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]

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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.

Hot Docs Review: Migrant Dreams [2016, Min Sook Lee]

Posted on by Ricky in Hot Docs | Leave a comment

Screen Shot 2016-04-30 at 1.48.50 PM

Not here.

That was my outstanding thought as I was watching Migrant Dreams, a documentary from Min Sook Lee. As Canadians and especially in Toronto, we like to trump our diversity and how Canada has many great policies. We look over towards other countries, how they treat their immigrants and hold our chins up and pat ourselves on the back over the cultural mosaic we have established. Then you watch a documentary like this and suddenly you realize that all the atrocities you see and hear about foreign migrant worker abuse is not only very real, but it’s also in our home and native land.

An eye opening film about the treatment of workers in Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program, the abuse and mistreatments the documentary’s subjects go through will infuriate you. The irony of this film is high, as many of you know, Canadians recently boasted about supporting French’s ketchup on the strength of it’s homegrown tomatoes. Well you will find out that the location of these homegrown tomatoes take place in the same place as this documentary.

An film that will inform and infuriate you at the same time, it is definitely worth checking out. I would have liked to hear about the policies of temporary foreign worker programs from both the government and employer’s point of view, but they were noticeably absent from the film, probably for good reason.

For screening times and tickets go here