The Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, which wrapped up over the weekend, played several highlights from festivals such as Sundance, SXSW, and Tribeca. But Hot Docs was also a place for discovery, with a handful of new premieres getting their first shot at North American audiences as well as industry attention. Here are eight titles (in alphabetical order) to keep an eye out for at a festival near you.
“The Arms Drop”
This Danish documentary is a compelling and emotionally satisfying conspiracy thriller, which interweaves the stories of two men caught in a web of geopolitical intrigue — one seeking justice for his unfair treatment by the British and Indian governments; the other facing extradition and, potentially, torture in India. One of the protagonists, a well-mannered, erudite and embittered British arms dealer named Peter Bleach, could have come right out of the pages of a John LeCarre novel.
“The Closer We Get”
Winner of the festival’s top international jury prize, Scottish director Karen Guthrie’s personal documentary is a vivid chronicle of her coming to terms with a twofold loss, one past, one present — of her coherent nuclear family, which was shattered years before by her father’s quasi-abandonment working in Africa, and then again when her mother, the family anchor, suffers a stroke. Guthrie’s sensitive and beautifully photographed approach takes a specific story of family dysfunction and post-colonial confusion and transforms it into a profound and universal look at the complicated bonds between husband and wife, parents and children.
Another fascinating and surreal examination of China’s hyper-capitalistic rush into the extreme reaches of postmodernity, this highly composed documentary looks at the replication of a scenic Australian town named Hallstatt — cobblestone by cobblestone — in an undeveloped track of land in China. With a wry point of view and a playful blending of filmmaking modes, where it’s difficult to distinguish between real and imagined, the film raises thought-provoking questions about the nature of authenticity, creativity, and happiness.
Kinshasa, Congo. A train station with no trains. A car with no wheels. Fire trucks with no water. Tea without tea leaves. Such is life for the inhabitants of a section of Congo’s capital city, where modern life seems to have passed them by and left them in a post-colonial, post-dictatorial malaise. This elegantly composed portrait follows a few people in the town, who appear to be living embodiments of the country’s inertia — a train guard, a lieutenant fireman, a post-office worker — who sit and wait for change. One day, however, modernization finally arrives. Wry, delicately paced and sharply observed, the film provides a revealing look at the hopes, challenges and contradictions of contemporary African urban life.
“The Living Fire”
An extraordinary tour-de-force of cinematography and sound design and winner of the Special Jury Prize, Ukrainian director Ostap Kostyuk’s patient chronicle of sheepherders in the Carpathian Mountains marks the arrival of a major new talent in nonfiction cinema. Many strong images linger in the mind: a beetle crawling on a smiling old man’s bushy eyebrow; a hut filled with a crackling fire under a giant full moon; silhouetted cows chewing grass against a dark blue dusk horizon; and a remarkably haunting and mystical nighttime sequence involving the birth of a baby sheep. Lives begin and end, but everything goes back to the earth.
Filmmaker David Shapiro (co-director of “Keep the River on Your Right”) follows Martina Batan, the director of a prominent New York art gallery, who has suffered through depression and insomnia ever since her teenage brother was killed in 1978. The unsolved murder has left her literally blocked — aptly illustrated by the large square Lego block she somnambulantly labors over in the wee hours of the night.
While Batan hires a private investigator in an attempt to find out the truth behind her brother’s death, she also diligently seeks out the artwork of self-identified New Orleans “gangster” painter Roy Ferdinand, a deceased artist whose violent imagery resonates with Batan’s plagued consciousness. These dual journeys are filled with surprising developments and revelations, with Batan forming an unlikely bond with Ferdinand’s sisters at the same time as she learns the harrowing realities of her sibling’s past. Beautifully shot by cinematographer Lisa Rinzler and produced by doc veteran Alan Oxman, “Missing Persons” is a powerful and subtly touching portrait of psychological trauma and loneliness.
“Stand By For Tape Back-up”
A unique kind of mix-tape performance art-piece, which has shown in live versions throughout the U.K., British director Ross Sutherland’s video feature is composed entirely of brief clips of ‘80s popular culture touchstones such as “Ghostbusters,” “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” “Jaws” and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” recorded by the filmmaker’s grandfather. Over these deteriorating video images, which are replayed, slowed down, frozen and dissected, Sutherland speaks in voiceover — sometimes confessional, sometimes rapping — a funny and thoughtful running commentary, equal parts media re-appropriation and personal meditation on death, depression, and grief.
On the surface, this chronicle of a team of Palestinian female racecar drivers looks like your standard crowd-pleasing competition documentary, transplanted to the Middle East with a feminist spin. And while it is that, it’s also a refreshing stereotype-breaker and a vivid illustration of the diversity of the Palestinian experience. One of the girls is a Mexican-born Latina Palestinian who gets stars painted on her nails; another is a drift-racing tomboy who lives in a majestic villa with a fantastic view; a third lives in a tiny house in Jenin.
Some of them can travel freely into Israel; others need a special permit. And their fathers — contrary to ideas about a restrictive Muslim patriarchy — are their biggest fans. And no matter their class or background, they’re still subject to Israeli aggression. As one of the characters says, “It doesn’t matter if you’re pretty; they’re still going to shoot you.”