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#HotDocs17: Second Batch of Reviews

May 1, 2017

By John Corrado

The 24th edition of Hot Docs is running until May 7th, and below are my thoughts on ten films I had the chance to see over the first weekend of the festival.  You can find more information on tickets and showtimes through the links in the film titles.  Enjoy!

Rat Film – ★★½ (out of 4) Although the main themes of Rat Film are about how Baltimore’s rodent problems are linked to the city’s history of racial segregation, filmmaker Theo Anthony has delivered an experimental documentary that is ultimately much harder to pin down than any one thing.  Through a mix of factual essay on how the poorer parts of the city were used for rat poison studies in the past, the fallout from which are still being felt to this day, interviews with folks who have devoted their lives to the rodents, be it an exterminator who is seen as a sort of local hero or the eccentric folks who own the creatures as pets, as well as video game style sequences meant to show a rat’s eye view of the world, the film follows a somewhat tangential narrative that covers a lot of ground.

Through an eery soundscape, unsettling images and a couple of quick cuts that function as jump scares, Rat Film seems as much concerned with keeping us on edge as it does with making us think, and the results are somewhat hit and miss.  The most absurdly compelling stuff involves a pair of “rat fisherman” who go out at night to catch the critters, armed with only a baseball bat and a fishing rod with bits of turkey meat and peanut butter attached to the end of the line as bait, which according to urban legend used to be done for sport and competition in Baltimore.  But the impact of these scenes are undercut when we find out after the film that they were completely staged using professional actors, which also calls the ethics of it into question.  The film also takes a needless detour into showing a research facility where gruesome crimes are recreated for learning purposes using dolls and mannequins, which is never really connects to the film’s main themes and actually distracts from the rest of it.  Although Rat Film is ultimately an uneven work, the film still has enough interesting ideas and engaging stylistic choices at play throughout to make it worth a look, even if more squeamish audiences might want to stay away.

The Grown-Ups – ★★★ (out of 4) At a catering school for adults with Down syndrome in Chile, a group of middle-aged classmates strive for more independence and to be treated like the adults they are, longing for better jobs and more freedom to make their own decisions in their lives.  Directed by Maite Alberdi, The Grown-Ups focuses on a group of these students as they struggle to find their place in a world that has pushed them to the margins.  We follow Ricardo who likes to be in charge of the kitchen, Rita who is frustrated with the strict diet she has been put on and rebels by stealing bits of chocolate, as well as the adoring couple of Andres and Anita, who dream of getting married and having their own house and kids, but struggle to gain the blessing of their families.  The film’s most fascinating artistic touch has any parents or teachers either kept off screen or shown out of focus and in the background, to keep our attention solely on the individuals at hand.  Through this, The Grown-Ups is not only quietly revolutionary in the way it depicts disability onscreen, but also makes its most powerful statement that, although these subjects have Down syndrome, they should be fully in charge of telling their own stories, and deserve the same control over their personal lives.  Which makes it all the more infuriating when we watch them being severely underpaid for their work, leaving them no choice but to remain reliant on others.  With moments of both levity and heartbreak, The Grown-Ups is a delightful and also deeply poignant look at a group of people who have grown up, but still struggle to be seen and treated like the adults they are, a dignity that this empathetic film awards them.

Communion – ★★★ (out of 4) Ola is a fourteen year old living in Poland who has barely enough time to just be a typical kid.  She is instead tasked with taking care of her younger autistic brother Nikoedom and helping him prepare for his first communion, dealing with an alcoholic father who leaves her to do most of the housework around their tiny flat, and trying to reach out to her absent mother who left the family behind.  Filmmaker Anna Zamecka gains impressively candid access to her subjects, embedding herself into the home of Ola and her family, and capturing some raw and emotional moments between them.  Striking the perfect balance between being extremely intimate without ever feeling voyeuristic, Communion is an engaging verite portrait of a family that is in the midst of intense struggle, and the resilient teen girl who is forced to deal with the brunt of it all by herself.

Who is Arthur Chu? – ★★★ (out of 4) Many viewers who go into Who is Arthur Chu? are going to already have preconceived opinions or feelings towards the 11-time Jeopardy! champion who gained notoriety for the way he “hacked” the game by jumping around the board to different categories, and used his fame from the show to become a columnist and social media pundit.  But the film shows him to be someone who is much more complicated than first impressions might allow, not the “evil genius” or “supervillain” some have claimed him to be, but more of an earnest social justice warrior who somewhat naively believes he can actually change the world for the better by sharing his opinions, and who online trolls have discovered is far too easy to bait along.  Through interviews with him framed in the middle of the screen in front of a wall of old TVs, verite footage of his daily life, and onscreen graphics showing some of the hate messages he has received, Who is Arthur Chu? goes beyond his spot in the game show limelight.  The film explores how he struggled to accept his Chinese identity as a young man and the strained relationship he had with his father, as well as the ways he feels at odds with the nerd culture that he grew up in, leading to him taking a staunch anti-gamergate stance, which led to much online vitriol.  As someone who actually admired Arthur Chu’s erratic but effective playing style on Jeopardy!, but didn’t really know much about him outside of that, Who is Arthur Chu? held my attention.  Directors Scott Drucker and Yu Gu have crafted a sympathetic portrait of Arthur Chu, while also not glossing over his faults, and the result is is an interesting look at a complex and polarizing figure.

Hope – ★★★½ (out of 4) When Alan Zweig first caught up with Steve Fonyo in his exceptional 2015 documentary Hurt, we saw the cancer survivor who ran across Canada to raise money in the 1980s at a low point in his life, struggling with poverty and addiction that led to him being unfairly stripped of his placement in the Order of Canada.  Now Alan Zweig reconnects with the subject in Hope, and the result is an emotional sequel and a powerful redemption tale that stands on its own.  Following the brutal home invasion at the end of Hurt that left him stabbed and in a coma for a month, the film finds Steve Fonyo and his girlfriend Lisa Marie leaving behind their house in Surrey, BC and travelling to Powell River, so that he can enter an eight week program at a rehab facility, and hopefully start rebuilding their lives.  It’s easy to see why Steve Fonyo agreed to have another film made about him and let the cameras back into his life, because while Hurt captured an important part of his story, Hope is about crafting a more positive oncsreen legacy for which he can be remembered, and in some ways it seems like he is pushing himself to get better for the sake of giving the film a happy ending.  Where Hurt was the tragic story of a fall from grace, Hope is about redemption, and I’m glad to see that Steve Fonyo is doing better.

A River Below – ★★★½ (out of 4) Richard Rasmussen is a Brazilian TV personality who is determined to stop the slaughter of endangered pink river dolphins in the Amazon, which are being caught by fisherman and chopped up for use as bait to catch the profitable mota fish.  Driven by the belief that actually showing footage of the dolphins being killed is the only way to open people’s eyes to the problem, Richard gets graphic video evidence of the slaughter that airs on national television and leads to the government temporarily halting the sale of the fish.  But this is only half of the story, and A River Below takes a turn partway through that calls into question the very ethics of how far you should go in terms of pursuing the truth and capturing footage that can potentially make a difference, as well as the lives that can be unwittingly effected in the process.  Director Mark Grieco gracefully challenges the “eco warrior” narrative, while also never undercutting the message that the dolphin slaughter is cruel and should be stopped, allowing the film to unfold in intriguing shades of grey that call into question the medium with which the message is delivered instead of the message itself.  The film also follows marine biologist Fernando Trujillo, who is researching the dangerous levels of mercury that are in the fish, and it’s telling that his scientific evidence fails to make more of an impact without graphic footage to back it up.  I love it when a documentary upends our expectations, and A River Below ultimately does just that, offering a fascinating and eye-opening experience that constantly challenges viewers and leaves us with a lot to think about afterwards.

Tongue Cutters – ★★★½ (out of 4) Ylva is a nine year old girl from Oslo who travels to the northern part of Norway to work at a fish factory, where kids are employed to cut the tongues out of cod, which are sold as a delicacy.  Mentored by the ten year old Tobias, who is already an expert at cutting tongues and is saving the money that he makes to buy his own boat, Ylva really comes into her own on the job, following in the tradition of her family members who also worked at the factory in their youth.  Because the director Solveig Melkeraaen is Ylva’s aunt, there is a close personal bond between the filmmaker and subject that helps Tongue Cutters immensely, and the results are totally delightful.  The young subjects all seem wise beyond their years, displaying a strong work ethic that is truly inspiring, viewing tongue cutting as a way to gain valuable experience and become more self-sufficient.  Ylva and Tobias also display an incredible emotional maturity in the scenes where they are talking about their lives, and bonding over the fact that both of their parents are separated, and yet they still retain the innocence of being kids, with Ylva adorably carrying around her plush bunny named Alice pretty much everywhere she goes, even at the fish factory.  Filled with many heartwarming moments that tenderly capture the start of a wonderful young friendship between its eminently charming young subjects, Tongue Cutters is a feel good documentary that had me smiling the entire time.

Fish Story – ★★★½ (out of 4) Playing before Tongue Cutters is the equally wonderful short film Fish Story.  Directed by Charlie Lyne, returning to the festival with his third film in as many years following the stunning video essays Beyond Clueless and Fear Itself as well as his 2015 short film Copycat, Fish Story finds the young filmmaker getting to the bottom of a friend Caspar Salmon’s oft told family tale about the opening of a Welsh marina in the 1980s were people with fish related last names were the honoured guests.  But with little historical evidence of these events actually happening, Charlie Lyne sets out to get to the bottom of it.  Comprised mostly of his camera panning over old family photographs and other images to tell the story, as his conversations with the subject plays as narration, Fish Story is the sort of short film that uses every second of its rich thirteen minutes to tell a singular and complete story, one that is both engaging and incredibly delightful to watch unfold.  This is another excellent work from Charlie Lyne, that leaves me as excited as ever to see what he will be up to next.

New Chefs on the Block – ★★½ (out of 4) First time filmmaker Dustin Harrison-Atlas turns the camera on two young chefs trying to start their own restaurants in New Chefs on the Block.  Both located in Washington, D.C., we follow Aaron Silverman who is realizing of dream of opening a classic dinner restaurant called Rose’s Luxury, and Frank Linn who is working with his family to open Frankly…Pizza!, a joint serving gourmet pizza pies baked in a real stone oven.  We see the entire process of opening a restaurant, from struggling to scrape together enough money to actually designing the layout, and finally opening their doors to the public and waiting in anticipation for their first reviews.  The film can be a bit slow moving at times, but New Chefs on the Block is a fairly entertaining look at two people working hard to make their dreams come true, that is inspiring because of the success its subjects receive.

Manic – ★★½ (out of 4) Trying to gain insight into her family’s history of mental illness, Montreal filmmaker Kalina Bertin turns the camera on her brother and sister’s struggles with severe bipolar and uses it as a through line to explore the history of their father George.  As it turns out, George had fathered fifteen children worldwide and was the leader of a cult called “The Significants,” delusionally believing himself to be a saviour helping lead others to enlightenment and taking up with many different women, which led to a shocking and tragic turn of events.  Through a mix of grainy home videos and new footage detailing the struggles that her family faces stemming from mental illness, Manic is clearly a personal and cathartic work for the filmmaker.  Although the film feels somewhat chaotic in terms of narrative, and the nature of watching people in the midst of psychotic episodes can make it tough to watch, the material here is still interesting enough to make this candid documentary mildly worth seeing.

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