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#HotDocs16: Second Batch of Reviews

May 1, 2016

By John Corrado

Operation Avalanche PosterThe first weekend of Hot Docs has just come to a close, and below are my thoughts on nine films that I had the chance to see over the last three days.  Please come back for more reviews throughout the rest of the festival, and you can find info on tickets and showtimes through the links in the film titles.  Enjoy!

Chasing Asylum: With the Australian government stopping the flow of boats carrying refugees to their shores, migrants fleeing to the country are detained and left stranded for hundreds of days in detention camps on Nauru and Manus Islands.  Through candid interviews with whistleblowers and shocking footage shot with secret cameras that had to be smuggled out, all fearlessly assembled together by director Ava Orner, Chasing Asylum reveals the horrible living conditions and abusive treatment that refugees face in these hidden camps.  Many of them see no hope for their future and take to self-injury or suicide as a means of escape, leaving the mostly volunteer social workers feeling helpless.  Although it’s depressing and never easy to watch, this is an important and eye opening film that should be seen, offering a powerful look at one of our most timely issues.

League of Exotique Dancers: Following a group of aging burlesque performers, who still retain their sex-positive attitudes even as seniors, League of Exotique Dancers provides a fun alternative history of the women’s rights movement.  Although using there bodies and mostly performing for men, these dancers all consider themselves feminists, having found self-empowerment in being able to provide for themselves and make a living, at a time when their weren’t many other jobs for women.  They share engaging stories about what was happening in their lives during their careers, and where they are now as they prepare for a hall of fame performance in Las Vegas, viewing burlesque as a forgotten type of performance art that essentially disappeared with the rise of pole dancers and adult movies.  The talking heads and archival footage approach of the film is pretty standard, and it can grow a little repetitive and overlong at 90 minutes.  But the subjects make it all come alive, and League of Exotique Dancers is a fairly entertaining celebration of the golden age of burlesque, that is worth seeing just to hear these delightful and empowering women tell their stories.

Konelīne: Our Land Beautiful: A haunting and visually stunning cinematic tone poem, Konelīne: Our Land Beautiful offers a powerful and moving hymn to living in harmony with the land.  Director Nettie Wild doesn’t confine the film to a single narrative arc, instead introducing us to a diverse group of people living in a remote British Columbia community that is home to the Tahltan First Nation, giving us a balanced look at their way of life.  Among others, we meet a woman who trains horses to take visiting hunters into the mountainous terrain, a man recording phrases from their traditional language before his father slips away into Alzheimer’s, and two hunters going out to track a moose.

But the landscape is changing as helicopters fly in giant transmission towers that start to stand amongst the trees, and the environment is threatened by a gold and copper mining operation that employs some of the locals at the expense of destroying the environment.  The camera watches with a nonjudgmental eye as we are introduced to some of the workers, powerfully contrasted by many of the elders who block the trucks in protest, trying to preserve their land.  The breathtaking cinematography captures the striking panoramic vistas of this natural landscape in glorious CinemaScope.  Every frame is visually arresting, from shots of the vast sky and sweeping mountains, to disturbing and starkly composed images of gutted fish and a freshly shot moose.  The sound work does an equally impressive job of immersing us in the captivating rhythms of the land.  See this one on the big screen.  It’s spectacular.

Operation Avalanche: You might be wondering what a mockumentary was doing at Hot Docs, but this all adds to the fun and intrigue of Operation Avalanche.  Following his found footage high school shooting knockout The Dirties, this space age conspiracy tale finds Toronto filmmaker Matt Johnson playing around on an even larger canvas.  This time around, Matt Johnson and his previous co-star Owen Williams portray a pair of young CIA agents who pose as a documentary film crew to investigate a Russian spy who’s infiltrated NASA in the 1960s, and end up embroiled in a plot to fake the Apollo 11 moon landing.  Like in The Dirties, Matt Johnson and his crew employ the same techniques of sneaking into places and filming on the fly, even stealing scenes at NASA’s Texas facilities, which gives the film a certain energy and adds to the conceit of authenticity.  The artistry behind it all is equally impressive, shot digitally and printed on film to give it the grainy look of old footage, and seamlessly edited together with archival clips that nicely bookend the story.  The enthusiasm of Matt Johnson and his team of geniuses who helped pull this all off is infectious, and Operation Avalanche is a fake doc that’s a lot of fun, balancing its conspiracy intrigue with a lot of enjoyable moments and set pieces.

The Slippers: An original pair of the ruby slippers, actually worn by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz, are on display for millions to see at the Smithsonian.  But they aren’t the only pair of Dorothy’s shoes that were used in the 1939 production, and director Morgan White explores what happened to the other ones in The Slippers.  Through interviews with different historians and Oz fanatics, the film comes to tell the story of Kent Warner, who saved many costumes from studios that were getting rid of them when the system changed and became more corporate at the end of Hollywood’s Golden Age.  The film also intently explores how Debbie Reynolds always dreamed of opening a museum to house these precious costumes and props, but many of them have instead been sold in auctions and ended up in private collections over the years.  This is an engaging documentary that ends up being about much more than just the ruby slippers, becoming a poignant look at the importance of preserving Hollywood memorabilia, and how these props come to represent our collective memories.

Under the Sun: Although filmed under the close watch of officials, and featuring a script written by the North Korean government, who clearly intended the project to be self-serving propaganda, Under the Sun actually becomes a fascinating exploration of censorship.  Gaining permission to tell the story of a young family as their daughter prepares to join the Korean Union for Children, director Vitaly Mansky kept the camera rolling between takes, to reveal the excessive amount of control that authorities exercised over every aspect of the production.  Extended sequences like a mundane family dinner become disturbing when the subjects are asked to do another take, with every action and word of dialogue being tightly monitored and scripted, as onscreen text periodically tells us what aspects of their lives have been embellished or changed completely just to make for a better sounding story.  It’s both fascinating and incredibly surreal to watch, unfolding mainly in long takes that gives us a hypnotizing glimpse into what life is like for a child in North Korea, being taught only propaganda in school and growing up under the tight control of the repressive government.

Tickled: When New Zealand pop culture reporter David Ferrier found bizarre videos online of a sport called Competitive Endurance Tickling, where young guys are paid to be tied up and tickled by other men, he reached out for an interview with the company behind it.  But he never could have predicted the can of worms he opened up, sucking him into a delirious internet rabbit hole of conspiracies and deceit, while facing an onslaught of homophobic threats and possible legal action in his quest to uncover the truth behind these tickling videos.  This is all you need to know before seeing Tickled, a real life thriller chock full of shocking twists and turns that unfold right before our eyes, with co-directors David Ferrier and Dylan Reeve filming their investigation every step of the way, even when they are told to turn the cameras off.  Although starting off as darkly entertaining, the film quickly becomes something truly disturbing and terrifying, exploring the control and abuses of power that exist within the tickling industry, and on the internet as a whole.  It’s compellingly strange to watch and filled with plenty of “holy shit” moments, so see it knowing as little about the story as possible.  Few documentaries have the power to make us squirm this much, but Tickled is unsettling in all the best ways and really gets under your skin.

My Scientology Movie: Taking a very meta approach, My Scientology Movie becomes just as much about the intense blowbacks that come with attempting to make a movie about Scientology, as it is about the infamous organization and its cultish ideology.  The film follows the BBC’s Louis Theroux as he tries to investigate the church, filming himself attempting to gain access to the private offices where much abuse has allegedly taken place, and even hiring an actor to play their leader David Miscavage (Andrew Perez) in some eery and ingeniously done reenactments.  There is a fascinating “who’s filming who” dynamic going on whenever he is confronted by people from the organization, calmly facing off with them and refusing to back down, and former church official Marty Rathburn makes for a compelling subject, revealing flashes of his own tortured psyche as he consults on the project.  It’s entertaining and also more than a little scary to watch, showing the scope of the organization’s reach and their attempts to silence at all costs anyone who speaks out against them, which we see first hand throughout the film.

Where is Rocky II?: Back in the 1970s, world renowned artist Ed Ruscha hid a fake rock in the middle of the Mojave Desert, a quirky art project that inspired director Pierre Bismuth, the co-writer of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, to hire a Los Angeles private investigator to try and track down the sculpture.  Mixing its detective narrative with elements of the real story, Where is Rocky II? is a craftily assembled hybrid of documentary and fiction that keeps us guessing as to its true intentions, never entirely sure until partway through if what we’re seeing is real footage or reenactments.  It’s all mildly engaging, but also pretentious to a fault, essentially just coming down to messing with the audience and repeatedly asking the rhetorical question of what really constitutes art.

#HotDocs16: First Batch of Reviews

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