What’s hot at Hot Docs

Brian D. Johnson on hits from the 20th annual festival

Hot Docs, North America’s largest documentary festival, celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, with 205 films from 43 countries showing April 30 to May 5. I’ve been screening them over the past few weeks. Though I haven’t seen nearly enough to provide a definitive list, here’s what I’ve found to be the most compelling so far. As I see more, the list may expand . . .

1. Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer If you think you know about this feminist punk group from the media coverage of their trial, and Madonna’s flashes of solidarity, that’s not the half of it. Filmmakers Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin, who won a special jury award in Sundance for this documentary, have forged a riveting account of the court case. But most of all, they have composed an fascinating and credibly heroic portrait of the three Pussy Riot members who go to trial. For all their collective bravado, they emerge as distinct and formidable personalities, who seem to be undergoing a personal transformation as the camera rolls—especially the mesmerizing Nadia (Nadezhda Tolokonnikova), who combines movie-star magnetism with insouciant wit and a sophisticated view of conceptual art. The film includes video clips of the the group’s hit-and-run performances, and interviews. But their most revealing moments come from their candid conversations as prisoners behind the glass of the court’s media scrum. Like animals in a zoo, surrounded by a phalanx of cameras, they use their trial as a stage for impromptu performance art. Supporting players range from biker-like militants of the Orthodox church to the girls’ anxious but tolerant parents—notably Nadia’s father, who co-wrote lyrics for the punk anthem that landed them in jail after its fleeting performance in the church.

The young John Hartley Robertson, in ‘Unclaimed’
2.  Unclaimed

In 1968 U.S. special ops soldier John Hartley Robertson was pronounced MIA after his helicopter was shot down in a firefight over Laos. Over four decades later, a man claiming to be Robertson surfaces in a remote village in Vietnam. He has a Vietnamese wife, with whom he’s raised four children, and he’s lost his ability to speak English, along with virtually all memory of his life as an American. But, at 77, he wants to see his American family before he dies. In this astonishing documentary, Alberta filmmaker Michael Jorgensen follows a team led by a dedicated Vietnam vet to Robertson’s home in the wilds of Vietnam. As he follows their quest to prove his identity, the filmmaker focusses on the heart-rending personal drama, rather than the rats nest of procedural loose ends kicked up by the investigation. This is the kind of movie that leaves viewers emotionally spent, yet it raises as many questions as it answers: Unclaimed is bound to stoke major controversy with allegations that the Pentagon muddied the trail to John Hartley Robertson with lies and a cover-up.

The schooner carrying the fiord explorers in 'The Expedition to the End of the World'

3. The Expedition to the End of the World

Thanks to global warming, and unprecedented melting of ice at the North Pole, fiords along Greenland’s north-east coast that were previously entombed by glaciers are now briefly navigable. Exploring their waters for the first time, aboard a three-masted wooden schooner, is an eclectic crew that includes a geologist, marine biologist, archaeologist, geographer—and three artists. Unlike most expeditions, this one has no real goal. The crew isn’t on a mission to prove or discover anything in particular. The result is a sublimely idiosyncratic odyssey. While the scientists unearth fascinating details of a lost world, the artists in the group  mull over the cosmic, and existential, implications, lending the voyage a Beckett-like sense of the absurd. The deadpan wit of this Danish/Swedish production is in the Herzog vein, though without his overbearing Teutonic voice. Instead, the voyage is filtered through various forms of  droll Nordic detachment. But if even the film were silent, its eerie landscapes are so breathtaking, and serenely composed, that we’d still be entranced.

A Filipino kidney donor in 'Tales from the Organ Trade'
4. Tales From the Organ Trade
The fact that David Cronenberg narrates this penetrating inquiry into the black market traffic in human body parts may seem like a cruel joke, but this is a serious, superb and essential documentary that cuts through the sensationalism and hysteria surrounding its subject. It’s one of the most impressive, and incisive, works of investigative journalism I’ve seen onscreen in a long time. It’s also an virtuosic feat of story-telling.  Award-winning Canadian filmmaker Ric Esther Bienstock travel to four continents—shooting in Manila, Denver, Kosovo, Moldova, Tel Aviv, Istanbul, and yes, Toronto—to weave a suite of storylines about the most popular transaction in the illegal organ trade—the sale of kidneys. And at the heart of the film is a  Rashomon-like narrative, as Bienstock tracks down all the players involved in a single operation: the Canadian patient, his nephrologist, the Moldovian donor, the broker, the demonized doctor who performed operation in Kosovo (dubbed “Dr. Frankenstein” by the media), and the prosecutor who’s chasing him. The result is a nuanced, analytical portrait of the fierce ethical dilemmas on both sides of the issue, which Bienstock distills into cautious advocacy for a sensible solution.
A scene from 'The Manor'

5. The Manor

It’s the opening night film at Hot Docs, and bound to be a crowd-pleaser. The Manor is a family Gothic tale from Ontario filmmaker Shawney Cohen, who is stuck in Guelph, helping his obese bully of a father run a strip club while fretting about his sad, anorexic mother starving herself to death. As a family portrait of epic bad taste, the film is reminiscent of  The Queen of Versailles, another portrait of a grotesquely dysfunctional family.  Except in this case the filmmaker cannot escape it. While Cohen’s family life is a mess, it has provided him with amazing material. He’s torn between a 400-pound father who eagerly volunteers to have fat-reduction surgery and an 85-pound mother who refuses to undergo therapy for her eating disorder. Then there’s the extended family, the picaresque demimonde of the strip club, which includes a drug-addicted hotel manager, an unstable ex-con—and Shawney’s brother, who also helps manage the club but seems more at home there, and has taken up with an ex-stripper. The term “white trash” comes to mind. But director Shawney, who’s not about to crudely exploit his own family, treats them with a sensitive touch, and more patience than they deserve. Mixing humour and pathos, he’s found backhanded redemption by turning his strip-club hell into a compelling piece of filmmaking.

A glue-sniffing Kenyan street kid in ‘Tough Bond’

6. Tough Bond

Canada’s depressed Inuit communities aren’t the only places that have an epidemic of glue-sniffing kids. So does Kenya. This documentary presents a disturbing paradox. On the one hand, its unflinching portrait of dispossessed African youth is painful to watch; on the other, the lens seems incapable of landing on an image that’s not rich with beauty. That might suggest the film sentimentalizes suffering. But its vibrant verité just heightens our empathy for its characters, who are as charming as they are desperate. Filmmakers Austin Peck and Anneliese Vandenberg portray the children with a direct, unflinching eye, allowing them to subvert mere pathos with a spirit of hardened resilience. The narrative vaults through a succession of increasingly urban communities, beginning with a scattering of  huts by a lake, and ending in the horrific ghettos of Nairobi, where legions of glue-sniffing outcasts have formed proud gangs. In an anti-romantic interlude, we follow a young couple who make separate journeys to a clinic for an AIDS test. In Nairobi, shots of glue addicts foraging in a vast garbage dump are intercut with an interview of Kenya’s vice-president, who calmly states that the city has no more street kids. The film’s title, Tough Bond, comes from the name of a locally manufactured glue. The factory’s owner estimates maybe 15 per cent of his product is used as an inhalant. But it’s likely more.

Napster co-founder Sean Fanning, in ‘Downloaded’

7. Downloaded & 8. Terms and Conditions May Apply

These two docs about the cyber world of piracy and privacy would make a great double bill. Actually there’s a third film at Hot Docs that covers similar issues—TPB AFK: The Pirate Bay Away From Keyboard, the story of three Swedish cyber punks who created the world’s largest file-sharing site and were sued for copyright infringement by a Hollywood studio. But a documentary is only as good as its characters, and the Pirate Bay punks lose our interest even before they lose their case. Downloaded is a richer, more satisfying tale. Its about the young American Dream merchants who pioneered Napster, another site brought down by the law. The film makes a convincing case that Napster was not just a delinquent site for music theft, but the progenitor of what we now call social media. Its founders, Sean Fanning and Sean Parker are a fascinating pair, and though Parker went on to become a Facebook mogul, Fanning is the more profound and fascinating character. Terms and Conditions May Apply explores the mainstream consequences of what social media’s founding fathers have wrought. Filmmaker Cullen Hoback shows how, by clicking ‘I Agree’ on user contracts for software and sites like Google and Facebook, we surrender reams of personal data, not just to advertisers trying to target us, but to the police, and agencies like the CIA, FBI and NSA. (For more on Terms and Conditions, see my Maclean’s story.)

Rodrigo Rosenberg in 'I Will Be Murdered'

9. I Will Be Murdered

In 2009, Guatemalan lawyer Rodrigo Rosenberg was gunned down by a hit man shortly after he’d left home for an early-morning bike ride. A few days later, a national frenzy erupted with the emergence of a YouTube video in which Rosenberg prophesies his own death, telling the camera:  “Sadly, ladies and gentlemen, if you are watching this video, it’s because I’ve been murdered by President Álvaro Colom.” Political assassinations were all too common in Guatemala, and Rosenberg, who sharply condemned his country’s regime in the video, became an instant martyr for the opposition. But this Spanish documentary, written and directed by Justin Webster, unravels a conspiratorial intrigue that is more complex than it appears, one that involves a wild twist. Although there’s too much re-enactment for my taste—a crutch that has really begun to infect the genre, pace Errol Morris—the story is well crafted. It has been widely reported, so you may already know how it ends. Or you could look it up on Google. But that would be like cheating on a crossword puzzle. It would spoil a sensational whodunnit.

A scene from 'NCR: Not Criminally Responsible'

10. NCR: Not Criminally Responsible

No one Canadian has been awarded more Emmys than Canadian documentary veteran John Kastner, who has won four, and is being honoured this year by a Hot Docs retrospective. With his latest film, Kastner draws an intimate portrait of one man to explore the divisive issue of releasing violent offenders who were not criminally responsible for their actions because of mental illness. The moral quicksand of rehabilitation is familiar terrain for Kastner, whose had made films about a sex offender in a halfway house (1997’s Hunting Bobby Oatway) and a convicted murderer dreaming of romance under parole (1986’s The Lifer and the Lady). NRC is the story of a man released from a forensic psychiatric facility 12 years after he picked up a knife from a mall and savagely attacked “the prettiest woman he could find.” We follow the man’s evolution from an obsessive-compulsive, virtually catatonic prisoner of his own demons to a thoughtful soul facing the trials of remorse and rehabilitation. His halfway house roommate, however, is a more chronically violent character who refuses to admit he has a problem. Any documentary has organic limits. And this story, though sweetened by redemption, is only as strong as events will allow. However, as a character study, it methodically draws us in.

Doris Payne, compulsive jewel thief, in 'The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne'

11. The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne

We all love a criminal with class, especially one devoted to lifting the most useless and priceless luxuries on earth. From To Catch a Thief to The Pink Panther, we’ve learned that there’s no more romantic felon than a jewel thief. From a young age, Doris Payne devoted her life to making diamonds a girl’s best friend, after escaping a childhood of strife and hardship. Filmmakers Kirk Marcolina and Matthew Pond find her at the age of 81, still unrepentant after having stolen an estimated $2 million in jewels over an illustrious 60-year career. Their movie offers a mischievous twist on the American Dream. Payne transformed herself from a poor black single mother in ’50s America to a glamorous, jet-setting con artist, who used sleight-of-hand and brazen chutzpah to lift diamond rings from counters of Cartier and Tiffany, from Paris to Monte Carlo. Posing as a high-society shopper, she says she acted the part so well people didn’t even realize she was black. The film reconstructs her remarkable life with too many cheesy re-enactments. But as Payne goes on trial for the theft of a diamond ring from a department store, she plays the game all the way to the end with glittering authenticity.