Hot Docs

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.

Hot Docs Review: Hebron Relocation (Holly Andersen, 2023)

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“Hebron was a name I heard a lot growing up,” says Holly Andersen at the outset of Hebron Relocation. “But I never knew the full story.” Over the course of its brief runtime, the film follows Andersen as she works to find out more of the story.

Hebron was an Inuit Settlement located in Northern Labrador whose inhabitants were forced to relocate after it was shut down in 1959 by government officials. Living in a house that was once inhabited by some of the relocatees is what initially drives Andersen to want to learn more about exactly what went down – even though it’s all before her time, she feels it’s now a part of her history too. Along the way, she speaks to people with some connection to Hebron’s past, including one of the last surviving relocatees, in order to find out more of the story. It’s not a happy tale, but as the granddaughter of one of the relocatees notes, it’s important to talk about these things “to understand where we fit … and why some things dont feel right”

How much do we really know about the places we call home? Often not that much. Hebron Relocation examines this question through the eyes of director Andersen, ultimately concluding that an understanding of the history of the places we live in can enrich and deepen our connection to those places.

Hot Docs Review: Coven (Rama Rau, 2022)

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Witches and witchcraft have been a fairly common element across many cultures while also having a fairly constant presence within popular culture over the years. And while witchcraft has often been associated with evil and darkness, there has also been a growing trend over the years of women who are drawn to witchcraft as a way of reclaiming their power in this world and finding a greater sense of self. Coven is a portrait of three such women as they go on their journey, with each one following her own unique path.

That journey takes them to New Orleans, Scotland, and Romania respectively and while each of these women have their own personal reasons for entering the world of witchcraft, there are some common themes. Aside from the notion of becoming a witch as a way to push back against the patriarchy, there’s also a strong sense that each of them see it a way to make a deeper connection with their past, with two of the women looking into making connections with their past lives and all of them finding a deeper cultural connection to witchcraft.

“I think also it’s become a trend,” says Ayo Leilani, aka Witch Prophet, at one point in regards to the growing popularity of witchcraft amongst some women. “It’s cool. Okay, but … this is real. This is real.”

At this point, I’m sure there were probably a few viewers thinking, “Is it, though?” For those of us with a strong skeptical streak, it’s hard to take all of this talk of witchcraft at face value. To her credit, director Rama Rau never does question the veracity of her subjects’ beliefs as that’s not really the point of this documentary.

It’s less important whether all of this is real or not and more important that what these women are getting out of their connection to witchcraft is absolutely real. There’s something that these women gain from this that changes each of their lives considerably. Whether you’re a witch or not, going on a journey of self discovery and finding a deeper connection to something is a notion we can all relate to.

Hot Docs Review: Time Bomb Y2K (Marley McDonald and Brian Becker, 2023)

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In a Q&A following Saturday night’s screening of Time Bomb Y2K, Peter de Jager commented that while he’s appeared before in other documentaries on the Y2K bug and surrounding issues, Time Bomb Y2K is the first one for which he’s ever chosen to appear onstage alongside the directors. He attributes this to the fact that, in his eyes, this film is the first one to perfectly capture the zeitgeist of Y2K. It’s a zeitgeist that is all too familiar today, with eerie parallels emerging between the end of the 20th Century and modern times.

The film, directed by Marley McDonald and Brian Becker, is made up entirely of archival footage from the time, taken from a variety of sources, everything from news coverage (the directors noted that, though they were telling the story from a mostly American perspective, they found that CBC news often had better coverage) to home videos to relevant clips from popular film and TV of the day.

Through it all, de Jager is the closest thing we get to a protagonist, with the film returning to footage of the Canadian computer engineer as he continues to spread the word about the dangers of ignoring Y2K, even as he is accused by some of profiting off of Y2K paranoia.

Paranoia and fear are, of course, a throughline in the film’s depiction of the years leading up to the year 2000. And while the film’s tone often takes a look at the lighter side of it all, the footage of militia/prepper/conspiracy types and those who were in fact working to spread misinformation and fear is also at times both sad and a little scary. For instance, there’s a clip of Jack Van Impe shown on screen at one point which really drives home how utterly insane some of these Y2K theories were. And also reminds one how similar conspiracy theories continue to thrive today.

Ultimately, Time Bomb Y2K is a compelling look at a moment in human history that serves as both a walk down memory lane for those who lived through it and a solid introduction for those who weren’t there. Plus, it features footage of Kenny G playing “Auld Lang Syne” to ring in the new millennium and any film that features Kenny G in a big climactic scene is alright in my books.