All photos courtesy of Hot Docs

Hot Docs Hot Sheet: All the Films We’ve Seen So Far

Festival favourites making their Toronto debuts at Hot Docs

28 mins read

Hot Docs is just days away! If you’re still navigating the festival line-up and schedule, fret not! The POV team has been active at the festivals leading up to Hot Docs and already has the scoop on nearly two dozen titles making their Toronto debuts. In many cases, these films are the must-sees, the best bets, and the don’t-wanna-misses at the festival.

In alphabetical order, here’s a rundown of all the Hot Docs films we’ve seen at other events leading up to the festival. Don’t forget the retrospectives of Raymonde Provencher and Stanley Nelson while you’re at it!

 

2nd Chance

Screens in: Special Presentations

Indie filmmaker Ramin Bahrani turns his lens from drama to documentary with this zany tale of a pizzeria owner who developed the bulletproof vest after surviving a robbery. 2nd Chance charts a complicated narrative of an empire built on shaky ground and a very human story about coming so close to the bulls-eye, yet being so far off target. “The result is a film that lacks all the expected fireworks for a story about a man constantly shooting himself in the chest to make a point,” wrote Jason Gorber while reviewing the film at Sundance. “2nd Chance instead settles into a fascinating and sophisticated tale of the limitations of control, the vagaries of deceit and betrayal, and the almost unfathomable capacity to forgive even for the most heinous of actions.”

 

Aftershock

Screens in: Special Presentations

Winner of a special jury prize for impact and change at Sundance, Aftershock is Paula Eiselt and Tonya Lewis Lee powerful (if occasionally messy) study of the racial inequity of the American healthcare system, particularly as it harms Black women during childbirth. “Aftershock gives voice to the families of two women, Shamony Makeba Gibson and Amber Rose Isaac, who lost their mothers, daughters, and partners during what should have been the happiest time of their lives. This powerful film refuses to let Shamony and Amber be statistics in an epidemic claiming Black women at alarming rates,” I wrote while reviewing the film at Sundance.

 

The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales

Screens in: Special Presentations (Scotiabank Big Ideas series)

This provocative study of capitalism and inequality in American should spark lively conversations at Hot Docs. The film directed by Abigail E. Disney and Kathleen Hughes explores how working class employees at Disneyland scrape by while CEOs earn oodles. Disney meets with workers and reflects upon the legacy left by her grandfather, Roy, whose work ethic has been all but abandoned by present-day brass. American Dream somewhat got lost at Sundance but was arguably among the stronger docs at the fest. “Why so few other wealthy Americans are willing to answer speaks volumes about the challenge ahead. Disney admirably leads by example, and one wishes the company that shares her name did the same,” I noted while reviewing the film at Sundance.

 

Calendar Girls

Screens in: Special Presentations

You could practically feel the collective euphoria during Calendar Girls’ Sundance screening even though it was virtual. This infectiously upbeat film by Maria Loohufvud and Love Martinsen profiles a troupe of golden girls who stay young via dance. They confront death and defy ageism by proudly marching to their own beats. “Dance numbers that are staged and shot cinematically contrast with the public performances captured verité-style to deepen the rhythm. One gets a better sense of the dancers’ lively finesse and joie de vivre in these playfully choreographed moments. The cinematic dance sequences also bring age into close-up. The striking cinematography embraces wrinkles and showcases golden age beauty without care,” I wrote while reviewing the film at Sundance.

 

The Exiles

Screens in: Special Presentations

Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize winner for U.S. documentary finds one hell of a character in filmmaker Christine Choy. The chain-smoking iconoclast revisits her experience making a film about the survivors of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, and she’s as engaging as she is exhausting. Directors Ben Klein and Violet Columbus score a no-holds-barred series of interviews with Choy, as well as revealing access to her subjects, who reflect upon a tragedy that the Chinese government ignores to this day. “Choy herself doesn’t shy away from the potential effect that resuscitating this footage will have, and it’s clear that her righteous anger both at the country of her birth and the one she now calls home colours her refusal to stay silent,” noted Jason Gorber in his review at Sundance. “Klein and Columbus manage for the most part to take all these disparate elements and provide a rich if occasionally disjointed look at various story threads.”

 

Fire of Love

Screens in: Special Presentations

We’re such fans of Fire of Love that it graces the cover of our new Hot Docs issue! This explosively great archival film directed by Sara Dosa is a tale of love and madness. Fire of Love chronicles the story of Maurice and Katia Krafft, a pair of volcanologists whose pioneering research brought them to the edges of volcanoes in the pursuit of science. However, they also documented their efforts, which survive in rich images that demand to be seen on the big screen. “It can’t be overemphasised how majestic some of the footage is,” wrote Jason Gorber while reviewing the film at Sundance. “It’s clear that the Kraffts set out to be communicators above all, and when tens of thousands are killed because of ignored warnings, the film offers a reminder of both the limitations of their work’s effect, but also the impulse to educate others that continued to drive them until the end.”

 

Framing Agnes

Screens in: Special Presentations

Director Chase Joynt and his collaborators make a truly groundbreaking work with Framing Agnes. This performance-driven doc-drama hybrid invites a cast of transgender actors to reinterpret the story of Agnes, a transwoman who fibbed her way through a research interview while countering the narratives that Harold Garfinkel of UCLA was clearly trying to place on the lives of trans-people. As the actors bring the transcripts of Garfinkel’s research sessions to life, they evoke the hidden stories for queer people that exist beyond the records written with a heteronormative lens. “One of the glorious and irresolvable unknowns of our project is that we only encounter these people on the page,” said Joynt in an interview at Sundance. “The performative, the vocal, and the affective are all things that arrive and exist in this slippery space between fiction and nonfiction. Early on in research and development, I went to Angelica Ross’s house and was explaining my attachment to and my understanding of Georgia as encountered on the page. Angelica stopped me mid-sentence and said, ‘I don’t need this; I know her; I feel her in my body, I feel her in my skin.'”

 

Gabor

Screens in: Artscapes

POV subscribers got an early look at this Hot Docs selection when it graced the cover of our Fall/Winter 2021 issue on the heels of its premiere at RIDM. This whimsical film by Joannie Lafrenière has a taste of Faces Places as the director joins forces with veteran photographer Gabor Szilasi. The offbeat and strikingly shot film pays tribute to the Hungarian-Canadian photography while revisiting his career and retracing the road that brought him there. “Lafrenière has taken the risk of treating Szilasi as a friend, a fellow documentarian, who is ready to collaborate in an honest portrait of himself as a man as well as an artist. Her approach is one of genuine warmth while never missing the salient moments in his career,” wrote Marc Glassman in our cover story.

 

A House Made of Splinters

Screens in: Special Presentations

Audiences eager to see stories about the situation in Ukraine simply must put A House Made of Splinters on their Hot Docs list. This film from A Distant Barking of Dogs director Simon Lereng Wilmont (winner of the World Cinema directing prize at Sundance) and Flee producer Monica Hellström intimately observes Ukrainian “orphans” growing up in a foster home as their parents grapple with post-traumatic stress disorder and other complications aggravated by life during wartime. “This is a delicately observed film that affords its subjects empathy and respect. Splinters may sound unbearably bleak on paper, but this is truly a story of hope,” I wrote while reviewing the film at Sundance.

 

I Didn’t See You There

Screens in: Special Presentations

Director Reid Davenport offers a breakthrough work in first-person point-of-view filmmaking with I Didn’t See You There. The doc, which won the American directing prize at Sundance, creates a city symphony film anew as Davenport travels the streets of the Bay Area recording life from the vantage point of his wheelchair. With barely a word, we captures the everyday challenges of access and mobility. However, as a tent looms over the city, the film evokes larger considerations of representation and disability. “I think it was my frustration and boredom over not seeing or addressing the ableism that I experienced through my other films,” said Davenport on shifting the perspective to his pov. “There is a certain amount of voyeurism in documentary—I’m guilty of it, it’s a societal phenomenon—so I wanted to change radically how I made my next film.”

 

The Kids in the Hall: Comedy Punks

Screens in: Special Presentations (Scotiabank Big Ideas Series)

The Kids in the Hall are back! Dave Foley, Bruce McCulloch, Kevin McDonald, Mark McKinney, and Scott Thompson reunite for a celebratory affair directed by Reg Harkema. Comedy Punks revisits the comedy group’s heyday and indisputable influence on Canadian entertainment and the comedy scene more broadly. “It’s clear there’s great love and camaraderie between these five, yet it’s also clear that they’re not blind to their own faults or the fractures that have beset in the past,” observed Jason Gorber while reviewing the film at SXSW. “Rather than erasing what pushed them apart, the film embraces these moments, allowing the scars and wrinkles to show even as they push together as an ensemble decades after those nearly-empty first shows on the Rivoli stage.”

 

Midwives

Screens in: Special Presentations

Directed by Snow Hnin Ei Hlaing and produced by Montreal’s EyeSteelFilm, Midwives won a special jury prize for excellence in verité filmmaking at Sundance and for good reason. The film deftly observes two women in Myanmar—one Buddhist, one Muslim—as they care for women in a makeshift clinic. Their story illustrates the larger cultural divides that must be bridged amid a growing human rights crisis. “I think people hated the naïve take of the Western media, but Snow was trying to show how what was going on in Burmese media wasn’t any more true,” said producer Mila Aung-Thwin during an interview at Sundance. “Not all the sides understand the debate because they’re using a very superficial lens. Snow decided to make a time-based film that showed the emotional nuances, which you don’t get in Facebook videos or BBC news clips.”

 

Mija

Screens in: Artscapes

Arts bios often prove popular bets at Hot Docs and Mija offers an outward-looking portrait of one woman’s rise. The film directed by Isabel Castro profiles Doris Muñoz, a daughter of Mexican immigrants thrust into the big leagues as a music manager. Through her eyes, the film observes the dogged fight it takes to pursue a dream, while also trying to fulfill the dreams wished upon her by her parents. “Home video tapes of Muñoz as a toddler instill both a sense of pride in her adult accomplishments and a feeling of injustice that a little girl was forced to deal with such responsibilities,” wrote Madeline Lines while reviewing the film at Sundance. “Mija’s beauty is born of its ability to contain multitudes.”

 

Mis dos voces

Screens in: Canadian Spectrum

Director Lina Rodriguez inspires news ways of seeing, listening, and observing in Mis dos voces. The film artfully explores the lives of three Colombian-Canadian women as they navigate new terrain and hybrid identities in Canada. Rodriguez presents their stories via voiceover narration while the camera gazes anywhere but at the three women. “These fragments invite one to image the women who exist outside the frame,” I wrote while reviewing the film during Berlin. “By showing less of them, the film ultimately reveals more—not necessarily more of the women themselves, but the way a viewer perceives experiences outside one’s one as he or she extends the lines of the compositions.”

 

My Old School

Screens in: Special Presentations

Alan Cumming serves an epic lip sync in this wild-but-true tale from director Jono McLeod. Cumming acts as a body double for McLeod’s former schoolmate Brandon Lee, who executed a jaw-dropper of a con upon a school and a well-to-do Scottish neighbourhood. “It was a weird thing to do,” Cumming said of the lip sync performance during an interview at Sundance. “I have a joke about at my bar, at Club Cumming in New York, that if we’re gonna have drag queens lip-syncing, they had better know the words. There’s no excuse for a lip-syncing drag queen who doesn’t know the words. I feel I can now throw the gauntlet down and say, “Look, you bitches! Look at this movie for lip syncing!”

Navalny

Screens in: Special Presentations (Scotiabank Big Ideas series)

If the Oscar winner Citizenfour was all about the “get” in its exposé with Edward Snowden, Toronto filmmaker Daniel Roher blows all his predecessors clean out of the water with this riveting portrait of Russian opposition leader (and now political prisoner) Alexei Navalny. The film features some truly jaw-dropping footage as  the politician investigates the attempted assassination on his life, while also keeping a bright and buoyant present on TikTok to bring the truth of Putin’s regime to light. “Thrilling, intelligent, insightful, and even moving at times, Roher has made the absolute most of his astonishing access to deliver a compelling and crucial documentation of this period of history,” raved Jason Gorber while reviewing Navalny at Sundance. “If there ever was the right filmmaker at the right place at the right time, this is it.”

 

Nothing Compares

Screens in: Persister

How do you centre a music doc around an iconic song without actually including it? That’s the conundrum faced by the Sínead O’Connor profile Nothing Compares, which, spoiler alert, doesn’t land her signature ballad. “Due to legal complexities, the Prince-written song doesn’t appear at all, and rights issues are often the bane of music docs,” observed Jason Gorber while reviewing the film at Sundance. “Yet there’s a story there, about how someone who always spoke her truth found her greatest financial (and, arguably, artistic) success with words written by another for another. How that song came into O’Connor’s life, how it’s affected her since, and how something that she made internationally famous yet prevented from truly calling her own are questions left unanswered.”

 

Riotsville, USA

Screens in: Hidden Histories

Audiences looking for a formally daring exploration of reality and deception will be awed by Riotsville, USA. Director Sierra Pettengill unpacks a legacy of police brutality in America by revisiting an odd training exercise from the 1960s. The film whisks audiences back to fictionalised cities where civilian and military police were trained to control the masses with brute force. The outcome, as history both past and present tell us, wasnot good. “The result is a compelling and surreal film that’s at once a documentation of the past, a roadmap to how we got to where we are now, and a continuing cautionary tale,” said Jason Gorber in his review at Sundance. “Beyond the fake storefronts there are real people, real skulls that are smashed, and real lives that are upended.”

 

Sirens

Screens in: Persister

Rita Baghadi’s documentary profiles Slave to Sirens, the only all-female metal band in the Middle East with a special focus on members Lilas Mayassi and Shery Bechara. The film is a coming of age saga and frank tale of what it means to be out and queer in Lebanon. “Sirens is a slice of life film that feels incomplete in some ways, but still manages to deliver a thoughtful snapshot in time of a country in flux,” wrote Rachel Ho at Sundance.

 

Tantura

Screens in: Hidden Histories

Tantura is sure to inspire fierce debates at Hot Docs. This provocative investigation from director Alon Schwartz digs into the murky history of a mass grave in which the remains of many Palestinians are believed to be buried. Tantura uncovers the truth of a deadly massacre in 1948 by assembling many of the survivors of the Israeli army, or citizens who merely looked the other way. “We must get back to dreaming of peace, and for that, we need to acknowledge that there’s another side here, which we’ve hurt,” said Schwarz in an interview with Jason Gorber at Sundance. “They’re not our enemies, they’re our partners, and they’re fellow citizens in our country. I’m not judging that soldier who came from the Holocaust and murdered. What we need is to learn and improve the future.”

 

TikTok, Boom

Screens in: Special Presentations (Scotiabank Big Ideas series)

Coded Bias director Shalini Kantayya returns to the world of apps and algorithms with this probing look at the viral video sensation TikTok. While the doc outlines how TikTok captures the pulse of a generation and the privacy concerns that brings, one might still wonder about its time-wasting appeal. “Meanwhile, the app displays evidence of racial bias, as users note how posts tagged #GeorgeFloyd and #BlackLivesMatter display zero hits. Kantayya, perhaps thanks to her look at the racial dynamics in Coded Bias, handles this aspect especially well. The doc notes how creators who think they’ll be empowered by the app are actually shadow-blocked by it,” I wrote while reviewing the film at Sundance.

 

To the End

Screens in: Special Presentations

Rachel Lears follows her 2019 festival breakout Knock Down the House with To the End. It has a large shadow to overcome as it follows a similar structure by profiling four young women working to make the Green New Deal a reality. Among them is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who stole the show in Lears’ first film. Now she’s even more comfortable in front of the cameras and admittedly overshadows her co-stars. “Structurally, To the End doesn’t quite know what to do with the other young women who are along for the ride,” I wrote while reviewing the film at Sundance. “What’s more interesting is the tonal shift that comes while following four women in two docs shot mere years apart. Where Knock Down the House leaves one feeling that change is possible, To the End seems hardened. It bears the exhaustion of the Trump years and the COVID years.”

 

Hot Docs runs from April 28 to May 8, 2022.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association.

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