Hot Docs 2017 Reviews

We are back again for the 2017 edition of the Hot Docs Film Festival reviewing films, and keeping an ear to the ground to see what has audiences buzzing. Last year’s festival screened two of the nominees for the 2017 Best Documentary Feature Oscar including the eventual winner OJ: Made in America, so there’s no doubt that once again the year’s best docs will be on full display.

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Below is a collection of short reviews for the films we have seen for this year. Check back regularly as this list will continually be updated as more are added. Visit hotdocs.ca for tickets and more information.

ASK THE SEXPERT
BEE NATION
BILL NYE: SCIENCE GUY
DO DONKEYS ACT?
GILBERT
THE LIVES OF THÉRÈSE
MANIC
MORE ART UPSTAIRS
REBELS ON POINTE
RUMBLE: THE INDIANS WHO ROCKED THE WORLD
SCHOOL LIFE
SHINERS
TOKYO IDOLS
YOU’RE SOAKING IN IT

ASK THE SEXPERT

Rating: 3.5/5
Program: Singular Sensations | 75 Minutes | 2017 | USA | English Hindu (Subtitles) | World Premiere | Mon, May 1 9:00PM TIFF Lightbox 2 Tue, May 2 4:30PM TIFF Bell Lightbox 1 Wed, May 3 3:00PM TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

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As is common with many cultures around the world, talking about sex in India is a taboo subject. The country’s puritanical roots inform public opinion about what is acceptable and moral. Dr. Mahinder Watsa is a 91-year-old sex advice columnist working to educate and change people’s minds about human sexuality. His column has become massively popular because of its honest and humourous advice surrounding sexual pleasure, safe intercourse, consent, and gender equality. As the film follows Watsa attending conferences, seeing patients, and answering countless letters and questions, it quickly becomes clear that the societal restrictions that surround sex education have led to a populace that is severely lacking a basic understanding human anatomy and biology. His efforts have also attracted the attention of self-appointed morality police looking to lodge complaints against people and acts they deem immoral. However, against an almost impossible uphill battle, Watsa’s career is inspiring a new generation of men and women to continue his work. The film could have been stronger had it included more on the historical context of the country’s attitudes surrounding sex and how the society ended up where it is today but it’s a charming piece nonetheless and a great deal of that is because of the lovingly affable Watsa and his crusade to change the people of India.

BEE NATION

Rating: 4/5
Program: Special Presentations (Opening Night Film) | 78 Minutes | 2016 | Canada | World Premiere Thu, Apr 27 9:45PM Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema Fri, Apr 28 2:00PM Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema Sat, May 6 6:45PM Isabel Bader Theatre

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For many First Nations children in Canada life can be isolating and exclusionary. Their communities regularly face many hardships and opportunities to pursue life outside the reservations rarely come. The film Bee Nation follows six children from across Saskatchewan as they study and compete in the first-ever First Nations Provincial Spelling Bee in Canada. The winners go on to compete at the National Championships in Toronto, opening the door to an incredible opportunity and life experience they otherwise would never have. Director Lana Šlezić has crafted an inspiring and uplifting film, one that sets a great tone for the start of this year’s festival. This competition provides these children and their families a sense of hope that they can earn a better future. We follow them as their excitement and confidence grows. These students are surprising themselves, their teachers, and their families, rising above the cultural expectations typically placed upon them. The parents see that this is an opportunity for the children to experience something they cannot provide and hope that it inspires them to reach for more. The film has beautifully captured the uplifting spirit and sense of wonder these kids felt.  We also feel the nerves right alongside them as they compete. This opportunity has broadened their horizons and the spelling bee is allowing them to see new potential within themselves. This is marvelous filmmaking that rises above stereotypes and allows us to root for the underdog spirit. It instills a sense of hope that these kids will go on to do great things now that they have begun to see the grand world that awaits them.

BILL NYE: SCIENCE GUY

Rating: 4.5/5
Program: Special Presentations & Scotiabank Big Ideas | 101 Minutes | 2017 | USA | International Premiere | Tue, May 2 6:30PM Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema (Scoitabank Big Ideas Screening featuring Bill Nye and the directors of the film) Wed, May 3 3:30PM Isabel Bader Theatre Thu, May 4 9:00PM Isabel Bader Theatre Sat, May 6 1:00PM Revue Cinema

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For millions of kids, there was an excitement when their teachers wheeled the television into their science classes because it usually meant one thing: that they would be watching an episode of Bill Nye the Science Guy, a show aimed at making learning about science fun and accessible. In this incredibly intimate and personal look at the man behind the phenomenon, we learn more about who Bill Nye really is and how he transitioned his public persona into a continued fight for scientific education in the face of rising anti-intellectualism and anti-science sentiment in the United States. We learn about the effects fame has had on him, what continues to drive him forward on his mission to educate even though it’s evident that he has become tired and worn down, and what he’s doing now to continue inspiring a new generation of science educators and push human ingenuity and space exploration forward into the future. Nye lives by the words of his father “leave the world better than you found it” and this film makes it clear that his incredible legacy has already done that.

DO DONKEYS ACT?

Rating: 3.5/5
Program: World Showcase | 72 Minutes | 2016 | UK | North American Premiere Thu, Apr 27 7:00PM TIFF Bell Lightbox 4 Fri, Apr 28 3:30PM TIFF Bell Lightbox 3 Sun, May 7 8:30PM Scotiabank Theatre 7

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The donkey may be one of the most misunderstand farm animals. The perception persists that they are noisy animals that are stubborn, unintelligent, and useless. That often makes them the victim of abuse and neglect. In the film Do Donkeys Act? We visit several donkey sanctuary farms that care for those that have unfortunately met this fate in their lives. In what is perhaps one of the more interesting and creative executions for a documentary this year, the footage of these animals is accompanied by a narration given by actor Willem Defoe. Reminiscent in style of a Werner Herzog film, the detailed and thoughtful story crafted in this narration allows the viewer to really get to know these amazingly social creatures and understand their behaviour. The film is excellent in educating the viewer, ultimately dispelling the enduring myths surrounding this wonderful animal.

GILBERT

Rating: 4/5
Program: Special Presentations | 96 Minutes | 2017 | USA | International Premiere | Mon, May 1 9:30PM Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema Tue, May 2 12:45PM Hart House Theatre Sun, May 7 9:00PM Hart House Theatre

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Known for his distinct voice, Gilbert Gottfried made a name for himself by unapologetically being one of the raunchiest comedians in the business. Over the decades he earned a great deal of respect from his colleagues. Even career highs and lows he managed to stay an intensely private person. Now, in this revealing documentary we get to know the real Gilbert and the life he’s lived outside the spotlight. Intimate interviews with his wife, family, and friend reveal how this lovable oddball of a man has stayed humble. We see the effects the fame, and at times the negative press, has had on him and it only serves to add to the appeal of this man. We come to understand what keeps pushing Gilbert forward and motivating him to continue doing what he was born to do. This is a fascinating and engaging portrait that is grounded with authenticity and truth.

THE LIVES OF THÉRÈSE

Rating: 2/5
Program: Singular Sensations | 55 Minutes | 2016 | FRANCE | French (SUBTITLES) | Toronto Premiere | Sat, Apr 29 4:00PM TIFF Bell Lightbox 4 Sun, Apr 30 9:30PM Scotiabank Theatre 7

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In the middle of the 20th century, Thérèse Clerc was one of France’s most well-known feminists and LGBT activists. She rose from being a 50s housewife to being a strong and sharp woman fighting for equality and social justice. Now approaching the end of her life, she once again shows courage by allowing filmmaker Sébastien Lifshitz to film her final months to confront aging and death, a natural part of life but one so many are afraid to talk about. She is determined that her final act on this earth will be push one last boundary. The film is certainly an honest and unflinching portrait of someone on the brink of death and is at times reminiscent of Allan King’s haunting 2003 film Dying at Grace but ultimately falls short of having a truly emotional impact. As someone who was unfamiliar with Clerc, I felt I was not presented with enough of her story and legacy to have a proper context as to why this documentation of her last days was another act of rebellion. Her children are interviewed and recall stories of growing up around her but it was all too brief. Director Lifshitz previously featured Clerc in the 2012 film Les Invisibles, which documented the lives of several elderly LGBT activists so that probably contained more of the story that this film was missing. Unfortunately, I felt as though I needed a proper back-story of this remarkable woman in order to have felt the full impact of this film and I didn’t get it, leaving me feel like I needed more.

MANIC

Rating: 4/5
Program: Canadian Spectrum | 84 Minutes | 2017 | Canada | ENGLISH FRENCH (subtitles) | World Premiere Sun, Apr 30 6:30PM Scotiabank Theatre 3 Mon, May 1 10:15AM TIFF Bell Lightbox 3 Sat, May 6 8:00PM TIFF Bell Lightbox 4

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There comes a time in all our lives when in order to truly understand ourselves we must work to understand our family. Our personalities and identities are an accumulation of experiences and many times what we go through contributes to mental illness problems. Director Kalina Bertin was watching her family’s mental health begin to fall apart and as she got closer to it, she realized that their experiences with her father would hold the key to figuring out how to unravel the lasting effects his illness had on them. As she began to dig, the story took her on a four-year adventure across the world and uncovered surprises and answers at every turn.  At times this film has a haunting and unsettling feeling to it. The camera is unflinching, exposing real honesty and truth that gives it incredible authenticity. As we learn more about the patriarch George (just one of several names he went by), we begin to understand the abuse, manipulation, and delusions that happened to these people as children and how that led to psychotic breaks and mental disorders throughout the family. The director interviews many of the women George was with and is able to paint a clear picture of what happened to get the answers she needs. As we watch this, we can’t help but see the importance of talking about mental health as a broader dialogue. This film engages with that notion in a raw and frightening way.

MORE ART UPSTAIRS

Rating: 4/5
Program: Artscapes | 76 Minutes | 2017 | USA | World Premiere | Wed, May 3 6:30PM Isabel Bader Theatre Thu, May 4 7:00PM TIFF Bell Lightbox 1 Fri, May 5 9:15PM Fox Theatre Sun, May 7 6:30PM Isabel Bader Theatre

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The past 20 years has seen dramatic growth of city-wide public art festivals. Popular events such as Nuit Blanche, held in several countries around the world, have revolutionized the way people engage with art. They are removing the elitist labels that give galleries and museums an air of inaccessibility by taking it to the streets. Grand Rapids, Michigan of all places is quickly becoming host to one of the most important and prestigious of these festivals with their event called ArtPrize. It boasts some of the richest prizes and shows unprecedented public participation, regularly hosting tourists from around the world. More Art Upstairs follows several artists as they compete for the coveted Grand Jury and Public prizes. We are given a behind the scenes look at their process and creation process, as well as how they interact with the spectators of their artwork. It’s an interesting look at the drive, motivation, and meaning used to create these pieces, something rarely offered directly from the artist. The art world establishment is on the brink of a revolution with these kinds of events and here we see how marrying tradition with relatable public spaces and technology can remove barriers and bring a new sense of purpose and meaning to people.  The film raises important questions about the place and purpose art has in culture and how the average person establishes what is important and valuable.

REBELS ON POINTE

Rating: 4/5
Program: Singular Sensations | 90 Minutes | 2016 | Canada | English Spanish Italian Japanese Catalan (Subtitles) | Toronto Premiere | Thu, May 4 6:00PM TIFF Lightbox 3 Fri, May 5 12:30PM Scotiabank Theatre 13

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In the early days of the gay rights movement, many LGBT people were seeking out safe spaces where they could be themselves and connect to others in the community. In the 1970s in New York City, in response to this need, Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo was formed. It was formed by a group of gay male ballet dancers looking for a place where they could express their love for the dance and be themselves away from the traditional gender roles. Over the years it morphed into a welcoming family for these men and pushed the boundaries by taking the seriousness out of what has historically been seen as a very elitist art form. This comedic troupe has traveled the world bringing ballet to new audiences by making it more accessible. This film is a loving view into this warm and inviting family. The sincere passion these men have for the dance helps enliven the messages of diversity and gender non-conformity they bring to their shows. Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo has been one of the many forces driving societal acceptance of the LGBT community. This is an inspiring and heart-warming story of love, acceptance, and community in the face adversity.

RUMBLE: THE INDIANS WHO ROCKED THE WORLD

Rating: 4.5/5
Program: Special Presentations | 103 Minutes | 2017 | Canada | Canadian Premiere | Sun, Apr 30 8:45PM TIFF Bell Lightbox 3 Tue, May 2 1:45PM TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

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Throughout American history the indigenous people have been persecuted and oppressed right alongside African Americans. They were forced into reservations, laws were passed banning every aspect of their culture, and they faced many social injustices for decades. However, throughout the 20th Century, several Indian musicians broke through into mainstream music and were incredibly innovative and influential. Rumble tells the stories of these amazing people and reinforces the importance of their contributions to the folk, rock, jazz, big band, metal, and pop genres. The film features interviews with some of these musicians who are still alive and the rest are supported by historians and those who worked with them. This is an incredibly comprehensive and fascinating look at the lives of men and women who many did not know were Indian, a secret most kept due to the social stigma still surrounding their heritage. Featured are: Charlie Patton, Mildred Bailey, Jimi Hendrix, Link Wray, Robbie Robertson, Buffy St. Marie, Taboo (Black Eyed Peas), and many others. This is compelling and engaging filmmaking.

SCHOOL LIFE

Rating: 2/5
Program: Special Presentations | 99 Minutes | 2016 | Ireland Spain | Canadian Premiere | Mon, May 1 6:15PM TIFF Lightbox 2 Wed, May 3 12:15PM Scotiabank Theatre 4 Sun, May 7 3:45PM TIFF Bell Lightbox 2

In_Loco_Parentis_2

John and Amanda Leyden run Headfort, a primary boarding school for children aged 7 to 12. They have been a part this institution for most of their lives. In this intimate portrait of these educators we see them spend a year teaching, caring for, and mentoring a new crop of students. It’s easy to see the passion they have for young children and inspiring a new generation, if albeit a bit unorthodox in practice. As they get on in years though, John and Amanda must now ponder what their lives will be like after their time at the school is complete.  The film is an example of how a close-knit environment like this can be an incredible bonding experience for the children, showcasing learning how to interact with many different kinds of personalities. It makes us wonder about the legacy we leave and the impact we’ve had on those that come after us. How do we know when to take the next step and move on in our lives? Ultimately though, this film is more of a fly-on-the-wall portrait of this couple and what it is like to attend this school and does not do well in answering these questions.

SHINERS

Rating: 3.5/5
Program: Canadian Spectrum | 78 Minutes | 2017 | Canada | English Spanish Serbo-Croation Japanese (Subtitles) | World Premiere Sat, Apr 29 7:30PM Isabel Bader Theatre Sun, Apr 30 1:00PM Hart House Theatre Thu, May 4 9:30PM Hart House Theatre

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In decades past, the art of shoe shining used to be a respected and common craft. However, throughout the years as its popularity dissipated with changing cultural times, it came to be known as a street peasant’s job with people looking down on those who perform it and with disrespect. What the film Shiners aims to do is humanize those who do it by telling their stories and demonstrating the love that some have for this tradition. We meet people from all over the world and see the remarkable similarities in who they are and why they do it. Some do it out of necessity earning just a few coins to help put food on the table but for some, such as the man who runs a boutique service in Tokyo that offers incredible attention to detail, they do it out of love and respect for the pride it brings. This is a wonderfully crowd-pleasing film that follows several people with interesting and engaging stories. The film could have perhaps been enriched by including more on the history of shoe shining and it’s past popularity but the film does its job of changing how one might see these kinds of workers. It educates and earns the viewer’s respect.

TOKYO IDOLS

Rating: 4/5
Program: Magnificent Obsessions | 88 Minutes | 2017 | UK Canada | Japanese (Subtitles) | Toronto Premiere | Mon, May 1 9:15PM Scotiabank Theatre 4 Wed, May 3 10:30AM TIFF Bell Lightbox 3 Sun, May 7 10:00AM TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

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Tokyo Idols is a compelling look at how the convergence of multiple Japanese cultural norms and expectations have created the intensely popular nation-wide phenomenon known as Idol girls, pop stars and girl bands who have massive fan bases. A patriarchal society combined with an obsession with young female sexuality and delicacy has led to men of all ages obsessing over girls, usually teenagers and younger, regularly to the point where the fantasy has become their ultimate escape and is consuming all aspects of their lives. Often girls who aspire to be singers use this world as a stepping-stone to launching their career but over time the psychological effects of the fame and affections thrust upon them take their toll. The film is fascinating and just below the surface it often has us pondering what’s really going on the minds of the men and girls featured in the story and touches upon a universality of the human experience in exploring themes of loneliness, sadness, acceptance, community, and belonging.

YOU’RE SOAKING IN IT

Rating: 3/5
Program: Democrazy | 75 Minutes | 2016 | Canada | World Premiere | Fri, Apr 28 6:15PM TIFF Bell Lightbox 2 Sat, Apr 29 11:00AM TIFF Bell Lightbox 1 Fri, May 5 6:30PM Scotiabank Theatre 3

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We are living in a world of rapidly-evolving technology and with that brings many new forms of advertising that have never existed before.  There is more brand recognition and visibility than ever before and since we are increasingly living our lives online and always connected, it has become unavoidable.  Advertisers have to adapt and become increasingly innovative if they want to compete. They are constantly playing catch up trying to find the best way to capitalize on the latest trends and technologies while adapting from the legacy forms of marketing. This has lead to gluttonous amounts ads that leave us feeling like we’re drowning. You’re Soaking in It aims to explore the impact this new world has on our collective psyche and explain what is happening to those outside of the industry so that they become more aware and media-literate. The film is an insight into an industry that subconsciously has a control over lives. It provides context on traditional advertising methods and how the race to stay relevant is forcing advertising agencies to adapt and establish new standards. Current trends point to a future of personalized interactions tailored to individual needs with incredible sophistication and the idea of whether or not this is a step in the right direction is explored. For those who are already savvy in this tech world, there likely won’t be anything revelatory here but for those not familiar with the world of advertising or who are feeling overwhelmed with the current state of it all, this film will help make sense of what is going on all around us and where we’re headed.