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#HotDocs16: First Batch of Reviews

April 28, 2016

By John Corrado

De Palma PosterThe 2016 edition of Hot Docs kicks off tonight, and below are my thoughts on ten films that I had the chance to screen in advance, to give you a small sampling of what to expect from this year’s lineup.  Please come back for more capsule reviews throughout the festival, and you can find information on tickets and showtimes through the links in the film titles.  Enjoy!

Weiner: A popular congressman who was forced to resign amidst a sexting scandal, Anthony Weiner saw his chance for a comeback when he entered the New York City mayoral race in 2013.  But his campaign was threatened by the emergence of embarrassing nude pictures and more lewd online exchanges, which led to an intense media backlash and also tested the patience of his wife Huma Abedin, a former aide to Hillary Clinton, who tries hard to stand by his side.

Directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg put us on the frontlines as various political crises unfold, and the camera shows Anthony Weiner as a man driven by ego and the need to be in the media spotlight, willingly letting the film crew into his home and office.  The few times when he does break the fourth wall, and directly questions the role of the interviewer, are documentary gold.  Any irresistible puns about his name aside, Weiner is an entertaining and often revealing look at the disastrous political campaign of a candidate who keeps digging his own grave even deeper with every public gaffe and hotheaded encounter, having seemingly no clue how to avoid the bad press that keeps coming his way.

Urmila: My Memory is Power: Having spent eleven years in the slave trade after being sold by her family when she was six, Urmila has devoted her life to rescuing other girls in Nepal, and making sure they get an education.  She works tirelessly for her charity and dreams of becoming a lawyer to change the laws regarding slavery in her country, but also struggles with getting the education she needs to actually make it happen, and finds herself at the intersection of forging her own path or following the one others have set out for her.  Capturing her immense self-determination, Urmila: My Memory is My Power is a fairly engaging if somewhat ambling portrait of a young woman desperately trying to change things in a society that hasn’t given her much of a fair chance.

The Pearl of Africa: Cleopatra Kambugu is a transwoman living in Uganda, who has become a powerful activist and is in a committed long-term relationship with her partner Nelson.  But she faces intense prejudices from her country, where being LGBT is a crime punishable by death, and when she is outed by a newspaper that condemns homosexuality, her life and relationship are threatened.  With Nelson by her side, she travels to Thailand for gender confirmation surgery, the first step in being able to legally change the name on her birth certificate and hopefully have her marriage recognized in their home country.  Beautifully edited and often moving, The Pearl of Africa is a powerful documentary that resonates so deeply because of Cleopatra’s genuine warmth as a subject, and the immensely charming chemistry between her and Nelson.  Their relationship is wonderful to watch, and at its heart the film works as a touching and profoundly universal love story.

Diving Into the Unknown: After two of their men don’t make it back from a cave diving expedition in Norway, a team of Finnish divers set on a dangerous covert mission to retrieve their bodies, which are trapped 110 meters underwater.  The area has been deemed unsafe by authorities following the initial accident, forcing them to stay under the radar and complete the dive with little outside help.  Keeping their cameras rolling and filming themselves throughout the entire process, Diving Into the Unknown shows the lengths these divers will go to honour the memory of their lost friends, even if a little more character depth could have been explored.  But the underwater cinematography is impressive and often visually striking, putting us right there with them on this journey, and giving us a rare glimpse into these long hidden caves where few have gone before and we would otherwise never get to see.

Aim for the Roses: Ken Carter was a Canadian daredevil who dreamed of jumping a rocket car over a stretch of the St. Lawrence in 1976, and landing in a bed of roses on the other side.  The attempted stunt inspired Vancouver musician Mark Haney to craft an ambitious concept album for double bass in 2008, that paid tribute to Ken Carter’s wild dreams.  Through archival footage and music video recreations with actors, Aim for the Roses works to both visualize the album and recount the unexpected twists and turns of the original story, while exploring the intersecting lines between these two very different artistic expressions and how they ultimately came together.  Although the film runs a touch long at 103 minutes, this is a quirky art project that is frequently engaging and entertaining to watch, paying tribute to a pair of unique Canadian figures.  This is a fun and enjoyably offbeat documentary.

Hotel Coolgardie: After having their stuff stolen in Bali, Finnish backpackers Lina and Stephie find themselves in the far reaches of Australia, needing money to get back home.  They take a job at a local hotel bar in Coolgardie, a small gold mining town that time seems to have forgotten, with a mostly male population that doesn’t see many new faces.  The two young women face near-constant harassment from the regulars at the bar, who treat them like “fresh meat” and make open sexual advances, and are even subject to degradation from their boss.  The one who shows them the most kindness is an eccentric old guy nicknamed Canman, who deals with the recycling and at first seems a little overbearing with his gifts, but is also genuinely well meaning in how he comes to take the girls under his wing.

Directed by Pete Gleeson, who lets the camera watch without much interference, Hotel Coolgardie is a remarkably captured vérité documentary that paints a gripping and unsettling portrait of this town and its inhabitants.  The film becomes a study of gender inequality and workplace sexual harassment, allowing its actions to speak louder than words, and leaving us to marvel at the fact that some of this stuff was even able to be filmed.  Things compellingly unfold right before our eyes in sometimes shocking ways, with a constant stream of memorable characters and little moments and conversations that come to reveal so much about this place.  The film takes on a strangely melancholic tone the more emotionally invested we become in Lina and Stephie’s story, and when things take an unexpected turn during a camping trip, it ends on a bittersweet note.  This is fly on the wall documentary filmmaking at its best, and a completely absorbing portrait of a place stuck tragically in the past.

Tower: A visually stunning mix of animation and archival footage, Tower recreates the events of August 1st, 1966 when a lone gunmen with a sniper rifle positioned himself atop the clock tower at the University of Texas, and for over ninety minutes unleashed a reign of terror that claimed sixteen lives and left many others wounded.  The story is told from the perspective of the remaining survivors, who appear in talking head interviews that have been traced over using rotoscoping and dubbed using actors, so the subjects can look and sound more like their younger selves, a technique that is often surprisingly affective.

The first two acts of Tower have an immediacy that is harrowing to watch, painstakingly recreating the events of this fateful day through striking and beautifully rendered animated sequences that switch between black and white and colour, all set to an excellent soundtrack that helps transport us back to the time period.  The last act is a little more conventional in its approach, but finds genuine emotion in how it shows the fallout of the attack, briefly touching on the tragic amount of mass shootings that have sadly followed in its wake.   Although Tower won’t work for everyone, director Keith Maitland has crafted an admirably unique hybrid of documentary and narrative reenactment, mixing highly stylized animation and real footage to often moving effect.

No Man is An Island: A small island in the Mediterranean Sea, Lampedusa has become a landing spot for African refugees fleeing to Europe, and we follow two of their stories in No Man is An Island, which uses a double narrative to offer a glimpse into the immigrant experience.  Adam is a Ghanaian teen who has been adopted to a family that also uses him for work, facing subtle racism in his attempts to assimilate into the Italian culture.  Omar is a young man from Tunisia who fled during the Arab Spring, and has been taken in by a large Italian family, but still feels great loneliness and seeks somewhere to live off the island.  Even if its two narratives don’t really come together and end up feeling like separate overviews, No Man is An Island follows them through a compassionate and beautifully filmed lens, providing an intimate look at young immigrants trying to assimilate into a new culture.

De PalmaBrian De Palma sits in front of a fireplace in a medium closeup, discussing his filmmaking career, as clips from his films and other influences are interspersed between.  This is the simple visual conceit behind De Palma, an extremely engaging documentary portrait that allows the director to talk candidly about his work, sharing invaluable behind the scenes stories from his iconic classics like Carrie (1976), Dressed to Kill (1980), Blow Out (1981) and Scarface (1983).  We are taken through his entire filmography in chronological order, from his early indies inspired by the French New Wave to the later career indulgences that he’s been making in Europe, after growing disillusioned with the American studio system following a string of blockbusters including the first Mission: Impossible (1996).

Although the director has been accused of creating trashy pulp throughout his career, De Palma allows us to look deeper at the craft behind even his most sensationalistic work, showing him as a purveyor of pure cinema, heavily influenced by Alfred Hitchcock.  Even though it won’t likely change your opinion of some of his films, this is an invaluable opportunity to hear a filmmaker take us through every step of his career, while making a case for himself as an under appreciated artist.  Directed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, who stay purely behind the camera and let their single subject do all the talking, De Palma is a feature length interview that has been masterfully edited together with video clips to become a film that is incredibly entertaining to watch in its own right.  A must see for anyone who loves movies.

Contemporary ColorSpearheaded by David Byrne of The Talking Heads, Contemporary Color was a 2015 concert extravaganza that brought together ten color guard teams to perform choreographed pieces alongside a group of renowned musicians like St. Vincent, Ad-Rock and Nelly Furtado, who all wrote new material for the show.  Directors Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross were on hand to capture the performance at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, editing it together with intimate behind the scenes moments between the young performers and their established counterparts that make what we see on stage all the more impressive.  Although it’s essentially a concert film, there are many entertaining and eye popping sequences throughout, with standout performances courtesy of St. Vincent and David Byrne.

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