hot docs

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]

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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

Hot Docs: The Songs Of Rice, Doc Of The Dead, Shield And Spear

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Songs of Rice [2014, Uruphong Raksasad]

If you can sit through the first 7 minutes of this dialogue-free film, then you will be able to enjoy the agrarian charms of the Thai countryside. It is chock full of old-world (read: Song dynasty China) customs mingling with new-world (read: Japanese engineering) know-hows. Plus cross-dressers. Watch out for Ultraman-ish harvesters, ridiculously fireworks, and of course, rice.

ROM Theatre, Fri, Apr 25 6:30 PM
TIFF Bell Lightbox 2, Fri, Apr 25 6:30 PM
Tiff Bell Lightbox 4, Fri, May 2 4:30 PM


Doc of the Dead [2014, Alexandre Philippe]

George Romero, Simon Pegg, Bruce Campbell, Max Brooks, and creators of infamous series like The Walking Dead were all once zombies. Fine, they all once thought like zombies (… zombies don’t think). Some of them gave birth to the modern zombies (… and zombies don’t fuck). Others can’t stomach another’s take on zombies (… but zombies eat brains). Watch, and find out just how these zomb-pioneers turned millions into zombies on a city corner near you. Hint: BRAINZZZ.

Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, Sat, Apr 26 11:59 PM
Hart House Theatre, Sun, Apr 27 9:30 PM
Royal Cinema, Sat, May 3 9:45 PM


Shield and Spear [2014, Petter Ringbom]

Artists, musicians, designers, journalists, activists, and community workers do not operate the same way in South Africa as they do here. Just like the Civil Rights movement didn’t resolve the race issue, the end of Apartheid in 1994 didn’t elevate everyone to an equal footing. Art is already vulnerable due to its intangible nature. Throw politics into the mixture, then even a single oil painting can become explosive and divisive for 50 million people. Shield and Spear documents the confessions and the trials of those who are trying to rebuild South Africa, against rampant corruption and political manipulation, in the image of their ideals. It’s a surprisingly uplifting piece that deserves serious thoughts, while you sip imported espresso sarcastically on College St.

TIFF Bell Lightbox 3, Sun, Apr 27 7:00 PM
Scotiabank Theatre 4, Tue, Apr 29 1:30 PM
ROM Theatre, Fri, May 2 9:30 PM