Hot Docs Reviewed: Zoo, Crazy, Last Call at the Gladstone Hotel, Yoga Inc.

With the temperature rising and people heading to the streets it's important not to forget about this year's Hot Docs Film Festival. With more than 120 documentary films from 30 countries, Hot Docs further cements it's reputation as one of the leading documentary festivals in the entire world and one of my favorite things about spring in Toronto.

Zoo directed by Robinson Devor

In July 2005 a shockingly bizarre piece of tabloid news was plastered all through out the media. A Seattle business man died of a punctured colon by having sex with an Arabian stallion. The idea of bestiality is hardly a new concept but the media loves a scandal and a man with a wife and kids dying of a horse sex related injury is ripe for sensationalism.

Devor's film gives a poetic and moody treatment to zoophile culture and to the social circle of men who often came together at a remote farmhouse including the deceased Seattle man. With simple and often hauntingly surreal cinematography and a score that brings to mind equal parts Harry Potter and Philip Glass, Zoo kept me locked in despite feelings of dread and discomfort.

Devor doesn't sensationalize and in taking a page from people like Errol Morris and David Lynch crafts an unusual film. Through abstract reenactments, candid voice overs, and moments of stillness, Zoo takes a difficult subject and plays with the universal themes of isolation and loneliness that are behind it.

A choice favorite of the Sundance film festival, this film is worth checking out.

Crazy directed by Heddy Honigmann

Director Heddy Honigmann is the focus of a retrospective at this year's Hot Docs and Crazy speaks volumes to her skills as an award winning documentarian.

Crazy explores the different connections a group of Dutch UN soldiers made with music during their stays in hellish places like Rwanda and Cambodia. By focusing on this musical connection to frame each subject's wartime experience, Honigmann strikes unique exchanges with her subjects that make their stories ring with alarming personal truths.

The musical selections are varied going from Puccini to Guns and Roses and Seal but it's in the memories behind each song that make for heartbreaking cinema. Honigmann makes the film's most daring and satisfying choice in filming sections with her subjects in simple static portrait as they silently listen to their song choices. The pain and sadness on the faces of these men and women is more compelling then most documentaries ever are. The rest of the film rests on amazing first hand footage shot by the participants during their tour of duties and quality stock footage.

Light on flare and heavy on reality, Honigmann's film brings up ideas of love, camaraderie, humanity, and the pain of desensitization with great skill.

This is a compelling piece of work that brought tears to my eyes on numerous occasions and is clearly the result of a monumental talent.

Last Call at the Gladstone Hotel directed by Derreck Roemer and Neil Graham

The Gladstone Hotel is one of my favorite places in Toronto and like director Roemer and Graham, I enjoyed it as a hangout before it became the polished art hub that it is now. The Gladstone's transformation from flop house to boutique hotel is intensely interesting to watch and Roemer and Graham work wonders in befriending the staff and tenants of the Hotel allowing for the film's content to resonate with an insider point of view.

The heart and soul of the piece comes by way of Maryanne a charming older women living in near poverty in one of the rooms of the hotel. She becomes the face for the uncomfortable debate surrounding the "upgrade" . When the hotel is bought by young urban real estate couple Michael Tippin and his wife the reluctant tenants and staff are unhappy but still hope for positive changes.

Battles with staff and tenants, threatened evictions, and further painfully sad deconstruction of the hotel are what follows. Then steps in the Ziedler Family the silent partner in the purchase who start the process of turning the hotel into what we see today. The Zielders do their best while struggling to keep the tenants and staff in mind eventually buying out the seemingly insensitive Tippens.

At first we're not sure whether we're seeing an example of business over people but it becomes clear the hotel is unfit for tenants and that the Ziedlers did their very best to help the tenants and find them alternatives while saving a heritage building and creating a vibrant arts center.

I miss the old Parkdale as much as the next but those days are gone. Sure the Starbucks and the Drake may make me puke in my mouth a little, but the Gladstone operates in a very unique grassroots way that is unique to any other place in the city and this doc reminds us of that fact.

Last Call at the Gladstone Hotel is a balanced, engaging and in depth look at one of Toronto's most quickly changing neighborhoods. If you have any interest in the debate surrounding gentrification or simply the Gladstone itself you must see this unique slice of T.O. history unfold on screen.

Yoga Inc. directed by John Phillip

Yoga can easily be categorized as the biggest health and fitness craze to hit North America in a long time. I won't lie and I'll admit to engaging in a little Yoga now and then but unlike most I have a bit of understanding of the history of the practice.

Yoga Inc. starts with a bit of the history of Yoga to catch the audience up on the spiritual and commercial roots of Yoga in India and North America before bring us to the state of Yoga today.

We learn about Christian Yoga, Hot Yoga, Nude Yoga, Family Yoga, Yoga chain stores, Yoga accessories, and Yoga competitions all of which seem quite ridiculous but are a part of a billion dollar industry.

Bikram Choudhary is the bad boy of the film; the founder of Bikram style Yoga who's efforts have resulted in yoga chain stores and major competitions springing up internationally in an effort to get Yoga competitions added to the Olympics. He also has successfully trademarked his yoga routine which brings up an interesting debate surrounding what can and can't be copyrighted and the effect it has on smaller yoga studios that he has since sued.

Despite some pacing issues this documentary is supremely interesting and serves as a perfect snapshot of an industry that has grown from hippie past time to yuppie powerhouse. Even if you aren't so interested in yoga itself the politics of fitness, business, trademarking and pop spiritualism in the film are really engaging to take in.

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