Hot Docs Film Reviews

Hot Docs 2011 Preview, Part 3

Hot Docs, North America's most prominent documentary festival, finally kicks off this week. There are almost 200 films to choose from but we've already watched quite a few for Part 1 and Part 2 of our Hot Docs preview. Before the festival begins, we have one more installment of our preview posts with over a dozen more capsule reviews. Here are our latest suggestions for what to watch and what to skip at Hot Docs 2011.

Top Picks


Yet another horse tale, but one with a lot more human heart than you'd expect. Buck is the story of Buck Brannaman, a horse 'whisperer' of sorts who took the horse training world by storm by introducing his take on a kinder form of horse wrangling. Buck is all about respect, that is for the horse as well as the rider, and now he spends 9 months out of the year teaching clinics about how to get the two to work together. With a woeful backstory which highlights the lack of respect he was brought up with, Buck is funny as well as heartwarming (there's that word again!) and really interesting as the crew follows his clinics and allows us to experience his 'magic' of sorts, a magic that really resides in body language and pride. But a horse comes by at the end of the film which presents a real challenge to Buck, the question arises, is he really able to rehabilitate ANY horse, or are some horses, like people, too broken to be fixed? (DD)

People in White
I didn't have high expectations before watching People in White, but I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of this film. I'll be honest, it's not exactly a fun movie to watch, but it does a phenomenal job of tackling a tough issue. The film portrays the experiences of mental care patients through their own words and reenactments, and explores the unique relationships they have with their physicians from the patients' perspectives. It was definitely an eye-opener. (CC)


At Night, They Dance
This Quebecois gem observes the lives of a low-class family of women in Cairo. The girls escape into the nightlife with technicolor belly-dancing gigs, while their mother - an impetuously vicious, but somehow still sympathetic character - denounces her life at home. I couldn't believe how honest, and often times ugly, their lives were represented; they truly were acting like the cameraman was not there. It made the dancing scenes, despite the inherent female objectification and misogyny on display - feel like little slices of euphoria. (BW)

Bobby Fischer Against the World
I learned to play chess when I was a teenager, and never really got any good at it despite picking it up fairly easily (some friends still require a cheat-sheet to know just what 'the horse guy' is allowed to do). I also could never stop myself from watching the entirety of Searching For Bobby Fischer whenever it came on cable. That film, though, had little to do with Fischer at all, which cannot be said for this documentary. The trajectory of chess-genius Bobby Fischer's life, as depicted in this film, might not be news to anyone already familiar with its key facts. But what Bobby Fischer Against the World does amazingly well is create a comprehensive period piece and character study that presents a stalemate between genius and insanity, suggesting that supreme intelligence ultimately requires some loose screws. In Fischer's case, 'loose' is putting it lightly. (BW)

The Castle
An infuriating look into the Milan airport and it's high-alert security protocol as they deal daily with illegal immigrants, drug mules, mysterious objects and displaced persons. A bleak but fascinating look at the inner-workings of a system that has become less and less transparent in the heightened security of our times. What I missed most in this film, however, is the personal aspect of the stories. Some interesting people are featured, an exhausted security officer, a woman living and COOKING in an airline washroom, a refugee from Somalia, but we are given only the surface of their stories, instead I was left longing for more. However, I have taken some things away from this film. When travelling, always wear a suit, hide your sim card and don't bother arguing with security staff, they don't care. (DD)


UFC fighting is a controversial sport, yes. It is widely seen to be a savage, morally reprehensible act of brutality that many would prefer not to even call a sport. What Fightville does amazingly well is make the two central subjects in this doc, fighters Dustin Poirier and Albert Stainback, look like disciplined and ambitious heros, almost erasing the question that I thought would be its central theme: What is place of morals when man willingly partakes in primal behaviours. It's addressed for about two minutes in the first reel, and then dropped. It's too bad, because it could have made this an all-the-more complex film. However, it's hard to imagine anyone, either pro or con on UFC, not being invigorated by the film's final fight.

Is Toronto a new poker mecca? Nah, but according to Matt Gallagher's doc Grinders, bets are on the table right now somewhere in the city. Gallagher seeks out Torontonian "grinders" or people who earn a living playing poker, including himself. On-camera chats with fellow gamblers reveal that Texas Hold 'Em is a risky and time-consuming vocation. I recommend seeing the film for a peek at the local backroom poker scene. Problem is, Gallagher didn't find any hugely compelling subjects here. (CM)

Hollywood Complex
Toddlers and Tiaras, this is not, but the Hollywood Complex brings up some interesting questions about the parents who herd their children to the 'Hollywood Complex' every pilot season, with the direct intention of making their child a star. The documentary manages to capture some of the hardships these families encounter in their quest for fame and include some troubling conversations about money, loneliness and the lottery-like odds of which their child will succeed. The film also has the obvious tropes, the average kids who think they are better than they are and their over-proud families, the effortless and almost natural-born stars and my favourite, "Pre$ley Cash" a firecracker of an 11 year old who has more personality in her pinky than most these kids could dream of. She and her mother have been residing in the complex permanently for 3 years to no avail, but in this quintessential Hollywood story, can good things come to those who wait? (DD)

Inside Lara Roxx
Not a tearjerker, not an inspirational story, Inside Lara Roxx doesn't follow the usual construction of documentaries about tragic life events. Mia Donovan met up with Roxx over the five-year period following her HIV positive diagnosis (from a two months stint in the LA porn industry), recording candid snippets from the young girl's life at home in Montreal. Ultimately, the film is a work-in-progress: Donovan finds Roxx continuously struggling with mental illness, drug abuse, and an attraction to very bad men, along with the disease. (CM)

Maids & Bosses
"Respect your maid" is the mantra best used to describe this film that follows maids and bosses in Panama as they describe in detail their many experiences with each other. Race, immigration status, sexism and classism come into play as the two sides war off on each other, anecdotal evidence contrasted with quasi-fictional representations of the inane tasks required of the help. A depressing look at the power plays between the two always end with the maid losing out, as the attitude seems to be 'my house is more important than your life'. While a small portion at the end is dedicated to those who have fond memories of their employers or of their staff, the film is predominantly concerned with the inequalities between the two and the knowledge that they will never truly be on the same page. Maids and Bosses screens with Three Walls. (DD)

Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold

Morgan Spurlock (of Supersize Me fame) does it again, that being, creating a documentary subject so ambitious that he doesn't realize the implications of the beast until he's already in its jaws. That being said, this film is a compelling ride which navigates and makes transparent the many rivers and tributaries one must swim through to find adequate branding and representation, and how to turn that knowledge into actual promises and money. He calls in an impressive plethora of intellectuals, film directors and Hollywood business (almost exclusively) men in to pick their brains about the siren call of advertising and discovers that even in making this film, his own concept of his story will now be skewed by brand obligation. Then the film flips, and Morgan himself needs to sell, sell, sell to get the impressions out that he is contractually obligated to receive proper funding. It's a bit cynical, but it's also a fun ride. (DD)

Three Walls
Three Walls is almost like an ode to the cubicle, as well as a horror story about the creation of a device that has enslaved office workers for decades in the box-like way it has been utilized by companies. But did you know that it wasn't always supposed to be that way? Three Walls looks at the manufacturing of the cubicle or 'office space furniture' and talks to those who work in them about their experiences in cubes, pods, and whatever the new buzz-word for modular offices is this year. Three Walls screens with Maids and Bosses. (DD)

Not So Recommended

The Good Life
I went into The Good Life expecting a sort of an ex-socialite-redemption film, as it follows Anne Mette and her mother, former rich folk who lived off assets and dividends until it all dried up, who now live off of a seniors pension for one person. As they struggle with debts even beyond comprehension, the film follows Anne Mette spending constantly beyond their budgets. Her entitlement stems from the blame she places on her mother for spoiling her as a child while her mother will talk badly about people who 'need' to work to live and then turn to her daughter and tell her she needs a job. It's no wonder Anne Mette is a 50 year old spoiled brat. But unfortunately, this film just does not follow up. The failure may be from the characters as much as the filmmakers, as Anne Mette and her mother stagnate, but a more engaging discourse could have developed a more interesting tale. Instead you're watching a mother and her daughter bicker about the past for 90 minutes. (DD)

I am Jesus
I was kind of excited to watch I Am Jesus because it's such a fascinating topic. The film follows three different men who claim to be Jesus and the disciples that follow them. I thought it would be an interesting look at how these men came to decide they are Jesus, and why their disciples believe them; however, more than anything, it was an annoying profile of three very narcissistic men - none of whom could answer any challenging questions about their positions. (CC)

Ola Svensson Superstar
Poking fun at flamboyant rock stars is not exactly new as a documentary film subject. Is it possible that Stefan Berg was not trying to make us laugh at his titular hero? Ola Svensson Superstar follows the lead signer of a Swedish glam rock band called The Ark for a couple of years, while he takes time off from the band to star in the Malmรถ Opera's production of Jesus Christ Superstar. (CM)

The Valley of the Forgotten

I wasn't at all tired when I popped The Valley of the Forgotten in my Xbox but I could not stay awake! It was difficult to stay interested in, and every time I woke up I'd realize I hadn't really missed anything. The film interviews people from several groups fighting for land in the Brazilian Rainforest, and basically, was a really bad case of he said/she said with no resolution. If I was into listening to people complain for 2 hours then maybe I'd recommend this one. (CC)

Contributions by Blake Williams, Casandra Campbell, Danielle D'Ornellas, 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.

See also:

Still from At Night They Dance


We have lots of tickets to giveaway to Hot Docs screenings, the first round of which we'll be running this afternoon. Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook to ensure that you get notifications of when we're giving tix away.


Today we're giving away 10 pairs of tickets to the April 29th screening of Fightville at the Isabel Bader Theatre (1:45 p.m.). The first 10 people to comment on this thread after 4 p.m. will make up our winners (the comment thread will be closed until then). To be eligible to claim your prize, you need to use a valid email address and your full name, so that we can contact you/provide it to the organizers.

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