Review: ‘Illusions of Control’

Hot Docs 2019

4 mins read

Illusions of Control
(Canada, 87 min.)
Dir. Shannon Walsh
Programme: Canadian Spectrum (World Premier)

I don’t know why Hot Docs programmers hype this film as testimony to human resilience in the face of disaster. As the title suggests, it’s less inspirational and much more about the pointlessness of human perseverance, albeit supported by energized communities.

In Ningxia, China, Yang and his community desperately fight back against the desertification of the landscape–thank you climate change–so intense that every time the wind gusts up, their homes fill with sand.

Stacy in Yellowknife, is trying to make a major mining company accountable for the arsenic they’ve left underground, a poison deeply affecting the health of her Dene community. So strong is its impact, that Stacy is seriously considering leaving her ancestral home.

After the nuclear meltdown in Fukishima and the tsunami that followed, Takoa has been organizing her community to monitor radioactivity that seeps into everyday life–including the groceries. Sylvia and Ortiz have not yet found their daughter, who has been disappeared by the authorities in Cuahuila, Mexico. They are still looking.

Lauren Berlant, professor of English at the University of Chicago, is dying of an aggressive cancer. It cannot be a coincidence that Walsh has included a subject who holds no hope. She is brilliant, accepting–except of deluded friends who think she can “beat” the disease–and ultimately, unlike Walsh’s other subjects, someone harbouring no illusions of control. She is, however, writing her own obituary, cleverly insisting that she will not include a section that reads “survived by” but rather will change that convention to read, “survived with,” to honour those who are supporting her as she prepares to die.

The others forge on, Ortiz and Silvia scouring the deserts for clues to what they know is a murder, Takoa donning her mask as she tests the food, Yang and his team devising ways to beat back the sand. Stacy toys with leaving her community but as the movie unfolds, has not committed to giving up.

This is not an inspiring film about human resilience. It is complex, sad and strangely beautiful. Some of that gorgeousness comes thanks to Owen Pallett’s soundtrack, compellingly eerie, and cinematography by Pablo Alvarez-Mesa, who makes director Shannon Walsh’s locations in Mexico, Japan, China and Canada’s frozen Northwest Territories sometimes look like the ravaged landscapes of Ed Burtynsky.

What drives people to resist in the face of this kind of devastation? Walsh isn’t saying. She’s just asking the question. And if her intention was to inspire us with this exceptional documentary, she has failed – but only in that regard.

Illusions of Control screens:
-Sun, Apr 28 at 9:15 PM, TIFF Lightbox 2
-Tue, Apr 30 at 2:30 PM at Scotiabank 3
-Thu, May 2 at 10:00 AM at TIFF Lightbox 3
Hot Docs runs April 25 to May 5. Please visit for

A special event titled Disappearance, Grassroots Searches + Forensic Calamity features author Dawn Marie Paley and Silvia Ortiz and Óscar Sánchez Viesca on Mon, 29 Apr. 6:00 PM, at the University of Toronto’s Sidney Smith Hall, Room 2098 (100 St George St.) Get your free tickets here.


Susan G. Cole is a playwright, broadcaster, feminist commentator and the Books and Entertainment editor at NOW Magazine, where she writes about film. She is the author of two books on pornography and violence against women: Power Surge and Pornography and the Sex Crisis (both Second Story books), and the play A Fertile Imagination. She is the the editor of Outspoken (Playwrights Canada Press), a collection of lesbian monologues from Canadian plays. Hear her every Thursday morning at 9 AM on Talk Radio 640’s Media and the Message panel or look for her monthly on CHTV’s Square Off debate.

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