Hot Docs

Hot Docs 2011 Preview, Part 1

Hot Docs is North America's largest documentary film festival and it's coming up on April 28th with a terrific lineup of close to 200 films. For 2011, Hot Docs has decided to expand and will be showing movies in new neighbourhoods, with venues like The Revue (Roncesvalles) and the Fox Theatre (The Beaches) in the mix. This year, programmers have booked us a profile of Toronto filmmaker Alan Zweig's career, a spotlight on Italian works, and a set called B-Sides of overlooked and underappreciated docs.

Got your picks sorted out yet? A bunch of us here got an early peek at some of the docs screening in this year's festival, and we'll be rounding up our best bets in the coming weeks. Here's a look at some of the docs we've seen so far.

Top Pick

Empire North
Danish artist Jakob Boeskov pulled off quite a stunt in 2001. After 9/11, he built a sniper gun designed to shoot GPS sensors into demonstrators; the pricks of the sensors penetrating the skin feeling like a mild mosquito bite. The gun was a fake, but the flocks of technology developers and international arms dealers were not. Hilarious and terrifying, it's like a performance-art James Bond film, only with real stakes. Raises provocative questions left and right, while also succeeding in turning the idea into an entertaining fiction. (BW)


The Redemption of General Butt Naked
This film documents a reformed general from the First Liberian Civil War who was responsible for thousands of brutal deaths that were committed while he was butt naked. Now a Christian, the film follows his journey as he asks the families of his victims for forgiveness. After watching, I still think the guy is a huge douchebag, but it's a great film about a pretty fascinating bit of history. (CC)

The Pirate Tapes
It's so wrong, but when a 22-year old student hangs out with badass pirates and films the whole thing, of course I want to see the footage. How did he pull it off? Mohamed Ashareh bought his way into a hijacking operation on the east African coast, using his father's name and connections in Somalia. While The Pirate Tapes doesn't entirely explain who these pirates are and how they do what they do, there is a harrowing story here in the rising costs and dangers for Ashareh in pursuing it. (CM)

I had no idea that real-life superheroes was a thing until I watched this film. They are people who dress up, have an alias, sometimes carry weapons, and help those in need. Whether it's feeding the homeless, baiting criminals, or rescuing victims, these people will step up to the challenge. They are for real, and many are even registered. (Yes, there is a real-life superhero registry). I can't decide if it's inspiring, sad, creepy, or just hilarious, but this film is a must-see. (CC)

At the Edge of Russia
Vast uninhabited space, harsh climate, the day-to-day routine of six men living in a cabin at one of Russia's arctic border outposts. If you're into slow-moving Romanian cinema, scruffy men signing sad songs, or pondering life's existential questions, Michal Marczak's debut doc is for you. (CM)

El Bulli - Cooking in Progress
Anyone used to the high-production adrenaline and talking heads format of shows like Top Chef or Hell's Kitchen will require about half an hour to adjust to this observational doc's rhythms, as I did. Once settled in, though, I was captivated by the creativity and pristine discipline in the kitchen of the 3-star Michelin-rated restaurant, El Bulli. The muted color pallete of the video prevents the food from becoming too appetizing, allowing me to focus on the film as an engaging character-study of head chef Ferran Adria. I anticipate a spike in Toronto-to-Spain air travel come early summer. (BW)

The Embrace of the River
This is a calm and contemplative experience, and is, at first, a fascinating glimpse of spirituality in a small Colombian village. A very interesting thing happens around the halfway point, though, when the talk of superstitions, spirits, and gods transitions, imperceptibly, into a study of the political turmoil in the region. The once serene and magical river turns into a murky graveyard. Quietly devastating. (BW)

Not So Recommended

This film follows a strange subculture in Ireland for more than 10 years. It shows a group of travelling families that regularly provoke each other into high stakes fist fights. The really interesting part is that despite their alternative lifestyle, all the family members conform to practices and rules regarding fair play, and go to great lengths to make sure fair play is observed. It's good for the first few minutes but the constant bickering and gloating gets tiresome. (CC)

Mighty Jerome
I'm a big sports fan and generally like to think I know who all the "greats" in sports history are. I can't believe I had never heard of the runner Harry Jerome before. His biography is actually very interesting, but the film itself just didn't do it for me. Obviously, when real footage is unavailable, directors need to give viewers something to look at, but this film had way too many dramatizations for my liking. I'd rather read the book instead. (CC)

Somewhere to Disappear
Photographer Alec Soth is fascinated with recluses who live in cabins and caves. And so am I. And so are docmakers Laure Flammarion and Arnaud Uyttenhove, who follow Soth on a road trip through the US as he photographs hermits and their homes. It's just a shame the construction of the film isn't well thought out, with Soth fantasizing about building his own retreat while touring the filmmakers in a minivan to interview true social outcasts, some living with mental illness and in impoverished conditions. (CM)

Family Instinct
I actually have a hard time turning people away from this, because it really is a provocative subject: We follow Zanda, a Latvian mother of two, whose brother has been put in jail. The provocation: Zanda's two children were both fathered by her brother, consensually. The rest of her family and community (all potentially incestuously related) seem to be right out of a Harmony Korine film. The problem is that the film never rises above exploiting the dysfunctions, and cannot peel into the interesting questions inherent in the situation. A long 58 minutes. (BW)

Contributions by Blake Williams, Casandra Campbell, and Chandra Menard.

Hot Docs 2011 are on various screens all over Toronto from April 28 to May 8. Tickets and passes available at the documentary Box Office, 131 Bloor Street West, by phone at 416-637-5150, or online.

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