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#HotDocs15: Third Batch of Reviews

April 25, 2015

By John Corrado

Hot Docs 2015 PosterWe are now deep in the middle of the first weekend of Hot Docs, and I’ve been busy the last few days, having already seen six films at the festival.  My thoughts on all of them are below, and I’ve also seen and met some truly great people.

I had a nice talk with director Ross Sutherland after the premiere of Stand by for Tape Back-up on Friday, which was a definite highlight of the festival so far.  The film itself is an absolute knockout, and the sort of discovery that make festivals like this so important.

Howie Mandel and Vic Cohen did a hilarious and gleefully awkward Q&A after the premiere of Committed, which was a lot of fun.  I also got to meet the very nice Zack Little, the titular Jesus in Jesus Town USA, which was pretty cool.

Another one of the most memorable experiences was the emotional premiere of Lowdown Tracks.  The excellent street musicians featured in the film deserved their standing ovation, and hearing them talk about the experience was incredibly powerful.  My previous batch of reviews can be found right here, with more coming during the rest of the festival.  As usual, more information on tickets and showtimes can be found through the links in the film titles.  Enjoy!

Planetary: Breathtaking images and thought provoking ideas come together beautifully in Planetary, a poetic and often profound meditation on the relationships and responsibilities that we all have with our planet.  Through interviews with astronauts whose lives were changed after seeing our planet from above, philosophers and environmentalists who have spent years exploring our place in the world, and many other deep thinkers, the film challenges the outdated belief that humans own the earth.  Director Guy Reid instead offers humbling proof that we are all connected to each other and the environment, and must reconnect with the natural world in order for our species and many others to survive.  These compelling ideas are matched with captivating visuals of the world seen from above and on the ground, providing an awe inspiring experience that has the power to rethink how we interact with the world.

Stand by for Tape Back-up: An old VHS tape that Ross Sutherland and his grandfather used to share provides the compelling visual backdrop to Stand by for Tape Back-up, a profoundly moving cinematic experience that is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.  After his grandfather died, the tape became the thing that helped him grieve, a physical reminder of the life and memories they shared between them.  As scenes from pop culture touchstones like The Wizard of Oz, GhostbustersThe Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Thriller and Jaws flicker before our eyes, his narration shifts between beautifully poetic monologue and hypnotic rap, finding patterns that connect the images on the decaying tape.

Originating as a live show, Stand by for Tape Back-up does a remarkable job of playing with perceptions of time and the way our minds work.  And as the tape pauses, rewinds and fast-forwards through this seemingly random assemblage of clips, the ingeniously edited images start to represent our collective memories.  A jaw dropping montage set to a bank commercial that keeps repeating itself, the same visuals seeming to change as his narration becomes more rapid and urgent, offers a completely compelling story unto itself.  Even the familiar blue screens and ominous static provide powerful metaphors, as the film explores themes of memory and grief in deeply touching and almost eerily relatable ways.  Put simply, Stand by for Tape Back-up is spectacular, a totally unique and brilliantly assembled film that I couldn’t recommend more highly.

Playing before the film is Copycat, a short that explores how Rolfe Kanefsky’s independent horror comedy There’s Nothing Out There in 1991, became the blueprint for Wes Craven’s similarly self-referential Scream five years later.  Directed by Charlie Lyne, who helmed last year’s festival standout Beyond Clueless and co-edited Stand by for Tape Back-up, this is another compelling and strikingly assembled mix of narration and old VHS tape footage.

Jesus Town USA: Every year since the 1930s, the community of Holy City, Wichita comes together to stage an outdoor Passion play, the longest running Easter Pageant in America.  When the actor playing Jesus retires after many years, Zack Little is recast in the role, a charming paper delivery boy who everyone in town seems to like.  But when Zack reveals to his friend that he’s been struggling with his Christian faith, and now practices Buddhism, they find themselves at a spiritual crossroads.  Director Billie Mintz uses the narrative of the community preparing for the production to explore themes of religion and belief, in some surprisingly moving and even inspiring ways.  Respectful of the people involved, while also finding quirky humour in their situation, Jesus Town USA is an entertaining and beautifully photographed exploration of faith, and the different ways we believe.

Playing before the film is The Little Deputy, a charming reenactment of the embarrassing story behind a childhood photo that director Trevor Anderson took with his dad at the West Edmonton Mall, that gives way to an impressively produced and highly cinematic old west period piece.  It’s quite nicely done.

Finders Keepers: The truth really is stranger than fiction in Finders Keepers.  The film recounts the entirely bizarre story of small town entrepreneur Shannon Wishnant who purchased an old grill with a human leg inside and fashioned it into a tourist attraction, and John Wood, the rightful owner of the missing body part who had to fight to get it back.  The initial absurdity of this premise can admittedly wear a little thin, and the film didn’t immediately grip me the way it clearly has others.  But Finders Keepers is still a well made documentary, offering an engaging and surprisingly layered human drama, that is respectful of and empathetic towards the larger than life characters involved.

Committed: For years, Vic Cohen has dreamed of being a performer, and will do literally anything in front of an audience to get a reaction, no matter how embarrassing.  Filmed over thirteen years by his friend Howie Mandel, who always found work for Vic through his own tours and various TV shows, Committed offers a compelling portrait of a performer who is desperate for an audience, but remains optimistic even in the face of great disappointment.  Frequently hilarious, and also strangely emotional, this is an inspiring look at perseverance and fierce dedication, even above all reason.

Lowdown Tracks: Lorraine Sagato of The Parachute Club embarked on one of the most personal projects of her career when she started interviewing some of Toronto’s many street musicians.  A thriving population of homeless and “home free” men and women who survive by performing on sidewalks and in subway stations around our city, she asked them about their lives, and brought them into her studio for a special recording.  Five of these deeply affecting stories are told in the excellent Lowdown Tracks.  The most important thing about director Shelley Saywell’s latest film is that their stories and music are allowed to take centre stage, giving powerful voice to these engaging and immensely talented musicians who wouldn’t otherwise get a chance to be heard.  Filled with moving insights about the harsh realities of life on the streets, Lowdown Tracks is a compassionate portrait of poverty and the unifying power of music, that provides an emotional viewing experience.  And the amazing soundtrack deserves to be released, with all proceeds going to help the performers.

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