hot docs

Hot Docs Review: Big Men [2013, Rachel Boynton]

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I’ve seen enough documentaries to realize and accept the fact that most filmmakers lean towards the left when it comes to telling stories. So imagine my surprise when I saw how well balanced Rachel Boynton’s Big Men was.

A tale about resource exploitation and the people behind it, Big Men starts with the discover of oil off of Ghana’s coast. As one would imagine, the discovery of oil has major financial implications and we are introduced to plenty of players who wish to benefit from it. Among them include Ghana officials, money lenders in New York and activists. Primarily though, the documentary follows Kosmos industries, a small Dallas firm that first discovered the oil. The access to Kosmos is almost limitless and we see the company struggle to maintain their hold on the oil industry in Ghana as other players use both economical and political means to get their piece of the pie. I for one, am surprised a supposedly giant evil Oil company would allow as much access as Kosmos did, but I guess at the time it was just a little group of people out of Dallas.

Spanning a range of five years, we follow these players from the inaugural discovery to some major milestones. With an amazing amount of access to basically everywhere including rebel militant groups in Nigeria. You will literally get goosebumps as you watch the fully armed, full masked rebels go do disruptive things. With this much access, Rachel Boynton is able to capture first hand opinions and motives behind most groups that are effected by the oil. While it’s hard to empathize with the million and billionaires that are involved, you can kind of understand their motives and logic behind what they do. It was also interesting to see political figures as they start off with the best intentions and then slowly have the billions of dollars involved start to sway them. I really enjoyed how the director laid out the cards on the table and showed perspective from all sides of the equation. It all makes for a fascinating film about one of the most controversial topics in the world today.

Big Men plays:
Thu, May 2 9:00 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 1
Fri, May 3 8:00 PM at Hart House Theatre
Sun, May 5 11:00 AM at Isabel Bader Theatre

Hot Docs: The Defector: Escape From North Korea [2013, Ann Shin]

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An intense and gripping affair, The Defector follows a group of North Korean defectors as they try to make the 3000+ kilometer journey to escape out of China on their way to claiming refugee status.

Directed by Ann Shin, we are quickly thrown into a world of safe houses, secret meetings, hidden cameras and a particularly mysterious broker named Dragon. The man is responsible for guiding the defectors to freedom but seems morally ambiguous (he is still, running a business). Dragon’s methods and actual motivations are constantly in question and as such is of great stress for both the crew and defectors. Among the defectors we meet are Sook-Ja and Yong-Heem two North Korean ladies who have already suffered through a lifetime of hardships in both North Korea and China. Yong-Hee was instantly sold to a China businessmen to be his wife when she arrived in China while Sook-Ja has not heard from her sister (who also defected) in seven years.

At 70 minutes, this documentary moves ahead at the pace of an action packed television show. Computer graphics and staged scene shots are used to move the story along so at times, the slickness of it all might seem a bit too stylized at times but doesn’t take anything away from the film. Being an illegal operation, all the people involved had to have their identity hidden but it was done in a tasteful way as not be too much if a distraction throughout the film. As we follow the group from Yanji to Xian to their final destination, the constant threat of detection by Chinese officials looms large with everyone (including the film crew, who probably would have been screwed if they were discover) and that constant threat weighs on everyone and makes the documentary that much more engaging. I would have liked to hear some opinions from Chinese officials on the matter, but obviously, that wasn’t going to happen.

An entertaining, informative and beautifully shot film on human smuggling and the life and dangers that face North Koreans in and out of their country every day. Recommended.

Hot Docs: 15 Reasons to Live [2013, Alan Zweig]

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15 Reasons To live is the latest documentary from Toronto filmmaker Alan Zweig. In this film, we meet a series of characters, all of whom have found happiness – whether it is was temporary or sustained and their stories are relayed (and some might be re-enacted) in the documentary.

Based on the work of Ray Robertson, the film takes us through fifteen stories from a variety of people in all swaths of life. They have all found happiness at some point. These stories are have been categorized under broad terms such as “love”, “home” and “intoxication” for example. Some stories are particularly strong (a wife allows her husband to walk around the world for ten years, strangers team up to save a whale) and some seem rather odd (mother abandons her kids for hours at a time to go to a mall) but maybe the point of it is that everyone is different, and everyone finds happiness in different things. I am glad that some of the stories Zweig chose had archival footage, otherwise it would have been a series of talking heads followed by shots of the subjects walking around in random Toronto neighborhoods. As much as I like pointing out what places are during the film, it might not have provided for the most interesting visual experience for non-Toronto people. Zweig’s interviewing style for some of these stories is interesting, as he tends to talk about himself during the subject’s story (especially the introverted girl/boating story). I guess it’s his documentary and he can do whatever he wants.

While all the stories are just very loosely connected, the message of the film is clear. Everyone in the world can have happiness, it might come in odd shape and sizes, but it’s up to you to choose to find it. A pretty good message.

Sat, Apr 27 6:30 PM @ TIFF Bell Lightbox 1
Mon, Apr 29 1:30 PM @ Isabel Bader Theatre
Sun, May 5 1:30 PM @ TIFF Bell Lightbox 3

Hot Docs: Mistaken For Strangers [2013, Tom Berninger]

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mistaken for strangers

A rock documentary that’s not really quite one, Mistaken for Strangers is really a film about sibling dynamic/rivalries, the film making process and overcoming your very worst own enemies. We all know The National, the indie rock band from Cincinnati (now Brooklyn) that has taken the long road to success. Finally showing some mainstream success with 2010’s High Violet, the band seems to finally made its way to stadium sized crowds echelon of success. The leader of the band is Matt Berninger, the moody baritone singer of the group. He has a brother, ten years his junior and has this kinda Garden State what the hell am I doing with my life vibe to him. Through either love or pity, Matt invites him out to be a roadie for the band and in turn, Tom decides to make a documentary from it. Mistaken For Strangers is that documentary.

In the 90 minutes that follow, we will see a lot of things that would make a checklist of most rock docs, including

tour footage
backstage footage
band members goofing off
lots of shots in random cities
shots of band members sleeping

The thing that separates Mistaken For Strangers from the rest is the fact that it’s really not about the National, it’s actually about Tom Berninger. His relationship with his brother is clearly not strong (“I didn’t know you had never been to Europe” muses Matt in one scene) and as the tour progresses their relationship is pushed to the limits. Tom struggles to cope with his brother’s success and his own lack of direction/self control. There are blow ups and arguments and the documentary takes a surprising turn. In the end, what we get is an honest heartfelt film that deals with issues that most of us can identify with, only as an additional bonus, we get the benefit to peer into the lives of a beloved band as well.

Tue, Apr 30 9:15 PM @ The Royal Cinema
Thu, May 2 11:59 PM @ Bloor Hot Docs Cinema
Sun, May 5 4:00 PM @ Bloor Hot Docs Cinema