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#HotDocs17: First Batch of Reviews

April 27, 2017

By John Corrado

The 24th edition of Hot Docs kicks off tonight with the premiere of Bee Nation, and will be running until May 7th.  Below are my thoughts on a dozen films I had the chance to screen in advance, and you can find more information on tickets and showtimes through the links in the film titles.  Enjoy!

Bee Nation – ★★★½ (out of 4) When the first ever province-wide First Nations Spelling Bee was held, it provided an exciting opportunity for the kids living on the Kahkewishtahaw First Nation Reserve in Saskatchewan.  Director Lana Šlezić documents the lives of the students competing in the event in Bee Nation, including precocious third grader William Kaysaywaysemat III, studious middle schooler Makayla Cannepotato, and the outdoorsy thirteen year old Alexander Johansson who quietly devotes himself to the craft.  We watch as they study and learn how to spell the four hundred words they need to know in order to have a shot at winning, backed up by the full support of their families and teachers.

The stakes are high, as winning will not only bring pride to their families and communities, but also award the finalists the chance to compete at the national competition in Toronto, a special opportunity for these kids as they have never travelled before, let alone left the reserve.  We root for them all to do well during the competition scenes, but equally compelling are the moments when the kids talk about their dreams for the future.  The circumstances of the film are also tinged in sadness, as the students face a lack of opportunities and their school is so severely underfunded by the government, that the principal is forced to make the decision to focus solely on academics instead of being able to teach the students about their culture and language, because there isn’t enough money to go around.  The engaging young subjects display a tenacity to work hard and do their best that is genuinely inspiring, and Bee Nation is the sort of winning documentary that is both uplifting and deeply heartwarming to watch.  This is a natural choice for opening night, a genuine and bighearted crowdpleaser that also holds a special significance within the Canadian landscape.

Rivolta – ★★★ (out of 4) A twenty minute short that is premiering during the Singular Sensation(s) Shorts Program, Rivolta recounts the story of Canadian hacker Michael “Mafiaboy” Calce and how he gained infamy as a teenager when he temporarily took down major websites like Yahoo and CNN, in a major cybercrime that led to his arrest and gained international attention.  Now an adult working at a cyber-security company, Michael Calce makes for an engaging and articulate subject in this stylish and slickly produced short.  It’s interesting to hear him tell this story in his own words, particularly how he was seduced by the power hacking afforded him, while also providing a potent warning for the many potential security breaches that continue to lurk behind every single internet connected device.

Brimstone & Glory – ★★★★ (out of 4) A man runs around a field at night with a lit cigarette dangling from his mouth, and we watch in an unbroken single take, shot entirely from a first person perspective, as he uses the still burning smoke to light the end of a firework.  Another man climbs a precariously high tower to help set up an elaborate fireworks display, with his forehead camera looking down occasionally to give us a dizzying sense of the height he is at.  These are just two of the many staggering and visually stunning sequences in Brimstone & Glory, a thrilling look at the National Pyrotechnic Festival in Tultepec, Mexico that is held annually to honour San Juan de Dios, the patron saint of fireworks.  The festival is made up of two singular events, starting with an elaborate display of fireworks that are set off from atop impossibly high metal towers, and culminating with people running through the streets surrounded by handmade paper mâché bulls that are coated with flame retardants and launch fireworks towards the crowds, as ambulances and paramedics wait on the sidelines.

The first part of Brimstone & Glory introduces us to the workers at the fireworks factory that employs more than half the town, and then the film turns into pure spectacle, all popping colours and carefully coordinated explosions, stopping just long enough to show the many burns and injuries being treated, which people seem to view as sort of badges of honour from the festival.  The film uses a mix of drones, GoPros and extreme slow motion to put us right in the action and capture the visual grandeur of these fireworks displays, whether showing the full scope of it in glorious widescreen, or going into extreme macro to show the individual flame particles burning out.  It’s not a shock when we get to the credits and realize that Oscar-nominated Beasts of the Southern Wild helmer Benh Zeitlin had a hand in making the film, serving as both a producer and camera operator, as well as helping craft the exceptional musical score with Dan Romer.  At a tightly edited and often thrilling 67 minutes, Brimstone & Glory is a visceral and breathtaking visual achievement that deserves the highest praise for its spectacular cinematography, and should be experienced on the big screen to get the full effect.  It’s undoubtedly one of the best things we are going to see at this year’s festival.

Pecking Order – ★★★ (out of 4) The members of Christchurch Poultry and the Pigeon Club in New Zealand take their chickens very seriously, devoting their lives to breeding and raising perfect birds to compete for fame and glory in the National Poultry Show.  Although Pecking Order could have easily played like a Christopher Guest rockumentary, and there are some moments of absurd humour to be sure, for the most part the film is kept grounded by the people who take this sport seriously.  Director Slavko Martinov follows the competitors in the lead up to the 2015 competition, and we watch as infighting starts to take place between the older and younger members of the club, with some of the senior members of the group having a hard time accepting that their places are being overtaken by the younger newbies in the competitive poultry world.  For a quirky human interest doc, that features some endearing real life characters and plenty of beautiful images of the prize chickens, Pecking Order is a mostly fun and enjoyable glimpse into this oddly endearing New Zealand subculture of chicken lovers.

69 Minutes of 86 Days – ★★★ (out of 4) Filmed mostly from about three feet off the ground to give it the perspective of a child, 69 Minutes of 86 Days follows a little girl named Lean and her family as they make their way through Europe, journeying to emigrate from Syria to Swedan.  Although the Syrian refugee crisis is a politically charged issue both here and especially abroad, this isn’t really a political film, and while a more pointed approach might have been interesting, the documentary works first and foremost as a humanizing portrait of the immigration experience.  Lean makes for an endearing subject, with her winter coat and Frozen backpack making her appear no different than any other tyke, despite the extraordinary circumstances she has found herself in.  For an artsy approach to exploring one of the biggest humanitarian issues of our time, this is a well shot experimental film that uses simple moments to make us care about its subjects.

Recruiting for Jihad – ★★★ (out of 4) For three years, filmmakers Ulrik Imtiaz Rolfsen and Adil Khan Farooq followed around the charismatic and controversial Islamist Ubaydullah Hussain, who works for the extremist jihadist group The Prophet’s Ummah in Norway.  We watch as he recruits other young men to his cause and helps them travel to join ISIS, many of whom are recent converts to Islam who are so desperate for a sense of purpose and belonging, they are willing to give up their lives.  But things take a turn when the filmmakers have their footage taken by police as evidence, leading to a court cast that calls into question freedom of the press.  We normally don’t get to hear directly from a subject like Ubaydullah Hussain, who appears so entrenched in his own beliefs that he is willing to openly talk about them in front of the camera, even to the point of finding ways to ideologically defend the shocking terrorist attacks in Paris and at Charlie Hebdo, which took place during filming.  The experience of watching how somebody can sway others to even the most radical of causes is both fascinating and frightening, and it makes Recruiting for Jihad an intriguing sort of journalistic expose.

Unarmed Verses – ★★★½ (out of 4) Francine is a tween girl living in North York’s Villaways neighbourhood, but the affordable housing units are facing a forced revitalization project set forth by the city, meaning that the residents will have to leave their homes as the buildings are knocked down and redeveloped into condos.  She finds an outlet for her self-expression through an afternoon arts program, where the students are encouraged to write poetry, and given an opportunity to set their words to music and have their songs recorded in a professional studio.  Filmmaker Charles Officer follows this with an artistic and observational eye, and Unarmed Verses is an important work for the way that it shines a spotlight on poverty right here in Toronto, questioning whether the affordable housing units are truly being redeveloped for the inhabitants, or to make them more visually appealing to the richer neighbours around them.  The moments in the recording studio are equally compelling, as Francine struggles to find the courage to overcome her stage fright over singing out loud, and there is some major rap talent on display as the students spout rhymes that poetically reveal their life experiences.  It’s moving and also inspiring to watch these teens sort themselves out and come into their own through the artistic process, and the film is equally powerful for the way it puts a distinctly human face on the affordable housing crisis, offering a compelling glimpse into a side of this city that we too rarely see.

PACmen – ★★★ (out of 4) After Ben Carson gave a widely publicized speech at the National Prayer Breakfast in front of Barack Obama, the celebrated paediatric brain surgeon and devout Christian was pushed to run for president.  Director Luke Walker gained access to the powerful Super PACs who backed his campaign during the Republican primaries, and we watch as they set up prayer lines and church hall screenings of the biographical TV movie Gifted Hands, recounting his humble origins as a kid growing up black and poor in Detroit.  The on the ground campaign seemed to have wind in its sails, resonating with the religious right and minority voters, but despite entering the race as a frontrunner, Ben Carson’s bid for president was slowly but surely derailed by his public speaking blunders, lack of knowledge on foreign policy, and the meteoric rise of Donald Trump.  Even though we already know the outcome of this campaign, with Donald Trump winning the primaries in a landslide and eventually taking office, PACmen reveals the inner workings of the Super PACs that have become a ubiquitous part of American politics, and the absurd amounts of money that get spent in the process.  This is an often enjoyable and also illuminating look at the behind the scenes of a political campaign, and this small but passionate group of people who pinned all of their hopes and dollars on a losing candidate.

Living the Game – ★★★ (out of 4) Director Takao Gotsu takes us into Japan’s highly competitive professional gaming scene in Living the Game, following the people who devote their lives to playing and practising Street Fighter, so they can take part in lucrative championships.  There’s reigning champion Daigo Umehara, who has an emotionless way of playing but brings with him a rockstar following and the well paying sponsorships to match, and rising star Yusuke Momochi, who takes a more intellectual approach to playing, whether in competition or at home with his girlfriend and fellow champion gamer ChocoBlanka.  Equally engaging are the stories of the other players who dream of gaining the same levels of success, whether playing for prize money or traditional Japanese ideas of honour.  Although Living the Game will likely play even better with those already interested in the subject, the film often has the crossover appeal of a sports doc, with champions and underdogs to cheer for and contestants who all have their own personal reasons for wanting to win.  I guess it will be no shock to gamers the amount of suspense that is able to build up during the competitions, and this is a fairly entertaining look at the world of professional gaming, and how it effects the lives of the players.

Ukiyo-e Heroes – ★★★ (out of 4) David Bull is a Canadian craftsmen living in Japan who is one of the last remaining ukiyo-e artists, a traditional form of Japanese wood-block printing that he studied and taught himself how to do.  Jed Henry is an American illustrator, who has the idea to mix classic ukiyo-e styles with images inspired by modern Japanese pop culture.  Between them, Ukiyo-e Heroes is born, a unique collaboration between the artists that spans across the Pacific Ocean and bridges the generation gap between them.  Director Toru Tokikawa gains intimate access to both artists and their studios in Ukiyo-e Heroes, revealing their shared passion for wanting to create beautiful works of art that will live on for many years, like the work of the masters before them.  The film shows the meticulous amount of work that goes into each print on both their parts, allowing us to watch as Jed creates his designs on a computer and then traces every line by hand using inks, so that David can then carve these same lines onto blocks of wood for the actual printing.  The film also has interludes showing us the elderly masters who make the handcrafted paper, brushes and carving knives that David uses, all practising ancient traditions that have been passed down to them.  The result is an inspiring look at a fruitful collaboration between two different artists who have found a way to work together, taking a traditional art form that has existed for centuries and revitalizing it for contemporary times.

Hobbyhorse Revolution – ★★★ (out of 4) A group of teen girls in Finland have reclaimed the hobbyhorse from being a mere children’s toy, and turned the plush horse heads on wooden sticks into a unique but powerful symbol of empowerment that blasts down any stereotypes of what’s considered age appropriate.  These teens take their hobbyhorses seriously, many of them feeling like social outcasts who are relentlessly bullied at school, and have turned them into a sort of sport that allows them to connect with others and be themselves through an imaginative and fun escape from reality.  They give them names and unique personalities, and even take part in dressage competitions where they prance around with the hobbyhorses between their legs and jump over barriers, just like you would do in an actual horse show.  It would have been interesting to get some more insight into the history of how this particular subculture started, and I did find myself wondering if there are any boys who take part in it and if they would be perceived any differently.  But the subjects we do follow all have engaging stories to share, and director Selma Vilhunen is nothing if not supportive of these girls and the passion they have for their hobbyhorses, making Hobbyhorse Revolution a frequently enjoyable and even oddly inspiring look at this unique subculture, and some of the cool outsiders who inhabit it.

Ramen Heads – ★★★½ (out of 4) Making a name for himself as one of the greatest ramen chefs in Japan, Osamu Tomita treats his daily preparations of the dish like an art form, with countless customers coming to his restaurant from all over and lining up for hours outside just to get a taste.  Director Koki Shigeno takes us inside the kitchen where the magic happens in Ramen Heads, showing how the chef’s signature broths are allowed to simmer for days at a time, noodles are handcrafted and judged on their “slurpability,” and every bowl is served with utmost care.  Chef Tomita is so passionate about the dish, that he even spends his few days off trying out other ramen restaurants.  The history of the food is also explored, originating as a noodle dish brought over from China that gained notoriety as a quick and affordable working man’s dish when Japan was recovering from World War II, before becoming a passionately prepared food that now exists in many different variations.  It might sound weird to describe a documentary as “mouthwatering,” but watching Ramen Heads is an experience that leaves us both hungry and thoroughly satisfied.  This is food porn of the highest order, showcasing gorgeously captured images of the signature dish being made and devoured, with steam arising from the bowls and chopsticks being lifted towards mouths, while also exploring and celebrating the true passion that these chefs have for their craft.  This is one of the most purely enjoyable films at the festival.

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