hot docs

Hot Docs: New Castle [2011, Guo Hengqi]

Posted on by Ricky in Hot Docs | Leave a comment

Toronto – China’s rise from impoverish nation to economic power has not come without costs. New Castle is a documentary that provides us with a quick but devastating glimpse at the high prices the Chinese people had to pay for their country to prosper. Taking a no bullshit approach, film maker Guo Hengqi shows the entire film without narration, relying on conversations and testimonials from people to provide the tale. A three part act, we are first taken to the hillside and meet a group of roving miners who have arrived for a quick job. if the job did not pay sufficiently, they seek out another place. The group of miners decide to stay and we are shown the lives of a miner. It’s as what you would expect – dirty, dangerous and unforgiving. The first time you see a pitch black minor returning from a day at the mind will have you thankful for whatever boring desk job you might have. The next two acts play out in Xinbu, an ancient village located in the remote province of Shanxi. People have been leaving this village in droves for the larger cities and now with a population of less than a hundred, the government has decided to move the people of Xinbu and destroy the town. Obviously, the citizens of the city are not pleased and we follow the villagers as they attempt to make sense of what is becoming of their life as traditions are abandoned and they are basically forced to move into government built row houses.

Ultimately a rather depressing documentary about the state of rural China, New Castle does not paint a pretty picture but it paints a truthful picture. While a lack of narration might have the viewer’s guessing at some points, the conversations between villagers, minors and family members will keep you engaged. Some of the visuals within the documentary are breathtaking and this documentary will definitely be interesting to those who wonder about some of the costs of rapid modernization of any country. My only complaint is that the pacing is rather pedestrian and so the 112 minute documentary feels like a 112 minute documentary.

Co-presented with Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival

Fri, Apr 29 6:15 PM
TIFF Bell Lightbox 3 Rush Tickets
Sun, May 1 1:30 PM
TIFF Bell Lightbox 3

Hot Docs: Neighbors [2009, Rached]

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

Toronto – How does one go about building an equitable society? We humans have been struggling with that zinger for a while now; and it seems that it often takes some kind of revolution to shake things up. At some point the downtrodden gather to rise up against the upper classes in the name of equality. Too often it seems that the ideals that are used to ignite and mobilize the people are then co-opted. One ruling regime supplants another and progress lurches forward, then sideways, then backwards a bit. Sometimes society seems to progress the same way a drunk dancer does when he lurches across the dance floor.

“[President] Nasser, I liked him a lot. Though he arrested me many times.” – Mahmoud Amin El Alem

Neighbors takes a multifaceted look at the microcosm of the Garden City district in Cairo, an affluent neighborhood that was prominent in the 30’s-50’s. Through the eyes of the locals, we see the changes that take place in this district through the socialist movement of the 50’s up to the post-911 world. In addition to snapshots of Garden City’s changes, we also get a better understanding of many local’s feelings towards Egypt’s place in the world. The characters talk candidly about their experiences and how it has shaped their lives.

For the rich gentry of Garden City, president Nasser’s socialist revolution marked the end of an area of decadence. Garden City was the most westernized area in the most westernized country of the Arabic world. The villas in the district tell a story of old money mixed with the European values of intellectual freedom. Many of the interviewees have mixed European descent and speak flawless French. They long for the decadence and simplicity of their privileged youth. From an idealistic point of view, they also long for the freedom of speech that their world once had. They are rightfully frightened by the fundamentalist movement that is gaining momentum all around them.

We also see an equalization force as the 50’s revolution gives way to an emergence of a middle class of sorts. No longer is Cairo split into ultra-rich and ultra-poor. But there never seems to be enough resources to go around, and the middle class looks at modern Egypt and laments the arrival of what one interviewee calls “the tyranny machine.” It doesn’t seem to matter any longer who is in power, the machine just needs someone to push the buttons; and it only gets more experienced with time.

Colonialism’s influence on Cairo and Garden City is profound. It was British, American, and French money that created this Parisian-style gated community. As we fast-forward to the present day, we see beautiful old British villa’s get supplanted by the American embassy, a concrete monstrosity of a fortress. Egyptians and Americans alike explain the distinct loss of respect and admiration that America has sustained in this part of the world since the invasion in Iraq.

“To find your way amidst good and evil, power and individual, past and present… How to find your way… That’s the real issue. And remain strong, solid and optimistic throughout it all. I’ve always been optimistic despite the many beatings I endured.” – Mahmoud Amin El Alem

One of the very best interviews is saved for the end, where we meet an older intellectual at home with his books and his thoughts. Mahmoud Amin El Alem explains the need to balance the fight for freedom and progress with positivity and grace. He’s a man that has been beaten and imprisoned for his political views, but still manages to preserve a boundless optimism and gentle disposition. His wisdom is the kind we need to make any real progress.

Neighbors is a fascinating, gritty, and human look at Cairo’s Garden City district. There are two Hot Docs screenings on Friday May 7, and Saturday May 8.

Hot Docs Review: Nénette [2009, Nicolas Philibert]

Posted on by Ricky in Hot Docs | 1 Comment

Toronto – I think Planet Earth has spoiled me on all documentaries involving animals. I loved that documentary, even bought it on blu ray (from England, not the Siguorney Weaver one) before I had a blu ray player. Hell, I still don’t have a blu ray player. The footage captured in that documentary was astounding, so it set the bar pretty high in terms of documentaries involving animals.

Now obviously, the documentary Nénette is not that type of documentary, but I’m just doing the comparison to give you some expectations of footage I had going in to this documentary.

Nénette is an orangutan who has been at the Jardin Des Plantes zoo since 1972. One of the zoo’s most popular attractions, the ape gets regular visits from many visitors, many of whom have seen Nénette through the years and have developed emotional attachments to it. The documentary consists of many faceless people talking about their relationship to Nénette and how they think Nénette is doing/feeling. It doesn’t take a zoologist to realize that this is one depressed animal. The zoo settings are horrendous and there really isn’t that much room for an animal of that size to roam. That’s beside the point though. The film consists ENTIRELY of zoo footage, which could have been great if the animal, you know.., did anything. Anyone whose seen an older animal at a zoo would know that those animals tend to do nothing. So what you get is 70 minutes of a bored orangutan, doing pretty much nothing but sitting down and occasionally moving. There wasn’t even many zoo keeper – orangutan interaction you might expect from a documentary about an animal at the zoo. Visually, I had a hard time keeping my attention on the screen, and that is an issue considering the film is entirely subtitled (because it’s in French).

Aside from the zookeepers, there weren’t many “experts” in the field who were interviewed, so I guess for me, it seemed like a lot of the opinions and information was not something I would fully trust or believe. I didn’t really get anything out of this viewing other then that Nénette is probably pretty sad.

Here is a more in-depth article about the movie, with explanations from Nicolas Philibert as to why he made the movie.

Nenette (70 minutes) plays on the following days:
May 6, 7:00 PM, Isabel Bader Theatre
May 8, 4:30 PM, Isabel Bader Theatre

Here is a trailer in french.

Hot Docs: The “Socalled” Movie [Garry Beitel, 2010]

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

Toronto – What is it about human nature that drives us to create? Most of us travel through life worried about stepping outside the boundaries prescribed by society. But there are others that seem to have a creative fire that burns brightly from the outset. They create, and create, and create. Some are lucky enough to turn their mental manifestations into a career. The “Socalled” Movie is a portrait of just such an individual.

Socalled is the stage name of Josh Dolgin, a Montreal-based musician that blends Jewish klezmer music with hip hop and funk. The documentary consists of 18 short films that examine different aspects of his life. One vignette shows Josh introducing funk Trombonist Fred Wesley (of James Brown fame) to klezmer music. Another explores the creation of his youtube sensation You Are Never Alone.

It is interesting to see the creative process at work in Josh’s head. However, the energy and momentum created by many of the short films is often derailed with a more plodding interview style that is interspersed throughout. While the “18 short films in a row” approach does allow freedom to jump around, it does come at the expense of continuity. In glimpses we see Josh wear so many hats; first as a musician (pianist, singer, arranger, rapper, producer, composer, and accordionist), and then as a magician, a cartoonist, and a filmmaker.

How could you see [the history of the world] … and not want to be a part of that?  How could you see all this stuff that humans have done with their time and brains and not want to at least give it a try? Cause there’s only one shot of being a part of the world. – Josh Dolgin

It was only at the very ending of the film that things coalesced with Josh’s quote above. In an earlier short, he was quick to admit that he didn’t think of himself as a great singer. Yet he is inspired to keep trying by the creativity he sees around him. Josh wants to be a part of the human saga; and who can blame him? It’s what has been driving him to create his entire life. How human is that?

Hot Docs runs from April 29 till May 9th. The complete Hot Docs schedule can be found here.

Socalled is screened on the following dates

Sun, May 02 9:15 pm at Bloor Cinema.
Tue, May 04 11:30 am at The ROM Theatre.