Hot Docs

Hot Docs Review: Images of a Nordic Drama (Nils Gaup, 2021)

Posted on by Paul in Hot Docs | Leave a comment

Photo Credit: Paranord Film

As the old cliched saying goes, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and that phrase was certainly going through my mind while watching Images of a Nordic Drama.

In telling the story of Norwegian art collector Haakon Mehren and his quest to garner some recognition for relatively unknown artist Aksel Waldemar Johannessen, Images of a Nordic Drama examines the idea of what’s considered ‘real’ art, what gets allowed into the established canon and all of the issues that might arise when one dares to go against the art establishment.

After finding a cache of Johannessen’s long forgotten art in a barn, Mehren makes it his life’s mission to become Johannessen’s champion, constantly pushing for this art which he sees as a unique portrayal of the common people of the time. And while many come to agree with him on this, the elites of the Norwegian art scene, including those in charge of the National Museum, instead see Johannessen’s work as awful and unworthy, with some even suggesting the only thing it’s fit for is the rubbish bin.

While it seems unlikely that Johannessen’s detractors will ever change their opinions on him, the film makes it abundantly clear that Mehren’s life has been forever changed by his association with these paintings. And that, in itself, is a testament to the power of art to affect people, even if some can only see it as trash.

Sat, Apr. 30, 11;30 AM @ Varsity Cinema 8
Thurs, May 5, 8:45 PM @ Varsity Cinema 8

Hot Docs Review – Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street (Marilyn Agrelo, 2021)

Posted on by Ricky in Hot Docs | Leave a comment

street gang

Sesame Street is one of those institutions that we take for granted. It is on every day, it has a stable of characters most of us grew up with and it’s a great way to grab a child’s attention during the day.

But how did Sesame Street become an institution? And more importantly, how did it actually change television? These are some questions that Marilyn Agrelo answers with her heartwarming documentary Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street.

Make no mistake, this film is exactly what you think it is – a well produced documentary featuring all things good (and some bad – it is a documentary after all) behind the tale of Sesame Street. Featuring amazing archival footage and access to all the key individuals, this film perfectly encapsulates Sesame Street and celebrates how it came to be – and boy, what a story it is.

I, like most viewers, know Sesame Street for its lovable characters and quirky educational methods, but I was completely caught by surprise in discovering all the subtle agendas that the Sesame Street team (including writers and educators) had with this program. As the film reveals, the team behind the show wanted to not only educate in the academic sense but also wanted to address race, class, diversity and other difficult issues for children. In the world of documentary, you often see corporations painted in a negative light, but this film takes the opposite approach. Maybe that was deliberate on HBO’s behalf, but the child in me wants to believe that there are good people in the world, and this film really does do that.

In 2021, you can call that a relative triumph.

Hot Docs Review: Bangla Surf Girls (Elizabeth D. Costa, 2021)

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I suppose professional sports is as bizarre and opaque a concept to me as professional science is to 99% of the population. Regardless of novelty, though, if an activity is the only way out the drudgery of a Bangladeshi slum, even for just a few hours a day, it naturally becomes the center of one’s world.

Cox Bazar is a coastal resort of sorts in Bangladesh’s eastern corner on the border with Myanmar. Its beaches are rife with the contrast between haves and have-nots on a daily basis. Most children have little chance of upward social mobility; girls, especially, have few choices between menial labor, tourists trades, or being exchanged as brides. Requiring no more than a piece of foam, some sticky bumps, and the bracing ocean, it isn’t surprising that professional surfing can be a salvation.

Bangla Surf Girls follows 3 girls who not only found but excel at surfing, enough to join a club and compete nationally and internationally. With training from Bangladeshi expat Rashed and some graft, these girls learn to navigate their family/community expectations with literal abandon. While their prize money and recognition can mean subsistence, the club also serves as point for food handouts – a Salvation Army on surfboards, if you will.

Editing of such documentaries is secondary to the experiences they portray – but Bangla Surf Girls is an accomplished and well-produced film in both regards. A part of enjoying these intimate portraits requires us to not just sympathize with circumstances, but suspend the norms of western liberal democracies that seem to us universally optimal. Social dynamics are simply an informally agreed set of values, and not inherently backward or progressive as judged by GDP. For example, an individual father whose sole concern is prestige might not deserve the “unenlightened” label when we realize that losing-face will pragmatically reduce his prospects among peers and community, in lack of trade and access to land/help, etc. Why should he adopt our particular moral compass in a masochistic way, to face daily hardship, just to win an occasional remote approval? We often recite that most societies “become like us” as they “modernize”, like some underlying refrain that must occur in every pop song ever written. But the saying “All roads lead to Rome” has been proven quite wrong over the past two millennia, and in all honesty, I doubt the recent partisanship is the pie-in-the-sky that attracts any developing country.

Sitting out in the sea for 3 hours to avoid a suffocating future is the polar opposite of my memories of the same in San Diego. I have to confess that I will probably never be as good as any of these girls at surfing; maybe that lack of commitment was precisely why. Besides sealions and sharks, I never knew what I was avoiding while bobbing out at Black’s.

Hot Docs Review: The Gig is Up (Shannon Walsh, 2021)

Posted on by Ricky in Hot Docs | Leave a comment

The Gig is Up

I still remember when I (and everyone else) first started using Uber. You would hop in, and because it was so new to everyone, you would always be like “So how long have you been doing this for? How is it? Is this what you do?” We asked those questions because we were legitimately interested. Uber and other rideshares were a disruptive industry that took advantage of a growing dissatisfaction with cab drivers. It was also one of the first industries where it seemed like people could go into business for themselves, determine their own hours and make money based on how hard they worked. It was our first insight into new tech gig economy.

The questions we didn’t bother asking during these initial rides were “Do you trust the company you work for?”, “What happens when the disruptive industry becomes the actual industry and the company takes advantage of this by driving down your profits” and also “What is it like to be managed by AI?”

These questions are some of the questions that Shannon Walsh looks at in this sobering documentary, which follows the journey of several gig economy workers ranging from Uber drivers to food delivery bikers to manual AI processors. The story is the same – things look awesome at first, but slowly unravel as big business starts doing their thing. I’m not sure this is a cautionary tale because if you have followed protests in the past, you know we’ve already reached a boiling point, but maybe next time you reach for your phone, it might give you a little more pause.