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#HotDocs19: Fourth Set of Capsule Reviews

April 30, 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.

nîpawistamâsowin: We Will Stand Up ★★★½ (out of 4)

Filmmaker Tasha Hubbard uses the tragic case of Colton Boushie, a young man from the Red Pheasent Cree Nation who was shot to death by white farmer Gerald Stanley on his Saskatchewan farm back in 2016, to explore how Canada’s legal system is still stacked against Indigenous peoples in her powerful documentary nîpawistamâsowin: We Will Stand Up. The film made history when it opened the festival last week, with Hubbard being the first ever Indigenous filmmaker to be given that honour.

Boushie was asleep in the backseat of an SUV when his friends drove onto Stanley’s farm and jumped on his ATV, leading the farmer to start chasing after them with a gun to stop them from trespassing, firing two warning shots into the air. While his friends ran off, Boushie got into the front seat and tried to drive away, which is when he was shot point blank in the back of the head, with Stanley claiming that the handgun he was holding accidentally went off due to a hang fire when he reached in to try and turn the engine off. The investigation was allegedly poorly handled, with police not properly covering the vehicle or Colten’s body for hours afterward, as rain washed away some of the blood evidence.

Stanley was arrested on second-degree murder charges, and the ensuing trial sparked protests across the country when he was acquitted by an all-white jury, despite the fact that many believed he should have at least been charged with manslaughter. Through heartbreaking interviews with Colten’s family and supporters, we get a sense of what he was like as a person, and how hard it was for his loved ones to go through the trial, having to face the man who killed him in court and even being shown graphic images of the crime scene without warning. The last act follows them as they travel to Ottawa and meet with different politicians, hoping that some changes to the judicial system will come out of his death.

The film also takes on a personal side for Hubbard, as she teaches her son and nephew about the history of their culture, and how to navigate the world as young Indigenous men. Hubbard does an excellent job of tying in Colten’s story with Canada’s historic mistreatment of First Nations people, from the breaking of treaties in the 1800s and the creation of the Indian Act. She illustrates how the public’s perception of the case was biased by people who viewed Boushie through the old stereotype of a “drunk, thieving Indian” and saw Stanley as merely defending his property. A remarkable moment near the end of the film with Hubbard’s white adoptive father really puts the complexity of the different feelings people had towards the case into perspective. It’s hard to watch at times, but nîpawistamâsowin: We Will Stand Up is a challenging, moving and important film for Canadians to see.

Thursday, April 25th – 9:45 PM at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema (Opening Night)

Saturday, April 27th – 1:00 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 2

Saturday, May 4th – 10:00 AM at Isabel Bader Theatre

A Place of Tide and Time – ★★★ (out of 4)

St. Paul’s River is a small, English-speaking fishing village in the eastern most part of Quebec that is situated on the Lower North Shore of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The only way in or out is by boat or plane, and not many people live there anymore, with few job opportunities existing after the fishing industry dried up with the 1992 moratorium on cod, and the majority of residents travelling out of province for months at a time to find work. Directed by Sébastien Rist and Aude Leroux-Lévesque, A Place of Tide and Time is a beautifully shot film that presents a portrait of this town that in many ways remains stuck in the past, and faces an uncertain future.

One of the film’s subjects is Ethan Nadeau, a teenager who spends his days with his girlfriend Brittney and his friend Patrick, attending a high school made up of only a handful of kids. He is getting ready to graduate, and is faced with the reality of having to leave town and travel far away in order to get an education or find work, grappling with the fact that he may never return to live in the town where he grew up. Ethan was mostly raised by his mother as his father went off to work in Alberta, and in some of the film’s most poignant moments, he talks about how the lack of a constant male role model in his life has affected him. Ethan’s uncle, Garland Nadeau, spends his time hunting and fishing like he used to, sometimes taking his nephew out on the water, and he is also trying to get a tourism industry going in the town, with mixed success.

This is very much a slice of life film, showing the laid-back way of being that the residents of St. Paul’s River and the other towns in the Lower North Shore have adopted, but also their increasing frustration with being ignored and the lack of opportunities where they live. Through excellent and often starkly beautiful cinematography, Rist and Leroux-Lévesque have made an evocative portrait of a community that has essentially been forgotten by the rest of the country, capturing a way of life that is at risk of dying.

Saturday, April 27th – 3:45 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 2

Sunday, April 28th – 8:00 PM at Scotiabank Theatre 8

Saturday, May 4th – 12:00 PM at Scotiabank Theatre 8

Mr. Toilet: The World’s #2 Man – ★★★ (out of 4)

Jack Sim, the quirky head of the World Toilet Organization, is on a mission to turn pop culture into poop culture, and with a shocking forty percent of the world not having access to proper sanitation, his work is more essential than you might think. Director Lily Zepeda follows the 60-year-old Sim, who often goes by the name Mr. Toilet and has a penchant for using poop jokes to get his message across, as he sets his sights on bringing indoor toilets to India, where public defecation is one of the country’s biggest and most persistent problems. The lack of proper washroom facilities is leading to a variety of other issues, including water pollution as human feces wash into the rivers and streams, and many women end up getting raped while relieving themselves out in the open.

Sim is inspired by the public sanitation efforts that were undertaken to transform his native Singapore throughout his own lifetime, and he also tells us that considers the bathroom to be a very spiritual place, asserting that people come up with some of their best ideas while on the toilet and always leaving feeling better. But he is sometimes better at coming up with ideas rather than actually implementing them, leading to tensions within the organization, and his penchant for mischief sometimes threatens to overshadow his actions. The delightfully eccentric Sim is a true character, and Mr. Toilet: The World’s #2 Man is quite effective at using humour to explore a serious subject.

Saturday, April 27th – 5:45 PM at Scotiabank Theatre 3

Sunday, April 28th – 1:00 PM at Isabel Bader Theatre

Saturday, May 4th – 8:30 PM at Fox Theatre

Hope Frozen ★★★ (out of 4)

After their 2-year-old daughter Matheryn, who was affectionately known as Einz, died of a rare form of brain cancer, the Naovaratpong family in Thailand decided to have her head cryogenically frozen and stored at the Alcor Lab in Arizona, in hopes of being able to bring her back in the future after a cure is found for her disease. Einz’s scientist father started researching the possibilities of cryonics as a way to cope with the end of his daughter’s life, and her teenaged brother Matrix, who loved his little sister dearly, becomes obsessed with using his own scientific knowledge to find a way of bringing her back.

Director Pailin Wedel gains intimate access to the family, and Hope Frozen is as much about the science behind cryonics as it is about the grieving process, and how different people cope with death. One of the most interesting aspects of the film is about how the family reconciles freezing their daughter’s body with their traditional Buddhist beliefs about reincarnation. This is a thought provoking and emotional exploration of cryonics, from both a scientific and faith-based perspective.

Saturday, April 27th – 9:00 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 2

Monday, April 29th – 12:00 PM at Scotiabank Theatre 3

Thursday, May 2nd – 4:15 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

Human Nature ★★★ (out of 4)

The possibilities of human genome editing through the discovery of CRISPR are explored in director Adam Bolt’s film Human Nature, which looks at the possibilities of a future where diseases or even certain traits could be cut out of our genetic code by literally altering our DNA. Through interviews with a variety of scientists and researchers, as well as some of the individuals who would be most impacted by these discoveries, the film looks at this issue from multiple perspectives and angles.

The most well known of the academic subjects is probably the geneticist George Church, who has gotten media attention for wanting to clone and bring back wooly mammoths. On the personal side of things, we are introduced to David Sanchez, a boy with sickle cell anemia who has learned to live with the blood disorder, but could potentially be cured in the future through gene editing; and Ethan and Ruthie Weiss, who have a daughter with albinism and impaired vision who they have come to accept and love, but fear they would have chosen to abort her if they had found out about her disorder in utero.

The ethics of using genetically altered pigs to grow human organs and tissue for transplants is also brought up, as well as the particular risks of germline editing, that is to alter someone’s genetic code so that any changes will be passed down to their biological children as well. While there are some positive implications for all of this research, including the potential to cure cancer and other deadly diseases, the technology is also quite scary when it comes to the possibility of creating “designer babies” with parents being able to choose what traits they want for their kids while editing out anything that they consider abnormal, in a way that is eerily similar to eugenics.

Physicist and researcher Stephen Hsu is interviewed in the film, and he talks in a really chilling way about the economic potential of increasing productivity by raising the collective IQ through eliminating things like Down syndrome, either through gene editing or early testing so parents can abort. Bolt makes the very interesting cinematic choice to play part of an old Nazi propaganda film about eugenics during his interview, and the similarities are striking. Hsu of course denies this charge, but it’s hard not to see the comparisons between what he is saying and Adolf Hitler’s goal of creating a “master race.” The film offers a lot of science, but it’s done in a very engaging way, providing a fascinating and also somewhat terrifying glimpse into what the future could hold in terms of gene editing.

Saturday, April 27th – 6:00 PM at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema (Big Ideas)

Sunday, April 28th – 12:30 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

Tuesday, April 30th – 12:30 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

The Seer and the Unseen ★★★ (out of 4)

Ragga is a seer in Iceland, who has the ability to communicate with elves who live in the hidden world, a gift that she has had since childhood and now uses to consult on construction projects to ensure that their land isn’t disrupted. In The Seer and the Unseen, director Sara Dosa follows Ragga as she works with an environmental activist group to try and stop the development of a road that will destroy an ancient lava field and cut through an elf settlement that has been there for thousands of years, hoping to at least be able to save a giant boulder that serves as their church. While the film has a slight magical realist feel to it at times, Dosa makes the conscious decision to not offer any drawings or onscreen depictions of the elves, instead immersing us in the beauty of the landscapes through transportive cinematography.

One of the most interesting things is that Ragga’s beliefs aren’t actually that uncommon in Iceland, with one survey estimating that about half of the country’s residents believe in elves, making this much more culturally accepted than you might realize. When you take into account the fact that so many different cultures have remarkably similar folklore about elves and little people – not to mention the experiences of people who have taken drugs like DMT and claim to have interacted with “machine elves,” as they were called by Terrence McKenna, which isn’t discussed in the film but is worth researching afterwards – maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to write off the idea of another realm that exists on a different visual wavelength beyond what the majority of us are usually tuned in to seeing.

What I appreciated most about The Seer and the Unseen is that Dosa never once mocks her subject, and the film is very respectful of the idea that there might actually be another plane of existence beyond what we can see. The film simply encourages us to see the natural world through Ragga’s eyes, regardless of whether or not you believe there is more to it than meets the eye. The result is a wonderful documentary about someone who has the ability to see the world a little differently, and the importance of preserving the land for all of its inhabitants.

Sunday, April 28th – 3:45 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 2

Monday, April 29th – 7:00 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 4

Sunday, May 5th – 6:45 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 2

Toxic Beauty ★★★ (out of 4)

Directed by Phyllis Ellis, who takes an investigative approach to the material, the documentary Toxic Beauty explores how harmful ingredients like phthalates, parabens and even formaldihyde are lurking in a lot of the soaps, deodorants, creams and shampoos that many women use on their bodies every single day. Through personal testimonies as well as interviews with different doctors, researchers and whistleblowers, the film becomes a powerful exposé of how cosmetic companies have lied about the amount of cancer-causing chemicals in their products over the years, from makeup to Johnson & Johnson baby powder, alleging a massive, decades long coverup rivalling that of big tobacco.

One of the film’s biggest charges is that genital use of talcum powder can lead to ovarian cancer. Ellis explores how Johnson & Johnson has spent years lying about the harmfulness of talc through the story of Deane Beeg, who sued the company after developing ovarian cancer at only 49 years old, following decades of using baby powder on her body. Another one of the subjects is Mymy Nguyen, a young medical student who uses over two dozen products on her body every day, and decides to do a detox experiment by testing her urine on days when she does and doesn’t use these products, and the results are remarkable. If this scary and well researched film doesn’t make you think twice about what products you put on your body, I don’t know what will.

Sunday, April 28th – 6:30 PM at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema (Big Ideas)

Monday, April 29th – 12:45 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

Thursday, May 2nd – 5:45 PM at Scotiabank Theatre 3

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