hot docs

Hot Docs Review: Return to Homs [Talal Derki, 2014]

Posted on by Gary in Hot Docs | 1 Comment


You glance up from your off-balanced stance on a hole in the wall. There is a wrought iron gate; or, at least it used to be. Someone spent a few months of sweat and tears earning it. And now you trespass the threshold it once protected with impunity, into the ghostly lives of others: a TV here, a dresser there, and nothing but gunshots stir. You are searching for someone through this scattering of domesticity. He was a junior football star. You will ask of him to become more, and he will gladly comply. A construction worker, grave digger, singer/songwriter, amateur guerrilla soldier, even a symbol of hope, perhaps. But mostly a brother with whom to share. First life, then death.

Unwittingly and inappropriately romantic? Sure. But Return to Homs is just such a story. It manages to fly right between the haunting dichotomy of beauty and horror, landing safely in warm fuzzy blankets. Shot throughout the 2011 uprising and continuing siege of Homs, Syria, it centers on one rebel fighter (and off-screen, his extraordinarily conjoined cameraman) who couldn’t get the honorable ideal of freedom for his people out of his head, even as he continued to expend his 9 lives as a revolutionary. The transformation from peaceful protest to bloody rebellion was swift, and before long the film becomes a war documentary. Being from a war zone did not deter the cinematography – some of the footage is surprisingly well composed and the editing is at times dead/bang on (puns intended…).

This is probably one of the most light-hearted war documentaries that I have ever seen. I say that without making light of the hardship they are still trying to cope with. Perhaps due to the indefatigable optimism and determination of the protagonist, there was always renewed hope. Some may find it exemplary, I found it unnerving. Each on-screen death seems to generate gravity, lulling one into the false sense that some arbitrarily staggering body-count will eventually be sufficient that victory cannot escape their grasp. The more I describe it, however, the more I might introduce bias. So I will simply recommend this film. There are still active civil or violent protests out there in many countries in distinct parts of the world – a trend that may come to be the defining character of this decade. This is a film you owe to yourself, so that you can make sense of your place in the world.

Isabel Bader Theatre, Sat, May 3, 1:30 PM

Hot Docs: Watchers Of The Sky [Edet Belzberg, 2014]

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On the Origin of the Species was published in 1859. Of course, humans have been killing each other en masse long before Darwin could see finches. But since humanity realized that primitive connection, we still remain stubbornly genocidal. Just how can we move beyond and effectively deter warmongers, zealots, and mass murderers without entangling ourselves in the vicious cycle of revenge?

Watchers of the Sky is a study in genocide. From the Armenians during the Great War to Serbian Muslims in Bosnia, from The Holocaust to Rwandan genocide and the ongoing atrocities in Darfur, Edet Belzberg weaves a delicate and soul rending story around the neglected bones of Raphael Lemkin. Likely the best forgotten (seven times) Nobel Peace Prize nominee, he also happened to coin the term “genocide”. A Polish refugee in America, Lemkin worked to solidify genocide as a recognized crime world-wide in a convention within the then newly established UN. Yet the reason he is quickly forgotten is inextricably linked to human denial. The dilemma, as (I believe) Belzberg highlights, is that we recognize justice should be upheld by an outside or impartial, third party. But by definition, there is no third party for crimes against humanity (unless we can invite aliens into our courts). Furthermore, our concept of sovereign nation states guarantees that national interests and politics will always be intertwined with not just the resolution, but also the intervention of such crimes. “Watchers”, therefore, could only painfully detail past catastrophes and lay bare the current lack of legal and organizational resources to deter genocide.

As macabre a subject as it is, the film leaves a surprisingly serene footprint. Lest it be considered so, I guarantee that it doesn’t lack in graphic impact. Instead of frame after frame of mutilated bodies that can drive the audience to defensively shut down, however, “Watchers” uses stylish calligraphy overlays and artistic renders to soften the direct assault on ones psyche. I find that this allows the mind to process. Lemkin’s personal notes, the interview/narration of Ben Ferencz (chief prosecutor at Nuremberg Trials), Luis Moreno Ocampo (Prosecutor at trials of the Juntas in Argentina and now International Criminal Court) and Samantha Power (current UN ambassador of the United States), and first-hand account of Rwandan and Darfuri survivors are all tastefully assembled into an intelligible message that can sometimes be difficult to reach in these documentaries. At 120 minutes, it’s not for the fainthearted – but I wish more people would choose this over an asinine night with Frozen. If you do, make sure to stay until the very end for a bittersweet revelation.

Hart House Theatre, Tue, Apr 29, 7:00 PM
TIFF Bell Lightbox, Wed, Apr 30, 12:30 PM
Isabel Bader Theatre, Sat, May 3, 6:30 PM

Hot Docs: What is Left [Gustav Hofer, Luca Ragazzi, 2014]

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what is left

There’s a Chinese proverb that goes something along the line of “if things go south for long and far enough, they will become alright again”. That is, of course, NOT the main message of this documentary. But it is something that frequently dashed into my mind when I was watching this. That, and Animal Crackers. Warning: the L-word will be used many times below…

“What is Left” is an entirely sincere (and completely meta/hipster) annual physical exam on the health of the leftist faction of the Italian political and societal structure. To make a complicated story short, it’s not a rosy picture. In February 2013, the center-left party Partito Democratico was decimated in the general election. In the controlled chaos that followed, the power vacuum left by former party leaders was eagerly consumed, while the idealogical vacuum imploded into a black hole when the party swallowed every notion of the intellectual Left in order to hold itself together by popularity. It eventually enlisted the help of the center-right to form a coalition government. All this left the plebs feeling very left-out and confused. Hofer and Ragazzi took on the dual tasks of reaffirming as well as rediscovering what it means to be Left, mainly through interviews with politicians and political leaders mixed wth their own reflections as children of the leftist movement.

First of all, I have to apologize if I misunderstood the undercurrents. I thought of Animal Crackers throughout the film not because the whole political scene in Italy resembled a farce, but because facts and ideas (distorted or otherwise) were flying at me like one-timers just like jokes and one-liners flew by one’s ears in the Marx Brothers’ flick. It is incredibly difficult to sort through the ideological difference to even categorize “left” and “right”, let alone what is morally “right” and “wrong”. Not to mention the players, the history, everything is completely new to me. But the framework of what the filmmakers presented can resonate in North America. The Left, the Liberals, the Intellectuals. In many locales these previously synonymous terms are now so fragmented so as to lose their meaning, thereby sucking the steam from directly underneath the political engine. The Americans were once there, too. And then Obama came along. It’s ironic to see a “communist” (Ragazzi said he was brought up as one) marvel at a visionary leader in one frame, and in the next extol the merits of communal infrastructure and welfare. But even Obama left many people disenchanted and equally as many with renewed fervor. Perhaps the question isn’t “what is left”, since the umbrella term “left” can’t hold so many ideas on its two-dimensional axes anymore. So if not, where should these ideas go? Should you watch this so you can get just as confuzzled as I was when the credits rolled and the filmmakers serenade you with an English song? I think I’ll just leave that can of worms open and see who bites.

Scotiabank Theatre, Sunday May 4, 9:00 PM

Hot Docs: Notorious Mr. Bout [2014, Tony Gerber, Maxim Pozdorovkin]

Posted on by Ricky in Hot Docs | Leave a comment


A documentary in which you end up with more questions then when you started. The Notorious Mr. Bout is an entertaining documentary about Victor Bout, who most will know as “the merchant of death”. A savvy businessman and an aspiring documentation, we get incredible access to Mr. Bout’s private video collection which chronicles his journey from a small town businessman to supposed international arms dealer. In a weird sense, the documentary takes a fairly neutral stance on whether or not Bout was guilty of the crimes he was accused of. The filmmakers did not have any videos of Bout trading arms, which obviously begs the question of how much of the video collection was actually available (or destroyed before the film). The film also sparks the question of what actually is international arms dealing and how does one actually get into it. Since Bout and his wife (who acts as a narrator somewhat) maintain their innocence, I guess it’s only fair that none of these issues where discussed. An entertaining 90 minutes nonetheless

TIFF Bell Lightbox 1Sat, Apr 26 7:00 PM
TIFF Bell Lightbox 1Sun, Apr 27 1:45 PM
TIFF Bell Lightbox 1Sun, May 4 7:00 PM