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Film Review: Three New Films From Hot Docs

Arts Review2023-5-5By: Marc Glassman


Truly Hot Docs

Documentary highlights at Toronto’s premier non-fiction film festival

By Marc Glassman


It’s an exciting time for so many of Toronto’s cultural lovers as the fear of the pandemic recedes and we can see each other coming back, actively seeking out events. Whether it’s at opera premieres or art gallery openings or film festival screenings, audiences in Toronto are returning, some wearing masks and many feeling a bit tentative, but nonetheless taking their chances to enjoy what they love again. 

You saw that shy embrace this week at Hot Docs as crowds of film lovers filled theatres from Bloor Street’s flagship Hot Docs Cinema to UofT’s Isabel Bader Theatre to the main downtown locations at Scotiabank and TIFF Bell Lightbox. For the first time in three years, Hot Docs is filling cinemas with a well selected array of over 200 non-fiction films from across the world. 

At a festival of this scope, choosing just a handful of films to mention almost feels foolish. There are many fine ones, but it is always a pleasure to highlight particular favourites. Here are three of them. 

Igor Levit—No Fear is a well-crafted profile piece of an artist, one that Classical 96’s listeners will particularly enjoy. The Russian born German Jewish pianist virtuoso Igor Levit was already being shot for a documentary by Regina Schilling before COVID hit. Her film, which is informally divided into two parts, in the “before times” and then during the pandemic, follows Levit initially as he performs Beethoven and other major composers in major halls in Germany and Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw during the winter of 2019-2020. Not only is there extraordinary concert footage but we also see Levit working on his on-going recording of the complete Beethoven piano works with his favourite sound recordist Andreas Neubronner, who is clearly the pianist’s main critical listener. 

Then, March 10, 2020, hits. It’s Levit’s birthday and, it turns out, his last pre-COVID concert, where he plays the Diabelli Variations in Hamburg. What will he do? For a single man, who had been booked to perform 108 concerts during the year, the pandemic completely upset his life. Happily, Levit’s reaction was brilliant. Over the grimmest months of COVID, in the spring of 2020, Igor Levit shot 52 house concerts, playing music by composers ranging from Beethoven to Mozart and Bach through Schubert and Schumann to, more intriguingly, contemporary artists like Morton Feldman and Frederic Rzewski. Posted on Twitter and Instagram, Levit’s completely independent concerts drew up to 80,000 viewers most nights. 

As fear of the pandemic lessened in Europe, Levit also began to perform live for causes he believes in, adding to the credibility of his life and music. As the film ends, we see him playing piano in the woods, in a benefit for environmental activists. COVID actually made Igor Levit grow as a person, allowing him to match the brilliance of his pianism with a more mature outlook on life.

Trained to See—Three Women and the War is a brilliantly researched and well told doc that approaches the complex history of World War Two with a fresh perspective. Veteran filmmaker Luzia Schmid has crafted a new way into the war in Europe through the eyes of three of the finest journalists of the period—and, like her, they are all women. Margaret Bourke-White was a star photographer for the most prestigious magazine of the time, LIFE, and defied the odds against women through her skill and the support of the famous publisher Henry Luce. Lee Miller was glamorous, a former model turned photographer and journalist who worked for Vogue, spoke French and was a great friend of artists in Paris, especially Picasso, who painted quirky works inspired by her. Before World War Two began, Martha Gellhorn had already established a stellar reputation as a war reporter, who had covered the Spanish Civil War and the bloody conflict in China; she wrote mainly for Collier’s, then one of the most important magazines in America. All had celebrity husbands: Gellhorn was married to Ernest Hemingway, Bourke-White to Erskine Caldwell, famous for the hit play Tobacco Road and Miller was engaged and eventually wedded Roland Penrose, the leading British surrealist and an art promoter. 

Using letters and diaries by all three and photographs by Bourke-White and Miller, Schmid weaves the stories of these extraordinary women as they reported on World War Two. Gellhorn and Bourke-White covered the campaign in North Africa as well as the Allies’ invasion of Italy while Miller went from France to London and back to the continent after D-Day. Each experienced prejudice against women, with Gellhorn being sidelined several times for refusing to follow sexist orders while Miller found herself sent away from the French front in 1944 when she subversively covered the campaign in Rennes without proper permission. Bourke-White had to lobby for six months to be able to fly on airplane missions while less seasoned male photographers were allowed on board within weeks. 

Trained to See—Three Women and the War offers unique insights into World War Two. As women and seasoned journalists, Gellhorn, Miller and Bourke-White showed how the war was organized and fought. You really get a sense of the average soldier in this film, thanks to the images and texts shot and written by the three. The revelations of the concentration camps and the fate of the Jews is recorded in stunning detail near the end of the film; it is footage that still has the capacity to shock. But it must be said that the film does have a lovely final set of images. Lee Miller was able to talk her way into Hitler’s private apartment in Munich and she actually took a bath there—on the day the war ended. That’s something truly extraordinary!

Pure Unknown is a tough contemporary film dealing with one of the major issues confronting the world today: the often-deadly consequences of the vast illegal migrations that are taking place from poor war-torn regions of the world to the richer countries of the West. Mattia Colombo and Valentina Cicogna’s compassionate film follows an admirable figure, Dr Cristina Cattaneo, a University of Milan professor who is a brilliant forensic scientist. She has assembled a team of women medical workers, who work with her to attempt to find the identities of people who have died in mysterious circumstances. Dr. Cattaneo’s work concentrates on people who have lived and died on the margins of society, whether as being homeless or as sex workers or—in a vast number of cases–as migrants who have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea while attempting to land in Italy from the Middle East. 

Directors Colombo and Cicogna follow Dr. Cattaneo as she analyzes bones—her regular job—but also works diligently as an advocate for the unknown dead, since she clearly believes that they deserve to have their identities restored to them, if only for their grieving relatives. We see Cattaneo writing to foundations and bureaucrats for the money needed to do the kind of DNA and dental testing needed to establish who they were when alive. Dr. Cattaneo is a fine advocate: relentless in her quest but always polite and clearly astonishingly hard-working and dedicated. 

As the film develops, Dr. Cattaneo is given the opportunity to address the European Parliament about the issue. There are thousands of unknown victims whose identities could be established if the Parliament decided to underwrite the expense. While no decision has been made yet, one hopes that Dr. Cattaneo and the team behind her prove successful. Pure Unknown is the kind of social issue film that always attracts an audience at Hot Docs—and deservedly so in the case of this empathetic film.



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