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Hot Docs Festival Online Reviews (Part 2)

June 5, 2020

By John Corrado

While the in-person edition of Hot Docs was cancelled this year due to COVID-19, roughly 140 films that were set to screen at the festival were selected to stream online during a digital festival from May 28th to June 6th, with many titles being available for even longer until June 24th. Tickets are $9 apiece, $8 for members, with select screenings featuring pre-recorded Q&As. The screenings are geo-blocked to Ontario, and the full lineup can be found here.

I have been watching films all week, and below are my brief thoughts on six very good ones, arranged in alphabetical order. My first set of reviews from last week can be found here.

Hong Kong Moments – ★★★½ (out of 4)

In 2019, pro-democracy protesters took to the streets in Hong Kong, with citizens uprising against Beijing’s new extradition laws and increased surveillance from China. They were met with tear gas, rubber bullets, and arrests by a militarized police force. Director Zhou Bing follows several subjects over three specific days of last year’s conflict in his remarkably nuanced documentary Hong Kong Moments, allowing us to hear from those who are on the side of Hong Kong as well as others who express deep pro-Beijing sentiments.

The subjects include a cab driver who informs us in the opening scene that his teenaged son has joined the protest; a police officer whose hands are essentially tied to do what he is told; and a paramedic preparing to treat injured protesters. The two most opposing subjects are a young activist playing an active role in the protests who appears masked in the film so as not to reveal their identity, and a pro-China teashop owner who starts receiving online pushback when she expresses support for the police.

The film also follows the pro-democracy political candidate Jocelyn Chau, who is running against pro-China incumbent Benny Yeung in a District Council election. Culminating on October 1st, the National Day of the People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong Moments featuring some stirring footage of the city-wide demonstrations, as protesters take to the streets and clash with police. This is a fascinating, on the ground portrait of the pro-democracy protests, and those who find themselves caught up in the middle of the conflict.

Available until June 24th

Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist – ★★★½ (out of 4)

Adapting his friend William Blatty’s book for the screen, director William Friedkin delivered one of the greatest horror films of all time with The Exorcist, and nearly fifty years after the film was first released in 1973, it remains a shocking, brilliantly crafted work with an incredible legacy behind it. Director Alexandre O. Philippe, who previously explored the Psycho shower scene in 78/52 and the sci-fi classic Alien in last year’s Memory – The Origins of Alien, sits down with Friedkin in his latest cinematic deep dive Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist.

The film is built entirely around a long-form conversation between the two filmmakers, that was shot over six day at Friedkin’s home, and has been edited together into an absorbing feature. Framed off-centre in his living room, his fireplace in soft focus in the background, Friedkin tells stories about the production and his approach to working with the actors, while also discussing his own faith and the deeper themes of the story.

Friedkin is a gifted storyteller who makes for an engaging subject, drawing us in as he recounts how the lighting and certain shots in The Exorcist were inspired by classic works of art, and how he encouraged his cinematographer Owen Roizman to aim for realism and shoot the film in a documentary style. He waxes poetic on his preference for fewer takes, which set him apart from his contemporaries like Stanley Kubrick. “I’m more interested in spontaneity than perfection,” he says at one point, “and you don’t get spontaneity on take ninety.”

Like Noah Baumbach’s De Palma, Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist is a compelling cinematic documentary that offers the chance to hear a filmmaker discuss his work purely in his own words. Philippe does a nice job of incorporating clips from The Exorcist into the edit along with excerpts from Friedkin’s other works and cinematic influences, including Citizen Kane and Ordet. The film ends on a note that is actually quite moving, a testament to both Friedkin’s gifts as a storyteller and Philippe’s ability to craft compelling narratives through his explorations of different aspects of cinematic history.

Available until June 24th

Merry Christmas, Yiwu – ★★★ (out of 4)

The majority of the world’s Christmas decorations that adorn homes and lawns for a few weeks every year are made in Yiwu, a city in China with over six hundred factories manufacturing a variety of holiday decorations for sale around the world. Serbian director Mladen Kovacevic trains his camera on some of the workers in Merry Christmas, Yiwu, offering an artistic and at times meditative portrait of what goes into making these decorations.

The film unfolds mostly through long static shots of the workers doing menial tasks such as sprinkling glitter on ornaments and gluing pompoms on Santa hats, breathing in chemicals and getting covered in sparkly glitter dust. The repetition of the work the employees are doing blends into the mundanity of their daily lives, as they talk about their families, relationships, and debate whether or not to get an education.

We spend some time with these workers away from the factory, including one strangely moving scene at a karaoke bar, and find that many of them are lonely, having left their families in rural areas to live and work in the city for better pay. On a deeper level, Merry Christmas, Yiwu serves as a low-key reflection on how the communist country of China has become a bastion of capitalism and consumerism, that examines the human cost of providing cheaply made goods for the world.

Available until June 24th

The Reason I Jump – ★★★ (out of 4)

At thirteen years old, Naoki Higashida published the bestselling book The Reason I Jump, offering groundbreaking insight into his world as a non-speaking autistic person. Director Jerry Rothwell offers a unique and unconventional adaptation of this book in his documentary The Reason I Jump, which uses Higashida’s work as the jumping off point for an impressionistic, multi-sensory portrait of how five other non-speaking autistic individuals view the world.

The subjects include Joss, a young autistic man in England and the son of the film’s producers Jeremy Dear and Stevie Lee; Amrit, a young woman in India who expresses herself through art; Ben and Emma, two best friends in Virginia who share a bond deeper than words, and have both started to communicate through alphabet boards that offer fascinating insight into their worlds; and Jestina, a girl in Sierra Leone whose mother opened a school for kids with disabilities to help challenge traditional beliefs that they were possessed. The film also includes appearances by author David Mitchell, who himself has an autistic son and helped translate the original Japanese text of The Reason I Jump into English.

Excerpts from Naoki Higashida’s book are read aloud in voiceover by the film’s narrator Jordan O’Donegan during interludes showing a young, non-speaking Japanese boy (Jim Fujiwara), a stand-in for the author, exploring the world around him. The fact that Naoki himself chose not to be directly involved in the film is another one of the things that makes this such a unique adaptation. Rothwell employs artistic cinematography and immersive sound design to help us experience how his subjects process the world. It’s an interesting and very well done film, and one of the more inventive book adaptations I have seen.

Available until June 24th

Transhood – ★★★ (out of 4)

In Transhood, director Sharon Liese follows several transgender and gender non-conforming kids growing up in her hometown of Kansas City, documenting how them and their families evolve and change over the course of several years, as they come of age in a place that isn’t exactly known to be accepting of transgender rights.

The film tells four stories filmed over five years. Avery, who is nine years old when filming starts, is the most well known of the subjects, having appeared on the cover of National Geographic and thrust into the spotlight as an activist. But she is growing tired of the public spotlight, and would rather just be a regular kid. Jay, a trans boy taking hormone blockers, is twelve when we first meet him. He is going stealth at school, concealing his identity from everyone including his girlfriend, which his single mother warns him could lead to more problems.

Leena, who is fifteen at the start of the film, is a transgender girl who is pursuing a modelling career while also planning for reassignment surgery, supported every step of the way by her parents. The film’s youngest and most perplexing subject is Phoenix, a child who, at four years old, declares themselves to be a “boygirl.” Assigned male at birth, Phoenix likes to wear dresses and engages in gender expansive play, but their journey is far from over, and the child’s needs put increasing strain on their family.

Liese’s camera captures candid and moving moments across all four stories, as well as some unexpected revelations and a surprising change in opinion in the last act that leads to more questions than we will perhaps ever get answers to. She has crafted a nuanced portrait of these children’s lives, as well as the discrimination and lack of acceptance that they are faced with on their journeys of transition. Unfolding over a period of years that covers Trump’s 2016 election, the political fight for increased LGBTQ rights plays out mostly in the background but bleeds into the foreground at key points, including tense debate over the so-called Bathroom Bill, which is clearly impacting the kids.

Available until June 6th

Welcome to Chechnya – ★★★½ (out of 4)

In Chechnya, under the tyrannical leadership of Ramzan Kadyrov, LGBTQ individuals have started being rounded up and detained, where they are tortured and in many cases executed. It’s all part of Kadyrov’s plan to “cleanse” the country of its LGBTQ citizens, who are also at risk of being killed by their own families, and the purge is being met with indifference by Russian leader Vladmir Putin.

In response, a group of brave activists have set up an underground network to rescue queer citizens, giving them refuge at a secretly located safe house before helping them escape from Chechnya, a process that involves going undercover to sneak them out of the country and trying to repatriate them in more welcoming places. We follow several of them on this journey in Welcome to Chechnya, which at times plays out like a real life thriller.

Directed by David France, who shot the film on the fly with smart phones and a prosumer camera and took great lengths to ensure that the footage remained secret, this is an example of fearless documentary filmmaking. There was obviously great risk involved for all of the participants, and the film uses digital face replacement tools similar to Deep Fakes in order to conceal the identities of the subjects. The faces we see are those of activists who allowed their likenesses to be used, which lets these brave individuals remain hidden while still allowing us to become emotionally connected to them by seeing their facial expressions. It’s an incredibly powerful experience.

Available until June 6th

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