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Film Reviews: Hot Docs 2024 – Part 2

Arts Review2024-5-3By: Marc Glassman


Shine On, Brightly

By Marc Glassman


Hot Docs’ flame is still Incandescent.


This has been the first Hot Docs festival when the 10-day event has become the focus of the media’s attention, not the films. That was bound to occur after Hot Docs announced a multi-million dollar deficit, slammed the federal government for not coming to its rescue, accepted the resignations of its artistic director and ten film programmers, and warned that this could be the last festival. But what’s happened over the first week of the festival’s screenings has been positive, and for advocates of documentary, exhilarating. 

People have been coming to screenings at TIFF Lightbox, the Scotiabank, Innis College and the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema. In droves. Drive by or even better, walk or bike by, any of those venues this weekend. There are lineups for documentaries that are political, emotional, and artistic. Far too few of them will ever appear on screening services because they’re not easy to sell, being one-off films on such topics as protest famers in India (Farming the Revolution); a father and children trying to make a living in Norway’s farmlands (A new kind of Wilderness); and aging cheerleaders making an impact in Ukraine (Nice Ladies). Toronto’s audiences have responded to these esoteric topics by being engaged, interested and more than willing to stand in lines, if necessary, to see films that are, apparently, genuinely exciting to them. In other words, after too many years of COVID, Hot Docs is back, entertaining a crowd that loves them.

A second weekend is looming with a slew of documentaries to see. Here are four that are being screened this weekend. They are startlingly brilliant and deserve Toronto’s attention.

Secret Mall Apartment is one of the strangest and most appealing films in the festival. A couple of decades ago, a group of artists living in Providence, Rhode Island, found an odd little corner in a massive mall that was being constructed in their highly contested downtown core. It was an architectural flaw that left over 1000 square feet unoccupied—not part of any retail plan. Led by Michael Townsend, a quirky thinker and brilliant organizer, the young artists constructed and collected random objects, ranging from an extremely large couch, fit for a crowd, to an elaborate but poorly made living room cabinet to the piece de resistance, a TV set, in order to create their own illegal gathering place hidden away in the mall. Think of it: in the midst of a building designed to sell fancy consumer items were artists intent on making a mockery of the elaborate structure by living like bohemians for free and laughing at their pretentious goods. It was too good to last; after four years, the apartment—and Townsend—were found out and the subversive apartment was no more. Director Jeremy Workman, producer Jesse Eisenberg and Michael Townsend have combined to recreate a brilliant joke on the bourgeoisie, using archival footage and elaborate reconstructions. 

Karuara, People of the River is a beautifully made film set on the Maranon River, the home of Indigenous culture in a remote part of the Peruvian Amazon. But even in this far-away district of the jungle, pollution has spread onto the river, besmirching the land and the culture. This unique film extols the cosmology of the river, which is a living part of the local Indigenous society, through storytelling and glorious animation evoking the fantastic creatures that live beneath the water. To the people who live on the land, the creatures are alive—as are the children who have drowned there over the years. A brilliant mixture of legend and fact, combining animation and documentary, Karuara, People of the River comes together when a group of women start a legal fight to make the river a living entity, which should be protected from the pollutants used by industry. Part of the festival’s Canadian Spectrum program since filmmaker Stephanie Boyd is from Ontario, this is a unique and moving film, worthy of a local audience’s support. 

Xixi is an intimate film, a portrait of a Chinese woman, who is pursuing perfomance art in Europe. Director Fan Wu, a Taiwanese filmmaker, has clearly become a good friend of her subject, who is an intense artist—a free-form dancer, instinctive musician, and brilliant chef. Xixi is a mother, too, who loves her daughter Nina very much. Divorced from a controlling Frenchman, Xixi finds herself trapped into playing the role of a conventional woman in order to see her beloved Nina. Fan Wu follows that on-going story while also following Xixi to China, where she spends a significant time with her mother, Peach Blossom, who is also a free spirit. Gradually, Fan Wu reveals that Xixi was abused as a child and may have used her wild art making to work out her personal traumas. Though nothing is resolved, Fan Wu has made a moving look at Xixi, an artist who ultimately wants to be a proper mother. 

Sans Soleil is Raoul Peck’s favourite documentary—and I can only agree! Made by French essayist Chris Marker, it is the ultimate poetic film. Set in Japan, Iceland, San Francisco and Guinea-Bissau, the film takes us on a meditation on mortality, cats, revolution, Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Japanese girls celebrating springtime, and the nature of time. Marker has created a narrative in which a man who loves to travel and think about life writes a series of letters to a woman who is his favourite confidant. Marker’s roving camera effortlessly brings the audience into the nature and texture of each scene, showing us his fascination with the world, whether it is a poetic shot of three young Icelandic girls standing tentatively together on a hill in Iceland or a beautiful African woman working in a marketplace in Guinea-Bissau fighting against a camera intent on capturing her magical smile or a luminous reprise of a woman’s hair tied in a knot from Vertigo, which is a metaphor for time’s tragically knotted circular structure. Inspired by Modest Mussorgsky’s song cycle, it is an essay on time—and its meaning. I urge you—leave work or school or, well, anything. Please let our member see this poetic film. 

These are just four of the terrific films, which will be screened during the last weekend of Hot Docs. It’s a festival worthy of support—and provides much content and artistry. One wishes them well as they struggle to conquer their internal demons.


Check out Marc’s first batch of Hot Docs reviews here: classicalfm.ca/news/arts-review/2024/04/26/film-reviews-is-hot-docs-burnt-out/



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