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#HotDocs17: Fourth Batch of Reviews

May 7, 2017

By John Corrado

We have reached the last day of Hot Docs, and below are my thoughts on five films that I saw over the last few days of the festival.  Please come back tomorrow for my final set of reviews, and you can find more information through the links in the film titles.  Enjoy!

Let There Be Light – ★★½ (out of 4) With the world’s dependence on fossil fuels needing to come to an end for the sake of the planet, a team of scientists see nuclear fusion technology as the next most viable energy source.  Reducing the amount of radioactive waste that is left over as a byproduct of the nuclear fission technology that is currently being used, fusion would essentially harness the same power as the sun, to offer a relatively clean and seemingly endless energy supply.  The only problem is that the complex machines needed to actually generate the energy haven’t been built yet, as they face limited budgets, waning interest from politicians and other technical glitches, which means that actually using it as a source of energy is still many years off.  We follow the team at ITER that is trying to build a version of the Soviet-designed tokamak machine in Southern France, which is the project that is most likely to actually work, as well as an independent scientist who is building his own device in a storage locker with parts from Home Depot, and the team of researchers who see the slightly differently designed stellarator reactor as a more viable option.  Purely as a film, Let There Be Light can feel a bit dry, but it’s still engaging enough to be worth seeing, offering an interesting introduction to the science behind nuclear fusion for those wanting to learn more about the subject.

The Road Forward – ★★★★ (out of 4) Through a mix of interviews with different Indigenous artists, period reenactments and musical sequences, The Road Forward uses the story of The Native Voice, an independent newspaper run by the Native Brotherhood of British Columbia in the 1940s, as a jumping off point to explore the larger history of aboriginal rights in Canada.  The film shows how bad things were under Pierre Trudeau nearly fifty years ago, and how they haven’t really gotten better now under his son, touching on the horrifying history of residential schools, the Constitution Express activist movement to protest restrictive government policy in 1980, the suppression of culture and language that still exists in the education system, and the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women.  Right from the stunning opening song “Indian Man,” The Road Forward immediately cements itself as an excitingly unique hybrid of documentary and musical.  The result is a frequently stunning collage of the past and present colliding with bittersweet hope for the future, while also becoming a rousing tribute to the unifying power of music.  This is a powerful, thrilling and important film that every Canadian should see, especially as our country’s phony 150th birthday celebrations ramp up.

What Lies Upstream – ★★★ (out of 4) When the residents of Charleston, West Virginia had their drinking water contaminated by the chemical MCHM, which had leaked into the Elk River from a coal processing plant, filmmaker Cullen Hoback went with his camera to investigate, and he reveals his findings in What Lies Upstream.  What he found was a vast coverup involving water companies that are more concerned with making money than public health, with officials unable to provide definitive proof as to the safety of being exposed to MCHM in the water, not to mention the other chemicals leaching in that aren’t even being tested for.  These problems stretch from the state to federal levels and lead him all the way to Flint, Michigan, where the dangerously high levels of lead in the water were being kept from the residents, with the EPA and CDC having fallen so far under the sway of powerful lobbyists and special interest groups who have close ties to the chemical companies that they no longer have the best interests of people or the environment at heart.  The result is a terrifying real life political thriller, that not only shows how much worse things could potentially get under Donald Trump, but also how bad they already were under previous administrations, with the majority of regulations on water purification having been rolled back to the point that they are essentially meaningless.

Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower – ★★★ (out of 4) When Hong Kong stopped being a British colony and was officially handed over to the Chinese government in 1997, citizens went from being free to suddenly being part of the communist regime, and an entire generation has grown up never knowing otherwise.  But the skinny and bespectacled teenager Joshua Wong is fearlessly standing up to the communist government, having founded the Scholarism movement in high school to protest forced national education, and staging a protest that saw thousands of other young people take to the streets to join him.  This gave way to the Umbrella Revolution demanding suffrage in Hong Kong, which saw the fight for democracy and the freedom to elect their own governments reaching a fever pitch.  Joshua Wong has become the unlikely face of this cause by suggesting clear solutions to complex problems, and attracting other high schoolers to the movement because of his young age.  Fast moving and informative at just 78 minutes, Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower is an engaging introduction to these issues, that provides an inspiring look at a teenager taking charge and making a difference.

78/52 – ★★★★ (out of 4) The first feature film ever made about a single scene, 78/52 offers a deep dive into the shower scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, a sequence so iconic that it has almost gone beyond the film itself to take on a life of its own.  Director Alexandre O. Philippe has assembled a group of filmmakers, historians, actors and editors, as well as Janet Leigh’s body double, to dissect the scene frame by frame, discussing the amount of symbolism behind every single choice, from the composition of the images to the way that are edited together.  They talk about how the scene is further elevated by Bernard Herrmann’s unforgettable shrieking score, and somehow the stabbing sound effects become even more disturbing when we see how they were done using a melon and a slab of steak.  The shower scene is so effective precisely because it broke all the rules, not only blasting through social taboos of the time to lay the groundwork for how violence is depicted and sexulized in the horror genre, but also revolutinizing the filmmaking craft as a whole because of how it was assembled through a series of quick cuts.  The scene also shocked audiences for killing off the main character so early in the film, which was exactly the effect that Alfred Hitchcock wanted, having become largely accepted in America at the time, and looking for new ways to make audiences feel uneasy.  With the interviews done in black and white, and some new exterior footage shot on the Universal soundstage that fits in seamlessly with the images from Psycho, 78/52 reverberates with passion for the filmmaking craft.  It’s an incredible documentary that goes far beyond just being an essay film, not only allowing us to delve deep into perhaps the most famous scene in all of cinema and one of the greatest films of all time, but also becoming a thrilling and beautifully crafted experience in its own right.  I found it utterly enthralling to watch.

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