#HOTDOCS: HIGHLIGHTS AND PREVIEWS OF THE 2017 HOT DOCS CANADIAN INTERNATIONAL DOCUMENTARY FESTIVAL
Running Thursday, April 27 through Sunday, May 7, 2017, the 24th annual HOT DOCS CANADIAN INTERNATIONAL DOCUMENTARY FESTIVAL takes over Toronto once again, bringing a world of wonder to our City, uniting upwards of 200k Film lovers. A vast array of Documentaries ranging from science to celebrity highlight the Festival this year and 200+ special guests are expected to be in attendance this year including the likes of comedian Gilbert Gottfried, fashion designer Zac Posen, activist Dolores Huerta, scientist Bill Nye and several more! The Festival kicks-off with opening night gala, spelling bee Documentary, BEE NATION.
Our Siobhán Rich and David Baldwin already have had a chance to preview some of this year’s titles, delivering us the inside scoop on some of the Films you absolutely must see at HOT DOCS this year. Some of the marquee titles at this year’s Festival include: 78/52 sees fans of iconic Hitchcock Horror Psycho pick apart that unforgettable shower scene. SPOOKERS takes us into the world of New Zealand’s famous scary amusement park. BECOME BOND centers on George Lazenby, the one and only actor to have starred in only one Film in the legendary franchise and why he walked away. Fashion lovers will rejoice knowing that Zac Posen will be in town for HOUSE OF Z, a Documentary about the powerhouse’s rise, fall and rise again. If you grew-up in the ’90s you’ll be thrilled to know Bill Nye not only has a Film screening at the Festival, but also he appears at a conversation as part of the Scotiabank Big Idea Series. GILBERT centers on funnyman Gilbert Gottfried who lets us into his world and the mind behind those famous potty-mouthed jokes. Hot off the heels of the popular Musical The Bodyguard playing in Toronto, comes WHITNEY “CAN I BE ME”, a deeply-intimate portrait about one of the most beloved songstresses of our time.
Siobhán Rich‘s Hot Docs picks:
This year’s Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival will open with Lana Šlezic’s Bee Nation which looks at children participating in Canada’s first province-wide First Nations Spelling Bee. Aided by supportive teachers and families, the students, ranging from grades 3 through 8, study their words in hopes of earning the chance to fly from Saskatchewan to Toronto and participate in the National Bee against kids from all over Canada.
Šlezic’s primary focus is the kids and their academic journey but she doesn’t shy away from highlighting reservation life and allowing her audience to draw their own conclusions. The Film includes some powerful imagery including a scene where one of the students is standing near a tattered Canadian flag blowing in the wind. If the future of Canada lies within its children then perhaps better funding for Indigenous schools would be a good place to start.
Thursday, April, 27 9:45 p.m. Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema
Friday, April 28 2:00 p.m. Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema
Saturday, May 6 6:45 p.m. Isabel Bader Theatre
CITY OF GHOSTS
Exceptional Films like Matthew Heineman’s City of Ghosts are why I love documentaries and return to Hot Docs year after year. This incredible Film looks at the men behind the website Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently and the incredible risks they take every day to bring the truth to the outside world. With their digital and personal safety constantly at risk, they were forced to flee their homes and live in exile; their worked continued remotely thanks to informants back in Syria. As citizen journalists, the men of RBSS use cameras and words as their chosen weapons in the fight against ISIS.
Parts of the Film are difficult to watch including videos from ISIS and footage on the ground in Raqqa. But imagine living through them in a world where “death has become one of the most common things in my life.” Heineman wisely chose not to editorialize and instead allowed the men and work of RBSS on stand on their own merit. Part of Syria 360, Food & Film and the Scotiabank Big Ideas Series, there are multiple opportunities to see this Film and take a peek into lives so different from the ones we live here.
Friday, April 28 6:30 p.m. Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema
Saturday, April 29 5:00 p.m. Isabel Bader Theatre
Saturday, May 6 9:30 p.m. Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema
Sunday, May 7 12:45 p.m. Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema
HOUSE OF Z
Anyone who thinks the red carpet preshow is the best part of the Oscars will love Sandy Chronopoulos’ House of Z which looks at the rise and fall of fashion wunderkind Zac Posen. When he burst onto the scene at age 21, Posen was the darling of the fashion industry; his dresses were exquisite and his antics on and off the runway were infamous. With everyone from Anna Wintour to Diddy in his corner, Posen’s success seemed all but guaranteed.
Alas, every good story needs villain and Posen was his own worst enemy by “trying to be too creative.” In the Film’s climactic third act, Posen must rebuild his fashion house and prove his personal motto that “the art is the brand” with a revolutionary runway show hosted at his expensive New York-based atelier.
Using home movies and interviews, Chronopoulos gives the audience an intimate look into the life of one of fashion’s most important personalities. The opportunity to see Posen’s beautiful creations on the big screen should not be missed by any fashionista.
Wednesday, May 3 9:30 p.m. Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema
Thursday, May 4 1:45 p.m. TIFF Bell Lightbox
There is a house in Rosedale that defies expectations. Built by the late mathematician, violinist, and activist James Stewart, Integral House was designed to be more of a private concert hall than a home. When hunting for architects to help him realize his dream house, Stewart put a call out for people with “conviction, imagination, and a willingness to take risks.” With its graceful curves and intense attention to detail it is a shrine to modern architecture.
Great Documentaries often change shape during filming and Integral Man is no different. What was supposed to be a simple film about a magnificent house turned into a memorial of Stewart’s final months. Director Joseph Clement was granted incredible access to both man and house and his admiration for both shines through.
Tuesday, May 2 7:15 p.m. Isabel Bader Theatre
Wednesday, May 3 10:00 a.m. TIFF Bell Lightbox
Friday, May 5 4:30 p.m. Fox Theatre
Legends of “women of the water” appear in lore from cultures around the world, so the modern obsession with mermaids is nothing new. What may be new is depths people take their love: from “dive bars” to meet-ups there is an entire subculture of mer-sisters. Ali Weinstein’s Mermaids dives into a world of tails, sisterhood, and the joy of finding your people.
Lest you turn up your dorsal fin and snub mermaiding as a new fad, the Canadian funded documentary visits Weeki Wachee Springs State Park where the Mermaid Show has been amazing audiences since 1947. From there, mer-weddings and MerFest seem like a delightfully natural progression.
Mermaids will be preceded by Ryan Freeman’s Short Film, Being Batman.
Friday, April 28 9:30 p.m. TIFF Bell Lightbox
Saturday, April 29 2:30 p.m. Isabel Bader Theatre
Monday, May 1 10:30 a.m. TIFF Bell Lightbox
Friday, May 5 12:00 p.m. Scotiabank Theatre
Luke Walker’s Documentary about the two Super PACS which raised money for Republican presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson is a painful look at dwindling hope rather than an in-depth look at the American electoral system. The movie naturally positions Trump’s successes against Carson’s many gaffes and it is up to the viewer to distribute the blame for his defeat amongst his adversaries, the overeager press, and even the unrelenting optimistims of the self-proclaimed Carsonators.
Witnessing Carson’s rise and fall may prove interesting for Canadian viewers as the film takes the audience on a journey through the lengthy American Primary season and its odd traditions. It is difficult to watch this film without cringing since, unlike his supporters, we know how Dr. Carson’s campaign ended. As one supporter laments, “This will not be an easy win – in part because he keeps talking.”
Tuesday, May 2 7:00 p.m. TIFF Bell Lightbox
Wednesday, May 3 3:30 p.m. Hart House Theatre
Friday, May 5 11:00 a.m. TIFF Bell Lightbox
Saturday, May 6 12: 30 p.m. Fox Theatre
If you have ever wondered what the Westminster Dog Show would be like with chickens instead of dogs then this is the Documentary for you. The competitive world of poultry pageantry is finally getting its due in Slavko Martinov’s new Film, Pecking Order. Set in New Zealand (home of a lot of quirky Documentaries during this year’s Hot Docs), the Film takes us on a guided tour of chicken humour, poultry club politics, and introduces a cast of truly likable characters with a drive to win.
From ruffled feathers to coups in the coop, this film treats the members of the Christchurch Poultry, Bantam and Pigeon Club with great respect even as it pokes fun. One of the more amusing threads in the movie demonstrates that these chicken enthusiasts have no misconceptions about the eventual fate of their beloved chooks; and no amount of spider web theatrics will save the ones who don’t measure up.
Saturday, April 29 4:15 p.m. TIFF Bell Lightbox
Sunday, April 30 10:30 a.m. Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema
Saturday, May 6 10:00 a.m. TIFF Bell Lightbox
My winter boots are so dirty I think they may have personally Kickstarted this Documentary in self-defense. Stacey Tenenbaum’s Shiners focuses on shoe shiners and the pride they take in a job that gets very little societal respect. From a man in Tokyo who serves his customers champagne while they wait to a man who has worked the same corner in New York City for 15 years, the men and women profiled seek to end the stigma attached to their chosen career. And yes, there are some harsh social obstacles to overcome. In Bolivia, for example, Balloo and his fellow shiners must cover their faces as they serve their well-heeled clients.
Even clocking-in at a gentle 75 minutes, one cannot help but think this average feature could have been an excellent short. With compelling characters and great camera work, this Canadian-funded Film is a reminder that not all dreams end in the board room.
Shiners will be preceded by Jessica Beshir’s Short Film, He Who Dances on Wood.
Saturday, April 29 7:30 p.m. Isabel Bader Theatre
Sunday April 30 1:00 p.m. Hart House Theatre
Thursday, May 4 9:30 p.m. Hart House Theatre
Sometimes you watch a Movie and immediately know it will be an audience favouite. Amanda Lipitz’s Documentary relies on the proven trope of sports/the arts helping improve the lives of people from disadvantaged backgrounds. The story’s familiarity, however, doesn’t make the Film any less compelling.
Step follows three young women from the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women and their Step team, the Lethal Ladies. To Blessin, Tayla and Cori “step is life” and a successful senior year both academically and for the team is ticket to a future filled with possibilities. Set against the backdrop of the riots that erupted after the Freddie Gray verdict, the girls are use their chosen art form to express what it’s like be young, African American women today.
Friday, April 28 8:45 p.m. TIFF Bell Lightbox
Sunday, April 30 3:30 p.m. Hart House Theatre
Sunday, May 7 5:45 p.m. The Aga Khan Museum
Danny Houck lives in Laurelville, Ohio and has devoted most of his life to his love of violins. From his biker-style vest to his license plate, his love of Stradivarius violins is no secret to those around him. When he discovers violinist Razvan Stoica through a YouTube video, he reaches out to the musician and promises to create a replica of Giuseppe Guarneri’s famous Il Cannone del Gesù. With no formal training in the art of violin making and a looming deadline, it becomes clear that Houck may have bitten off more than he can chew.
An introvert living with bipolar disorder, Houck’s desire to duplicate the world’s most famous violin for his new friend will have audiences wincing with every setback and crossing their fingers as the big day nears. You do not need to be an expert luthier or lover of classical music to enjoy Director Stefan Avalos’ Strad Style. You only need compassion and a desire to cheer on an underdog.
Friday, April 28 5:30 p.m. Scotiabank Theatre
Sunday, April 30 1:00 p.m. TIFF Bell Lightbox
Friday, May 5 6:00 p.m. The Revue
Sunday, May 7 6:30 p.m. TIFF Bell Lightbox
THANK YOU FOR THE RAIN
Director Julia Dahr’s Film Thank You for the Rain seeks to put a personal face on the devastation wrought by climate change for millions of people around the world. Seasons of drought followed by flash flooding are the harsh reality for farmers in Kenya but Kisilu Musya hopes to change that through tree planting. Musya is credited as a Co-director on the Film which takes him from meetings talking to local farmers all the way to the UN Convention on Climate Change.
I recommend this Film not only because Kenya is one my favourite places I have ever lived but because Kisilu Musya is an activist who truly deserves to be heard. His strength of character and laughter in the face of tragedy make him a leader you will find yourself cheering for and as he discusses his local solutions with global leaders.
Tuesday, May 2 6:30 p.m. Scotiabank Theatre
Wednesday, May 3 1:00 p.m. TIFF Bell Lightbox
Sunday, May 7 10:30 a.m. TIFF Bell Lightbox
David Baldwin‘s Hot Docs picks:
The shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece Psycho is one of the most popular and well known scenes in all of film history. Through a variety of black and white interviews with directors, actors, editors, sound designers and film scholars, Director Alexandre O. Philippe has put together an exhaustive semiotic study of the scene and why all 78 camera set-ups and 52 cuts have become so historically significant.
Whether you are a fan of Film or just Hitchcock, 78/52 is ridiculously-interesting to watch from beginning to end. The level of detail that comes from each interview subject is astounding, and it is scary to hear how wildly different each one reads the scene and the build-up to it. They do an even better job analyzing Hitchcock himself, and emphasize how important Psycho’s place is within his filmography. 78/52’s lax structure is initially daunting to immerse into, but its jumpy nature actually makes the Film stronger. Interviews with Janet Leigh’s body double Marli Renfro and Hitchcock’s granddaughter Tere Carruba further enlighten us on what actually happened on-set, but that is only icing on the cake. This is a Documentary that is truly a Film lover’s dream.
Thursday May 4 @ 9:30PM Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema
Friday May 5 @ 3:00PM Scotiabank Theatre
CATEGORY: Singular Sensation(s)
If the name George Lazenby does not ring a bell, then you are obviously not that big a fan of James Bond. The star of 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is profiled in this wildly-entertaining and stylish documentary that may or may not be slightly embellished. Through dramatizations featuring actors like Jeff Garlin, Dana Carvey and Bond Girl Jane Seymour, we learn how Lazenby went from being a child with half a kidney to a used car salesman and model to landing his first acting job as 007.
Josh Greenbaum’s dDocumentary is fluffy and often silly, but it is incredibly fun to watch. Lazenby is a fantastic interview subject and is very forthcoming with his unbelievable life stories. The sheer amount of archive material and behind-the-scenes videos from the Bond set Greenbaum uses are simply stunning. As exciting as that all is, the Film takes way too long to get to that part of Lazenby’s life and just kind of fizzles out immediately afterwards. Why spend so much time detailing his early years if you are going to say virtually nothing about what happens later? I just wish Greenbaum did not waste the only moment Lazenby displays genuine emotion and regret by jumping so quickly to the next topic.
Wednesday May 3 @ 8:30PM TIFF Bell Lightbox
Thursday May 4 @ 3:45PM Isabel Bader Theatre
Friday May 5 @ 7:00PM TIFF Bell Lightbox
BLURRED LINES: INSIDE THE ART WORLD
Blurred Lines works as a fascinating crash course for anyone who has ever wanted to understand modern art and the astronomical prices they sell for. Director Barry Avrich uses a plethora of talking head critics, artists, dealers and collectors to push forward his thesis of art being a commodity that defines status and worth. But he jumps around his topics so rapidly that he leaves no time for deeper analysis or detail.
The film is literally the definition of all style and no substance. It is absolutely gorgeous to look at, but everything his interview subjects say comes off as superficial. The art market is ludicrous, and Avrich is content to simply capture the chaos. He inexplicably uses a clip from The Expendables 3 to explain art buying part way through the film, and it comes off as even more absurd than some of the prices the art goes for. Yet the biggest drawback for Avrich’s eye-opening documentary is that his most interesting film subjects – specifically Artist Damien Hirst whose legendary 2008 Sotheby’s auction acts as Blurred Lines’ introduction – are only seen in archived clips from other sources.
Friday April 28 @ 7:00PM TIFF Bell Lightbox
Saturday April 29 @ 1:00PM Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema
Sunday May 7 @ 11:00AM Isabel Bader Theatre
CATEGORY: World Showcase
For Ahkeem centers around 17-year-old high school student Daje. She is struggling to graduate from her St. Louis alternative high school when she discovers she is pregnant. And as this is all happening, all hell is breaking loose in Ferguson, Missouri after the shooting death of Michael Brown.
Unlike many other Documentaries at this year’s Festival, Director Landon Van Soest and Jeremy S. Levine never stop the action in For Ahkeem to interview any of the Film’s subjects. They let the harrowing events play out naturally and more cinematically, focusing on different moments over this period of Daje’s life. I am curious to know what the Film was about before her pregnancy, as it never truly finds its footing until she finds out part way into the second act. I also thought the incidents in Ferguson would help move the Film towards some deeper meaning – but they only really suggest a timeline more than anything else. This is a deeply emotional passion project, but I feel it could have been stronger if it had more of a concrete purpose.
Sunday April 30 @ 6:00PM TIFF Bell Lightbox
Monday May 1 @ 10:45AM TIFF Bell Lightbox
Friday May 5 @ 6:45PM Fox Theatre
Sunday May 7 @ 3:00PM Hart House Theatre
THE GENIUS AND THE OPERA SINGER
CATEGORY: World Showcase
91-year-old mother Ruth has just returned from a nursing home to live in the New York City apartment she shares with her 55-year-old daughter Jessica. But the pair do not get along, and the animosity between them is stifling. They love each other in one moment, but then treat and say terrible things to each other the next.
Director Vanessa Stockley captures all of this drama and more over the course of the Film’s challenging 70-minute running time, but never properly defines her thesis. Why are we watching these two women bicker at each other? We understand the illnesses that plague both characters, but are barely afforded the opportunity to really understand how they got to this moment in their lives. Stockley tries to coax some discussion and reasoning out of these women, but never seems able to crack through their hardened shells. The sheer amount of collected junk that litters their apartment is horrific and gave me anxiety to see continuously. But it acts as a means of defining who these women are, or at least who they were, more than the Film does.
Sunday April 30 @ 6:00PM Scotiabank Theatre
Monday May 1 @ 3:30PM TIFF Bell Lightbox
CATEGORY: Special Presentations
When we think of actor and comedian Gilbert Gottfried, we think of his loud, shrilly voice and his disgusting and raunchy sense of humour. But Director Neil Berkeley pulls back the curtain with his documentary Gilbert and reveals a quiet and reserved man with a deep love for his wife, kids and sisters. I will admit it readily – I was shocked seeing Gottfried portrayed this way, and even more shocked by how deeply emotional a Film this was to watch.
Berkeley talks to different comedians about who Gottfried is and the varying responses paint a deep-seated portrait of a man with a real life completely divorced from his public persona. The access given into Gottfried’s notoriously private life is staggering. The man rides alone on a coach bus for some of his shows! Berkeley goes through his early beginnings and eventual rise to stardom, using some hilarious archived footage from Gottfried’s old comic sets, and eventually rolls through his moments of controversy with jokes about 9/11 and the 2011 Japanese tsunami and earthquake. It is a very personal and candid picture, and one where I managed to laugh just as often as I teared up.
Monday May 1 @ 9:30PM Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema
Tuesday May 2 @ 12:45PM Hart House Theatre
Sunday May 7 @ 9:00PM Hart House Theatre
Spookers is the largest and most successful “scare park” in New Zealand – think Halloween Haunt at Canada’s Wonderland or Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios, but year-round and turned up past 11. The park was built on the site of the former Kingseat Psychiatric Hospital and employs actors who can play whatever horrific character they want each night. If that does not sound terrifying to you, I am scared to find out what does.
I was really excited to watch Director Florian Habicht’s Documentary unfold, but was left ridiculously disappointed. Habicht has fun showing the detail that goes into the actors’ costumes, make-up and personal histories, interviews the key staff members about the history of the hospital and what makes the park so successful and even shows some of the scares in action. But none of this material adds up to being nearly enough content or substance to warrant a feature-length Documentary. Instead, he pads out the rest with obscure dream sequences featuring the nearly unintelligible Spookers actors – and they have no real purpose aside from being filler. The first two or three are creative enough, but Habicht seems to add one after each five-minute interval. I found myself questioning what the point of these useless sequences was constantly, hoping for some sort of in-depth discussion that never came.
Sunday April 30 9:30PM Hart House Theatre
Tuesday May 2 @ 4:30PM Isabel Bader Theatre
Saturday May 6 @ 9:00PM Revue Cinema
Find out the schedule and how to get tickets here.
(Photo credit: Hot Docs)