made for a compelling documentary in The Great Hip Hop Hoax, a fascinating look at the music industry and how long you can keep up a performance before blurring lines with reality.

Not only was Mistaken for Strangers a wildly entertaining concert documentary that is essential viewing for fans of the indie rock band The National, the film also had a very touching story about two brothers reconnecting.  As a classic music fan, Muscle Shoals left me wanting to stand up and cheer, as it offered a comprehensive look at the small backwater town in Alabama that was home to FAME Recording Studios and their excellent backup band.  With the performances providing an awesome soundtrack, the film was the deserving winner of the Netflix Audience Award, as voted on by people attending the festival.

The rightful winner of the award for Best Canadian Feature, When I Walk was an immensely powerful film, a movingly beautiful documentary that followed the young filmmaker Jason DaSilva’s journey into and life with a disability.  Exhilarating, moving and inspirational, The Crash Reel was everything that a great film should be, an incredibly well crafted documentary that touched on the dangers of extreme sports while offering a powerful message about self acceptance.  The experience of seeing both of these films for the first time won’t soon be forgotten, and they are already among the best of the year.

When I think back over the festival, I am thankful for the privilege of being able to see a total of forty films.  I wouldn’t have been able to reach this number without the help of the many publicists who trusted me with advanced access to their films, allowing me to preview some of them before the festival even started.  I have utmost respect for anyone who was able to come close to this number during the eleven days, and the fact that there were many on my list that I didn’t get to see is a true testament to the sheer number of quality films on display.

This was my third year doing Hot Docs, and I’ve always emerged with a few personal favourites.  But I can honestly say that this year’s edition of the premiere documentary film festival was particularly outstanding, offering plenty of experiences that won’t soon be forgotten.  Because I haven’t been able to reference every film that I saw, please see below for a complete list of all my capsule reviews.  Here’s to another twenty years of Hot Docs.

Thursday, April 25th

The Manor

Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer

Tiny: A Story About Living Small

Muscle Shoals

I Will Be Murdered

Friday, April 26th

Last Woman Standing

The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne

Chimeras

We Cause Scenes

Fight Like Soldiers Die Like Children

Saturday, April 27th

15 Reasons to Live

Good Ol’ Freda

The Defector: Escape from North Korea

Trucker and the Fox

Bending Steel

Sunday, April 28th

Terms and Conditions May Apply

When I Walk

Valentine Road

Downloaded

Maidentrip

Monday, April 29th

Special Ed

Junior

Menstrual Man

Finding the Funk

Alcan Highway

Wednesday, May 1st

Rent a Family Inc.

Blood Brother

Brothers Hypnotic

The Great Hip Hop Hoax

Free the Mind

Thursday, May 2nd

12 O’Clock Boys

Blood Relative

Blackfish

The Crash Reel

Quality Balls – The David Steinberg Story

Sunday, May 5th

Spring & Arnaud

Alphée of the Stars

Shooting Bigfoot

Unclaimed

Mistaken for Strangers

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