What’s hot at Hot Docs

Must-sees at North America’s largest documentary festival

Toronto’s Hot Docs festival is showing 199 films from 43 countries between April 28 and May 8. I haven’t seen all of them. Far from it. But I’ve watched quite a few, either on DVD or at press screenings. So far it doesn’t look like a stellar crop. I’ve seen nothing as thrilling as last year’s Marwencol or Exit Through the Gift Shop. In this week’s issue of Maclean’s, I explore a curious sub-trend of docs about mad science, led by Project Nim—by far the best film I’ve seen to date. Here are some capsule reviews of what excited me among the films I’ve seen. I’ll add more titles as they come up. Click on any title to link to the official Hot Docs web listing, with screening times and other info.

The star of 'Project Nim'

Project Nim comes from the team behind 2009’s superb Oscar-winning documentary, Man on Wire, and it’s another story of strange behavior in ’70s America. By turns funny, sad and frightening, this documentary is Dickensian tale of an epic experiment that made a minor celebrity of a chimpanzee named Nim. Ripped from his mother at the age of two weeks, Nim is raised by a series of human surrogate mothers, as a kind of special-needs child. The goal is to teach him sign language and refute linguist Noam Chomsky’s thesis that language is exclusive to home sapiens. Directed by James Marsh, and based on Elizabeth Hess’s 2008 book, Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human, the film offers a rich mix of archival footage and fresh interviews with Nim’s various guardians, several of them still rankled by decades-old custody issues. The human parenting tricks ranged from breast-feeding Nim to getting him stoned on pot and alcohol. Inevitably, the chimpanzee teaches us more about messed-up humans than the scientists seemed to learn about apes.

Big Chief Monk in 'Bury the Hatchet'

Bury the Hatchet is a stunning portrait of a hidden side of New Orleans—the story of three Mardi Gras Indian “Big Chiefs”, descendants of runaway slaves whose ancestors were harboured by Louisiana’s Native Americans. Since the mid-19th century, artists from an African-American neighbourhood have been dressing up to honour the Indians who helped runaway slaves. Various “tribes” parade in the backstreets during Mardi Gras, dressed in intricate costumes that they’ve spent a year sewing together. Directed with serious commitment by Aaron Walker, this time-lapse tale tracks the fortunes, and misfortunes, of the chiefs over a five-year period, as they fight everything the destruction of their neighbourhood by an interstate highway to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. One character in particular, an extraordinary artist and sage named Big Chief Monk, is a spellbinding presence.

Reverend Wiebo Ludwig

Wiebo’s War is the story of Alberta’s Reverend Wiebo Ludwig, the Christian firebrand who was convicted as an oil patch saboteur in the 1990s, then become a suspect in a new series of gas well bombings. Overcoming Ludwig’s initial distrust of him as an atheist, director David York seems well-embedded with the Ludwig clan as he tracks their story over the years. Ludwig may well be an eco-terrorist and a charismatic cult leader—a biblical patriarch who goes to war against an industry that’s encroaching on his land with sour gas wells. But this documentary reaches beyond the headlines to find some credible sympathy for Ludwig. His self-sufficient farm is impressive, and so is his family. The younger members could serve as poster kids for charismatic cults. Without necessarily endorsing Ludwig’s tactics, Wiebo’s War presents a sympathetic portrait of the horrors his community had had to endure—livestock deaths, mass miscarriages of lambs and human birth defects.

Bibigul with her husband and son in 'After the Apocalypse'

After the Apocalypse takes us to a former Soviet nuclear test site in Kazakhstan, where residents were deliberately exposed to radiation as human guinea pigs, and the boss of a maternity clinic now advocates “genetic passports” to prevent mothers with “suspect” genes from giving birth. Some 200,000 were exposed, suffering genetic damage that ricocheted through three generations. Today one in 20 children in the area is born with birth defects, and sheep graze in radioactive bomb craters. This is not an easy film to watch, whether we’re looking at an armless child in an orphanage or gazing at the cubist distortions in a mother’s face. But their humanity shines through. It’s the doctor who becomes grotesque as he tries to dissuade a sheep farmer named Biligul from giving birth. As we follow the suspense of her pregnancy, his mission of eugenic cleansing bears chilling echoes of a Stalinist past.

Matthew Diaz in 'The Guantanamo Trap'

The Guantanamo Trap is the latest documentary about torture victims in the war on terror. After Taxi to the Dark Side and Standard Operating Procedure, our appetite for this stuff may be sated. But though The Guantanamo Trap is not as compelling as its predecessors, this Canadian-Swiss-German co-pro forces us to see the U.S. military prison in Cuba’s Guantanamo Bay from a fresh angle—by focusing on four individuals who do not fit the profile of the usual suspects. They are: Murat Kurnaz, a German of Turkish heritage who underwent torture and was released without trial after five years in the prison; Matthew Diaz, Judge Advocate for the U.S. Navy, who was jailed for six months and saw his career destroyed after he released the names of Guantanamo detainees; Diane Beaver, a U.S. prison official who became notorious for authoring the so-called “torture memo,” and Gonzalo Boye, a crusading Spanish lawyer determined to prosecute George W. Bush. This is not an agit prop documentary, and none of these characters fit convenient moral stereotypes. Kurnaz may have been treated appallingly, but is such an obtuse wreck of a man it’s hard to tell just what he’s haunted by. Beaver, whose deference to authority finds a new vocation in doggie daycare, is no simple scapegoat. And Boye, despite his quixotic mission, is a boor who provides the film with a bloody metaphor by taking Kurnaz to a bullfight. Diaz, who ruined his life by obeying his conscience, is the film’s sole heroic figure, and our heart goes out to him.

Ferran Adrià (far right) and his staff in 'El Bulli'

El Bulli: Cooking in Progress could serve as a cautionary tale to foodies—this is what happens when you take what goes in your mouth too seriously. It’s a portrait of what is arguably the world’s most famous restaurant, Spain’s El Bulli. For six months a year head chef Ferran Adrià and his staff cloister themselves in a Barcelona laboratory to concoct 35 revolutionary recipes for the next season. German director Gereon Wetzel is the proverbial fly on the wall (if not in the soup), as Adrià oversees an array of high-tech kitchen experiments with military discipline. He makes it clear: he’s making edible avant garde art that will blow your mind, not leave you happy and satisfied. But there’s an Emperor’s New Clothes aspect to this creative ordeal that takes on a Warholian absurdity. This fascinating study turns out to be, fittingly, an epitaph: El Bulli is due to close by the end of this year.

Chess champ in Iceland, in 'Bobby Fischer Against the World'

Bobby Fischer Against the World is an HBO doc that tries to unpuzzle the mystery of the American wunderkind who became the first chess rock star only to die in squalor, in 2008, as a paranoid recluse and anti-Semitic conspiracy nut. Bobby Fischer, a Jewish child prodigy from Brooklyn, became the Muhammad Ali of chess as he challenged Russian Boris Spassky for the world championship in Reykjavík in 1972. Co-opted as a Cold War hero (while his activist mother was investigated by the FBI), Fischer is a charismatic figure. But like Glenn Gould, he developed a serious allergy to the limelight. Director Liz Garbus examines the fine line between the hyper-rationality of obsessive genius and barking insanity. As an expert points out in the film, Fischer is not the only chess wizard to lose his mind—acting “paranoid on the board” is a virtual requirement of the game.

A scene from 'The National Parks Project'

The National Parks Project boasts some of the most rhapsodic landscapes you will see at Hot Docs, or anywhere else. Produced to mark next month’s centenary of Parks Canada, this omnibus piece assembles films from a baker’s dozen of Canadian directors, including Zacharias Kunuk, Sturla Gunnarsson, John Walker and Catherine Martin, with scores created by 39 composers, from Sarah Harmer to Cadence Weapon. Each filmmaker tackled a park. As a two-hour  feature, NPP is ungainly, more installation than movie. As with any omnibus work, the components are somewhat uneven. But some are brilliant. It’s like looking at the results of a a life-drawing class that has, as its subject, the best parts of the whole country laid bare. And almost every filmmaker in this Group of Thirteen seems to have picked up a painterly obsession with seeking transcendence in wave patterns. [Watch our interview with the creators here]

A synchrony experiment in 'A Simple Rhythm'

A Simple Rhythm, not unlike The National Parks Project, is one of a growing genre of symphonic documentaries that explore light, landscape and movement with a metaphysical eye. Earlier examples include Thomas Riedelsheimer‘s Rivers and Tides and Touch the Sound. At 52 minutes, this quiet gem from Canadian director Tess Girard is not quite a feature, but (true to its title) it has an elegant economy. Gerard weaves observations from eclectic sources—a palliative nurse on the fading of a patient’s pulse, a mathematician demonstrating synchrony, a musician layering rhythm from wild sounds—to suggest that there is a tempo to the universe. As a work of aural and visual percussion that revels in synesthesia, the film serves as living proof  of its thesis.

Ron Sexsmith in 'Love Shines'

Love Shines is an intimate portrait of the Canadian pop music’s most under-appreciated star, singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith. The film (which I caught last fall at its Vancouver festival premiere) finds him at a crisis point. He’s a musician’s musician, with a cult following that includes Elvis Costello, Paul McCartney, Elton John, Steve Earle, Daniel Lanois and Feist. But faced with disappointing album sales and a music industry in freefall, Sexsmith frets about his future. He desperately needs a hit, and some commercial ballast to match his critical acclaim. So he takes radical action. To record his 12th studio album, Late Bloomer Long Player, he hires Bob Rock, the legendary American producer known for his work with bands that favour power chords and umlauts, such as Metallica, Aerosmith and Mötley Crüe. That makes for an odd-couple partnership rich with irony. Director, Doug Arrowsmith takes the camera into the studio sessions, an intrusion that seems to leave Rock unfazed—and no wonder, given that the producer endured several years on camera during the recording/therapy marathon captured in the documentary Metallica: Some Kind of Monster.

Claude Regnier in 'Highway Gospel'

Highway Gospel is a hoser movie in which, for once, the hosers are not faking it. Forget the Mackenzie Brothers and the Trailer Park Boys and the FUBAR slackers. The longboard daredevils who skate the open road in Highway Gospel, fueled by overdoses of beer and adrenaline, are the real deal. Red-blooded Canadian yahoos. Much of the movie plays as comedy, but there’s a strain of  bittersweet drama as the drama finds a hero in 52-year-old Ottawa veteran Claude Regnier. This grand old man of the skate scene has been competing in slalom events for a quarter century. With shaky finances and damaged knees he attempts an unlikely comeback that inspires a mixture of admiration and pathos. Co-director Jaret Belliveau, who doubles as the cinematographer, films this extreme sport with a keen eye and a sharp sense of composition. The filmmakers, like their hero, don’t know when to stop; the film feels too long. But it’s quite a ride.

Chaz Bono in 'Becoming Chaz'

Becoming Chaz is the story of how Chastity Bono underwent what is termed, with Orwellian neutrality, “gender reassignment.”  It was Bono who made the movie happen, inviting the filmmakers to chronicle his transition. But to call Becoming Chaz a vanity project would be misleading. When I asked Fenton Bailey (who co-directed the film with Randy Barbato) how they steered the line between between puff piece and freak show, he swore that nothing was off limits and they had total editorial control. Which is believable. This may be the feel-good sex change movie of the year, but it’s not entirely flattering. And it’s as much as portrait of a family as it is of Chaz. His transition seems a snap compared to the ones made by his lesbian girlfriend, who suddenly has a boyfriend, and his famous mother, who now has a son. For more on this, go to my recent piece in the magazine.

A scene from 'Dolphin Boy'

Dolphin Boy is the story of a an Israeli teenage boy named Morad who is rendered catatonic after being kidnapped and brutally beaten by relatives of a girl he was trying to seduce. Before committing the boy to a psychiatric institution, his father enrolls him in a program of dolphin-assisted therapy on the Red Sea. Co-directed by Dani Menkin and Yonatan Nir, this earnest but intimate film is the simple story of his recovery from post-traumatic stress disorder by swimming with dolphins. In a sense, it’s also the portrait of a silent naif who finds his voice, confronts his demons, and comes of age. It’s also one of several films in Hot Docs—with Project Nim and Buck—that explore the mystery of animal intelligence.