Hot Docs

HotDocs Review: Pipeline [Vitaly Mansky, 2014]

Posted on by Gary in Everything, Hot Docs, Reviews | 1 Comment

“There is a pipeline that runs from Siberia to Germany. We took a camera to it and here’s the result. Let’s talk after”. Through an interpretor, this was how the director introduced the film at the late night screening to his audience. And in a sense, his stoic honesty is appreciated. Pipeline is just that simple a documentary. You will see snow, machinery, a confluence of living conditions and attitude, all wrapped up in the title.

As video-journalism, Pipeline is atmospheric and succeeds in conveying the director’s vision. But I find the final product hard to digest. This is not because of content (the director does gravitate towards some graphic stuff), but the mundane nature of it all. Basically, the filmmakers went along the Siberia-Ukraine-Germany gas pipeline and filmed around every pumping station. How people deal with their lives, along the line, changes dramatically. This is, of course, the modus operandi of the film. It is also the source of tedium. There is little more frustrating than listening to farmers and shut-ins recount their lives, without any background, for the 5th time in 30 minutes. Yes, there is great contrast between how people in Cologne act compared to those living in Urengoy. And yes, we may even feel obligated to sympathize. But the film was unsuccessful in persuading me that the pipeline created the problem. If anything I feel that the Europe/Asia divide existed long before the oil/gas discovery and the eventual export in the 1980s. From my “Western” perspective, the film merely confirms my preconceived stereotypes. If Mansky aimed to reveal a deeper layer of thought, it was completely lost on me. Is this a lamentation to the dichotomy or an ode to the existing programs?

In the Q&A, Mansky mentioned that we should have noticed that the Ukrainians were the ones complaining, whereas the Siberians were oblivious and the Germans couldn’t care less. Why fault the ignorance of anyone when we lack direct answers for how they should act otherwise? Not that I demand an answer, of course. Perhaps it was even meant to be aimless. But a little hint of what’s over the horizon of snow and dreary couldn’t hurt.

Hot Docs: Happiness [2013, Thomas Balmès]

Posted on by Ricky in Hot Docs | Leave a comment


When the Bhutan government announced in 1999 that TV and Internet were coming to the country, it was the start of a large cultural shift in the country. Happiness is a documentary that takes a look at this shift through the eyes of a nine year old. Having grown up in a small (and gorgeous) mountain village, Peyangki is enrolled in a monastery to become a monk instead of school despite his objections.

The film shows footage of his day to day life and some of his struggles living the tradition way of life versus the newer go to school/then the city goals of the kids around him. Eventually, Peyangki does on a trip to the city and it is then we see the large contrast between the two worlds which currently inhabit Bhutan. the documentary that Thomas Balmès presents is an interesting look at a country that frankly, a lot of us don’t know about.

Bhutan is gorgeous and Happiness is a film that is more then willing to show you sweeping shots of valleys and mountains. The film itself is quite slow paced but perhaps it was done deliberately to reflect the way of life of the villagers. It might also be because a vérité style documentary about a nine year old monk probably does not yield a lot of story lines. My only thought was that the film should have shown more of the Peyangki’s trip to the country capital of Thimphu, but perhaps much like the life at monastery, there wasn’t a whole lot there either. Regardless, Happiness is an interesting look at a world that is pretty much foreign to most of us.

Check out Happiness: TIFF Bell Lightbox 1, Sun, May 4 11:00 AM

Hot Docs Review: Return to Homs [Talal Derki, 2014]

Posted on by Gary in Hot Docs | 1 Comment


You glance up from your off-balanced stance on a hole in the wall. There is a wrought iron gate; or, at least it used to be. Someone spent a few months of sweat and tears earning it. And now you trespass the threshold it once protected with impunity, into the ghostly lives of others: a TV here, a dresser there, and nothing but gunshots stir. You are searching for someone through this scattering of domesticity. He was a junior football star. You will ask of him to become more, and he will gladly comply. A construction worker, grave digger, singer/songwriter, amateur guerrilla soldier, even a symbol of hope, perhaps. But mostly a brother with whom to share. First life, then death.

Unwittingly and inappropriately romantic? Sure. But Return to Homs is just such a story. It manages to fly right between the haunting dichotomy of beauty and horror, landing safely in warm fuzzy blankets. Shot throughout the 2011 uprising and continuing siege of Homs, Syria, it centers on one rebel fighter (and off-screen, his extraordinarily conjoined cameraman) who couldn’t get the honorable ideal of freedom for his people out of his head, even as he continued to expend his 9 lives as a revolutionary. The transformation from peaceful protest to bloody rebellion was swift, and before long the film becomes a war documentary. Being from a war zone did not deter the cinematography – some of the footage is surprisingly well composed and the editing is at times dead/bang on (puns intended…).

This is probably one of the most light-hearted war documentaries that I have ever seen. I say that without making light of the hardship they are still trying to cope with. Perhaps due to the indefatigable optimism and determination of the protagonist, there was always renewed hope. Some may find it exemplary, I found it unnerving. Each on-screen death seems to generate gravity, lulling one into the false sense that some arbitrarily staggering body-count will eventually be sufficient that victory cannot escape their grasp. The more I describe it, however, the more I might introduce bias. So I will simply recommend this film. There are still active civil or violent protests out there in many countries in distinct parts of the world – a trend that may come to be the defining character of this decade. This is a film you owe to yourself, so that you can make sense of your place in the world.

Isabel Bader Theatre, Sat, May 3, 1:30 PM

Hot Docs: Watchers Of The Sky [Edet Belzberg, 2014]

Posted on by Gary in Hot Docs | Leave a comment


On the Origin of the Species was published in 1859. Of course, humans have been killing each other en masse long before Darwin could see finches. But since humanity realized that primitive connection, we still remain stubbornly genocidal. Just how can we move beyond and effectively deter warmongers, zealots, and mass murderers without entangling ourselves in the vicious cycle of revenge?

Watchers of the Sky is a study in genocide. From the Armenians during the Great War to Serbian Muslims in Bosnia, from The Holocaust to Rwandan genocide and the ongoing atrocities in Darfur, Edet Belzberg weaves a delicate and soul rending story around the neglected bones of Raphael Lemkin. Likely the best forgotten (seven times) Nobel Peace Prize nominee, he also happened to coin the term “genocide”. A Polish refugee in America, Lemkin worked to solidify genocide as a recognized crime world-wide in a convention within the then newly established UN. Yet the reason he is quickly forgotten is inextricably linked to human denial. The dilemma, as (I believe) Belzberg highlights, is that we recognize justice should be upheld by an outside or impartial, third party. But by definition, there is no third party for crimes against humanity (unless we can invite aliens into our courts). Furthermore, our concept of sovereign nation states guarantees that national interests and politics will always be intertwined with not just the resolution, but also the intervention of such crimes. “Watchers”, therefore, could only painfully detail past catastrophes and lay bare the current lack of legal and organizational resources to deter genocide.

As macabre a subject as it is, the film leaves a surprisingly serene footprint. Lest it be considered so, I guarantee that it doesn’t lack in graphic impact. Instead of frame after frame of mutilated bodies that can drive the audience to defensively shut down, however, “Watchers” uses stylish calligraphy overlays and artistic renders to soften the direct assault on ones psyche. I find that this allows the mind to process. Lemkin’s personal notes, the interview/narration of Ben Ferencz (chief prosecutor at Nuremberg Trials), Luis Moreno Ocampo (Prosecutor at trials of the Juntas in Argentina and now International Criminal Court) and Samantha Power (current UN ambassador of the United States), and first-hand account of Rwandan and Darfuri survivors are all tastefully assembled into an intelligible message that can sometimes be difficult to reach in these documentaries. At 120 minutes, it’s not for the fainthearted – but I wish more people would choose this over an asinine night with Frozen. If you do, make sure to stay until the very end for a bittersweet revelation.

Hart House Theatre, Tue, Apr 29, 7:00 PM
TIFF Bell Lightbox, Wed, Apr 30, 12:30 PM
Isabel Bader Theatre, Sat, May 3, 6:30 PM

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