Hot Docs

Documentary Review: West of Memphis (2012, Amy Berg)

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1x1.trans Documentary Review: West of Memphis (2012, Amy Berg)

West Of Memphis is one of the most infuriating documentaries I have seen.

It’s also one of the best.

West of Memphis takes a complete and exhaustive look at the story of the West Memphis 3. For the uninitiated, the West Memphis 3 are three teenagers who were wrongfully imprisoned after the gruesome murder of three children in the town of West Memphis. The documentary is about the murders and the fight to get the three out of the correctional system. Witch hunts, shoddy police work, incompetent doctors and many other things led to the incarceration of the three. West Of Memphis spends a good portion of it’s time laying out the investigative issues out in great detail. The story and characters of this investigation and trial are so ludicrous that it seems more like a Coen Brothers’ movie then actual history.

The second part of the documentary focuses on the efforts to get the three out of prison, or in the least, to face a fair trial. Herein lies the frustration where most viewers will encounter as the people trying to free the WM3 encounter the stifling bureaucracy and politics that is known as the Arkansas judicial system. Let’s just say the documentary is not going to do a whole lot for Arkansas’s reputation. The story catches on with several notable celebrities including Eddie Vedder, Peter Jackson and Henry Rollins in particular, all of whom take it upon them personally to help the cause. Johnny Depp is in there too, but only for a second, making it the second documentary in which Johnny Depp appears and you are like, what’s the point of that? (The first being Strummerville). With the star power rolling in, the case takes on national and international acclaim and more and more information comes to light. Eventually, after two and a half hours of viewing, the West Memphis 3 are freed under the Alford Plea, which frankly, sounds like a cop out. Either way, one of the guys is out of death row, so I guess that’s good. The documentary also takes the time to solve the mystery (unofficially) by laying out all the evidence it has against one Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of one of the sons. Good luck walking around anywhere after this film, man!

The story of the West Memphis 3 is a phenomenal one, as is the documentary. With the production power of Peter Jackson, the filmmakers were able to pull in some highly regarded talking heads to fully educate the viewers on some of the reasons why the investigation of the murders was not done correctly and combined with archival footage of the trials and the sort, gives the view a pretty satisfying look at the whole story. You will leave with many questions, my biggest one being – why didn’t the people who came forward as the case got notoriety speak up before? It’s all pretty messed up, which I guess is one of the reasons why this story and documentary are so memorable. I would say this film is inspirational, but when you look at the fact that it took some major money, Hollywood power, three separate documentaries and eighteen years for the system to buckle, it just paints a picture of how daunting the system can be.

The documentary is also scored by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, which is pretty awesome.

Here’s a GQ article about the West Memphis Three

Hot Docs: United States of Africa [Yanick Létourneau, 2012]

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1x1.trans Hot Docs: United States of Africa [Yanick Létourneau, 2012]

Playing at Hot Docs Theatre this weekend, Yanick Létourneau’s United States of Africa is less a lesson in African hip hop and more of a lesson in activism in Africa. The primary story within the doc is that of Senegalese hip hop artist Didier Awadi. Set in roughly 2008, Awadi is preparing for his next album and hopes to use it as an educational tool for his fans. The album will highlight some of the more revolutionary aspects of Africa’s past, aspects he suspects is not being taught in the educational system.

The seventy minute doc follows Didier’s quest to gather information and resources for this album, and along the way educates the viewers on some of the plights of countries in Africa. We’ll meet other hip hop artists and you get a sense that there is some momentum building within the hip hop community in terms of wanting to do something about the current state of the continent.

As a documentary, the film does a good job highlighting some of the issues that Africa as a whole face today. As we follow Didier Awadi through a swath of impoverish African countries, we briefly learn about the leaders of the past who fought for Africa and subsequently paid for it with their lives. These stories make up the most compelling part of the film. Those who are fans of the artists involved might be disappointed as little footage is shown or discussed about the actual creative musical process behind the album. Actually, there is very little mention for the album at all aside from the concept behind it. It would have been nice for the director to include information about the aftermath of the album – how did it do, did it change anything, etc etc considering the whole concept of the film. However, this is one of those docs where the destination is not what counts, but the journey.

The remaining shows at Hot Docs are

Sunday July 29th at 8:45pm
Monday July 30th at 9:00pm

Hot Docs Review: The Invisible War [Kirby Dick, 99 Minutes, USA, 2012]

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1x1.trans Hot Docs Review: The Invisible War [Kirby Dick, 99 Minutes, USA, 2012]

There are many types of documentaries at a film festival.

There are documentaries about interesting stories, interesting people, a particular place in time and even particular places.

There are also documentaries about stories that need to be told.

The Invisible War is one of these stories.

Directed by famed documentary maker Kirby Dick, The Invisible War is a grim look at what should be considered an epidemic in the United States – the absurdly high rates of sexual assault in the military. The numbers are startling (1 in 5 female veterans reported sexual assault) and as the film painstakingly points out through a series of talking heads, it’s an issue that reaches across all branches of military and has been an issue for decades.The impact these assaults have on their victims is devastating. It is one of those documentaries that you watch and are constantly thinking WTF.

The Invisible War is a focused documentary that does a great job pointing out a problem and identifying a potential solution. I thought that Kirby Dick did a great job of resisting the temptation to pull it back a little and covering a lot more angles (and perhaps lessening the impact of the subject at hand). The result is a shocking look at one of the most powerful organizations in the world.

Hot Docs Review: China Heavyweight [Yung Chang, Canada, 2012, 89 min]

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1x1.trans Hot Docs Review: China Heavyweight [Yung Chang, Canada, 2012, 89 min]

Fighting is such an interesting topic. The sheer brutality of it already lends itself to high amounts of drama, but often more interesting are the people behind it. The fighters, the trainers, the families – all have multiple things (ego, health, reputation, pride) at stake with each fight. It’s no coincidence that we’ve seen multiple features (Warrior, The Fighter) and multiple documentaries about the sport in the past few years.

China Heavyweight is the follow up effort by Montreal documentary make Yung Chang whose last effort “Up The Yangtze” made him a critical darling. This time, Yung takes us to rural China where we follow the lives of three people – a past champion wanting one last shot, an arrogant young fighter wanting to be Mike Tyson and his best friend, an equally talented fighter who is dealing with. confidence issues. Over the course of the film, we’ll see follow these characters through both success and failure, all against the backdrop of an ever developing China, where anything now seems possible.

Much like his previous effort, China Heavyweight looks absolutely gorgeous. There are beautiful shots of the landscape and cities of the Sichuan province. The experience is fully immersive for the viewer and much of it has to do with the cinematography. The film nicely balances between the three characters the internal and physical conflicts they face. Those looking for some sort of deep metaphor regarding boxing and say, China’s massive modernization might be disappointed. Instead, look at this as an artistic ode to a sport that everyone seem to be both obsessed and appalled by.

China Heavyweight screens:
Thu, May 3 2:00 PM @ TIFF Bell Lightbox 2
Fri, May 4 9:30 PM @ Fox Theatre