Hot Docs 2015: Some Like it Hot

Three new docs reinforce Hot Docs’s credo that truth is stranger than fiction

15 mins read

THERE’S A REASON HOT DOCS has attained a worldwide reputation as one of the best places to see fantastic non-fiction filmmaking: the programming is exceptional. I’m always overwhelmed as I read their catalogue, never sure which films I’m going to manage to see and which films I’ll have to try to catch later. And 2015 is again full of rich, fascinating films that give us more evidence—like we needed any more—that truth is stranger than fiction. Here, POV talks with the directors of three standouts.

The Amina Profile
Montreal-based filmmaker Sophie Deraspe examines this bizarre story of the Syrian conflict, online romance and fake identities, one that made headlines as the 2011 uprising broke out. In a late-night e-mail, Montrealer Sandra Bagaria made contact with a beautiful Syrian woman, Amina Arraf, and things soon became erotic and romantic. They cyber-flirted, and Bagaria grew attached to her Syrian online tryst.

But a longing to meet in the flesh would soon turn to anxiety, as the Syrian government began to clamp down on subversives, and Arraf, the author of the blog A Gay Girl in Damascus, was visited in her home by military police. The home invasion she recounted in her blog was rebuffed by her brave father, who defended his lesbian daughter and told the cops to get lost. And then, in a terrifying, existential moment, Arraf disappeared. She stopped blogging and no one knew where she was. Bagaria became part of an international campaign to find Arraf and to make sure she wasn’t being held by Syrian officials—a distinct possibility, given the regime’s notorious treatment of subversives.

The film leads us to this point and beyond, beautifully building up the tension—and Sam Shalabi’s amazing musical score accents that tension perfectly—as the plot keeps getting thicker, and it becomes unclear if Arraf has managed to survive her standoff with the brutal Syrian regime.

The Amina Profile is brilliant, one of those documentaries that must be seen to be believed, but it’s also one of those films that’s almost impossible to write about without ruining anything. No spoilers here—and a few words of warning, don’t let anyone else spoil it for you either. Suffice it to say, things are never quite how they seem, and Deraspe’s doc morphs into a meditation on identity and meaning in the age of the Internet.

Deraspe had an immediate in with Bagaria, as they were friends and knew each other as the story was unfolding. “When we thought Amina had been kidnapped, it felt like we were in a thriller,” Deraspe recalls. “It’s what I told Sandra at the time. It always felt like a movie… but when we were in the midst of it, I didn’t feel like I could ask Sandra. She was in emotional turmoil.”

But later on, Bagaria changed her mind and offered to share her entire Amina archives with Deraspe. The issue of exploitation never entered Deraspe’s mind, given that “this experience proved very cathartic for Sandra. It was an ordeal, but working through it in the documentary really seemed to help her clarify things.”

Deraspe says the film touches on so many issues—love, trust, betrayal, war—that it was overwhelming. But one of the main things she came away with is what a contradictory force the Internet is: “The Internet makes us very connected—in a very profound way—and yet, so disconnected in another way.”

All the Time in the World
Suzanne Crocker’s first-person doc about her family’s decision to live in a secluded cabin in the Yukon woods through a nine-month period (that included winter) has become a festival crowd-pleaser. Crocker and her husband managed to find time to leave their jobs temporarily and remove themselves from all clocks and simply live as simply as possible with their three young children, two cats and a dog. Then, upon figuring out the details of their plans, Crocker thought that taking a camera along to capture all of the fun (and drama) would be obvious.

The power of All the Time in the World is the way in which it draws us into its sheer timelessness. The film could have come off like a series of home movies, and at times it does, and that’s part of its charm. The Halloween sequence, where the family gets dressed in disguises to gather candy, is priceless. A sense of envy sets in, as the family gets to share everything together for nine months. You know none of them is ever going to forget it.

“I think one of the most liberating things about it was that we got to indulge our kids,” says Crocker. “So many times when your kids ask you to do something, you have to say no because there isn’t time or for some other reason. During the trip when they asked us to do something, we could try to do it. And children were the perfect people to be with for this trip and for the film. They don’t really know how to tell time, because we haven’t taught them yet. They’re intrinsically in-the-moment people.”

For Crocker, making the film presented two epic, intricately connected challenges. “The planning part was tricky. How much flour do we take? Getting stuff there is really difficult. There was no road access. When my husband had to go to town, and I didn’t know where he was, and it was taking more time to get back, that was tough. It never really crossed our minds to have two-way communication.” And the filming was challenging because “I had no external crew and one camera. I was shooting in low light in what was often 40-below weather. But having no crew meant things remained very authentic. My family ignored the camera when it was out. It became like an extension of me. I felt like I got to capture them simply being their natural selves.”

But the trick came with not letting the filmmaking challenges get in the way of the point of the entire trip. “I was shooting my own story. But the whole purpose of this story, this trip, was precisely not to be distracted. So I had to work to make sure the film project didn’t take over.”

Crocker concedes there’s an internal contradiction to her film, a heartfelt doc at once about leaving technology behind and rediscovering family connections during a nine-month arctic retreat, while also a film, captured by technology and meticulously edited down from 500 hours of rough footage, entered into film festivals within the constraints of tight deadlines. “It’s an irony that’s not lost on my children, I can tell you,” Crocker says. “On the road with the film, I’m not always with my family—in fact, I’m often thousands of kilometres away from them. But the film has served as an important reminder: that I don’t have all the time in the world, and to make the most of the time I do have. When I’m at home, it’s important to close the computer and walk away from it.

“I’ll always remember that nine months we had. I think it was the best year of our life as a family.”

Lowdown Tracks
While documentary filmmakers have often turned their lenses on the homeless, filmmaker Shelley Saywell takes a specific angle on the chronically unsheltered. In Lowdown Tracks, she and activist/musician Lorraine Segato interview a number of homeless musicians who live in Toronto.

Saywell takes a page from those who recorded homeless musicians during the Depression, pointing out that the homeless and itinerant have created some amazing works of musical art. And the talent is here, often tipping over into the brilliant. The performances are heartfelt and poignant, and while capturing some of the musicians in recording sessions, Saywell also gets them to relate how they ended up on the street.

Their stories are varied but familiar, with circumstances stemming from familial or spousal breakups, addiction, mental illness or some combination of the three. All struggle but manage to gather some money through busking (though they recount their hassles with the busking regulatory bureaucracy).

The process of the film became complicated because it was so easy to lose track of people. With no addresses nor cell phones, many people “would simply disappear,” Saywell recalls. “But the people we managed to stick with revealed more of their own stories, bit by bit. That provided the structure of the film.”

Of all the stories, the two that are perhaps most shocking are the two men who are now permanently disabled after having endured repeated bouts of shock treatment decades ago. The treatment was supposed to knock out key parts of their memory, but the main thing it served to do was to leave them with severe PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).

Saywell says a major revelation came when she realised how self-aware all of the people she was profiling were. “It’s hard not to sound like a cliché, but I learned so much more from them than we gave. They were all really concerned with the issues surrounding poverty themselves. They are trying to help people who are like them.”

The sheer complexity of the issue of homelessness also left a mark on Saywell. “Homelessness is almost like alcoholism. If you have shelter, you’re still in that condition. Having a room won’t necessarily give that person a home. Often, the homeless feel they have no solid foundations anywhere.”

To maintain a sense of mystery, one homeless man she profiles, who plays the piano beautifully, is left without any backstory, so as not to leave the audience with a sense that the issue of homelessness has somehow been solved by the end credits. “To me, he’s like the ghost figure, the everyperson.”

Saywell says making the film, which went about a year over schedule, has made her far more attuned to the stories the homeless tell, to the hardships that have brought them to this place and state of being. “No one should be homeless in Canada. It doesn’t make any sense. That said, I didn’t want to make another film about the housing crisis. I wanted to reframe the way we see people on the street. I know it’s changed the way I see people on the street.”

Hot Docs 2015 Screenings

The Amina Profile
Sat, Apr 25 7:00 PM – TIFF Bell Lightbox 1
Mon, Apr 27 1:00 PM – Hart House Theatre

All the Time in the World
Wed, Apr 29 7:15 PM – Scotiabank Theatre 3
Fri, May 1 4:45 PM – ROM Theatre
Sat, May 2 4:30 PM – TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

Lowdown Tracks
Sat, Apr 25 8:30 PM – TIFF Bell Lightbox 2
Mon, Apr 27 6:30 PM – Scotiabank Theatre 3
Sat, May 2 6:30 PM – Scotiabank Theatre 8

A long-time contributing editor at POV, Hays teaches film studies at Marianopolis College and Concordia University. His articles on documentary have appeared in Cineaste, The Globe and Mail, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Toronto Star.

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