hot docs

Hot Docs Review: A Cambodian Spring [Chris Kelly, 2017]

Posted on by guestwriter in Hot Docs | Leave a comment

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A Cambodian Spring is a sobering look at a protest movement beyond Western society’s usual attention. The film follows three Cambodian activists as they fight for land rights in the Boeung Kak area where the poor are forced off their own land in the name of economic development. The characters are smartly chosen to show the struggle for social justice. Two of the activists are young mothers who are actually living in the area and are forced to take a stand – lest they are left with nothing. Then there is a Buddhist monk who rebels against the supposed apolitical nature of the Cambodian religious organization to aid in the cause. The film covers this trio over a six-year span and provides a glimpse into a protest movement that is vastly different and more deadly from that of many developed nations.

This documentary benefited greatly from a filming period that lasted 6 years. It is fascinating to see the protagonists develop throughout the film amid the struggles and setbacks. Toul Srey Pov, one of the mothers, rose from a timid individual to a prominent face of the protests and then to a rather sad soul. The other mother, Tep Vanny, remained true to the cause and gained international notoriety, yet laments the loss of her being a mother to her children. Then there is a poignant scene where the Buddhist monk breaks down in a van as he realizes the serious danger he is in – far removed from the idealistic enthusiasm he felt at the start. A Cambodian Spring intelligently uses these narratives to provide an honest look at the personal involvement of a chaotic and violent protest.

Perhaps the main strength of this documentary is its sense of reservation. Other filmmakers, such as Michael Moore, would have been tempted to explicitly tug the audience towards the side of the protesters but this film avoids such over-preaching. There is no mood setting music, no commentaries, or any of the usual devices. Instead, it allows the characters’ actions and the resulting consequences to speak for themselves. Just to be clear, there are the usual “evil doers” – corrupt government, shady corporation, mindless thugs, and inept UN organization. Any decent human being will sympathize with the poor wretched souls fighting to keep what little they have. The film restrained itself from sensationalizing the struggles and the triumphs of the protests to provide a more nuanced storytelling. There are some unsettling (mostly bloody) scenes but they never reach such gratuitous levels as to wholly turn away the audience or overpower the film’s essence. This subdued nature truly enhances the seriousness of the film.

It is impossible to encapsulate a struggle as complex as the one shown in a 120 minute film. Decisions are made to keep the audience engaged and satisfy budgetary constraints. The omission of character updates between various chapters of the film gives a jarring discontinuity to the storyline at times. The ending chapter is particularly notable as the two mothers go through a profound change in the protest movement and their relationship to each other. Yet, little is devoted as to how they arrived to that point and a potential moment is missed.

In retrospect, A Cambodian Spring presents a contrast to the many protests that are being sprung up in modern western society. It rarely idealizes the protest as a struggle for morality or nobleness – it is simply fighting because there is little left. There is a real personal cost that happens for those involved. It is a film recommended for those who romanticize the notion of protests without being truly aware of the privileged circumstance they are given in developed nations.

5/5 Raised fists for Pepsi marketing executives.

4/5 Raised fists for everyone else.

Screenings:
Thu, May 4, 12:30 PM @ Hart House Theatre
Sun, May 7, 6:15 PM @ Toronto Centre for the Arts

Hot Docs Review: You’re Soaking In It [2016, Scott Harper]

Posted on by Ricky in Hot Docs | Leave a comment

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A doom and gloom film about the world of online advertising, Scott Harper’s film is a 75 minute assault on something most of us already know – our right to our personal privacy is fighting a losing battle on the internet. Featuring some clever animations and commentary from both technical and social personalities, online advertising is dissected with precision by the filmmaker.

As a software developer, I guess I wasn’t really a target audience for this film as most of the online advertising and privacy items introduced were well known to me. However, For the uninformed, You’re Soaking In It paints a grim picture.

Despite it’s relentlessly gloomy soundtrack, the film is not one without solutions, which is a welcome change for a documentary of this nature. The delicious irony is that the solution provided in the film is now under fire for doing the thing it’s supposed to be stopping. If you can’t beat them, join them.

You’re Soaking In It
is playing once again on Friday, May 5 @ 6:30 PM Scotiabank Theatre

Hot Docs Review: Do Donkeys Act? (David Redmon and Ashley Sabin, 2017)

Posted on by Gary in Everything, Hot Docs, Reviews | Leave a comment

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In your younger days, at zoos, did you ever imagine the fate of the animals that brightened your half-day, in 10 to 20 years? It’s a strange question, in spirit similar to “if a tree falls in the woods and no one is around, does it make a sound”? If we go further with the anthropomorphization – does the tree hurt? Do Donkeys Act if no one is watching? This film is a meditation on these oblique questions, seen from the inside of donkey rescue centres around the world.

Rather than asking why, it’s perhaps easier to question why not donkeys. They aren’t often thought highly of. They aren’t typical mascots of sports teams, and have rarely been imbued with any honorable ideals unless steadfast stubbornness is a virtue. And unlike bird or whale songs, all that braying can be harsh and almost too primal to relate to as a human. The fact that asses still bookend jeers and jokes all around the world in many cultures is telling. But of course they are just as adjective as that horse on the Ferrari badge. And all any human has ever done with either is to burden them – with weights, status, morals, and other mostly human concerns. Without all the projections, even donkeys can be interesting.

As with many engrossing and immersive projects, Do Donkeys Act requires a degree of patience. Watching veterinarians’ and donkeys’ daily routine has never topped any list of things to do before one dies. But we (some of us) naturally become observant and empathetic if there are no immediate alternatives. This film will definitely draw a self-selected crowd. As a conservation slash humanitarian piece, Do Donkeys Act is indeed very charming. Many things magically transform when put in front of a portrait lens with good bokeh. My problem, which will perhaps be other people’s delight, is the poetic narration courtesy of Willem Dafoe. If the whole idea of removing imposed morals and emotions to see whether “donkeys act” of their own volition was the aim, then the pointed prose instructing the viewers on how to interpret donkey behavior is a direct, condescending antithesis. Anyone who volunteered to watch donkeys bray, walk, defecate, and give-birth for 70 odd minutes likely pride themselves in forming cogent thoughts. This film will do just fine without anyone complementing a donkey’s “hidden dynamism” as it trots along. Of course, if you are looking for an Ode to Beasts of Burden Past, this is perfect. Personally, I’d rather imagine the smells in those rescue centres than be told of it.

Hot Docs Review: Shiners [Stacey Tenenbaum, 2016]

Posted on by Paul in Hot Docs | Leave a comment

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Shiners is an interesting look at a line of work that many of us rarely even think about – shoe shining. The film even makes this explicit with the first lines spoken from a man on the street being interviewed:”If I’m being honest, I’ve never thought about shoe shining.”

It’s true – I’d imagine most people, if they even notice shoe shiners, are apt to walk past and ignore them, but luckily, director Stacey Tenenbaum took the time to interview shiners from locations around the world and look into what drew them to the job.

The film profiles several people from various walks of life coming to the job for various reasons. There’s a Toronto based man who works out of a hipster-ish barber shop, drawn to the job while recovering from an accident, there’s Don in New York, who went through several careers before settling on shoe shining because he likes the freedom of it, and then there’s the San Francisco and Japan based shiners who see what they do as more of a niche, elite service. The most intriguing story, however, is that of the Bolivian workers who mostly have to wear masks to protect their identity due to the stigma surrounding the job there. Regardless of what brings them to it though, each and every one of these shiners takes a certain pride in the job, with some even seeing it as a calling.

Ultimately, Shiners is is a compelling look at an overlooked and somewhat out of the ordinary career.

Screenings:
Sun, Apr 30 1:00 PM @ Hart House Theatre
Thu, May 4 9:30 PM @ Hart House Theatre

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