Hot Docs: El Sicario, Room 164 [2011, Gianfranco Rosi]

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Toronto – Despite the fact that this documentary is basically a 90 minute interview, El Sicario, Room 164 is an engaging film that sheds some light on the vast amount of corruption and crime that permeates central America.

Face hidden underneath a black veil and armed with only pen and paper, we meet an “El Scicario” (professional killer) in an empty hotel room somewhere near the border. He first explains the significance of the room before sitting down to tell us his life story. Spanning from the time he was in high school until present day, this man tells us how the cartel recruit youths into doing simple tasks, rewarding them with drugs, money, cars and women. From that point on, the story expands into all kinds of juicy subjects such as corruption, torture methods (quite brutal), kidnapping procedures and the like. It’s all dark and morbid material but at the same time, completely engrossing.

The 90 minute doc moves along quickly, partially because the man in the interview is a great story teller. Random shots of the city is used to break up the monotony of having a masked man speak to the camera. Without any footage, cinematography or bells and whistles, El Sicario, Room 164 is what it is, a 90 minute foray into the heart of darkness and those interested will be more than willing to come along for the ride.

The documentary is based on the article “The Sicario” by Charles Bowden.

Screening: Wed, May 4 11:00 AM @ The ROM Theatre

Hot Docs: Memoirs of the Plague [2010, Robert Nugent]

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Toronto – If you enjoy extremely long nature shots, scenes without context, subtitle inconsistencies and random character testimonials, then surely you will enjoy Memoirs of the Plague. If you don’t enjoy those things, then you may take issues with this documentary. Written and directed by Robert Nugent, Memoirs of the Plague is a documentary about locusts and how different communities from around the world take action against the inevitable locust swarm that happen every so often. The documentary primarily focuses on people from Australia, Ethiopia and Egypt.

Starting off with archival footage about the locust war, Memoirs of the Plague tries to paint the battle with these insects as a mythical and timeless affair. The narrator also asks in his breathy sex voice some rhetorical question that tries to tie the battle with the insects to a more metaphorical battle with ourselves. Some grade A philosophy class stuff there. We are then taken to Ethiopia to meet a pesticide pilot in charge of spraying crops. He spends most of his time in the film either sitting around or fixing his plane. While his English accent isn’t terrible, he is subtitled, but only occasionally.

Since this is an Australian film, we are taken to Australia to see how ranchers and farmers in Australia deal with the impending swarm. It is here we meet a series of random characters, doing things that are never explained and then barely introduced to the audience before they give a testimonial. These characters are never seen again, leaving you with a “what was that about?” train of thought. This is a train of thought that permeates the entire documentary, which seems to have scattered about many nature shots just for sake of cinematography with no real fluidity between scenes, creating a chaotic smorgasbord of wtf moments.

The 77 minute film finally reaches its climax with about ten minutes to go, showing the swarm as they invade cities, villages and other locales. While the sheer number of locusts was amazing, there were no aftermath shots to see farmlands destroyed, or crops cleared out or anything of the sort leaving you to think they are more of a nuisance then a plague.

A few positives of the documentary would include some stunning footage of locusts, which was shot in 1000x magnification. These shots make the locust seem like rather innocent, cute creatures. Perhaps this was done to downplay the plague, I’m not sure. The score for this documentary was nicely done as well. Besides that, I struggle to find any positives. I would only recommend this film if locusts are of an absolute interest, and also I would warn that there are some potentially graphic images in this film.

Wed, May 4 9:45 PM @ TIFF Bell Lightbox 1
Fri, May 6 4:00 PM @ Cumberland 3

Hot Docs Review: Wiebo’s War [David York, 2011]

Posted on by Mark in Hot Docs, Reviews | 4 Comments

Toronto –The U.S. gets the majority of its gas and oil from Canada. This fact comes as a surprise to some, especially given the prominence of U.S oil interests in the middle east. Unfortunately for Canadians, this isn’t something we should be proud of. The rampant and unchecked development of oil and gas in B.C. and Alberta has had a real and negative impact on the environment. We are methodically destroying nature while politicians are incapable or unwilling to manage the situation.

Reverend Wiebo Ludwig moved to Trickle Creek BC with his family in an attempt to live a more concersvative Christian life, away from the pressures of the secular world. He established a commune with another family, and together they built a self-sustaining existence living off their land. This all changed when they received a letter from Enercan, an energy company, informing them that the company would be drilling a gas well nearby. According to law, land-owners only own the top six feet of their land, and so the government can buy and sell what’s underneath to energy companies without even notifying the land owners.

As more and more gas wells surrounded their farm, strange things started happening: mass miscarriages of their livestock, followed by human babies. The children started getting severe reactions to the ever-burning gas flares. They discovered that the culprit was a Hydrogren Sulfide leak at a nearby well. Their appeals to government officials fell on deaf ears as gas development continued unabated. It was at this point that Wiebo and his family started resorting to eco-terrorism to send a message to Big Oil.

This is a challenging and frustrating documentary to watch. It’s easy to imagine being in Wiebo’s shoes, and having to deal with both politicians and companies that endlessly give him the run-around while his family is poisoned. Is vigilante action  justified when politicians and police are so firmly in bed with private interests?

Watching this documentary underlines how crucial it is to have powerful and independent government bodies that can control and manage growth in dirty and environmentally damaging industries. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-capitalist, but if we humans can’t come to terms with living within our environmental means, then soon our environment will stop supporting us. We have to understand that corporations, while not necessarily evil, are myopic by design.

Wiebo’s War has Hot Docs screenings on April 30th, May 3rd, and May 7th.

Hot Docs Review: The Redemption Of General Butt Naked [Strauss/Anastasion, 2011]

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Toronto –  In the 1990’s, Liberia was in the middle of a brutal civil war. More than 250,000 people were killed between 1989 and 2003. There was no quarter or mercy between the warring factions. The ones who survived and thrived in this kind of environment were the ones who were the fiercest; and there was no one fiercer then the warlord Joshua Blahyi, a.k.a., General Butt Naked.

Joshua was originally a tribal priest. At age 11, he participated in his first human sacrifice. As a general, he earned his nickname because he would literally fight naked, wearing only shoes, and carrying only a machete and a gun. Being naked led him and his men to believe that he gained super powers, and was untouchable. He and his men committed atrocities that are jarring.

Then in the middle of the 1990’s, Joshua was paid a visit by a Christian priest. He later converted to Christianity and became a man of God. He would go on to seek out those whose lives he crushed to apologise. He was the first of the warlords to testify at the Liberian Truth & Reconciliation Commission, and admitted to being responsible for the deaths of at least 20,000 people.

This is an uncomfortable documentary to watch. It is very real. We live in a world where we glorify violence. It boggles the mind how accepted violence is in today’s media. This story is a powerful rebuttal that explores why real violence isn’t worth glorifying.

The Redemption Of General Butt Naked plays at Hot Docs on May 2nd, and May 7th.