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10 Films You Must See From This Year’s Hot Docs

10 Films You Must See From This Year's Hot Docs

The 20th anniversary of Hot Docs — the largest documentary film festival in North America — comes to a close this weekend after a discovery-filled 11 days where many notable docs made their festival debuts ahead of what will surely be healthy stints on the circuit.

Indiewire offers up 10 of such films — all world premieres — below, all of which you should definitely look out for at a film festival near you (and hopefully also in theaters):

“American Commune”
In 1970, a countercultural caravan of 300 people left San Francisco to return back to nature, ultimately landing in rural Tennessee. There, under the leadership of spiritual mentor Stephen Gaskin, The Farm was established, an experiment in communal living that attracted 10,000 curious visitors at its height. Filmmaker siblings Rena Mundo Croshere and Nadine Mundo were born there, the children of the rocky union between a Beverly Hills Jewish girl and a Bronx-born Puerto Rican. Like many other members of The Farm, the Mundos left in the mid 1980s amid massive shakeups and quickly assimilated into “normal” society. Two decades later, they return, exploring their personal history and that of the larger alternative community of which they were once a part. The sisters make ideal guides into the world of the legendary commune – their first-hand perspective, combined with interviews with other former members and fantastic archival footage, conveys an intimate and tangible sense of the would-be revolutionary spirit at play on The Farm and in Gaskin’s teachings, hand-in-hand with the more sobering reality of the challenges that made such a vision ultimately unsustainable. [Basil Tsiokos]

The 2012 Republican Primary may seem like old news by
now, with even Mitt Romney being a long-gone memory, but AJ Schnack’s
film “Caucus” brings us back to that time in full color.  In the
electoral season’s first contest — the Iowa Caucus — the voters in one
state in America’s Heartland dominate national media attention and
candidates’ energy.  The Iowa Caucus was the time when Michele
Bachmann’s surge was overtaken by Rick Perry’s and then Herman Cain’s
and then, ultimately, Rick Santorum’s.  It was a confusing time for the
nation’s political commentators, and Schnack’s film doesn’t make any
more clear why those poll numbers were on a roller coaster.  What it
shows instead is each candidate trying out their campaign strategy in
Iowa’s characteristic county fairs, bars, and Republican clubs. 
Following the lineage of “Primary” and “The War Room,” “Caucus” is all
the more striking in showing our nation’s politicians — mostly because
opportunities for unguarded moments are so rare in an age when any
slip-up goes viral on YouTube. [Bryce J. Renninger]

“The Ghosts In Our Machine”
The “ghosts” in Liz Marshall’s film are various animals, used by humans for food, clothing, or research, as captured by documentary photographer Jo-Anne McArthur as part of her advocacy work to force us to confront our beliefs about animal sentience and rights. Making her way, often clandestinely, into factory farms and other sites of what she views as animal exploitation, McArthur bears witness through the haunting still photographs she takes of deplorable conditions and frightened creatures – but she faces an uphill battle to find a mass audience for her work, since it is too disturbing for most magazine editors. That’s exactly her point, to provoke the viewer into empathizing with the various species on display – from dairy cows condemned to death after just a couple of years of milking, to minks raised in sparse cells for their fur. As a needed counterpoint in an often disturbing film, Marshall shows McArthur in more peaceful surroundings in a farm sanctuary in upstate New York which takes in abused animals and often saves others from unnecessary death. Marshall succeeds in creating a portrait of a driven activist that shies away from outright polemics to perhaps preach beyond the converted. [Basil Tsiokos]

“I Will Be Murdered”
Shortly before his death, Guatemalan
attorney Rodrigo Rosenberg, whose clients were recently assassinated,
recorded a video accusing President Alvaro Colom of his murder. After
his execution, his confidante released the video and it became a
nationwide sensation, leading to calls for Colom to resign. Public
pressure forced an in-depth investigation in a country where 98% of
murders go unsolved, but what the head of the taskforce found is wholly
unexpected. Justin Webster crafts an investigative documentary that
humanizes its victim even as it reveals genuinely surprising details
about his case. Despite its twists and turns, the various nefarious
figures that pop up, and the competing theories thrown in and out,
Webster maintains a clarity of storytelling that might all too easily
have become a muddled mess in other hands. What results is an absolutely
stranger than fiction tale of lives cut short by corruption and
secrets, and a demonstration of the power of the public to demand an end
to impunity for even its highest elected officials. [Basil Tsiokos]

“The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne”
Kirk Marcolina and
Matthew Pond’s “The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne” tells the remarkable
story of their titular subject — a woman who went from a poor, single
African-American mother from segregated 1950s America to becoming one of
the world’s most notorious jewel thieves. Doris Payne — now 81 years
old — comes across as blissfully unapologetic and unusually
inspirational in the film, which uses interviews with Payne (who is very
charismatic) and her friends and family as well as archival footage and
recreations to tell her mind blowing tale. She was a black woman
traveling around the world hobnobbing in circles in Monte Carlo and
Paris in high end jewelry stores. She was convincing people she was one
of their ilk when in the States she had to sit at the back of the bus.
In some ways, she’s very much a pioneer for civil rights. And “Life and
Crimes” definitely does her justice. Check out Indiewire’s profile of the film here. [Peter Knegt]

Laura Checkoway’s “Lucky”
follows an impoverished young gay woman who was abandoned by her parents
and now moves from shelter to shelter in inner city New York. She
dabbles in prostitution with men because she has to survive and provide
for her children. Her life has been far from what her name suggests, but
she continues to dream of stardom and success and finds solace in the
many loved ones she surrounds herself with. Lucky’s story makes for a
powerful documentary, one first time filmmaker Checkoway world premiered
at Hot Docs. It’s an individual tale of survival that very much speaks
to more universal themes of pain and suffering that too many have
experienced. And it helps that its protagonist — with her sharp tongue
and a face covered with tattoos (which she started doing in her youth to
mask her pain) — is ridiculously charming and charismatic, often a joy
to watch even through her tough times. Check out Indiewire’s profile of the film here. [Peter Knegt]

“The Manor”
After spending a decade as a film animator, Shawney Cohen got burnt out and decided it was time to take a break from his career to spend some time working at the family business. It just so happens that business was The Manor, a strip club located 40 miles west of Toronto, Canada. After three years of shooting (culminating in 200+ hours of footage) and 15 months in the editing room, “The Manor” came together, opening Hot Docs last week — the first debut film from a Canadian filmmaker to do so in the festival’s 20 year history. And with good reason. “The Manor” is a fascinating, respectful depiction of a very dysfunctional family that will likely be a major highlight on this summer film festival circuit. The film could have easily come across as exploitative or slight, but Cohen’s focus on his family over the hijinks at the strip club allows “The Manor” to rise to the ranks of some of the best family portrait documentaries. Check out Indiewire’s profile of the film here. [Peter Knegt]

Bowing to the spirit of youthful adventure, Bill and
Turner Ross, the film duo behind acclaimed documentaries “45365” and
“Tchoupitoulas,” set out with their younger brother Alex and best friend
Kyle on a perhaps not-quite perfectly planned Mississippi River
odyssey. Launching the Rosemarie, a perfectly ramshackle houseboat, from
their home state of Ohio, they four young men aim to make it down to
New Orleans in three weeks, with Bill filming their escapades, Turner
and Kyle somewhat arbitrarily sharing the captain role, and young Alex
looking to earn his sealegs. Stopping along the way to refuel and to
deal with unexpected – and even life-threatening – emergencies, the
foursome continue their adventures on land, crashing birthday parties,
evading frisky womenfolk, singing karaoke – and engaging in lots and
lots of drinking. Though wildly different from the previous Ross films,
and perhaps a challenge for some viewers at just under three hours, the
film is incredibly entertaining and warm, possessed of an infectious
spirit of fun, and perfectly captures its subjects – both the
Rosemarie’s crew and the various indelible characters they meet as they
make their way to the Big Easy. Originally presented as a series of
webisodes, Hot Docs’ single screening this past week marks the debut of
the film’s feature version – and, despite the assertions made by the
Rosses, one hopes that it won’t be the only time it’s presented in this
form. [Basil Tsiokos]

“Shooting Bigfoot
Morgan Matthews’ “Shooting Bigfoot” follows three sets of Bigfoot hunters as they, all in their own ways, try to prove to the filmmaker that they have seen the creatures or feed them regularly.  With each set of Sasquatch experts, Matthews, a Brit, uncovers a different set of American experiences.  One man, Tom Biscardi, seeks to profit from his Bigfoot expertise by selling videos he’s made interviewing others who have had sightings.  Two lovable older men in rural America drive Matthews out to a field in which they feed, exchange calls with, and snap photos of Bigfoot.  Finally, there’s Rick Dyer, a former corrections officer who had previously been behind a hoax carried out with Biscardi (Biscardi counters that he has lied to, and released “Anatomy of a Bigfoot Hoax” to defend his name…and profit).  Dyer leads Matthews into the woods for several nights in a “Blair Witch Project”-style series of bizarre scenes that may or may not include a Bigfoot experience that left the filmmaker beaten and bruised. [Bryce J. Renninger]

Edmonton filmmaker Michael Jorgensen offers one of the best Canadian-made offerings of Hot Docs with “Unclaimed,” a riveting, controversial film about a quest to prove identity and the two men whose lives become intersected through it. One of those men claims to be former Special Forces Sgt. John Hartley Robertson, who was declared dead after being shot down in a 1968 classified mission during the Vietnam War. The other is Tom Fraunce, a Vietnam War vet who was initially skeptical of Robertson’s alleged identity, but becomes certain and convinces Jorgensen to make a documentary about his story as a way to unite the man with his family. An emotional and certainly at times unbelievable story, Jorgensen doesn’t give us any easy answers, instead letting the audience decide whether or not to believe the man who claims he’s
John Hartley Robertson. [Peter Knegt]

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