An eclectic range of stories - from boys' private school cliques to the history of wartime food preparation, from an often naked gang of moped riders to birdwatchers seeking the Holy Grail of (extinct) woodpeckers, North America's largest - and some say most important - documentary film festival, Hot Docs, is wrapping up its successful 16th edition this Sunday. If you weren't able to attend, here is a "packaged list" of films that shouldn't be missed when they come to a festival, a theater or TV screen near you.
As with all lists of course, this one is subjective, based on titles screened which made their world or North American debut at Hot Docs.
"When We Were Boys" Sarah Goodman's verite portrait of an elite boys private school remains one of the best films screening at Hot Docs, her camera capturing an unspoken world of adolescence. Even as they play video games or sit down to lunch, the boys navigate a subtle minefield of hierarchies and shifting allegiances that help determine how they learn to become young men.
Another verite project, Rosie Dransfeld humorously focuses on a pawnshop owner and his regular customers to reveal a hitherto unseen view of the lives of the poor. Alcoholics, other addicts, and the elderly frequent the shop to trade in goods for fast cash to feed their vices or their stomachs, facing the no-nonsense proprietor and his oddly genial anti-social unofficial assistant.
"The Red Chapel"
Mads Bruegger uses humor to infiltrate and expose life and art in oppressive North Korea. When government officials agreed to host a show performed by two South Korean-Danish comedians, they expected a propaganda coup, not realizing that Bruegger planned all along to use the opportunity to create a caustic indictment of the closed society. But Bruegger himself didn't plan on clashing with one of the comedians, potentially putting them all in danger.
The apparent sighting of a long-thought-extinct ivory-billed woodpecker sets off Scott Crocker's investigatory film. While the fabled bird's re-emergence is validated by authorities, leading to Woodpeckermania in the neighboring community, corroborating evidence proves elusive, sparking a debate encompassing science, commerce, hope, and conservation.
"The Sound of Insects - Record of a Mummy"
Experimental filmmaker Peter Liechti crafts a poetic exploration of life, full of evocative, haunting images, serves as the visual counterpoint to the meticulous diary entries of a man who intentionally starved himself to death over the course of months, before his mummified remains were discovered.
"Diary of a Times Square Thief"
Purchasing an unusual journal from eBay, Klaas Bense tracks down the people and places described within, centered around a 1980s Times Square dive hotel. Using clues from the journal's frustrated author's entries, he discovers what has become of them in the intervening years, constructing a bittersweet paean to a lost time and place, while at the same time bringing audiences along for an always-engaging bit of private detective work.
"The Wild Hearts"
Michael Noer follows an unusually tightly knit group of young male friends as they celebrate unabashed freedom and brotherly love on a moped journey from Denmark to Poland. They, and the film, are completely unselfconscious - these straight guys frequently run around naked, hug and kiss one another, while also branding each other and engaging in other "Jackass"-style shenanigans. Keeping a sense of whimsy and highlighting their shared experience, Noer creates a unique and refreshing look at male friendship.
A bingo hall and the various personalities who seek lady luck's grace are at the center of Alan Black's featurette. From the senior who would "die of boredom" if she didn't come six days a week (she begrudingly stays home on the seventh to deal with her housekeeper), to the middle-aged couple who met playing bingo, each subject seeks a respite from their daily lives, and, just maybe, a chance to call out "bingo!" In less than an hour's running time, Black succeeds in crafting a quiet, humanistic portrait of familiar, universal characters.
"Cooking History" Peter Kerekes mixes the Food Network with the History Channel to offer up a strangely delectable and wry view of past wars as seen through those responsible for feeding its combatants. With recipes accompanying its subjects' recounting of preparing bread for German troops, or blintzes for Soviet soldiers, the film casts a unique glance on food during wartime.
[Basil Tsiokos is Programming Associate, Documentary Features for the Sundance Film Festival.]