Hot Docs 2013 Recap
Admittedly, I did not catch all the big films at the Hot Docs this year. I ventured out watching films that were about interesting topics, sounded cool, balanced out that which I had previously seen, or simply fit into a schedule.
That said, of the roughly 20 films I was fortunate enough to watch, many stood out, leaving a lasting impression and fostering important conversations. The goal of a documentary is not only to illuminate and educate, but to stir action, altering your attitude regarding something big or small as you go forward in life. These were the ones that did it for me.
Blackfish – Gabriela Cowperthwaite
A combination of revealing interviews and stunning footage shine a spotlight on Sea World and company, expertly chronicling a history of misinformation, abuse, and criminally neglect. The death of a talented, ambitious, and beautiful young trainer by a killer whale just a few years ago is where the film starts. To get to the root of the story, however, Cowperthwaite travels back in time, identifying decades of misconduct and attempts to control wild animals for money and public entertainment.
A group of former trainers offer stunning insight to the manipulative practices of SeaWorld, but one of the most telling interviews comes from a grizzled old vet who had once worked capturing whales from the wild. Filled with heartbreaking stories and staggering revelations, Blackfish is a flooring film that cannot be ignored.
Ghosts of Our Machine – Liz Marshall
Jo-Anne McArthur is the intrepid, conflicted protagonist in this film that explores the harsh, inhumane cruelty exercised at factory farms around the world. With a expert team of investigators, McArthur sneaks into farms, photography the awful conditions with the hopes of being it to global attention. Her pictures as powerful, as are the images captured by director Liz Marshall who carefully follows along.
McArthur is careful not to interfere, knowing that her small attempts to free whatever animals she can won’t change the greater system and only distract from her message. Marshall employs the same deft quality, never preaching any specific environmental, political, or dietary habits, simply taking the audiences to places that you can’t help but think should not exist. While half of the film delves into these dark areas of discomfort and horror, the other is balanced out with visits to a gorgeous, expansive animal sanctuary where McArthur, and the audience, gets a much needed reprieve, spending time with happy, free, and lovely animals.
The Punk Singer – Sini Anderson
The story about the rise of the riot grrl movement and its incomparable and compelling leader Kathleen Hanna is fascinating in its own right, but it takes a surprising turn for the intimate and emotional in the third half. It’s a film with a strong duality: it’s about an idea and attitude that began in the nineties and spread across North America, generating cultural and political waves, but also about the strength of woman one thrust into a superhero-like spotlight where she must be a symbol as much as a human being. Hanna allows for some very personal moments to be documented, but is herself, naturally, a captivating woman, singing or chatting. And of course, there is some fantastic music playing throughout.
Who is Dayani Cristal? – Marc Silver
Gael Garcia Bernal narrates and stars in this crafty and clever film that humanizes the issue of immigration between the United States and Mexico. A dead body is discovered in the Arizona desert. It is a man who tried to cross the border, but with no identification, he stands out only for a tattoo across his chest that reads ‘Dayani Cristal.’
Silver’s intrepid doc centers around the process of how this man and the many like him are identified, as well as the lengthy journey required to cross illegally into the United States. Bernal recreates this path, traveling from Honduras through Mexico, stopping at stations and right atop trains along with scores of others. The only difference is that they truly seek an escape from their lives, and are willing to sacrifice to make it to America.
Not Criminally Responsible – John Kastner
A Canadian film about mental illness, director John Kastner receives incredible access, following the lengthy rehabilitation of a plagued individual. Sean Clifton, in a moment of anger and hysteria, attacks a woman outside a Wal-Mart in a small Ontario town, stabbing her viciously only to stop and wait for the police to arrive.
Clifton is sick, however, and he is sent to get help rather than prison. What follows is a dissection of mental illness in Canada, giving it a very human face, and challenging the viewer. The victim of the attack and her family are interviewed, and they torn, like the viewer, as Clifton is both this figure of aggression and trauma, but through interviews and footage of his day-to-day life, he is an apologetic, self-aware, and sympathetic figure in need of medical treatment. It will wet your eyes, and tug at your heart.