Hot Docs

Hot Docs: The Defector: Escape From North Korea [2013, Ann Shin]

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An intense and gripping affair, The Defector follows a group of North Korean defectors as they try to make the 3000+ kilometer journey to escape out of China on their way to claiming refugee status.

Directed by Ann Shin, we are quickly thrown into a world of safe houses, secret meetings, hidden cameras and a particularly mysterious broker named Dragon. The man is responsible for guiding the defectors to freedom but seems morally ambiguous (he is still, running a business). Dragon’s methods and actual motivations are constantly in question and as such is of great stress for both the crew and defectors. Among the defectors we meet are Sook-Ja and Yong-Heem two North Korean ladies who have already suffered through a lifetime of hardships in both North Korea and China. Yong-Hee was instantly sold to a China businessmen to be his wife when she arrived in China while Sook-Ja has not heard from her sister (who also defected) in seven years.

At 70 minutes, this documentary moves ahead at the pace of an action packed television show. Computer graphics and staged scene shots are used to move the story along so at times, the slickness of it all might seem a bit too stylized at times but doesn’t take anything away from the film. Being an illegal operation, all the people involved had to have their identity hidden but it was done in a tasteful way as not be too much if a distraction throughout the film. As we follow the group from Yanji to Xian to their final destination, the constant threat of detection by Chinese officials looms large with everyone (including the film crew, who probably would have been screwed if they were discover) and that constant threat weighs on everyone and makes the documentary that much more engaging. I would have liked to hear some opinions from Chinese officials on the matter, but obviously, that wasn’t going to happen.

An entertaining, informative and beautifully shot film on human smuggling and the life and dangers that face North Koreans in and out of their country every day. Recommended.

Hot Docs Review: Tales from the Organ Trade [Ric Esther Bienstock, 2013]

Posted on by Gary in Everything, Hot Docs, Reviews | Leave a comment

There is a “little known” problem with money: it discourages a holistic valuation from a humane perspective. Everything can be transacted, but not everyone can agree on a fair price. Is it really moral to discourage organ trading while thousands die from conditions that are medically trivial if only given a supply that can match the demand? This is the value that Bienstock’s documentary questions. I can just imagine the Q&A session filled with outraged people with two healthy kidneys.

The title says organ, but the whole film is really about kidney trades. We are all familiar (but hopefully not intimately) with the hotel-ice-bath urban myth which has a genuine root in the skewed supply/demand balance: there’s too many people on dialysis and not enough kidneys for transplantation. Bienstock, a veteran Canadian documentary maker, assembled a cast of characters whose involvement with kidneys cover the spectrum of that balance – except the middlemen. Her attempts at an interview with the cash-supply of the Medicus operation was obviously met with silence. Frankly, I would question the authenticity (and in equal portion applaud her tenacity) had she succeeded where Interpol failed. But she did get interviews from the doctors involved in one particular case of international organ trafficking, and scores of donors, successful and waiting transplant patients, some lower-rung local traffickers, as well as prosecutors pursuing the doctors. The flow of the film generally follows two potential donors in the Philippines, but presents switchbacks between the multitude of people and presents kidney trafficking through such an mosaic.

While I feel that Tales is a very good motivational piece, it could have contained a bit more investigative value. The Medicus tangent served as a nice segway into how doctors, patients, donors and the blackmarket trade intersected, but it was not made into a focal point. But maybe I’ve watched one too many Frontline/ProPublica episode. One immediate departure from expectation is that the whole thing doesn’t feel depressing or ominous at all. The tone was clearly defiant, and one would not be confused on where Bienstock stood. It wrapped up with happy endings all around, and even ended with post-texts lambasting NGOs and governments as being politically-correct but factually immoral while Blur’s “Out of time” played as out-tro. It was cleanly edited with a minimal dose of infographics at the introduction. One thing it does well is introduce the audience to the diverse range of opinions – although again I feel that there’s a bias toward the positive. A slightly surprising fact is that in online, “altruistic” donor matching services, people still prefer to donate to those who are young and with potential. If chivalry is dead, altruism is probably extinct. While many of the participants (except the prosecutors) appear to be somewhat anti-establishment, at one point the Toronto patient on a waiting list (which is of course the longest one in Ontario) said: “Well if it’s not freely available, there’s a black market.” Exactly what compelled her to complain about Lake Ontario not brimming with salvageable renal material wasn’t very clear, but it did demonstrate the frustration of putting one’s life on dialysis for 9 years while your person is being ground through the system. That said, if you deem the legalization of drugs, alcohol, prostitution, homosexual marriage and other liberal propaganda a product of our morally bankrupt society, you might want to stay home and clean your guns with your 6 year-old.

Hot Docs: 15 Reasons to Live [2013, Alan Zweig]

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15 Reasons To live is the latest documentary from Toronto filmmaker Alan Zweig. In this film, we meet a series of characters, all of whom have found happiness – whether it is was temporary or sustained and their stories are relayed (and some might be re-enacted) in the documentary.

Based on the work of Ray Robertson, the film takes us through fifteen stories from a variety of people in all swaths of life. They have all found happiness at some point. These stories are have been categorized under broad terms such as “love”, “home” and “intoxication” for example. Some stories are particularly strong (a wife allows her husband to walk around the world for ten years, strangers team up to save a whale) and some seem rather odd (mother abandons her kids for hours at a time to go to a mall) but maybe the point of it is that everyone is different, and everyone finds happiness in different things. I am glad that some of the stories Zweig chose had archival footage, otherwise it would have been a series of talking heads followed by shots of the subjects walking around in random Toronto neighborhoods. As much as I like pointing out what places are during the film, it might not have provided for the most interesting visual experience for non-Toronto people. Zweig’s interviewing style for some of these stories is interesting, as he tends to talk about himself during the subject’s story (especially the introverted girl/boating story). I guess it’s his documentary and he can do whatever he wants.

While all the stories are just very loosely connected, the message of the film is clear. Everyone in the world can have happiness, it might come in odd shape and sizes, but it’s up to you to choose to find it. A pretty good message.

Sat, Apr 27 6:30 PM @ TIFF Bell Lightbox 1
Mon, Apr 29 1:30 PM @ Isabel Bader Theatre
Sun, May 5 1:30 PM @ TIFF Bell Lightbox 3

Hot Docs: Mistaken For Strangers [2013, Tom Berninger]

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mistaken for strangers

A rock documentary that’s not really quite one, Mistaken for Strangers is really a film about sibling dynamic/rivalries, the film making process and overcoming your very worst own enemies. We all know The National, the indie rock band from Cincinnati (now Brooklyn) that has taken the long road to success. Finally showing some mainstream success with 2010’s High Violet, the band seems to finally made its way to stadium sized crowds echelon of success. The leader of the band is Matt Berninger, the moody baritone singer of the group. He has a brother, ten years his junior and has this kinda Garden State what the hell am I doing with my life vibe to him. Through either love or pity, Matt invites him out to be a roadie for the band and in turn, Tom decides to make a documentary from it. Mistaken For Strangers is that documentary.

In the 90 minutes that follow, we will see a lot of things that would make a checklist of most rock docs, including

tour footage
backstage footage
band members goofing off
lots of shots in random cities
shots of band members sleeping

The thing that separates Mistaken For Strangers from the rest is the fact that it’s really not about the National, it’s actually about Tom Berninger. His relationship with his brother is clearly not strong (“I didn’t know you had never been to Europe” muses Matt in one scene) and as the tour progresses their relationship is pushed to the limits. Tom struggles to cope with his brother’s success and his own lack of direction/self control. There are blow ups and arguments and the documentary takes a surprising turn. In the end, what we get is an honest heartfelt film that deals with issues that most of us can identify with, only as an additional bonus, we get the benefit to peer into the lives of a beloved band as well.

Tue, Apr 30 9:15 PM @ The Royal Cinema
Thu, May 2 11:59 PM @ Bloor Hot Docs Cinema
Sun, May 5 4:00 PM @ Bloor Hot Docs Cinema