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#HotDocs19: Third Set of Capsule Reviews

April 28, 2019

By John Corrado

The 2019 Hot Docs Film Festival runs from April 26th to May 6th in Toronto, more information on tickets and showtimes can be found right here.

Midnight Family ★★★½ (out of 4)

High stakes and high speed ambulance chases abound in Midnight Family, a compelling and beautifully shot vérité portrait of a Mexican family who are in the private ambulance business. With only forty five government funded ambulances running overnight in Mexico City, most people in need of help have to rely on private ambulances to take them to the hospital. The Ochoa family is in this business, with the father Fernando being the one in charge, and his remarkably mature teenaged son Juan taking turns acting as both driver and paramedic.

They drive around nightly chasing accidents and looking for injuries, and we watch as they desperately try and beat traffic to be the first on the scene, both to save lives and hopefully get paid enough to make a living. But many of the people they assist aren’t able to afford their services, which means that they are essentially doing the job for free, often leaving them struggling to scrape together enough money for food, while also needing to spend some of what they make on paying off police officers who expect bribes for alerting them to accidents. Director Luke Lorentzen gets great access to the family on their nightly runs, and he keeps himself as an observer to the action, with the subjects never directly interacting with the camera. The result is a unique and thrilling documentary experience.

Thursday, April 25th – 6:15 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 2

Friday, April 26th – 3:30 PM at Isabel Bader Theatre

Sunday, May 5th – 8:45 PM at Hart House Theatre

Memory – The Origins of Alien ★★★ (out of 4)

Director Alexandre O. Philippe follows ups his masterful dissection of Psycho‘s shower scene in his stunning 2017 documentary 78/52 with Memory – The Origins of Alien, which offers a deep dive into mythology and making of Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi classic Alien to coincide with the film’s fortieth anniversary this year. Phillipe initially started this project as a study of just the chestburster sequence, before deciding to expand his scope to the entire movie. We hear from a variety of subjects, including cast members Tom Skerritt and Veronica Cartwright, pop culture pundits Ben Mankiewicz and Clarke Wolfe, and the late screenwriter Dan O’Bannon’s widow, Diane, who has an incredible personal archive of his old material. They discuss how Scott and O’Bannen drew inspiration from a variety of sources, including everything from the work of science fiction writer H.P. Lovecraft to paintings by the artist Francis Bacon, and the influence of H.R. Giger’s design work on the film.

While Memory – The Origins of Alien doesn’t hit quite as hard as 78/52, and lacks some of the obsessive focus of that film which focused entirely on that one famous scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s film, this is still an engaging and well assembled documentary that straddles the line between being a behind the scenes look at Alien and a dissertation on the deeper meaning of the film’s story. The chestburster sequence is explored in-depth in the last act, dispelling the common myth that the actors didn’t know it was going to happen, but showing how their visceral reactions to the nastiness of it were absolutely real. Philippe once again proves himself to be a brilliant and unique purveyor of pop culture, with a real gift for taking something iconic and exploring it from a different angle. It’s gloriously geeky and I want to watch again.

Thursday, April 25th – 8:45 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 2

Friday, April 26th – 12:15 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

Saturday, May 4th – 3:45 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 2

The Miracle of the Little Prince ★★½ (out of 4)

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince is one of the most translated books in the world, and the timeless story is being used as a way to preserve old languages that are at risk of being lost. Director Marjoleine Boonstra’s documentary The Miracle of the Little Prince explores how the story has been translated into four different Indigenous languages, including the Tamazight language spoken by the Berbers in North Africa, the traditional language of the Sámi people in Scaandnavia, the Náhuat language spoken in parts of El Salvadore, and a dialect of Tibetan.

While key passages from Saint-Exupéry’s iconic text are read in voiceover by some of the subjects in their own languages over some beautifully shot landscape images, The Miracle of the Little Prince is more about these different cultures than it is about the story itself. The concept of showing how one story can have such an impact across so many languages and cultures is interesting, but it moves at a slow pace and feels long at 85 minutes, and I honestly think it would have worked better as a short or mid-length feature.

Friday, April 26th – 3:45 PM at Scotiabank Theatre 4

Sunday, April 28th – 3:00 PM at Hart House Theatre

Saturday, May 4th – 3:00 PM at Fox Theatre

Ask Dr. Ruth ★★★½ (out of 4)

A registered sex therapist turned talk show host, first on the radio and then TV, Dr. Ruth Westheimer changed the way that sex was talked about in pop culture throughout the 1980s. Already in her fifties when she gained notoriety, Dr. Ruth’s frank, no-nonsense way of speaking gave her the appearance of a stern but loving grandmother imparting wisdom with a good deal of humour mixed in. She remains just as unfiltered and inspiring at ninety years young, as we see in director Ryan White’s equally funny and moving documentary Ask Dr. Ruth.

Much of the film actually focuses on her heartbreaking early years as a Jewish child living in Germany when the Nazis came into power. She lost her parents in the Holocaust and spent her formative years at an orphanage in Switzerland, where she was forced to live when her parents were taken to concentration camps. The film utilizes some nicely done animated sequences to show her experiences growing up, and it’s a cinematic choice that works really well, since no actual footage exists of her at the time.

White, who is openly gay, also uses his film to explore the great impact that Dr. Ruth’s work had on the public consciousness in terms of starting important conversations about sex and helping break down barriers. She made great strides to normalize homosexuality on air at the height of the AIDS crisis in a way that helped many gay people find acceptance, both within themselves and from others. This is a crowdpleasing portrait of Dr. Ruth that is both delightful and touching to watch, regardless of whether or not you are already familiar with her work.

Friday, April 26th – 6:00 PM at Isabel Bader Theatre

Saturday, April 27th – 10:00 AM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 2

Killing Patient Zero ★★★ (out of 4)

For years, a flamboyantly gay French Canadian flight attendant named Gaétan Dugas has been blamed for spreading AIDS, and director Laurie Lynd’s extremely well researched documentary Killing Patient Zero shows how that narrative is false. Based on the book Patient Zero and the Making of the AIDS Epidemic by Richard McKay, who also appears as a subject, the film explores how this mysterious disease that started affecting gay men in the late 1970s and early ’80s, which was often referred to as “gay cancer” or the “gay plague” before medical researchers even found a name for it, came to be traced back to Gaétan at a time when the media and medical community was desperate to find a cause and pin the blame on someone. Dr. William Darrow of the CDC, who helped develop the infamous cluster study that put Gaétan at the centre of the crisis, appears as one of the film’s subjects to explain how his research into “patient zero” has been misrepresented over the years.

This is an important and moving film that explores the full impact that the AIDS epidemic had upon the gay right’s movement, putting the full extent of it into perspective for younger generations who might not have same awareness of the history. The film touches on the inaction of the Reagan administration in response to the crisis, and how the public fear surrounding AIDS provided the perfect climate for homophobia and a backlash against increasing acceptance of homosexuality, threatening to undo the strides made during the sexual liberation movement that started with the Stonewall riots in 1969.

The lasting and largely problematic influence of journalist Randy Shilts’s iconic book And the Band Played On is also discussed, which was instrumental in helping raise public awareness of AIDS, but also perpetuated the narrative of Gaétan as a sort of villainous figure at the centre of it. Interviews with some of Gaétan’s co-workers and former lovers shed more light on who he was as a person, with them all remembering him as a kind and caring man who was always full of life, maintaining a sense of humour right through to the end.

Friday, April 26th – 8:30 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

Saturday, April 27th – 12:30 PM at Scotiabank Theatre 4

Friday, May 3rd – 2:45 PM at Hart House Theatre

One Comment leave one →
  1. April 29, 2019 9:00 am

    I remember hearing about “Patient Zero” on Quirks and Quarks a while back. He was actually labelled “Patient O”. He was part of an American study, and the letter o just meant “from outside of country”.


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