The 18th annual Hot Docs is an embarrassment of riches for documentary fans. Running April 28-May 8, it’s virtually impossible to catch a screening of every film one would like to see. Spotlighting more than 200 Canadian and international documentaries for Toronto audiences, the festival makes for a lot of tough but attractive viewing choices.
The eight titles below share a particular focus on questions of home and belonging – from explorations of literal dwellings to broader questions of nationhood and community.
Belgian director Lotte Stoops’ Mozambique-set “Grande Hotel,” which premiered earlier this year at Rotterdam, focuses on the titular building, once briefly a testament to Portuguese colonialism and now a crumbling reminder of the limits of power. The former luxury hotel, which only opened its doors to business for a few short years, has since become home to 2500 squatters, forming their own communities in its stripped-down shell. Stoops follows present-day residents on a tour of sorts as they search out a specific room that has particular resonance to them, while archival footage and the voices of past hotel guests provide an insight into the space’s glory days, when Africans would almost certainly not be welcomed except as employees.
Daniel Goldstein’s Brooklyn condo is the point of contention in Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley’s “The Battle for Brooklyn,” which makes its world premiere at Hot Docs. Goldstein’s building is in the footprint of Mayor Bloomberg’s ambitious Atlantic Yards’ economic development plan for the borough. While there are many uncertainties about the benefits promised by the project, developers and the city government are determined to move forward, making questionable use of eminent domain laws to essentially force people out. Not willing to go without a fight, Goldstein becomes an activist, little realizing that his battle will take seven years and cost him a relationship. Galinsky and Hawley found a great underdog in Goldstein and have constructed a thoroughly engaging look at the infuriating erosion of individual rights in the interest of corporate concerns and political maneuvering.
Depending on your political views regarding Israel, Igal Hecht’s “The Hilltops” will also likely have an exasperating effect. The Canadian filmmaker’s newest film, which also has its world premiere here, looks at a number of West Bank settlements, the contentious Jewish communities built on occupied Palestinian territory in defiance of international and Israeli law. In a statement read before the screening, Hecht, who was unable to attend, acknowledged that he refused to kowtow to those who would want to see the settlers demonized, preferring instead to let audiences form their own opinions. While it’s difficult to fully empathize with the subjects, Hecht certainly doesn’t demonize or coddle them. In interviews with the filmmaker, they explain that they view the lands as unquestionably belonging to Israel and matter-of-factly (if not arrogantly and self-righteously) field his difficult questions about their violations of the law and refusal to acknowledge Palestinian nationhood.
Who exactly constitutes a true member of a nation is at the heart of Laura Fairrie’s “The Battle for Barking,” which had its world premiere last year at Sheffield. The nation in question is the UK, and the right-wing (critics would say fascist) British National Party’s Nick Griffin is stirring up resentment against multiculturalism and immigration in advance of a Parliamentary election in order to unseat long time Labour MP Margaret Hodge. Screening during a particularly contentious Canadian national election this week, the riveting film resonated strongly with audiences, following both candidates as they rolled up their sleeves to get their platforms heard and to get the vote out. Fairrie does a laudable job gaining access to both campaigns, even if it was clear the BNP were particularly cautious about what they presented to her camera. Despite their reserve, the message of fear-mongering, scapegoating, and barely-disguised racist fears of the majority becoming the minority come to the forefront in tense confrontations with angry constituents, occasionally even leading to fisticuffs.
Though more subtle, similar concerns for a community’s well-being and existence are at the heart of the machinations of the title figure of Erika Hnikova’s Berlin Film Festival winner, “Matchmaking Mayor.” In this wholly entertaining doc, the well-liked mayor of the small Slovak village of Zemplínske Hámre begins a crusade to get the single thirtysomethings in the community married. The film has an appropriately comic tone, detailing the great lengths the mayor and his staff go to to facilitate dating and baby-making, culminating in an absurd singles’ dance complete with insulted invitees, forced icebreakers and innuendo-ridden announcements. But while the mayor’s obsession is clearly due to a concern that his population will age out, certain comments indicate a corresponding fear of the potential disappearance of “pure” Slovaks, making his hands-on attempts at social engineering take on a somewhat more disturbing eugenic tone. Still, the film is by far one of the funniest docs I’ve seen in a long time.
Young German filmmakers Mareille Klein and Julie Kreuzer offer a nuanced look at a more explicitly disturbing subject in their film “No Entry No Exit.” When residents of a small German town learn that a twice-convicted rapist/child molester, Karl D, has moved in with his brother Helmut and his family, they take to the streets outside Helmut’s house in protest, virtually trapping everyone inside under near-constant surveillance. They believe that he’s likely to hurt another young girl and want him out of their community. Helmut, on the other hand, can’t believe his brother is guilty — though he admits the first offense, Karl maintains his innocence for the second — and refuses to be bullied into abandoning family or leaving his own community. With tensions running high over long months, the protest shifts in unexpected directions. Karl nearly recedes into the background as the mob mentality starts to target Helmut instead, while some protestors seek to hear Karl’s view, enraging others from their tenuous alliance. Klein and Kreuzer intelligently craft their film — one of my favorites of the fest so far — refusing easy judgements in favor of a more complex consideration of the various shifting aspects of the story.
The strangely captivating “I Am Jesus,” from the festival’s Made in Italy spotlight, profiles three men who claim to be the second coming of the Christian Messiah – UK’s David Shayler, who lives with anarchist squatters and harbors a few surprises; Brazil’s INRI Cristo, whose followers largely consist of comely younger women; and Russia’s mysterious Vissarion, around whom an entire community of international acolytes has formed in Siberia. Filmmakers Valerie Gudenus and Heloisa Sartorato profile not only these would-be saviors, but also their followers, exploring how and why their devotion exists. Especially in the case of the Siberian Messiah, who maintains more of a distance, and INRI Cristo, who’s more of a publicity hound, the filmmakers focus more on the followers and the community they’ve built up, with the latter shown utilizing popular song parodies on YouTube to draw attention to their leader, and the latter willing to trek through subzero temperatures on a pilgrimage to receive Vissarion’s blessings. This consideration of the importance of belonging as part of their faith elevates the project from being a more simplistic portrait of eccentrics.
Finally, this issue of belonging is key to Linda Goldstein Knowlton’s “Somewhere Between,” which had its world premiere at Hot Docs this week. The director of “The World According to Sesame Street” embarked on this film after she adopted her young daughter from China. Concerned about the questions her daughter might ask her about identity and cross-cultural adoption, Goldstein Knowlton sought out teenage girls who were similarly adopted from China and raised in the US. Her young subjects speak eloquently about their experiences, and on their varying desire to reconnect with their places of origin to gain a greater sense of self, reach closure with their pasts, or find a truer sense of belonging to their original cultural and homeland. While the doc is unquestionably emotionally affecting, I felt that two of the young women’s stories — Fang, who bonds with a little Chinese girl with cerebral palsy and helps her get adopted; and Hailey, whose return to the site of her abandonment yields surprising results — overshadow the other two subjects, who I’m hard pressed to even remember at this point. In addition, the brief bookends, explaining via narration the filmmaker’s personal reasons for making the film, are unnecessary; I’d prefer to see them gone completely. Still, the film is successful at getting to the heart of some rather huge issues around identity and belonging.
ABOUT THE WRITER: Basil Tsiokos is a Programming Associate, Documentary Features for Sundance, consults with documentary filmmakers and festivals, and co-produced Cameron Yates’ feature documentary “The Canal Street Madam.” Follow him on Twitter (@1basil1 and @CanalStMadamDoc) and visit his blog (what (not) to doc).