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Hot Docs 2020: 10 of the Most Exciting Films in This Year’s Lineup

Even in strange times, the non-fiction festival has delivered a robust lineup filled with potential.

Like so many of its festival brethren, this year’s Hot Docs Festival has pivoted into online-only spaces, turning its (initially postponed) 2020 edition into an entirely virtual affair. But while the beloved documentary festival won’t have the usual physical gathering, this year’s full lineup is a robust one, with over 140 films and online events. Those titles include both world premieres unique to Hot Docs, along with some of the year’s best new docs getting another platform.

The festival has preserved one aspect of its existence in that not everyone will be able to access this year’s lineup: The program can only be streamed by audiences in Hot Docs’ native province of Ontario (through individual tickets and package deals) right here. For everyone else, we’ve noted other festivals and venues where these Hot Docs selections will be playing in the coming weeks. Here are 10 Hot Docs selections to get excited about right now; here’s hoping they’ll all find life beyond the festival.

“9/11 Kids”

Every American of a certain age remembers where they were on the morning of 9/11, and every American of a certain age also remembers where President Bush was on the morning of 9/11. It’s one of those bizarre historical details that’s always felt too fitting to forget: Bush was visiting a (predominately black) classroom of second-grade students at Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida, and reading along with “My Pet Goat” when an aide whispered to him that America was under attack. When Bush left the school after addressing the nation, history left with him. Almost 20 years later, Elizabeth St. Philip’s “9/11 Kids” doubles back to ask what happened to those students after the world looked away from them.

It sounds like a flimsy premise for a documentary, and the results might have been underwhelming had St. Philip overplayed the effect that morning had on those 16 gifted young minds. But “9/11 Kids” leverages that fateful moment into a far-reaching examination of race and otherness in America, and how that awful history entered a new chapter when a group of brown men flew two planes into the Twin Towers and rattled an entire country. Catching up with the individual students (who are horrifyingly now all grown up) and unpacking the ups and downs of how they’ve fared in the world, St. Philip’s film poignantly explores why the most vulnerable Americans become the victims of American vulnerability. —DE

“All That I Am”

Tone Grøttjord-Glenne made waves on the festival circuit earlier this year as a producer of Berlinale sensation “Gunda,” which focuses on the life of a pig. Now, she has directed her second feature, “All That I Am,” another non-fiction narrative with an unconventional protagonist: An 18-year-old Norwegian woman who moves back in with her estranged family after spending years in a foster home. In the process, she’s forced to confront the darker aspects of her past, including the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her imprisoned stepfather.

This heavy material is matched with an intimate portrait of the defiant Emile, as she pushes past the scariest aspects of her past to carve a path to a better future. It’s exactly the sort of personal take on a dark but essential subject that benefits from the festival platform, even in these strange times. The film is expected to arrive at a number of other festivals in the coming months. —EK

“Cane Fire”

“Cane Fire”

Director Anthony Banua-Simon’s eye-opening look at the Hawaiian island of Kauai peels back the history of racist caricatures that has fueled the oppression of the Indigenous Hawaiians across generations. The film blends archival material with contemporary footage as it tracks four generations of the director’s family, mixing the dangers of Hollywood mythologizing with its real-world impact. The result offers a necessary corrective to the perception of Hawaiian identity that diagnoses the problem of representation in pop culture through the filmmaker’s own deeply personal lens. Across the ages, working-class Hawaiians have been perceived as background characters in white narratives; “Cane Fire” aims to make up for missed time by putting the right faces in focus. —EK

“A Colombian Family”

Colombia’s decade-spanning civil war has affected millions of people over the years, but its personal ramifications have been widely misunderstood. Director Tanja Wol Sørensen follows a 30-year-old woman who visits her mother after spending a decade in Cuba just as Colombia signs a promising peace deal with FARC rebels in 2016. The movie provides an inside look at the way Colombia’s history of political strife and violent division took a toll on ideologically divided households. As the daughter attempts to get her mother to leave home and give up on trying to survive under dire circumstances, the peace deal begins to unravel, and the movie tracks the constant frustrations of living within a conflict that shows no sign of letting up. If you aren’t up to speed on the country’s biggest sociopolitical challenge, this selection is just the ticket. —EK

“Daddy”

The perfect documentary for frazzled new parents who feel like they weren’t ready for the challenge of raising children, the tragicomic “Daddy” shows us that even someone like Brendan Cooney — an American anthropologist who spent his career finding the beauty in human nature — was blindsided by the tiny screeching toddlers who somehow got inside his home. Cooney, who co-directed this film with Lars Emil Leonhardt, never saw it coming; he fell in love with a Danish woman on his first night in Copenhagen, and wound up starting a new life (or three) in a foreign country where he didn’t even speak the language. The situation felt like an ambush, but Cooney was resolved not to abandon his kids the way that his own mother had abandoned him.

Filmed over the course of five grueling years (here edited down to a tight 65 minutes of confessional home video footage) “Daddy” offers a rare, unvarnished look inside the mind of a new father as he starts to realize just how difficult it is to raise someone without running away. Raw, candid, and perversely empathetic, this is a doc about the bittersweet agony of not being able to understand your parents until you find yourself becoming them — despite a lifetime of insisting that you’d grow up to become anyone else. —DE

“Dark City: Beneath the Beat”

“Dark City: Beneath the Beat”

In 1927, filmmaker Walter Ruttman rendered Berlin as a cinematic symphony; in 2020, TT the Artist uses her camera to remix Baltimore into a 65-minute banger. A full-body ode to her hometown and the incredible people who keep it bouncing in spite of everything else, “Dark City Beneath the Beat” isn’t just a blood-stained but ecstatically hopeful love letter to Bmore, it’s also the most danceable movie this side of “Girl Walk//All Day.”

Taking a DJ-inspired approach to documentary cinema that finds TT seamlessly looping archival footage and original dance sequences into a kind of hyper-expressive cinematic flashmob, “Dark City” explodes onto the streets of Baltimore in a burst of fire. Man-on-the-street interviews with local icons like producer Mighty Mark (who contributed to TT’s killer score for the film) blur into expressively choreographed dance sequences on the strength of a thick beat that allows the whole town to feel like it’s moving in place. The film captures nothing less than the rhythm of a city in motion. —DE

“The Dilemma of Desire”

If nothing else, Maria Finitzo’s alternately very funny and intensely informational “The Dilemma of Desire” will instill a brand new vocab word in its viewers’ minds: “cliteracy.” Following the unique stories of four bold women — including artist Sophia Wallace (the creator of “cliteracy”), Dr. Stacey Dutton (intent on pushing the publishing industry to stop leaving out vital parts of female anatomy in its textbooks), Dr. Lisa Diamond (dedicated to reframing ideas about female arousal), and Ti Chang (the head of a company that builds “elegant” vibrators) — Finitzo’s film takes a thrilling look at female bodies.

What the filmmaker and her subjects ultimately find goes beyond just questions of art, science, and representation (like that’s not already enough), offering a full spectrum look at how ignoring anatomy feeds into all corners of existence. By its end, good luck not being suddenly, immensely cliterate. The film is expected to arrive at a number of other festivals in the coming months. —KE

“First We Eat”

One of the more timely entries in this year’s Hot Docs selection will speak to anyone currently wondering how to live in isolation. Director Suzanne Crocker (“All the Time in the World”) tracks her family’s yearlong experience as they attempt to live off socially sourced food in a desolate Yukon community where the Arctic Circle is closer than any major city. But the Crockers are a resourceful bunch, as “First We Eat” finds them living off the land to the best of their abilities while coming up with inventive and even shocking ways to keep their food flavorful (including, gulp, a little human blood for seasoning).

Viewers keen on putting their own culinary struggles in context will not want to miss this snapshot of what it’s like to mine for resources as if one’s life depended on it. For the Crockers, it really did. The film will premiere at New Zealand’s DocEdge and is expected to arrive at a number of other U.S. and Canadian festivals in the coming months. —EK 

“For the Love of Rutland”

“For the Love of Rutland”

Filmmaker Jennifer Maytorena Taylor has long been captivated by stories about people seemingly torn between cultural and societal expectations (from her short “Redneck Muslim” to the heartbreaking “Daisy and Max”), and her latest slots neatly into those obsessions. Set in hard-working but struggling Rutland, Vermont (a small city close enough to this writer’s own hometown that it contains my Walmart of choice), “For the Love of Rutland” follows wife and mother Stacie, who is scrapping to get by on diminishing benefits.

Stacie’s story alone is worth the follow, but Taylor uses it as a canny way to explore another side of Rutland: what happened when the city’s mayor approved the arrival of 100 Syrian refugees into a place already struggling to mete out the few jobs and opportunities it did have. What comes next is told through Stacie’s perspective, as she becomes an unexpected vessel for dozens of timely stories. —KE

“I Want You If You Dare”

Filmmaker Dagmar Smržova’s Czech-language offering is filled with surprises and incredible characters (i.e. real people!). Single mother Martina has always carved her own path, a characteristic that also rules the lives of her twin daughters (blind Katerina and Jana, who has cerebral palsy), who have defied all sorts of odds to make their own way in the world. But while Katerina has been able to move out on her own, Jana is still alongside her mother, and her desire to set out for a supported-living center sets in motion all sorts of new concerns.

Also top of mind: Jana’s desire for her first sexual experience, an idea her mother fully supports, even as she balks at the possibility that Jana wants to do something really wild (like move out of her house). As Jana’s independence grows, so too must her mother’s acceptance of it, all playing out in this nuanced and unsentimental documentary about tough choices (and tougher people). —KE

This year’s Hot Docs Festival starts streaming May 28 and runs until June 6, with many selections remaining available for viewing until June 24.

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