Doc Highlights at Reel Asian 2020

Reel Asian 2020 opened with Down a Dark Stairwell

By Pat Mullen
Toronto’s Reel Asian Film Festival off its 24th edition last night. The festival, running through November 19, streams virtually this year in its biggest and widest-reaching festival yet. Screenings are available to audiences across the province and the line-up includes a number of docs. Here’s a rundown of some of the non-fiction highlights at this year’s Reel Asian Film Festival.

Down a Dark Stairwell

Although screenings of Reel Asian’s opening night film have expired, doc fans will want to make a mental note for future reference. Ursula Liang’s film chronicles a volatile situation that divided a community. Down a Dark Stairwell unpacks a 2014 incident in which unarmed Black man Akai Gurley was fatally shot while entering his apartment via a poorly lit stairwell. The shooter, rookie police officer Peter Liang (to whom the director is not related), claimed it was an accident. However, amid countless devastating incidents in which Black Americans are killed by white cops who escape punishment, the Chinese-American Liang faces charges for his actions. The case polarises the city as the Asian community sees Liang as a scapegoat, while the Black community wants justice. Liang’s film captures an emotionally charged situation that sees the divisions caused by racial politics. It’s a timely film that doesn’t offer easy answers, yet offers another nuance to the conversation surrounding police brutality and the fight against systemic racism.

A Rifle and a Bag

A hit from this year’s international festival circuit, A Rifle and a Bag makes its North American premiere at Reel Asian. The doc brings another story of these divisive times as directors Cristina Hanes, Arya Rothe, and Isabella Rinaldi chronicle the plight of a married couple in India that chooses to leave their communist Naxalite group and re-integrate into Indian society with hopes of creating a fresh start for their family. (They are pregnant with their second child.) The film observes the couple’s struggle with bureaucracy and witnesses the oppressive power of the state as the family pays a price for past actions. Reviewing the film at International Film Festival Rotterdam, Davide Abbatescianni “called it”:“an unmissable, timely account of their discrimination and sufferings.”

Screens through end of festival.

I Do My Work

Every good festival needs a music documentary and Reel Asian delivers with I Do My Work. This touching Canadian co-pro from director Yosef Baraki (Mina Walking) observes students at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music. They’re preparing for a concert marking the centennial celebrations of Afghan independence. Baraki’s cameras see students of all ages and backgrounds rehearse, study, and draw upon the experiences that inspire them to celebrate their nation. But the film doesn’t ignore the realities in which the students live, asking what the future holds for a generation of Afghans who grew up under the shadow of the Taliban. Naturally, the music is lovely.

Screens through end of festival.

A.K.A. Don Bonus

Stories of self-representation figure prominently at this year’s festival, particularly in the strong shorts selection (see below), but festivalgoers will want to check out a clear precursor. Reel Asian screens the 1995 poetic documentary A.K.A. Don Bonus a retrospective highlight of this year’s festival. The film provides a worthy glimpse of the power that innovations in consumer-grade put in the hands of everyday people. The film is director Sokly “Don Bonus” Ny’s self-portrait of his final year in an American high school. The Cambodian refugee, working with co-director Spencer Nakasako, chronicles his daily life as he encounters racism both fierce and casual while navigating the contradictions of a nation that calls itself the land of the free. Situating A.K.A Don Bonus within the league of films like Hoop Dreams from giving voice to underrepresented communities, Variety called it, “a tough but refreshing look at the melting pot’s youthful future.”

Screens through end of festival with a masterclass with Spencer Nakasako on Nov. 17.


Short films are dominating the festivals this year and Reel Asian is no exception. The festival features a notably broad and strong stream of non-fiction shorties across the program. Highlights include Danielle Ayow’s But You’re Not Black, which offers a personal study of the filmmaker’s cultural dissonance and effort to reconcile her identity with polarised community groups. Ayow reflects on her experience as a Chinese-Trinidadian-Canadian, and reaches out to other people of Chinese-Caribbean descent. Playfully interrogating the ways in which race can be a performative construct, the film succinctly captures questions of identity and belonging at the heart of this year’s festival. Reel Asian also finds a strong intersection of these questions in the In Relation shorts section, which features one of the year’s standout short docs, Reviving the Roost by Vivek Shraya, a hilarious tribute to a dumpy gay bar in Edmonton. With this tongue-in-cheek salute to the Roost, the film asks audiences to confront the self-censorship and dynamics of inclusion/exclusion created that fragment the idea of a community.

Shorts screen through end of festival.

Reel Asian runs to November 19.