Skip to content

Hot Docs Reviews: The Feeling of Being Watched, Letter From Masanjia, Believer, More Human Than Human, Pick of the Litter

May 6, 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!

The Feeling of Being Watched – ★★★ (out of 4) The close-knit and predominantly Muslim community of Bridgeview, Illinois has been under surveillance by the FBI since the 1990s, in a sweeping investigation known as Operation Vulgar Betrayal which tapered off at the turn of the millennium but was restarted following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  With the majority of the citizens having been paid visits by agents, and the local mosque coming under watch for possible financial ties to Palestinian terrorist groups, filmmaker and journalist Assia Boundaoui decided to try and figure out exactly why so many in her community have been under investigation by seeking to get the FBI files through the Freedom of Information Act.  But she faces multiple roadblocks in her quest to hold the government to account, and risks the privacy of herself and her family in the process.  Raising interesting questions about racial profiling in law enforcement agencies and the overreaching powers of the FBI, The Feeling of Being Watched is a topical and very timely look at the fine line between security and needless surveillance of innocent citizens, that unfolds somewhat like a real life thriller.

Thursday, April 26th – 8:30 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 2
Friday, April 27th – 12:30 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 1
Friday, May 4th – 9:15 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 2

Letter From Masanjia – ★★★ (out of 4) When a woman found an SOS letter from a labour camp in China in a box of cheap Halloween decorations sold at a Target in Oregon, she brought the letter to the attention of the media.  Eventually it was traced back to Sun Yi, a man who had been imprisoned for practising Falun Gong just before the 2008 Olympics in Hong Kong, and was put in the labour camp where he was mercilessly tortured and forced to work long hours manufacturing products that were to be sold overseas.  Desperate to raise awareness of his situation and the horrible working conditions at the factory, he snuck the letter out with one of the shipments, successfully sparking a dialogue about the human rights violations that still exist in other countries, but putting his own life and safety at risk in the process.  Directed by Leon Lee, Letter From Masanjia recounts this fascinating and stranger than fiction true story in an interesting way through interviews and animated graphics, and the film is successful at raising fascinating questions about where the products that we buy are made.

Friday, April 27th – 8:15 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 3
Sunday, April 29th – 2:15 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 4
Friday, May 4th – 4:00 PM at Scotiabank Theatre 13

Believer – ★★★½ (out of 4) The frontman for the band Imagine Dragons, Dan Reynolds is in a unique position as a highly influential celebrity who is also a practising Mormon, and is using his powerful voice to try and get the church to change their outdated stance on LGBTQ rights.  Although Reynolds himself is not gay, he wants the church that has supported him over the years to become more accepting, and is moved to act by the heartbreakingly high suicide rates amongst Mormon youth in the state of Utah.  Spurred on by emails from his young fans who have reached out to him as Mormons who are struggling to be accepted for their sexuality, Reynolds teams up with Neon Trees singer Tyler Glenn, who is openly gay and Mormon, to stage a music festival called LoveLoud just a few blocks from the temple in Park City, hoping to foster inclusivity and spark a dialogue between the traditional and more progressive factions of the church.  Director Don Argott follows Dan Reynolds in the lead up to the event, as they struggle to book a venue and raise awareness, while facing some initial blowback from members of the church.  The most interesting thing about many of the people who come to be involved in the event is that they are still very much believers, and want to keep the community and support that they get through the Mormon church, but feel alienated and pushed out because of the church’s strict stance against homosexuality.  Sparking a very timely conversation about balancing religious beliefs and sexual orientation, Believer is an incredibly moving and also inspiring film.  I loved it.

Tuesday, May 1st – 9:30 PM at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema
Thursday, May 3rd – 9:30 PM at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema
Friday, May 4th – 6:45 PM at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema

More Human Than Human – ★★★ (out of 4) Determined to see if a robot can do his job just as well if not better than him, filmmaker Tommy Pallotta embarks on the journey of trying to build a robot that can film him on its own and conduct an interview.  This process provides the narrative backbone of More Human Than Human, a documentary that explores the increasing reality of robots taking over human jobs, and the potential for artificial intelligence to outpace us in other areas as well in the not to distant future.  The film also looks at the areas where robotics and AI are already being used, from prosthetic limbs to programs like Siri and other chatbots that use algorithms to try and mimic human conversation online.  The result is a fascinating and disturbing look at what the future might hold in terms of robotics, that often plays like a real life sci-fi film.  I found it interesting but also somewhat chilling.

Wednesday, May 2nd – 6:30 PM at Hart House Theatre
Friday, May 4th – 10:30 AM at Isabel Bader Theatre
Saturday, May 5th – 3:15 PM at Hart House Theatre

Pick of the Litter – ★★★ (out of 4) There are eight hundred dogs born every year at Guide Dogs for the Blind, only three hundred of which will actually make the cut as working guide dogs.  The stories of five of these adorable Labrador puppies are told in Pick of the Litter, which takes us through the entire process behind choosing a guide dog.  Directors Dana Bachman and Don Hardy follow these five puppies right from birth, taking us along for the journey as they are placed with trainers, put through a rigorous testing process, and finally placed with their human companions, if they make the cut.  The dogs that aren’t able to become guides get “career changed,” and end up either as breeders or are adopted out to loving homes.  This is a very cute and enjoyable film, that plays as a delightful crowdpleaser.

Wednesday, May 2nd – 9:00 PM at Scotiabank Theatre 4
Friday, May 4th – 1:00 PM at Isabel Bader Theatre
Sunday, May 6th – 3:15 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: