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#HotDocs19: Fifth Set of Capsule Reviews

May 1, 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.

Scheme Birds ★★★ (out of 4)

Early on in the documentary Scheme Birds, our teenaged subject Gemma describes her hometown of Motherwell, Scotland, where she was raised in one of the housing schemes, as a place where you either get “locked up or knocked up.” Motherwell was once a thriving manufacturing town, before the steel mills closed down under Margaret Thatcher and most of the jobs disappeared, leaving many of the residents having to rely on government subsidies in order to survive.

Gemma is a scrappy young woman who was raised by her grandfather after being abandoned by her birth mother as a baby. Gemma’s grandfather runs a boxing gym where he encourages the youth to get their anger and frustration out by hitting punch bags instead of getting into physical fights, and like many of the men in town, he also raises pigeons for show and sport. Once a week, he hosts a pigeon show at his gym, allowing many of the town’s ex-cons to find renewed purpose by working with the birds, which represent creatures who are able to fly far away and always find their way back.

There are shades of Andrea Arnold in this vérité portrait of the rough and tumble life that many have been forced to adopt in the small town, with co-directors Ellinor Hallin and Ellen Fise following Gemma and her friends Pat, Amy and JP throughout some pretty tumultuous events in their young lives. With engaging, often intimate cinematography and a strong narrative sense, Hallin and Fise have created a compelling and at times heartbreaking look at the realities of working class life in a dying industrial town.

Sunday, April 28th – 8:30 PM at Scotiabank Theatre 3

Monday, April 29th – 1:30 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 4

Knock Down the House ★★★ (out of 4)

A record number of women and minorities ran for public office as Democrats during the primaries for the 2018 congressional elections, in hopes of retaking and reshaping the house after the Republicans won a majority alongside Donald Trump’s election in 2016, and director Rachel Lears follows four of them in her Netflix documentary Knock Down the House.

The subjects are Paula Jean Swearengin, a coal miner’s daughter in West Virginia, whose neighbours have almost all developed cancer due to pollution from the mines; Cori Bush, a nurse in Missouri who lives minutes away from Ferguson and treated the wounded during the 2014 riots; Amy Vilela, a working mother in Nevada who is running on the promise of medicare for all, having lost her daughter to a brain clot because she didn’t have health insurance and was unable to afford treatment at the hospital; and of course Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 29-year-old Latina bartender from the Bronx running in New York’s 14th congressional district, who went up against establishment Democrat Joe Crowley in the primaries, forcing a nomination race in the district for the first time in fourteen years. We all know what happened there.

Because Ocasio-Cortez is the most well known of the subjects, and the one who went the farthest, which is hardly a spoiler, she ends up becoming the main focus of the film. There’s little denying that she is the main driving force in Knock Down the House, with the energy surrounding her campaign and her grassroots approach to winning over voters often being quite interesting to observe first-hand. This also means that Swearengin, Bush and Vilela, who are all interesting subjects in their own right, feel a bit shortchanged, but that is almost understandable considering how things unfolded in real life. This is a slickly made and entertaining inside look at what it takes to run a political campaign, especially when you don’t fit the usual mold of a stereotypical politician.

Sunday, April 28th – 6:15 PM at Isabel Bader Theatre

Monday, April 29th – 4:00 PM at Isabel Bader Theatre

Friday, May 3rd – 6:30 PM at Fox Theatre

Saturday, May 4th – 1:00 PM at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema

When We Walk ★★★ (out of 4)

Six years ago, filmmaker Jason DaSilva brought his film When I Walk to the festival, a deeply personal look at his experiences being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and his relationship with his wife, Alice Cook. That film ended in a bittersweet note, with them expecting a child. Now DaSilva returns to the festival with When We Walk, a heartbreaking followup that intimately documents the painful events that have happened in his life since then. Jason’s condition is now deteriorating and his marriage has fallen apart, leaving him fighting to try and get access to his son Jase after Alice moves with him to Texas, while he remains stuck in New York due to the better supports offered in the state.

If Jason goes to Texas to be closer to his son, he will need to move into a group home, which would be the only way for him to get the 24 hour support that he needs due to the lack of adequate funding in the state, with him now having to rely on personal support workers for all of his basic needs. While When I Walk was also very powerful and moving, When We Walk is in many ways an even sadder film, revealing the many accessibility barriers that still exist for people with disabilities, in terms of everything from finding basic support to relationships and parenting.

Monday, April 29th – 6:30 PM at Isabel Bader Theatre

Tuesday, April 30th – 12:45 PM at Isabel Bader Theatre

Friday, May 3rd – 12:45 PM at Isabel Bader Theatre

Cold Case Hammarskjöld ★★★★ (out of 4)

Back in 1961, United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld, who was openly fighting for the decolonization of Africa at the time, was killed in a plane crash in Northern Rhodsia, and the common belief was that it was a simple engine failure. But for years an alternate theory has existed that he was actually murdered, with the powers that be wanting to ensure they maintained control of the African continent. This is what journalist and filmmaker Mads Brügger sets out to explore in Cold Case Hammarskjöld, a stunning and frequently shocking real life conspiracy thriller that is gripping throughout every minute of its over two hour running time.

Brügger’s narrative structure is fascinating, dividing the film into chapters and featuring scenes of him in an African hotel room narrating the story to a pair of secretaries, who take turns transcribing his words on an old typewriter. This somewhat quirky approach fits the constantly shifting, at times shaggy dog nature of the story, but as Brügger uncovers more details of the Hammarskjöld case, he is led down an even darker and more twisted path, and the truth that he that he starts to find ends up being quite disturbing. I love documentaries like this that prove truth really is stranger than fiction, and I don’t want to say too much, because it’s best to experience the film cold. A true standout of the festival.

Monday, April 29th – 9:30 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

Tuesday, April 30th – 9:15 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 4

Propaganda: The Art of Selling Lies ★★★ (out of 4)

Larry Weinstein sets his sights on how propaganda is used to effect political change in his broad-based and often enjoyable new documentary Propaganda: The Art of Selling Lies, which ponders if all art is propaganda, and how we can tell what’s true in this age of fake news. The film essentially defines propaganda as any work that is meant to inspire social change, for better or worse, and it looks at how art has been used to influence the masses since the earliest cave paintings. Now the ability to spread influential content has simply exploded through social media, allowing it to go further and wider than ever before.

The subjects, among others, include Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei; Jim Fitzpatrick, the Irish artist behind the iconic portrait of Che Guevera that is commonly seen on t-shirts; street artist Shepard Fairey who designed Obama’s red, white and blue “Hope” poster; and Tyler Shields, the photographer who took the controversial photo of Kathy Griffin holding a bloodied Trump head. Balancing things out on the other side are the right-wing artist Sabo, who uses his guerrilla street art as a way to fight the establishment in the very liberal Hollywood; and Gerard Biard, editor of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo that had their office shot up by terrorists after publishing drawings of Mohammed, who talks about why people should be able to criticize any religion without fear of violence.

One of the film’s most extreme examples of art being created for propagandistic purposes is that of Leni Riefenstahl, who directed grotesque works of Nazi propaganda but is also considered to have been quite technically proficient as a filmmaker. The film maybe bites off a bit more than it can chew, and I had hoped for a bit more time with some of these subjects, many of whom you could make an entire film about on their own, but Propaganda: The Art of Selling Lies is still a fairly entertaining and thought provoking documentary that looks at how easy it is to use art for manipulation.

Sunday, April 28th – 9:00 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

Tuesday, April 30th – 3:15 PM at Isabel Bader Theatre

Friday, May 3rd – 9:00 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 2

Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind ★★★½ (out of 4)

Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind, a documentary about the beloved Canadian folk musician co-directed by Joan Tosoni and Martha Kehoe, opens with Lightfoot watching old footage of him performing his classic song “For Loving You,” and commenting on how he wishes he hadn’t written something so chauvinistic and has stopped playing it for that very reason. At 81 years old, Lightfoot appears similarly open and reflective throughout the film, a career retrospective that pays tribute to his music and sheds more light on some of his most famous songs, including the titular track “If You Could Read My Mind” which became his first big hit, while showcasing a wealth of invaluable archival footage.

Lightfoot is undoubtedly one of Canada’s most prolific singer-songwriters, with a library of classic songs that are instantly recognizable, all of which he wrote on his own. A good part of the film serves as a way for other musicians including Anne Murray, Sarah McLachlan and Geddy Lee, as well as the actor Alec Baldwin whose presence in the film oddly makes sense when you hear the passion with which he speaks about Lightfoot’s music, to talk about how his music has effected them. At one point, Randy Bachman and Burton Cummings reflect upon how they were inspired to start writing their own songs for the Guess Who after going to an early Gordon Lightfoot concert without really having any idea who he was, and leaving blown away.

Like many Canadians, I grew up listening to Gordon Lightfoot’s music, so of course I enjoyed this film. I do feel like the filmmakers could have gone a bit deeper into more aspects of his personal life, as they do gloss over some of the darker stuff. Lightfoot’s struggles with alcoholism are addressed, and his failed marriages and sometimes troubled relationships with women are briefly alluded to. But this stuff is never fully brought to the surface, which makes the film feel a bit incomplete as a biography. But purely as a tribute to his music, and how much his songs have been shaped by and helped shape the Canadian landscape, Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind is often quite lovely to watch. And if you are a Gordon Lightfoot fan, it’s hard not to be moved by the final moments, cutting back and forth between performances then and now.

Saturday, April 27th – 6:45 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

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

Take Me To Prom ★★★ (out of 4)

Directed by Andrew Moir, Take Me To Prom is a short documentary that chronicles the prom night memories of seven queer individuals in their own words, ranging in age from young people to seniors, who reflect upon whether they went to the event or chose to skip it, and how being gay or trans effected their experiences. Among the subjects is Marc Hall, who gained media attention back in 2002 when he fought a successful court case against the Durham Catholic School Board in order to be allowed to bring his boyfriend to prom. The stories being told are all charming, sad and bittersweet, and the subjects are interviewed wearing their prom clothes, or what they wish they had been able to wear. The short and sweet twenty minute running time flies by, and Take Me To Prom is a wonderful little film that could easily be expanded into a longer project. It’s also available to watch on the CBC Gem app starting today to coincide with its premiere at the festival, so check it out.

Wednesday, May 1st – 7:00 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 3 (screening with My Dads, My Moms and Me)

Saturday, May 4th – 10:00 AM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 3 (screening with My Dads, My Moms and Me)

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