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Hot Docs Reviews: Three Identical Strangers, I Used to Be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story, Bisbee ’17, The Game Changers, Shirkers

April 28, 2018

By John Corrado

The 25th edition of the Hot Docs Film Festival is on until May 6th in Toronto.  More information on tickets and showtimes can be found through the links in the film titles.  Enjoy!

Three Identical Strangers – ★★★½ (out of 4) When the 19-year-old Bobby arrived at college in 1980, he was treated like a familiar face, despite the fact that he didn’t know anyone.  As it turns out, they had mistaken him for Eddy, an identical twin that he never knew existed.  The story of these two long lost brothers being reunited by chance was so strange that it made the local papers, but it became even stranger and even more of a media sensation when they were contacted by a third guy named David, who also looked just like them.  They had all been adopted from the Louise Wise Agency in New York, shared the same birthday, and had many other things in common as well.  They were identical triplets, who grew up within a hundred mile radius of each other, and never even knew of each other’s existence.  The long lost brothers became fast friends and immediately shared a bond, but as they found out more about their past, their story started to take a darker turn.

Exceptionally crafted by director Tim Wardle, Three Identical Strangers is an incredible example of truth being stranger than fiction, that unfolds with some truly shocking twists and turns.  Like The Imposter several years back, another stranger than fiction doc that the same production team had a part in, the film uses a mix of interviews, archival footage, and reenactments with actors to tell its story in a very cinematic way.  It’s masterfully edited together, with different clips and lines of dialogue repeating themselves at different points, allowing these little moments to take on deeper meaning the more that we find out about the story.  The film ultimately ends up raising complex moral and ethical questions about how much information adoption agencies are required to divulge, and the effects that nature versus nurture can have upon somebody’s upbringing.  It’s a riveting film, that just keeps getting more fascinating and disturbing with every new revelation.

Thursday, April 26th – 6:30 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 1
Friday, April 27th – 1:30 PM at Scotiabank Theatre 4

I Used to Be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story – ★★★ (out of 4) Director Jessica Leski dives deep into the fandom surrounding different boybands – from The Beatles to One Direction – in I Used to Be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story.  The film follows four women of different ages who all primarily love a different boyband.  There’s the teenaged One Direction fan Elif, whose viral YouTube video of her emotional reaction to watching a 1D concert on DVD gives the film its title; the Take That fanatic Dara, a closeted superfan who is so into boybands that she has her own theory about them; the Backstreet Boys enthusiast Sadia, who even ran a fan club for them in the early days of the internet; and an older woman named Susan who predates all of them and is a fan of the original and best boyband, The Beatles.

Another filmmaker might have treated this subject mockingly or like a novelty, but I Used to Be Normal is thankfully much more sincere than that.  The most refreshing thing about the film is that it not only takes their fandom seriously, but also explores why they love the music of these bands, even if the groups themselves are sometimes cynically written off as being products of a marketing machine.  For example, Sadia has used the music of the Backstreet Boys to keep her going and help her through some of the darkest points in her life, and now treats their songs like an anchor to a more innocent time.  Following the subjects over several years, we really get to see their evolution and growth.  This is especially true in the story of Elif, who seems to mature right before our eyes, as she struggles to pursue her dreams of a musical career, against the wishes of her Turkish family.  The result is a super charming and surprisingly emotional look at female superfans and what the music of boybands means to them.

Thursday, April 26th – 9:15 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 1
Friday, April 27th – 12:00 PM at Hart House Theatre
Friday, May 4th – 9:30 PM at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema
Sunday, May 6th – 12:30 PM at Hart House Theatre

Bisbee ’17 – ★★★ (out of 4) Bisbee, Arizona was once a thriving mining town that was one of the largest providers of copper in America, and since the mine closed in the 1970s, the town has taken on a sleepy, almost mythic quality.  But the town is still haunted by the tragic events of July 12th, 1917, when 1,200 mostly immigrant miners went on strike for fair treatment and better wages at the height of the copper boom during the war, joined by the Industrial Workers of the World union, and were violently rounded up by authorities, shuttled off in cattle cars, and left stranded in the middle of the New Mexico desert where they were left to die.  As the hundredth anniversary approaches, the town is forced to reconcile with these painful events from their past, coming together to reenact the 1917 deportation with the weight of history still looming large over many of their heads.  Director Robert Greene presents a mostly engaging portrait of the locals preparing to recreate their darkest moments, with the occasionally surreal reenactments allowing them to interact with their ancestors in a very tactile and almost profound way.  Although the film feels a bit long at nearly two hours, Bisbee ’17 has some powerful moments where we see the past colliding with the present, providing an interesting and sometimes moving hybrid of documentary and dramatic reenactment.

Friday, April 27th – 2:45 PM at Hart House
Monday, April 30th – 11:30 AM at Scotiabank Theatre 7
Friday, May 4th – 5:00 PM at Scotiabank Theatre 3

The Game Changers – ★★★ (out of 4) A fast-paced and informative look at vegan athletes and the powers of a plant-based diet, The Game Changers challenges the notion that you need to eat meat to get protein.   The film centres around James Wilks, a former MMA fighter turned military trainer who was struggling to recover following a serious injury, and started researching different diets to help his body heal.  What he discovered is that there is an increasing number of athletes who gave up meat and other animal products for various reasons, and noticed a serious uptick in their performance after moving to a plant-based diet.  The film presents its evidence by consulting doctors and also following a wide range of subjects including strongman Patrik Baboumian, ultramarthoner Scott Jurek, Olympic cyclist Kristin Armstrong, and members of the Miami Dolphins, who follow vegan diets and often outperform their meat-eating peers.  Even Arnold Schwarzenegger is a vegan.

There have been other documentaries promoting veganism, but most of them focus on it solely as an animal rights issue, and The Game Changers differs in that it is mostly geared towards an audience that might otherwise sneer at the suggestion of giving up meat, and these subjects are not your stereotypical vegans.  These are bodybuilders, weight lifters, football players and extreme athletes, who swear that their plant-based diets allow their bodies to access protein more fully and recover quicker, with their claims mostly backed up by health checks and blood tests.  The subject of male virility is also addressed, with a very funny sequence where three football players have their naturally occurring erections tested during their sleep after eating meat one night and bean burritos the next, and find that their erections are not only harder but also last way longer after eating plant-based foods.  The film moves at a quick clip, bouncing breathlessly between science and personal testimony, all set to a booming soundtrack.  This is a crowdpleaser first and foremost, but it’s very successful at what it sets out to do, and it might just change a few minds along the way.

Friday, April 27th – 6:00 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 1
Saturday, April 28th – 10:30 AM at Isabel Bader Theatre
Saturday, May 5th – 12:45 PM at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema

Shirkers – ★★★½ (out of 4) Back in 1992, director Sandi Tan and her rebellious, countercultural friends Jasmine Ng and Sophie Siddique set out to make an independent film called Shirkers.  Shot on 16mm in their native Singapore, and heavily inspired by the early works of David Lynch and Steven Soderbergh, it was a dreamlike, avant garde road movie that could have radicalized their country’s stagnant film scene at the time.  That is, if it had ever been finished and released.  They were helped on the project by Georges Cardona, a mysterious older man who started off as Sandi’s mentor and friend, until his behaviour grew increasingly weird and erratic on set.  After the film was finished shooting, Georges disappeared with all of the raw footage, holding it hostage for unknown reasons, and cruelly dashing the dreams of these young filmmakers.

Now Sandi has found a way to reclaim this project from her youth and finally get some closure on the film that was stolen from her with the documentary Shirkers, which uses the story of this lost indie film that was never completed as the basis for a fascinating and moving study of memory and coming to terms with the past.  Engagingly unfolding like a mystery, and playing with an intoxicating mix of images and sound design that gives new life to the old footage, Shirkers is an incredible and often surprising work of art.  The reason I go to film festivals is to discover small gems like this.

Friday, April 27th – 9:15 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 2
Saturday, April 28th – 3:45 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 2
Saturday, May 5th – 2:45 PM at Scotiabank Theatre 3

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