The 19th edition of North America’s largest documentary showcase and one of the world’s largest film festivals begins this week, running from April 26 to May 6 in Toronto. With Charlotte Cook replacing Sean Farnel as head programmer, new directions (fewer films, more focus is the official line), new initiatives (Hot Docs’s very own Kickstarter, Doc Ignite), new sponsors (Nescafé, Dundee Wealth and Sun Life Financial, to name a few of the more spurious corporate inductees) and a gorgeously renovated, and reinvigorated, venue (The Bloor / Hot Docs Cinema), Canada’s non-fiction champ continues their tradition of perennial renewal, improvement and growth.
It’s all very promising and exciting and I’m sure this year will signal another hit in the festival’s two decade history. So to get things warmed up, I thought I’d take a look at the programming, which promises a mixed bag of goodies, baddies and proverbial head-scratchers.
The Good: International Titles
As many Canadian producers have, in recent years, lamented: “international” programming at Hot Docs is often a euphemism for “American,” and this year the fest indeed has its share of Yanqui fare (at 52 titles this year’s US offerings add up to a record 28% of programming).
Among the cache from that prolific country are the following promising political notables: Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, about the Chinese political artist and activist who has captured liberal and progressive hearts alike; Detropia (pictured at top of post): from the unstoppable dynamic duo of Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing comes another icy observational piece, this time focusing in on a beleaguered Detroit; Call Me Kuchu, a timely documentary about the recently murdered Ugandan queer activist David Kato; The Invisible War, about the US military’s despicable and largely unexamined unwritten policy of protecting rapists in the ranks; The Revisionaries follows fanatic creationists retooling educational curricula in Texas; Where Heaven Meets Hell looks at Indonesian labourers who mine sulfur at an active volcano site, risking their lives in order to stay in poverty; and finally Wildness is a study of place and identity that looks at the LA Latino transgendered community and their refuge, the Silver Platter Bar.
In the non-American international camp look for: Big Boys Gone Bananas, a (it has to be said, technically low-fi) tale of free speech and corporate bullying, with some revealing scenes of how the Los Angeles International Film Festival rises to the support…of the corporate bullies; Crayons of Askalan, about a Palestinian prisoner who “escapes” by illustrating his experience; Meet the Fokkens, a marvelous and upbeat doc about 70-year-old sex worker twins in the Netherlands; Price of Gold is yet another doc about one of the worst industries on the planet, mining, this time the place is Mongolia; Scarlet Road, about sex work with clients who have disabilities; Wadim, about the consequences of regressive immigration policy in Germany; and Krisis — GR2011 — The Prism goes behind the scenes during Greece’s economic turmoil in 2011.
Special mention goes to Jai Bhim Comrade, the newest installment from the brilliant activist filmmaker Anand Patwardhan (who will attend the festival), this time his focus is on the oppression and resistance of India’s low caste Dalits.
Lastly, check out the whole “Rise Against” section in the Hot Docs program, which is apparently partitioned off into its own space (ghetto?) to indicate a raft of documentaries that follow in the spirit of the Occupy Movement, and that pack a little more punch? I’m not sure, but the ten films look lively, political, and one or two might even be a progressive intervention against a dull, liberal and suffocating mainstream.
The Bad: Doc Ghettos
Categories in film festivals are, ostensibly, meant to assist audience members navigating formidable avalanches of programming, condensed impossibly into a week or so of mad-dash exhibitions. But they also have a ghettoizing effect, where categories play second and third fiddle to value-added programming found in larger, star-studded sections like “Special Presentations,” and in other festivals, within competition components.
As Trihn T. Minh-hah has provocatively noted, once a category for “experimental film” was created and accepted there ceased to be experimental film. Naming, labeling and sorting content into recognizable and digestible holding tanks can and does help audiences find what they’re looking for, but does it actually help or hinder, say, Canadian documentary?
If a program booklet has space for a mere 29 Canadian titles (features and shorts, and not including the two NFB special sections, which are not beholden to submissions) than perhaps the bulk of those titles will fit neatly into a bite-sized section devoted to Canadian fare. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that just might prevent expanded Canadian programming, where contained space is allotted and that space is filled. And if this year’s program is any indication, it might be time to demolish the ghetto and renovate the neighbourhood.
Since Hot Docs is located in Canada, perhaps there should be an “American Spectrum” where all the US docs are corralled, and the “Canadian Spectrum” should be dismantled and its children allowed to roam the program freely and in various degrees of visibility and obscurity. Lest Trihn T. Minh-hah’s observation should come true for Canadian documentary, this is one program-cruiser that thinks Canadian docs do not need their own section in a Canadian documentary film festival.
I’m sure there are legions who disagree, and points to the opposite are welcome, but at 15% of overall programming this year (21% if you include the two NFB components — which reminds me, check out John Kastner’s dark and haunting work in the NFB-sponsored retrospective), some creative expansion of structural barriers might just let a few more solid — and deserving — Canadian titles squeak through the gates.
The Incomprehensible: MIA Political Canadian Docs
Word on doc street is it was a bad year for Canadian documentary (political or otherwise), and so Hot Docs must have had its hands tied in terms of robust Canadian representation. They did manage to find a few, and some that pique interest include: The Frog Princes, a tight and moving doc about a group of developmentally challenged actors overcoming all kinds of odds to act in a play at Concordia University; Herman’s House, a rich social justice imaginary that wonders what kind of house imprisoned Black Panther Herman Wallace might live in; Peace Out is a resplendent and smart contribution to the energy debates around Canada’s pristine Peace River (but unfortunately gives an inordinate amount of screen time to corporate yes men and liberals, showing the film’s disconnect with progressive eco-activists); and Smoke Traderslooks at the “contraband” cigarette trade from the perspective of the Mohawk people and is one of only three documentaries at this year’s edition to put aboriginal voices front and center.
Which brings me to the incomprehensible. Let’s say there really weren’t a hell of a lot of quality political Canadian submissions among the 2085 titles sent to this year’s Hot Docs programmers — that doesn’t explain a Canadian MIA list that seems set to grow as I discover more great political films that were rejected. I’d like to highlight three that are among the finest political documentaries that I, as a programmer of political documentary, have come across in the last year, and therefore find it perplexing Canada’s premiere non-fiction film event took a pass on each one.
United States of Africa
After a packed Montreal screening of USoA during this year’s RIDM festival, an enthusiastic audience member commented “It’s so refreshing to see a documentary about Africa that is positive instead of negative…or worse, colonial.” I couldn’t agree more.
Chosen by other festivals but not Hot Docs, this documentary by Yanick Létrouneau follows West African hip-hop performer Didier Awadi as he embarks on an odyssey to combine the politics of anti-colonial African leaders (who, unfortunately, are all male) with contemporary hip-hop both inside and outside Africa.
The result is a fantastically shot and edited film about the importance of political participation, realized in civil society but also articulated through art. Through an ambitious musical project, Awadi travels Africa and North America to rediscover the politics of his home continent, and to hone a message of progressive change through the power of hip-hop. The film itself becomes its own vehicle for art and politics, and pulses along with exquisite imagery and superb music.
United States of Africa is a reviving and enlivening work that refuses to fall into the stereotypical Western-produced “African doc” category: it is full of life, positivity, voice, hope, and an explosion of expression that promises to live well outside of the discerning frames of this exceptional cinematic ballad.
Bone Wind Fire
Rightly chosen by programmers to close Montreal’s FIFA festival and recently the recipient of the Best Documentary Short Award at the Sonoma International Film Festival, the new 30-minute documentary from Jill Sharpe is astoundingly beautiful, conceptually flawless and politically subtle in a way that makes one arrive at the discrimination endured by three incredibly talented female artists in a slow, circuitous and wondrous way. A film of colour, movement, emotion, dreams and discovery, Sharpe’s documentary on three painters — Emily Carr, Frida Khalo and Georgia O’Keefe — is a synecdoche for all the stories yet to be told about women who fight for artistic, cultural and political expression in regimes of patriarchy.
Bone Wind Fire should be, and undoubtedly will be, used as an inspirational teaching tool in every redeeming art school in the world. This film should be seen by anyone interested in art, in human expression, and in the ways established and encrusted lines of a genre can be broken into a thousand beautiful, colourful fragments, then reassembled as abstract and material beauty. It is documentary imagination and provocation at its ultimate finest.
The Carbon Rush
Amy Miller, an emergent Canadian filmmaker with an independent journalist background, has built on the experience and success of her first film, Myths for Profit: Canada’s Role in Industries of War and Peace, with one of the finest, most carefully researched and executed political exposés of the year.
As a programmer one quickly grows tired of every second documentary starting with someone, usually a white guy, saying “So I decided to grab a camera and … blah blah blah.” Miller’s new documentary, about the seriously flawed economic projects underway and under the auspices of carbon trading, turns that tired trope on its head. This film is deeply personal for Miller, having spent months and months in communities affected by these devastating projects, but she wisely removes herself from the picture.
The voice we hear, the people we see, and the struggles we bear witness to, are instead those of the world’s poor, indigenous and marginalized. Whether it is hydroelectric dams in Panama or incinerators burning garbage in India, The Carbon Rush champions the voices of those most impacted by Western economic schemes designed to put band-aids on climate change while destroying communities and lives.
It is an incredibly moving, empathetic and measured film that sticks inside you like a thorn that you want to do something about, that you must do something about. Politically muscular, incredibly timely, and totally under-represented and original, The Carbon Rush is exactly the kind of film that should be projected to a sold-out audience at this year’s Hot Docs.
Political Documentary in Canada: Support Needed
Programming is complicated, and anyone who tells you it doesn’t have its share of politics is fooling themselves and should watch Big Boys Gone Bananas. Good films get turned down and crap gets in for a myriad of complicated equations — I know this is the reality of every festival on the planet, with some specializing more in the latter than the former, especially certain giant glitzy fiction-focused festivals.
But the above three films are impeccable in form, unique in content, timely in issue, and incredibly, audaciously, under-represented in the mediascape. Which begs the question…
With so few Canadian titles in this year’s American-dominated Hot Docs edition, one has to wonder, how did these three titles (and others not mentioned here) end up on the outside looking in?
As documentary in Canada faces new challenges after a particularly vicious Conservative budgetary hack and attack, it is doubtless we need to support all documentary. But works that face the greatest threat of being marginalized and rejected into obscurity (at least in relation to the mainstream), that have more difficulty finding audiences simply because of their “fringe” politics and sometimes (refreshingly) radical and/or progressive POVs— these docs really need support.
These are the works that highlight powerful voices on an all-too-often negatively-represented African continent, feminist artists violated by the mainstream art world, and indigenous and local poor activists resisting unjust and cynical Western economic schemes. These are films that thankfully contain no privileged (male) Western “experts” talking to, around, or in place of, those most impacted and those on the ground enacting change. These are films that are indeed “outstanding” and “outspoken” as well.
Their occlusion in this year’s program is disappointing and difficult to understand, but I hope the filmmakers behind these inspired gems remain undeterred and keep pushing for their gorgeous, timely and crucial works to be shown, seen and discussed.
In the meantime, I’ll see you in the rush lines for all the other promising titles mentioned above.