Hot Docs

Hot Docs Review: Soviet Barbara, the Story of Ragnar Kjartansson in Moscow (Gaukur Ulfarsson, 2023)

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Ragnar Kjartansson is an Icelandic artist who works across multiple media, with his work often incorporating aspects of performance art. As one art critic puts it when describing his work, “Ragnar does not shy from frankly emotional works.” Another thing Ragnar apparently does not shy away from is putting on an ambitious show at a Russian art gallery at a time when maybe going to Russia is not the best plan.

Inspired by the surprising popularity of American soap opera Santa Barbara following the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, Kjartansson decided that alongside an exhibit of some of his older works, he would stage a fairly ambitious conceptual piece – a recreation of Santa Barbara live in the museum, in Russian. One episode per day for 99 days. Soviet Barbara tells the story of the ultimately aborted project and all of the challenges faced and compromises made along the way.

Among those challenges are the changes that have to be made to one piece, at first omitting a sexually explicit video that was part of the larger piece and representing it with a blank screen before being told that he couldn’t do that and then replacing it with a wry video of the exhibit’s promoters sitting by a fire and reading magazines. Another challenge is seen in Kjartansson’s attempts to walk the fine line of putting on a work with some subversive political messages while also doing interviews wherein he states that the work is not explicitly political.

This tension is also represented in the film as the exhibition is visited by two diametrically opposed guests – Russian president Vladimir Putin (who does not appear onscreen, and in fact Ragnar Kjartansson wasn’t even invited to the pre-opening party which Putin attended) and Pussy Riot’s Masha Alekhina. I’ll give you one guess as to which of those two Kjartansson is more politically alligned with. Also along for the ride are Santa Barbara co-creators Bridget and Jerome Dobson, with one amusing moment coming when Jerome is introduced to Masha and then asks whether he could be arrested for talking to her.

While the invasion of Ukraine ultimately forces Kjartansson to cancel his show (“I had to stop it. I couldn’t continue while this horror is happening.”), we at least still have this film to show us a bit of what could have been. It’s a compelling, entertaining story which also acts as a powerful examination of the power of art and its role in society.

Hot Docs Review: Praying For Armageddon (Tonje Hessen Schei, 2022)

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Praying For Armageddon examines the American fundamentalist evangelical movement and its growing connections to and influence over some elements of the U.S. government, including the military and foreign policy. While this connection is not exactly news to anyone who’s been following, well, the news over the past few years, it’s still a bit of a shock to see elected representatives saying things on camera like, “I believe Jesus will come back. And I’m gonna be on his side.” Isn’t this the same country whose constitution famously features a line about the separation of church and state? Then again, it’s also a country whose money proclaims “In God We Trust,” so mixed messaging is nothing new there.

Billing itself as a political thriller, Praying For Armageddon doesn’t exactly live up to that promise. Yes, it’s certainly political, and I suppose you could say there are some thrills, but while it’s a compelling story, it’s not quite Three Days Of The Condor or The Manchurian Candidate. What Praying For Armageddon does have going for it, though, is the fact that, unlike the other films I mentioned, this is real life – it’s all really happening. Which makes it all just a bit more frightening than your standard political thriller.

Hot Docs Review: Undertaker For Life! (Georges Hannan, 2022)

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I’m not going to lie – a small part of me was a little disappointed to learn that Georges Hannan’s Undertaker For Life! (aka Croque-mort. C’est beau la vie!) was a film about actual undertakers and not a documentary covering the life and times of WWE wrestler The Undertaker. However, once I got over that initial disappointment, I figured I’d give the film a chance anyways. And while the life of a pro wrestler and that of an undertaker are worlds apart, one thing that the film makes clear is there’s at least one thing they have in common – much like wrestling, being an undertaker is not that easy, and it’s definitely not for everyone.

Examining the life of an undertaker through interviews with several members of the profession, Undertaker For Life! is an interesting look at the inevitability of death, the importance of grieving, what it’s like to do the job of an undertaker. It may not always be the easiest of jobs, but as the film demonstrates, it’s an important one.

Hot Docs Review: The Man Who Stole Einstein’s Brain (Michelle Shephard, 2023)

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Based on the title alone, you’d be forgiven for jumping to the conclusion that The Man Who Stole Einstein’s Brain was some sort of strange, kitschy sci-fi movie from the ’50s rather than a documentary about a real life occurrence, though I suppose the story told in Michelle Shephard’s documentary is just as strange and unbelievable in its own way.

The tale begins, as you’d expect, with the death of Albert Einstein. Things take a bit of an unexpected turn once pathologist Thomas Stoltz Harvey takes it upon himself to remove Einstein’s brain, preserve it and then take it into his own personal custody for the purposes of studying it in the hopes of gaining some insight on what it was exactly that made the man a genius. Even more unexpectedly, Harvey then manages to convince Einstein’s family and the executor of his estate, Dr. Otto Nathan, that he should keep the brain and following that, goes on to do … nothing much at all with the brain for several decades.

It’s a bizarre yet fascinating story, and Shephard makes good use of audio clips from journalist Carolyn Abraham’s interviews with the man himself alongside interviews with his friends and family to paint a fairly sympathetic portrait of Harvey. That the story ends with a study being done decades after the fact indicating that there was something unique about the brain does help to vindicate Harvey’s decision and helps to make this story more than just an odd footnote to Einstein’s life story.

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