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#HotDocs16: Third Batch of Reviews

May 5, 2016

By John Corrado

How to Build a Time Machine PosterAlthough we are coming up to the final weekend of Hot Docs, there are still plenty of films left to screen.  Below are my thoughts on eight more that I saw this week, including several standouts and fascinating conversation starters.  Please come back for more reviews over the weekend, and you can find info on tickets and showtimes through the links in the film titles.  Enjoy!

Don Juan: Oleg has high-functioning autism, and is struggling with self-esteem issues that leave him confused about how to be a young man and find his place in the world.  He still lives with his volatile single mother in Russia, who clearly has unresolved issues of her own, resenting the fact that her son can’t financially provide for her, and harshly berating him because of it.  Equally unsettling are his cognitive therapy sessions with an abusive woman who blurs personal boundaries, yelling and slapping him around during their sessions, techniques that do nothing to help.  Although Oleg is higher functioning than everyone tells him he is, he receives so much verbal abuse and quack therapies trying to “cure” him, that he struggles with his sense of worth and considers himself incapable of love.

But this notion is challenged when Oleg starts to develop feelings for Tanya, a kind young woman in his theatre troupe, where he is starring in a production of Don Jaun De Marco, who sees his potential and pursues becoming his friend.  Director Jerzy Sladkowski has crafted a beautifully filmed verite portrait of this young man, and Oleg makes for a gripping subject who gains our sympathy.  The film is sometimes uncomfortable to watch, candidly capturing the bizarre relationship between him and his mother, with their interactions becoming almost incestuous in a disturbing scene when he gives her a topless back massage.  But the film does end on a bittersweet note that offers a touching glimmer of hope.  Frankly compelling and emotionally charged, Don Juan is one of the small gems of the festival.

Fear Itself: Narrated by Amy E. Watson, from the perspective of a young woman who is having trouble sleeping after a mysterious accident and has started watching scary movies, Fear Itself explores our collective anxieties both real and imagined through clips from a selection of classic and lesser known horror films.  Like the previous films of young director Charlie Lyne, including his first feature Beyond Clueless and his editing work on last year’s knockout Stand By for Tape Back-upFear Itself takes us on a journey comprised entirely of images taken from other sources, weaving them together to create a story that is entirely compelling in its own right.  The clips are masterfully edited together, focusing more on moments of suspense than jump scares, and the sound work does an equally impressive job of creating an eery sense of atmosphere.  It’s also enhanced by original music from Jeremy Warmsley, and in one of the film’s most memorable moments, the little girl’s song from Night of the Hunter leads right into the iconic score from It Follows.  This is a gripping and often unnerving visual essay on horror movies, that fascinatingly taps into how what scares us on screen often relates to terrors of the real world, slowly but surely getting under our skin in much the same way as the work it profiles.

Unlocking the Cage: Robert Wise is an accomplished lawyer who has dedicated his practise to protecting non-human rights, spending over thirty years defending animals in court who can’t speak for themselves.  Legendary documentary filmmakers Chris Hegedus and D. A. Pennebaker follow him as he mounts a landmark court case trying to grant personhood to other highly intelligent animals that have a sense of autonomy, including great apes, elephants and dolphins, fighting to have chimps rescued from roadside zoos and transferred to sanctuaries where they can lead more fulfilling lives.  Robert Wise makes compelling arguments throughout, and Unlocking the Cage is an engaging introduction to his work that gives us a lot to think about, even if you are already more or less swayed by his cause.

How to Build a Time Machine: Rob Niosi is a former animator who has spent years obsessively building a full size replica of the time machine from the H.G. Wells classic, to remind him of seeing the 1960 movie in a theatre for the first time as a kid with his father.  Ron Mallett has devoted his life to studying physics and black holes and how they could relate to the real life mechanics of time travel, dreaming of a way to reunite with his father who died when he was young, and reaching breakthroughs with lasers and light.  Their stories come together in How to Build a Time Machine, a beautifully made film that perfectly tapped into my own longtime fascinations with both making things and time travel.

Directed by Jay Cheel, who also gave us the 2011 festival standout Beauty Day, How to Build a Time Machine becomes a poignant exploration of learning to live with regret and accept past mistakes, while ruminating on the real life possibilities of altering time.  The film explores how time travel into the future is a clear possibility at this point, but travelling into the past is both less feasible and carries far greater ramifications.  The subjects also reflect upon how movies themselves provide a form of time travel, and are powerful tools that allow us to capture memories and relive moments from the past.  Reaching an inspiring final scene, How to Build a Time Machine is entertaining, deeply moving and incredibly thought provoking, like all great time travel movies should be.

Angry Inuk: Beginning and ending with scenes of Inuit people hunting seals, Angry Inuk packs a compelling argument between these bookending sequences that gracefully challenges those who protest the seal hunt.  Directed by Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, who was inspired to make the film to tackle cultural appropriation and defend her own traditions growing up with the seal hunt, this gripping documentary explores how the European Union ban on all commercial seal products has negatively impacted their way of life and practically destroyed their economy.  They rely on seal meat to survive and use the fur to keep warm, with proceeds from selling the skins often providing the only sustainable source of income for their poor communities.  But they are being attacked by huge animal rights organizations that bring in millions of dollars through images of white seal pups, despite the fact that harp seals haven’t been hunted for several decades, and pay little attention to Native culture or traditions.

The film compellingly argues how the anti-sealing movement is actually having a negative impact on the environment, forcing many communities to see mining or oil drilling as the only alternatives to boost their failing economies, and leaving them to rely on junk food that has been shipped in.  Because their diets subsist of meat anyways, the case is made that not hunting seals is actually worse for other types of animal rights, forcing them to rely on meat from factory farms that has been slaughtered even more inhumanly.  This point is reiterated through clever protest signs that say “save the baby veal.”  The fact that many of the Inuit hunters speak calmly and eloquently to the camera, while the animal rights groups refuse to be interviewed and turn down every opportunity for debate, speaks volumes about the different sides.  No matter where you fall on this issue, Angry Inuk is an impassioned and compelling film, that leaves us with a lot of important stuff to talk about.

Gun Runners: When the Kenyan government set up a program for cattle runners to trade in their guns for amnesty and a pair of running shoes, Robert Matanda and Julius Arile reluctantly gave up their AK-47s.  The two men are childhood friends who are trying to leave their violent pasts as notorious warriors behind them, and follow their dreams of becoming professional marathon runners.  But they also face intense competition and have to deal with financial struggles, as they try to balance their athletic careers with being able to care for their families.  Following them over eight years, director Anjali Nayar does an excellent job of intertwining these two stories, keeping us engaged as their lives both diverge and come together.  Featuring beautiful cinematography of Kenya’s Great Rift Valley, as well as some exciting race sequences, Gun Runners is a well made and often powerful film.

The Pearl: Directed by Jessica Dimmock and Christopher Lamarca, The Pearl follows four different transwomen who are all at different stages of their lives.  They include two siblings who both came out around the same time, a woman who is struggling to be fully out because she is worried about how it will affect her wife of nearly forty years, as well as an older woman who runs a boarding house for young transwomen in the process of coming out.  There are a few affecting moments here, including a touching scene with one of their mothers, and it’s hard not to admire the courage of these women to share their stories.  But the directors also make some questionable choices with which to tell them.  It’s intended to be a fly on the wall portrait, but with no real form beyond that, The Pearl often veers towards feeling like a reality show.  The overly dark and moody cinematography, as well as the annoyingly repetitive and strangely ominous musical score, don’t help things and are just baffling stylistic choices.

Life, Animated: Owen Suskind is a young man with autism whose keys to understanding the world come from Disney animated films.  When he was three, he lost his ability to speak and was diagnosed with a pervasive developmental disorder, but started to open up again and reached a breakthrough when his father Ron spoke to him through his beloved Iago puppet, creating a new channel for his family to communicate with him.  Directed by Roger Ross Williams, who is a longtime friend of the family, Life, Animated follows Owen as he prepares to move into his own assisted living apartment, dealing with aspects of young adult life like having a girlfriend and finding a job.  The close relationship he shares with his older brother, who just so happens to be named Walt, is one of the most touching aspects of the film, and allows for rare insight from a sibling perspective.

As a Disney fan who has also found life lessons in many of their films over the years, Life, Animated hit me on an incredibly personal level.  The film features an abundance of classic Disney clips that take on even greater meaning with how they relate to the story, including a gutting use of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  There are also beautifully done original sequences courtesy of the animation company Mac Guff, that feature versions of classic Disney characters and bring to life a short story Owen wrote about being “Protector of the Sidekicks.”  There are just so many wonderful and inspiring moments in Life, Animated, that it will steal your heart in the same way as the Disney films that become such a big part of the story.  It’s a real tearjerker that is also profoundly inspiring, providing a moving story about learning to grow up without losing the sense of magic that Disney represents, and a touching reminder of the life changing power that movies can hold.

#HotDocs16: Second Batch of Reviews

#HotDocs16: First Batch of Reviews

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