Amir here, to wrap up my coverage of the Hot Docs international documentary film festival. The festival is regarded as TIFF’s younger, less glitzy sister here in Toronto but that doesn’t mean there isn’t an abundance of great films on display. The real difference is in the pleasure of discovery, since most of the titles come to Hot Docs with very little advance buzz. Coincidentally, though, my favorite film happened to be one of the most anticipated. I still have a couple interviews and screeners but with the festival now over and about 35 films under my belt, it’s as good a time as any to wrap things up.
The audience prize winner was Muscle Shoals, a documentary about the titular town in Alabama that became the spiritual and creative inspiration for many influential musicians of the 20th century. I wasn’t the biggest fan of the film. It’s quite entertaining but it owes its prize more to the magical music of the artists it features than the film that encases them.
my favorites and the Oscar hopefuls after the jump...
The aforementioned, widely anticipated title was Steve Hoover’s Blood Brother, winner of both the audience and the jury prizes for best documentary at Sundance. If the introduction to my interview with the director didn’t make it obvious, let me reiterate that I am head over heels in love with this beautiful film. A tender story of love and compassion in the face of monstrous adversity, Blood Brother, more than any film I’ve seen this year, reminded me of just how powerful an experience cinema can be. Marta Cunningham’s Valentine Road, which I just reviewed yesterday, was an unexpectedly rich discovery. In lesser hands, the film could have been an extended news item with a one-sided perspective on a murder case. Ms. Cunningham, however, has created a layered and thoughtful study that digs beneath this case to examine the root of violence and bigotry among American teenagers, without losing touch with the story’s emotional core.
The third film in my trio of festival highlights was Daniel Dencik’s Danish documentary, Expedition to the End of the World (reviewed here). It’s a unique and breathtaking experience visually, but a few days removed from my screening, what I appreciate about it is its most grounded elements: the conversations and chemistry between the central figures of its scientific expedition and the Herzogian, wry humor. Speaking of entertaining docs, Shooting Bigfoot is one of the most thrilling experiences I’ve had in a theatre in quite a while. It’s about three different groups of Bigfoot trackers who are on a mission to find the mythical(?) beast. It’s outrageous, hilarious and has an absolutely unexpected ending, but its greatest strength is the way in which it reconstructs the myth of Bigfoot without reaffirming or shattering it.
Canadian filmmaker Jason DaSilva has followed the downward spiral of his M.S. disease in an incredibly moving film called When I Walk. DaSilva, who’s always maintained a habit of filming everything around his house, is fortunate enough to have footage of the earliest stages of his illness, even prior to diagnosis - though fortunate is probably too insensitive a term to use in this context. The film’s mere existence is astonishing, but what’s really drawn praise from the audiences is the way DaSilva opens up his private life without asking for our sympathy in the slightest.
Finally, Dan Shadur’s Israeli documentary, Before the Revolution, is about the lives of Israelis in Iran before the Islamic revolution. It's one of the most socially incisive documentaries I’ve ever seen, though I understand many viewers without the personal connection I have with the material might not enjoy it as much. The film is a great reminder that political dynamics are constantly shifting and what we may regard as inconceivable today might not be quite so outlandish 30 years from now.
Many films leave Hot Docs seemingly on course for Oscar glory and end up falling short. Last year Marley and Detropia were championed as likely Oscar contenders and neither of them panned out. They were, however, in the thick of the conversation all year long. From this year’s lot, Blood Brother and Valentine Road are surely the films to keep an eye out for and given their emotional subject matter, I have a hunch that they will end up on the right side of the five film cutoff. Muscle Shoals might manage to follow Sugar Man’s suit instead of Marley, as far as musical documentaries go, but I’m just not sure if makes the audience feel enough and that’s critical in this category.
Finally, A Whole Lott More, which I unfortunately didn’t get the chance to see for myself, came third in the audience ranking and has been a favorite among press friends who I spoke to. It’s about Lott Industries in Toledo, Ohio, where car parts are manufactured in a factory that employs 1200 disabled workers. The film depicts the struggle to overcome the dire realities of the economic crisis and the necessary dismissal of almost the entire working staff. Word is that the film is as moving as the subject matter suggests. I’ll keep this one in my predictions for now.
Previously from Hot Docs
Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer
Trucker and the Fox
Expedition to the End of the World
Blood Brother (interview with the director)
Interior. Leather Bar (from Paolo)
Valentine Road, God Loves Uganda, Continental (LGBT Docs)