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Hot Docs ’09: Growing Up, Confronting Reality

Hot Docs '09: Growing Up, Confronting Reality

The first weekend of the 16th annual Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, which opened this past Thursday, has already been marked with screenings of more than 75 programs featuring works representing over half of its impressive 171 title line up. Screenings attended have been near or at capacity, as public and industry audiences continue to flock to what has quickly become the largest documentary event in North America.

Showcasing the best non-fiction work from Canada and around the world, a number of titles screening here have made their initial appearances elsewhere on the festival circuit but make their Toronto premiere here, including highlights such as “Art & Copy,” “Objectified,” “Best Worst Movie,” “Defamation,” “Zombie Girl,” “Stolen Art,” and “Themis as a Lady of Loose Morals,” and, later in the week, “Burma VJ,” “Rough Aunties,” “The Cove,” “We Live in Public,” “The Way We Get By,” “Roadsworth,” “Outrage,” and “Fixer,” among many others.

Among the nearly 40 films making their world premiere at Hot Docs, a number focus on adolescence, fitting for a festival celebrating its sweet sixteen. One of the most affecting and impressive is “When We Were Boys,” an intimate observational portrait of the lives of students at a private boys’ school here in Toronto. Director Sarah Goodman provides audiences unparalleled access to the school and home lives of a handful of teens over the course of two years, her camera capturing the complex, subtle power dynamics of friendship, cliques, and status at play during schoolboy pranks and extracurricular activities. By the time its too-brief 81 minutes is up, the protagonists of “When We Were Boys,” Noah and Colin, have become fascinating, indelible characters. As Goodman explained at the screening, accompanied by the slightly older and noticeably taller young men, her film aims to explore “adolescence as a time when kids go internal – and, for boys, this may be even more profound, with whole emotional worlds happening under the surface but not expressed.”

Adolescence is also at the center of another powerful world premiere, Hubert Davis’ “Invisible City.” In contrast to the privileged, white students in Goodman’s film, “Invisible City” instead focuses on the slightly older Mikey and Kendell, black kids living in Toronto public housing who are forced to grow up too quickly, facing the temptations of gangs and drugs which systematically enforce a cycle of poverty, lack of education, and prison. Trying to help them dream beyond the boundaries of their community is Ainsworth Morgan, their mentor and teacher. Lester sensitively follows their story over three years, charting their triumphs and setbacks as they make the transition to manhood.

To round out the theme is Claude Jutra’s 1965 “Wow,” a rarely screened film that is part of the festival’s special sidebars, Spotlight on the NFB at 70, celebrating the venerable National Film Board of Canada. “Wow,” a frankly odd but strangely engaging meld of documentary interviews and flights of fancy narrative dream sequences, serves as a portrait of teenage angst and rebellion amongst nine French-Canadian youth. Between black and white interview sequences eliciting the teenagers’ opinions on love, sex, drugs, friendship, parents, and their plans for the future, Jutra inserts the subjects’ often outlandish dramatized fantasies – from streaking through city streets to becoming a rockstar god.

Eschewing fantasy for stark reality, “Love at the Twilight Motel,” also premiering here, explores the down and dirty truth behind the doors of Miami’s busy rent-by-the-hour motels frequented by cheating spouses, sex workers, and the men and women who employ them. Employing a confessional style, director Alison Rose’s film gives voice to habitues of these hotels, laying bare their secret lives. While the film gets maudlin at times, and could make some judicious trims to its manipulative score, “Twilight Motel” succeeds in offering a window to understanding its subjects’ motivations.

Another world premiere, Liz Canner’s “Orgasm, Inc,” also explodes fantasies – or, rather, fabrications – as it attempts to make sense of “Female Sexual Dysfunction,” a “disorder” recently coined by the pharmaceutical industry in order to monetize drugs that may or may not help women achieve orgasm. Maintaining a playful tone, Canner’s film nevertheless serves as an indictment of greed at the expense of women who have too long been kept in the dark about their own bodies and sexuality.

In the coming week, Hot Docs will present the balance of their non-fiction programming as well as the two-day Toronto Documentary Forum. Further dispatches from Toronto will follow from indieWIRE.

[Basil Tsiokos is Programming Associate, Documentary Features for the Sundance Film Festival.]

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