Hot Docs 2013

This year, I am so excited to be participating in the Doc Accelerator program at the 2013 Hot Docs Film Festival!*

Yesterday was the first day of workshops, however, as part of the program we received full industry passes to the festival. I attended the opening night film, the Manor, and have seen 12 films over the first weekend.

I have made a viewing schedule of about 40 films, and over the course of the weekend I have realized that, so far, each day has had a theme(ish). Below are some of my thoughts on a few of the films I have seen, and links to each film’s synopsis and trailer.

Day 1: The Future

The first film I saw was the Human Scale, which studies urbanization and the development of cities. An interesting question posed by the film was, if cities were planned to accommodate the growing infatuation with the development of the personal car, does city planning take into consideration human interaction, happiness, community, and intimacy?

Historically speaking, we lived in clans and tribes, and now it is common for households to be no larger than two or three people, and even more common to see single-person households. This film addresses this changing environment, and asks if a population can learn how to care for one another in an environment that does not allow them to do so or provide the space necessary to foster these relationships. Environmental considerations in addition to economic interests are revealed in the city-planning in Bangladesh and in Christchurch, New Zealand, which is contrasted with cities like Copenhagen and Vienna that are constructed to accommodate bicycles and public life. Even New York City received a makeover of Times Square, which created a pedestrian-friendly space in the heart of an individualistic community.

In the context of China, the film asks us to think about how we deal with the steady influx of people to a city centre. As more people migrate to urban communities, the film argues for attention, time, and efforts to be focused on creating a community that has a positive social development, in addition to being economically and environmentally sustainable. The unfortunate hurdle, albeit obvious, is that of the need to readily satisfy the political interests of providing solutions now, with little thought. It is scary to think of how much these interests impact not only the environment, but also our quality of life, and even our understandings of what makes a ‘good life.’

I also saw Terms and Conditions May Apply, which focuses on what personal information is being given up by technology users to parent companies, and how this information is being used.  I finished the day with a viewing of I Am Breathing, which followed the final days of a man living with Motor Neurone Disease, and what he wants to leave behind for his young son.

Day Two: Exploitation, and Death

I started off the day with a viewing of Who Is Dayani Cristal? which traces the forensic investigations of the identification of South American migrants’ bodies found on the American side of the America-Mexico border. One body in particular, which has “Dayani Cristal” tattooed across the chest, is used as a narrative to guide the reenactment of the dangerous journey migrants make to seek employment in the United States. This film was the best film I have seen that mediates the production use of a personal story to illustrate a larger social issue.

Next, I saw Valentine Road, which follows the trial of the murder of Larry King, a high school student who was shot in the head by a boy who Larry had asked to be his Valentine. This film was not the first movie to make me cry, but it was the first to touch me in the way the Bully Project did two years ago.

I went from Valentine Road, where I found it hard to have sympathy for the convicted murderer, to In the Shadow of the Sun, which portrays the violence facing albino people in Tanzania. The main character, Josephat, an albino man, preaches forgiveness as evil comes from a place of ignorance. In the Q&A, he argued that we must “find the place where this is starting,” which I later thought about in the context of the Larry King case.

I followed this film with the Exhibition, a film that showcased the art installation by a Vancouver-based artist that presented portraits of the murder victims from the Pickton case, and other missing and murdered women. This show received a lot of resistance from women’s and Aboriginal organizations, who argued that the artist was exploiting these stories and unjustly serving as a “voice” for these women.

After a day of difficult topics, I ended the night with a late-night screening of Furever, a documentary which looks at the lengths some people will go to commemorate their pets once they have died. It was both hilarious and shocking, including people who have their pet’s ashes mixed in with tattoo ink, those who have mummified their pets, and even had them cloned.

Day 3: Poverty

This day started off with a screening of The Only Son, which follows a man’s journey back to his remote village in Nepal (which took two small planes and a 10-day hike into the mountains to get to), to see his parents who want him to return home to take care of them, their land, and be married to a local girl. Caught between a tension to continue the western life he has become accustomed to, and honouring his parent’s wishes and values, the main character and his siblings struggle to decide whether or not they will stay.

Then I saw Tough Bond, which was one of my top choices for this year’s festival, largely because I have a personal affinity to Kenya. This documentary analyzed the poverty of tribal and urban communities, in which children have taken to huffing glue as means to survive each day. I loved the cinematography of the rural communities, and the characters and their stories were well developed. However, the Q&A left me with many questions about the filmmakers’ intentions. While I did not get the chance to ask them any follow-up questions, I did feel like many of their projects to “help” the community smelled a bit of white saviour complex, neo-colonialism, and western imperialism. For example, one of the projects they are hoping to do is build a radio station that will work with tribal communities to create cultural archives. I am wary that the editing of such material, if done by the filmmakers, may unavoidably inscribe western values to it. However, one of the great points raised by the filmmakers was the tendency to only view children as children if they are in a school uniform, rendering children in tribal communities and children in urban slums invisible.

Next I saw Tales From the Organ Trade, which analyzed the growing illegal trafficking of organs, in which people living in poverty are selling their organs to wealthy westerners, raising questions about consent, exploitation, and human value.

I finished the weekend with Remote Area Medical, which reveals the inadequate access to health care in the United States. This was both sad and inspirational. The Q&A afterwards was particularly compelling, as one audience member questioned the interests of the people using this pop-up service, as southern states (this RAM pop-up took place in Tennessee), tend to vote Republican, a party that opposes universal public health care.

I am so excited for today’s workshops and films, and will continue to update with my thoughts and picks from the festival!

*Here’s a bit of info about the festival, from their website:

Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival is North America’s largest documentary festival, conference and market. Each year, the Festival presents a selection of more than 180 cutting-edge documentaries from Canada and around the globe. Through its industry programs, Hot Docs also provides a full range of professional development, market and networking opportunities for documentary professionals.


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