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#HotDocs19: Seventh Set of Capsule Reviews

May 5, 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.

The Magic Life of V ★★½ (out of 4)

Live action role playing (LARP) provides a way for Veera, a young woman in Finland, to transform into a character named V, who possesses the confidence and strength that she wishes she had. The cosplay and elaborate fantasy games give her a much needed reprieve from the pain of her life, including a troubled history involving traumatic memories of her abusive father, and having to care for her disabled older brother, who was left brain damaged after having a high fever as a baby.

Director Tonislav Hristov gains intimate access to Veera’s life both in and out of character in The Magic Life of V, taking a vérité approach to following her as she reconciles with her past through role play and more conventional therapy sessions. The film is a bit slow moving, and there are a few moments where I wondered if certain scenarios were being staged or manipulated, but the general conceit is quite unique. Veera remains a sympathetic figure throughout, and this is an interesting look at how fantasy provides a way for her to not only escape her life, but also to find ways to cope with the pain of it.

Wednesday, May 1st – 9:45 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 3

Thursday, May 2nd – 3:30 PM at Scotiabank Theatre 13

Sunday, May 5th – 9:00 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 3

Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project ★★★ (out of 4)

A former talk show host, Marion Stokes spent the remaining decades of her life living as a recluse in her Philadelphia apartment, and obsessively videotaping the news. She began in 1977 at the start of the 24 hour news cycle when CNN first went on the air, and continued right through to her death in 2012, recording several different channels on multiple VCRs at the same time. She amassed over seventy thousand VHS tapes throughout her life, with her goal being to document and keep a record of how the different stations reported on major historical events.

Director Matt Wolf cuts together scenes from the tapes alongside interviews with those who knew Marion personally in his intriguing documentary Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project, creating not only a unique portrait of this eccentric lady, but also an overview of how several decades of history where portrayed by the news media. From the Iran hostage crisis to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Sandy Hook massacre, Marion documented it all, and this footage is ingeniously woven into the film.

While many viewed her as an obsessive hoarder, and she certainly was that as well, Marion was also a forward-thinking archivist who made money through her early investments in Apple, and ended up preserving valuable parts of history that otherwise would have been lost. Many assumed the stations would be keeping copies of this material, but they were actually erasing the master tapes, meaning that Marion’s VHS collection has provided the best available copies of a lot of this content, with it now safely in storage and being digitized by the internet archive to make the footage on her tapes publicly available.

Wednesday, May 1st – 9:00 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 2

Thursday, May 2nd – 7:45 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 4

Sunday, May 5th – 4:00 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 2

Who Let the Dogs Out ★★★★ (out of 4)

Who knew that an hour-long documentary about the Baha Men novelty song “Who Let the Dogs Out” would be one of the best films at the festival, but Who Let the Dogs Out is entertaining as hell, and provides a way deeper look at the 2000 ear worm than I ever imagined possible. The film is centred around Ben Sisto, whose longtime obsession with the song led to him trying to track down its origins. Sisto traces the song back throughout the 1990s, finding versions by different artists that have a few variations but are all basically the same.

Part of what makes the film so entertaining is that every time he finds an answer to his question, another piece of information comes along to date the song even earlier. The film is structured around Sisto’s live show explaining the origins of the track, and director Brent Hodge brings a slightly tongue in cheek feel to it that fits the material really well. The result is a film that is not only a ridiculous amount of fun to watch but also surprisingly deep, as it ultimately becomes about copyright and who owns something like that four word phrase. I was grinning ear to ear by the end of it. See this one with a crowd and the sound cranked up loud.

Thursday, May 2nd – 9:30 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

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

Sunday, May 5th – 9:30 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 2

One Child Nation ★★★ (out of 4)

Born in 1985, six years after the communist government in China brought in their one child policy in 1979 as a way to combat overpopulation, Nanfu Wang grew up intimately effected by the law, which stayed in place until 2015. Now having a child of her own, Wang explores the horrific implementation of the policy in her documentary One Child Nation, which she co-directed with Jialing Zhang. Because Wang’s family lived in a rural area, they were allowed to have a second child five years after she was born, and she was ostracized at school for not being an only child. She also recounts how, before her younger brother was born, her grandmother put a bamboo basket in their living room, fully intending to abandon the baby if it had been another girl, which is what many families ended up doing.

I was obviously very aware of the one child policy before seeing this film, but Wang does a very good job of putting the full extent of it into perspective for all to see, documenting the history of forced abortions and government-mandated sterilizations that were put in place to implement it. This led to a decline in girls being born, with many families opting to abort so they could try again for a son. It wasn’t until 1992 that the government started their international adoption program. Among the people Wang interviews are a midwife who was tasked with destroying countless baby girls, often through post-birth infanticide, and is now trying to atone for her sins by helping couples with infertility, and an artist who started photographing the mangled bodies of babies that he kept finding in trash heaps.

The film also shows the constant propaganda that was used to convince people that the one child policy was for the greater good, with some, including Wang’s own mother, still believing that the law was a necessity to combat starvation. This is an interesting and disturbing look at how far China’s one child policy went in terms of destroying lives, and how the effects of it continue to ricochet out to this day.

Wednesday, May 1st – 6:30 PM at Isabel Bader Theatre

Friday, May 3rd – 1:00 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

Shella Record – A Reggae Mystery ★★★ (out of 4)

After buying an old reggae record at a shop in Toronto, artist turned filmmaker Chris Flanagan became obsessed with one track in particular, a song about slavery called “Jamaican Fruit” credited to a singer named “Shella Record.” Struck by her incredible voice, and wanting to know more about this singer who seemed to have just disappeared following the single recording, Flanagan sets out to find more about her. This journey takes him to Jamaica, where he meets with some of the most famous music producers who pioneered the reggae sound, slowly piecing together this seemingly unsolvable mystery.

Flanagan’s wide spanning search to find the elusive singer behind this song provides the basis of his documentary Shella Record – A Reggae Mystery, which draws obvious comparisons to the great Searching for Sugar Man, even if the story doesn’t have the same amount of weight to it. The film takes us on an entertaining and constantly enjoyable journey that sheds more light on the history of reggae music, and Flanagan also uses the miniature models that he builds to help fill in some gaps in the story and provide a bit more visual intrigue. This is altogether an accomplished feature debut for him, and it might just make you want to buy the record afterwards.

Monday, April 29th – 9:15 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 2

Wednesday, May 1st – 12:45 PM at Scotiabank Theatre 4

Friday, May 3rd – 3:15 PM at Scotiabank Theatre 3

Framing John DeLorean ★★★ (out of 4)

Directors Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce explore the rise and fall of automobile mogul John DeLorean in Framing John DeLorean, a hybrid of documentary and narrative film that features Alec Baldwin wearing prosthetics and a wig to portray DeLorean in dramatic reenactments.

The film details how DeLorean rose to fame at General Motors, before leaving the company at the height of his career and breaking out on his own to start the DeLorean Motor Company, creating his own line of gull-winged cars that would become the stuff of legend. The cars were manufactured in Ireland, bringing much needed jobs to the country at a time when Margaret Thatcher’s policies were hindering their economy. But production problems and poor sales left DeLorean desperate for money, and his entire life and career that he had worked so hard to build came crashing down around him when he was arrested as part of an FBI sting operation involving international cocaine smuggling, resulting in a widely publicized trial.

This ironically all happened just before the car became immortalized through its use in Back to the Future. While the film within a film approach adds an interesting angle to this documentary and the reenactments can be entertaining on their own, I’m also not sure if they were entirely needed, as the story is already being compellingly told through the interviews and archival footage. It also runs long at 109 minutes. But Framing John DeLorean is still an entertaining portrait of the man behind the car, that shows how his hubris ultimately led to his downfall.

Wednesday, May 1st – 9:15 PM at Isabel Bader Theatre

Friday, May 3rd – 6:30 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 4

Trixie Mattel: Moving Parts ★★★ (out of 4)

Trixie Mattel is the stage name of Brian Firkus, a comedian, folk musician and celebrated drag queen, who became a fan favourite finalist on season three of RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars. Director Nick-Zeig Owens provides a revealing look at Trixie’s life as a performer in the entertaining documentary Trixie Mattel: Moving Parts, which gives us a behind the scenes look at both her live shows and the popular web series that she was doing with her friend and fellow drag queen Katya Zamolodchikova, who has to take a leave of absence due to mental health issues.

One of the most interesting things about Trixie Mattel: Moving Parts is that we get to see the divide between Brian, who is half Ojibwa and has struggled with depression, stemming from having grown up poor in Wisconsin where he was abused by his stepfather, and the catty and super confident Trixie, who commands the stage. What becomes clear throughout Trixie Mattel: Moving Parts is that Trixie is not just a character, but also a fierce icon who is inspiring others to be confident. Some of the film’s best moments come when we are able to witness how much of an impact that Trixie is able to have on young people still trying to find themselves.

Saturday, April 27th – 9:30 PM at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema

Sunday, April 28th – 3:30 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

Friday, May 3rd – 8:45 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

Saturday, May 4th – 9:45 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

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