Hot Docs

Hot Docs/CMW Review: Aim For The Roses (2016, John Bolton)

Posted on by Paul in Canadian Music Week, Hot Docs | Leave a comment

Aim For The Roses is a story about obsession. It’s a common theme for filmmakers, though director John Bolton takes an uncommon approach in his film, which is fitting since the subjects of Aim For The Roses each have rather uncommon passions and uncommon approaches to life. In a way, it’s the story of one man’s obsession with another man’s obsession.

Aim For The Roses tells the story of Mark Haney, a Vancouver musician described by friends and associates in the film as “kind of a renaissance man” who “wears interesting suits” as well as “a monomaniacal, obsessive character.” Amongst Haney’s many obsessions (which also include a passion for Archie Comics) is his fascination with Canadian daredevil Ken Carter, who made a bit of a name for himself in the 1970s and ’80s through various stunts and who apparently considered himself to be greater than Evel Knievel. We see Carter’s story unfold through some archival footage as well as dramatized segments playing out in conjunction with the story of Haney’s decision to create his own double bass concept album (also entitled Aim For The Roses) based around Carter’s life story.

It’s an intriguing and entertaining look at Haney’s creative process and inspirations, which include the creation of various characters to represent different elements of Carter’s story as well as composing a musical representation of the first 499 digits of Pi to run throughout the score. He definitely seems like an interesting character, though his quirks are perhaps topped by those of Ken Carter. After all, it takes a certain type of person to willingly risk his life multiple times for the sake of making, in Carter’s own words, “the ultimate statement.” Ultimately, Aim For The Roses is about the quest to make something more of yourself and the journey one must go through to make that ultimate statement.

Hot Docs Review: The Pearl of Africa [2016, Jonny von Wallström]

Posted on by Ricky in Hot Docs | Leave a comment


A gorgeously shot film that is more style over substance, The Pearl of Africa follows the journey of Cleopatra Kambugu, a transgender woman living in Uganda, a country with heavily punitive anti-LGBT laws. Cleopatra is outed publicly and has to leave her country. We follow her and her boyfriend to Thailand as she seeks and undergoes gender confirmation surgery. The director of the film was a former cinematographer and the quality of the film really highlights that. The lighting on each shot was thrilling and at times you could convince yourself that you were watching a music video. As stylish as this was, the film fails to provide some basic information that viewer would wish to know, including:

- How did Cleopatra get outed by a tabloid?
– What did she do for a living? How did they afford to go to Thailand?
– How did they make it back to Africa?

Apparently this documentary was put together from a series of web-documentaries, so perhaps something was missed in the editing stage. The topic is fascinating; I just wish there was more information for this story, which deserves to be told.

For screening times, go here

Hot Docs Review: Diving into the Unknown [Juan Reina, 2016]

Posted on by Gary in Hot Docs | Leave a comment


Claustrophobia affects 2-5% of the world’s population. But I really don’t think you need to go to a clinical extent in order to feel some anxiety in caves. At times beautiful, they are one of the few terrestrial conditions where humans are just not evolutionarily adept. Fill them with water (that other element in which humans are not designed to excel), make that water near-freezing, and glacial underwater caves are literal death traps.

Scuba divers go to extreme lengths in terms of technology, planning and preparations to undertake the sport. A few years ago, a team of 5 experienced Finnish divers were trapped in a Norwegian underwater cave system. Intending to film the deepest part of the dive, and having started in two teams from both ends of the caves, they met trouble midway and lost two men when they became stuck in a narrow passage, blocking the entire system. The 3 others survived, one with severe spinal cord injuries that meant he would never dive again. Yet the ordeal wasn’t over. An international team of Norwegian and British rescuers could not complete the operations to retrieve the remains.

Diving into the Unknown starts from this juncture, when the survivors were driven to run a (technically) illegal operation to recover the bodies of their friends. The film is straight-forward, documenting the logistics, the macabre considerations of body selvage, and the mental challenges for the divers at the prospect of not simply revisiting a place where they saw death, but looking into the faces of dead friends. It isn’t over-laden with details, but it was 30 minutes into the film that we could glimpse of the layout of the caves and compute just what a nightmare they were working with. You can feel the light touch of the filmmakers, and perhaps a nod to Nordic restraint, when dealing with such a delicate subject. Diving into the Unknown falls on the cold and technical side of the emotional spectrum, with clean and sleek graphics, calming (they have to be, to prevent excessive carbon dioxide generation) diving sequences, and matter-of-fact narration. This is really what the documentary medium is designed to do: allow us to live vicariously through another. In this film, you get a visceral sense of the contradiction and juxtaposition: cave dives go from serenely rewarding to disorientingly catastrophic in a matter of seconds. And there is often nothing you can do about it – which for this modern era is probably the most difficult aspect to overcome. But upon seeing that the divers emerge from the air-water interface more astronauts than sportsmen, you can really appreciate that fact of their lives.

This is certainly not a light subject. But it is worthwhile if you have the stomach.

Diving Into The Unknown screen 3 times at Hot Docs this year, May 1st, 3rd, and 8th.

Hot Docs Review: Peacemaker [James Demo, 2016]

Posted on by Gary in Hot Docs | Leave a comment


Human beings relish the idea of “sides”. We are small group, social animals at heart. We are born into sides; we take sides and switch sides throughout our lifetimes. Different sides, with frivolous names like religion, ethnicity, race, gender, nationality, etc, impart a sense of grandiosity, color one’s conscience, and impel people to make sacrifices beyond reason. It’s also weird that most “sides” strive unavoidably to expand in numbers and in power, at the expense of another. The irony is that this is a self-sustaining reaction – homogenous lump of humans beget splinter groups (because, we like having “sides”). Given that it will likely never end, how do you practically erase these boundaries, some cemented by millenia of bloodied memories, and have meaningful, working co-existence? What do you do in the mean time, if the penultimate scene before our mutually-agreed extinction is pandemonium?

You drink. Drink yourself silly. There is a reason why only minutes into Peacemaker, Padraig O’Malley was already walking to an Alcohol Anonymous meeting in Cambridge. The other: The John Joseph Moakley Professor of Peace and Reconciliation at UMass Boston is an alcoholic. And a pub owner, a Fulbright Scholar, and author of a dozen books on peace deals between mortal enemies like Protestant and Catholic factions in Northern Ireland, various warlords and religious groups in Africa and Iraq, Jerusalem Jews and Palestinians. A discussion on the quality of one’s sobriety is normally a peripheral subject in an AA meeting, if not a premature, fanciful hypothetical. But for O’Malley, that carries serious connotations. Peacemaking around the world became an addiction separate from alcoholism – but one that could take its place. He uses personal funds to arrange the logistics of co-localizing the right people, curating the concept of “Cities in Transition”, where peoples who have suffered inconsolable losses from indigestibly intricate conflicts can share practical experiences in reconciliation.

Despite an obvious material potential, Peacemaker isn’t an emotional or dramatic documentary. Watching negotiators dance the complex tango of give-and-take through words, not swords, is not particularly engaging – until one realizes the price of that hangs in the balance. One Irish politician summarized it bluntly – “We can try to work it out now, or try in 20 years. The only difference would be that a lot of people will have died”. The film doesn’t try to clarify or resolve any issue. It doesn’t take sides. It doesn’t even promote Cities in Transition or nominate other forums for resolving geopolitical conflicts. Its focus is squarely on O’Malley the person, his legacy, and his motivations. The fact that he tirelessly works to resolve conflicts through negotiations and brokered peace accords, often at a high cost to himself, makes him no less interesting than any other bewilderingly driven, insatiable personalities.

Peacemaker doesn’t portray O’Malley’s alcoholism as an escape from the his experiences. Rather, it is woven into the portrayal as both a flaw and a potent weapon. Throughout, it is narrated, if at all, by recordings of O’Malley and conversations, revealing the facets of a tired and worn man who is afraid of the consequences of quitting, on himself and the world around him. As one particularly great scene occurred at a UHaul warehouse, when a steel gate comes down and O’Malley is caught right underneath. “It’s timed”, his companion said, “It’s timed. It comes down automatically.” If that’s not apropos, then I don’t know the meaning of the word.

Peacemaker will screen again on May 7th, 1:15PM.