"The Life and Times of Doris Payne"
"The Life and Times of Doris Payne"
"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]

Cohen with his brother and father in "The Manor"
Cohen with his brother and father in "The Manor"
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]