hot docs

Hot Docs Review: Pick of the Litter [Don Hardy Jr., Dana Nachman, 2018]

Posted on by Gary in Hot Docs | Leave a comment

Pick of the Litter

Put down your smartphone, and spend an hour outdoors. You’ll likely start to notice how modern Homo sapiens are increasingly useless without a plethora of gadgetry to keep track of the minutiae of daily life. What happens if those gadgets now have minds of their own? Do you keep running try-outs until you find the match-made-in-heaven? Will yours be called “Jarvis” like millions other?

Of course I may be talking about artificial intelligence … but not just yet. Man’s best friend is our most ancient, living breathing smart gadget. Pick of the Litter follows 5 puppies born in the same litter as they move up through our world, blissfully unaware of their destiny as faithful companions lounging on a sofa all day, working dogs in many other duties, or guide dogs. The non-profit organization Guide Dogs for the Blind breeds, selects and ultimately pairs vision-impaired folks with trained dogs to give them some semblance of normality and mobility. Keeping themselves and their handlers alive being of the utmost importance, guide dogs need to display a certain aptitude, and hence genetic disposition, proper upbringing, and focused training are all necessary components that must be put together properly.

This is a straightforward and delightful documentary. The dogs are the stars here, of course. Details of their training are bizarre yet irresistible. For example, running a sedan directly into the trainer/dog at crosswalks would not have been my idea of experiential exposure – but that is exactly the type of behind the scenes info one wants. And of course, watching the dogs grow and their personalities blossom is immensely interesting. Those faces the dogs make as they (pretend to) ignore cookies placed in front of their snout are quite hilarious to witness. Having never had any pets, however, I don’t think I can fully understand how volunteers could be excited about the prospect of raising/socializing a puppy to train-able age, only to cut loose months later. It sounds more than anything like a recipe for heartbreak. It is also baffling to see that, like parents of pre-med students, some volunteers even attach a level of pride and self-worth to whether the puppy they helped raise becomes guide dog. Puerile egotism aside, Pick of the Litter is an easy film to recommend to kids of all ages – and all for a noble cause.

Screenings:
Fri, May 4, 1:00 PM @ Isabel Bader Theatre
Sun, May 6, 3:15 PM @ TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

Hot Docs Review: Mr SOUL! (2018, Sam Pollard, Melissa Haizlip)

Posted on by Paul in Hot Docs, Movies | Leave a comment

ELLIS HAIZLIP, the Producer of the WNET/PBS weekly television show, "SOUL."  Set interview with Toni Morrison. 1972

Opening up with some archival footage of ads heralding the arrival of colour TV, Mr. SOUL! quickly makes the point that, while everything on TV could now be presented in full glorious colour, the programming itself was still overwhelmingly pretty white. The answer to this: SOUL!

Mr. SOUL! tells the story of the first black arts and culture program to be aired on American television. SOUL! was the brainchild of Ellis Haizlip, his singular vision being to provide a platform for black voices, voices that had not really been given much space on the airwaves up until that time. Originating from New York public broadcaster WNET and airing from 1968 – 1973, SOUL! seemed to consistently challenge itself and its audience from the get-go. Determined not to be just like any other TV show, Haizlip and his team at SOUL! tooled with the formula for awhile before ultimately deciding to just let Haizlip himself host the show.

Airing live much of the time, SOUL! presented many impressive musical performances – everyone from The Lost Poets to Ashford & Simpson to Stevie Wonder to Al Green. Along with many established big name performers, so many musicians were given their first chance on this show, many of them also being acts who wouldn’t have had a chance of being booked on a more mainstream program. One of my favourite stories from the film is Haizlip’s apparent answer upon being asked why he had booked avant-garde jazz saxophonist Rahsaan Roland Kirk on the show: “Because he’s crazy.” It’s true – dude played like three saxes at once. Impressive.

In addition to music, poetry and dance were given equal footing on the show as well as political and cultural discussions – one episode, impressively enough, was just an hour of conversation between James Baldwin and poet Nikki Giovanni filmed in London, England since Baldwin had no interest in returning to America to do an interview. Oh, and also the show featured a 13 year old Arsenio Hall. Was he funny? Who knows – they didn’t really show any footage of him. Still, kinda cool.

Mr. SOUL! presents a loving portrait of a show that was gone all too soon. SOUL! may have been around for only a few years, but in that time, it certainly made an impact.

Screenings:
Sat, May 5, 6:00 PM @ Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema

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

Posted on by guestwriter in Hot Docs | Leave a comment

Cambodian_Spring_1

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

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