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#HotDocs19: Final Set of Capsule Reviews

May 6, 2019

By John Corrado

The 2019 Hot Docs Film Festival ran from April 26th to May 6th in Toronto. Below are my reviews of the films that I saw over the final weekend of the festival.

My Dads, My Moms and Me ★★★ (out of 4)

Back in 2007, two years after same sex marriage and adoption for gay couples was first legalized in Canada, filmmaker Julia Ivanova followed four gay men on their journeys into parenthood in her documentary Fatherhood Dreams. Ivanova checks in on these families twelve years later in her new film My Dads, My Moms and Me. The subjects are Scott, a gay man who had his twins Ella and Mac through a surrogate while still single, and then met the man who is now his husband; Steve, who is still very involved in the lives of Zea and Jazz, the two daughters that he co-parents with his best friend and her wife; as well as Randy and Drew, whose adopted son Jack is now an adolescent, and has grown hostile and distant with them.

While same-sex parenting is now much more common, it was pretty much uncharted territory when these men first embarked on the journey, and it’s interesting to hear the experiences of children who came of age at the forefront of it. The film is quite candid, with Ivanova capturing many of the more mundane moments of family life, but she also doesn’t shy away from exploring the struggles that all kinds of parents face. The two boys that are featured, Mac and Jack, seem almost like mirrors of each other, with the former being well adjusted and the latter having behavioural issues.

Featuring clips from Fatherhood Dreams, which are seamlessly edited together alongside the new footage and interviews with the subjects, My Dads, My Moms and Me is a worthwhile glimpse into the lives of different types of families, documenting both the happy moments that come with parenting as well as the many challenges.

Wednesday, May 1st – 7:00 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 3

Saturday, May 4th – 10:00 AM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 3

The Edge of Democracy ★★★ (out of 4)

The daughter of political activists who spent years fighting for democracy under the military dictatorship in Brazil, director Petra Costa examines how the political climate in the country over the last few election cycles has paved for the way for a sharp turn back towards righ-wing governance in her comprehensive documentary The Edge of Democracy.

The film offers an in-depth exploration of how Brazil went from securing a democracy in 1985, to having a former president end up in jail as a far-right leader successfully seized upon the anger of the nation to gain power. The country seemed to be moving towards progressivism when the hugely popular former steelworker Luiz Inácuio Lula da Silva, known simply as “Lula,” was elected president in 2002, serving two terms before handing over the reigns of power to his Chief of Staff Dilma Rousseff in 2010. When both of their tenures were inevitably rocked by corruption scandals, leading to calls for the arrest of Lula on money laundering charges and the impeachment of Dilma, this set the stage for Jair Bolsonaro’s populist takeover in the 2018 elections.

The film is almost overwhelming to watch due to the sheer scope of it, and it does feel long at nearly two hours, but The Edge of Democracy provides a thorough and often invaluable portrait of Brazil’s recent political history. Costa gains incredible behind the scenes access to the political maneuverings of her country, offering an interesting real time overview of just one part of the populist backlash to the political establishment that is happening around the world.

Thursday, April 25th – 5:00 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

Friday, April 26th – 12:30 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 2

Saturday, May 4th – 1:15 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

Honeyland ★★★★ (out of 4)

Haditze Muratova is the last of the wild bee keepers in Macedonia. Living in an old hut in the Balkan mountains, she spends her time tending to a colony of wild bees, and is careful not to disturb them as she extracts pieces of honeycomb from their hive, always following her rule of only taking half the honey and leaving the rest for the bees. What she doesn’t use for herself, she sells in the village, making just enough money to buy food and care for her dying mother. But the balance of nature is thrown off when a new family moves onto the property next to her, with seven kids and a bunch of cattle. When they start farming their own bees, and mass producing honey in order to sell it, their greed threatens to destroy Haditze’s livelihood.

Directed by Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska, who gain incredible access into Haditze’s world, Honeyland is a remarkably photographed film that is often breathtaking to watch. The cinematography is beautiful, featuring close ups of the bees and some incredible cinematic shots that are worthy of being seen on the big screen. This is a compelling, gorgeously shot portrait of a dying way of life. In its own quiet way, the story becomes a powerful and poetic allegory of a single worker being overtaken by big business, reaching a heartbreaking but seemingly inevitable conclusion.

Thursday, May 2nd – 3:30 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 2

Friday, May 3rd – 6:45 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 3

Saturday, May 4th – 3:30 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 3

Hi, AI ★★½ (out of 4)

The rise of artificial intelligence and the increasing prevalence and inevitability of interactions between humans and robots are explored in the documentary Hi, AI. Directed by Isa Willinger, the film uses the stories of a lonely man in Texas who starts to form a bond with his female robot companion, and a scientist in Japan who builds a cheerful robot friend for his grandmother to converse with and hopefully stave off dementia, to explore the larger implications of how AI is rapidly changing our society in ways that are still hard to fully understand.

Rather than conducting formal interviews with experts in the field of artificial intelligence, Willinger instead uses various short audio clips from different episodes of Sam Harris’s Waking Up podcast, which are played over evocative imagery in the film, to offer more insight into the science of AI and the philosophical implications of it. While the material is interesting, it does make the film seem a bit like an advertisement for Harris’s podcast at times, and Hi, AI ends up feeling slow moving even at a brief 85 minutes. But this is still a thought provoking and somewhat sad look at the relationships between people and robots, which still seem very much in their infancy, as the conversations that we hear with these machines are overly literal and hard to continue back and forth.

Monday, April 29th – 8:45 PM at Scotiabank Theatre 4

Tuesday, April 30th – 12:00 PM at Scotiabank Theatre 3

Saturday, May 4th – 6:30 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 2

Hunting for Hedonia ★★★ (out of 4)

Hedonia, taken from the Greek word for pleasure, is what psychiatrist Dr. Robert Galbraith Heath named the pleasure centre in the brain that he was trying to locate and stimulate through the practise of Deep Brain Stimulation, which was the main focus of his research. Heath’s hope was that, by stimulating this part of the brain by going in and surgically implanting electrodes to send small pulses of electricity, he would be able to effectively cure any number of brain-based disorders, with his particular focus being on schizophrenia.

The founder and chairman of the psychiatry department at Tulane University in New Orleans, Heath’s research was mainly carried out between the 1950s to the 1970s, before reports of some unethical experiments throughout his practise ended up derailing his career and tarnishing his legacy, including suspected links to the CIA’s mind control program MKUltra. Directed by Pernille Rose Grønkjær, and narrated by Tilda Swinton, Hunting for Hedonia offers an intriguing and nuanced glimpse into the often misunderstood science surrounding Deep Brain Stimulation.

While still controversial, we hear first hand accounts from subjects who have undergone the treatment for different neurological and psychological issues, including an older man suffering from Parkinson’s disease, a woman with severe OCD, and a younger man with debilitating depression, and the results for them have been life changing. This is a thought provoking introduction into Heath’s research, and Swinton’s narration adds a poetic, almost mystical element to the film.

Friday, April 26th – 9:00 PM at Isabel Bader Theatre

Saturday, April 27th – 2:45 PM at Hart House Theatre

Saturday, May 4th – 8:30 PM at Scotiabank Theatre 3

The Infiltrators ★★½ (out of 4)

In The Infiltrators, directors Alex Rivera and Cristina Ibarra use a mix of reenactments and actual footage to tell the story of Marco Saavedra (Maynor Alvarado), an undocumented Mexican immigrant living in the United States illegally. An activist for the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, Marco got himself detained by border patrol in 2012 so that he could work from the inside to help get people out of a notorious for-profit detention centre in Broward County, Florida.

While the idea of doing a documentary that cuts back and forth between scripted reenactments using actors and footage of the real people they are portraying is interesting, this technique was done much better in last year’s American Animals. The story behind The Infiltrators is an intriguing and at times exciting one, but the execution is somewhat flawed. The performances are hit or miss, and a lot of the filmed recreations have the feel of a mediocre TV movie. There was probably a better way to tell this story, even as a fully dramatized movie or a more traditional documentary. Still, this is an ambitious project that has some moments, and it’s worth applauding the effort.

Friday, April 26th – 9:00 PM at Scotiabank Theatre 4

Saturday, April 27th – 3:30 PM at Scotiabank Theatre 4

Sunday, May 5th – 10:15 AM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 2

Dear Brother ★★★½ (out of 4)

When Markus Becker was hit by a car in 2008, he was left him unable to walk or talk, with doctors initially predicting that he wouldn’t even survive. But his brother Michael dedicated his life to helping him recover, hoping to pull Markus out of his catatonic state by interacting with him and trying to keep him engaged in the world. While Markus may never be able to walk on his own again or form full sentences, Michael’s help and determination allows him to make small but significant amounts of progress.

Caring for Markus actually gives Michael a renewed sense of purpose, but it’s also a challenging responsibility that he is taking on almost entirely on his own. The personal support workers that he brings in to help don’t have the same level of understanding, and their impatience or condescension towards Markus actually impedes his progress, leading to them either quitting or being fired. Their father has also stopped wanting to visit, finding it too hard to handle seeing Markus in this state, which leads to fractures within the family.

Directed by Julia Horn, Dear Brother uses a mix of interviews, observational footage and home movies to illustrate the deep bond between these two brothers. The film sensitively explores the toll that it takes when a family member has to assume the role of primary caregiver, showing how both brothers share a responsibility for the other one, and in many ways are saving each other. This is an emotional and very personal documentary that is often quite touching to watch.

Monday, April 29th – 5:15 PM at Scotiabank Theatre 3

Wednesday, May 1st – 4:15 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 3

Sunday, May 5th – 12:30 PM at Scotiabank Theatre 13

American Factory ★★★★ (out of 4)

After closing their doors during the recession and leaving thousands of workers without a job, a former General Motors plant in Dayton, Ohio got taken over by a Chinese company and was able to reopen in 2014 as Fuyao Glass America. Many of the employees are brought back, but their hourly pay gets cut by more than half, and they are suddenly working alongside Chinese workers who barely speak English, leading to a deep culture clash.

The American workers are left struggling to keep up with Fuyao’s increased production demands, with the company expecting them to perform at the levels of output consistent with a Chinese factory where the workers are given very little time off, and their refusal to abide by basic worker’s rights leads to many safety violations and an increase in workplace injuries. The workers fight to form a union, but they get incredible pushback from their corporate overlords, who don’t want to comply with American regulatory standards in order to continue exploiting their workers for maximum financial gain.

Directed by Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, working in similar territory as their Oscar-nominated 2009 documentary short The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant, American Factory is an exceptional portrait of blue-collar workers being left behind in the midst of a foreign takeover. The documentary’s largely vérité allows for many powerful and deeply human moments, including an impassioned speech by a union organizer and an impromptu performance of “Solidarity Forever” by workers demonstrating outside the factory. The film offers an incredible snapshot of a watershed moment in America, where the working class has been decimated by corporate greed. It’s a classic David and Goliath story, only Goliath is sadly winning this time around and seems increasingly unbeatable.

Tuesday, April 30th – 6:00 PM at Isabel Bader Theatre

Thursday, May 2nd – 10:30 AM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

Saturday, May 4th – 6:00 PM at Isabel Bader Theatre

Sunday, May 5th – 4:15 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

The Rest ★★★ (out of 4)

Compiled of unused footage from his previous documentary Human Flow, Ai Weiwei’s latest film The Rest hones in on the stories of specific people who are trying to flee their war torn homelands, but are facing increasingly hostile responses in places like Greece, Italy and Calais, France, as countries are moving to close their borders.

Where as Human Flow focused on the global refugee crisis on a more macro level, and was grandiose in length at over two hours, The Rest is more micro in its approach and clocks in at 78 minutes, allowing it to have more of a direct impact. This film explores the crisis from a purely human angle, allowing the asylum seekers to speak directly into the camera, pleading for help and recounting the horrors they have faced in search of a better life, including having family members and children drown at sea. The result is a film that is often heartbreaking to watch, providing a fine companion piece to Human Flow.

Friday, April 26th – 6:30 PM at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema (Big Ideas)

Saturday, April 27th – 12:45 PM at Isabel Bader Theatre

Sunday, May 5th – 9:30 PM at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema

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