This year’s highlights touch on time-traveling feminism, literary heroes in translation, governmental surveillance and more.
Heading into its 25th edition, the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival had much to celebrate. In the lead up to this year’s iteration, the festival announced that for the first time in its history it had reached gender parity across its sprawling program with 50% of its 246 films and 16 interdisciplinary projects having been helmed by women. That’s not to say there isn’t bloat — with that many nonfiction films on offer, how could there not be? — but quality can be found if you do some digging through the various topically or regionally grouped programs (“Artscapes,” “The Changing Face of Europe,” “Made In Mexico,” etc.).
Most of the highlights this year actually waded further into experimental territory than is the norm for Hot Docs, a festival which generally leans harder on social issues than form. That said, multimedia artist Barbara Visser’s feature length debut The End of Fear takes a canny look back at the legacy of Barnett Newman’s infamous abstract painting “Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III.” Newman’s large scale wall of red canvas was violently slashed by a visitor to Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum back in 1986 and a subsequent restoration was botched, causing public outcry from all sides. Recounting the tale via interviews with museum staff and archival footage, Visser employs a playfully performative parallel narrative reminiscent of the recent work of Robert Greene (Kate Plays Christine): a young female artist is hired by Visser and her producers to recreate Newman’s controversial masterpiece in hopes of conjuring some kind of epiphany about the struggle of making art and the relationship between authorship and ownership. Visser struggles to invent ways to animate the story of an iconically inanimate work of art, but the attempt is spirited and entertaining nonetheless.
Similar (though antithetical in form) to Vadim Jendreyko’s 2009 film The Woman with the Five Elephants, which profiles the preeminent German translator of famed Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novels, Nitesh Anjaan’s beguiling sophomore effort Dreaming Murakami centers around the Danish translator Mette Holm, who has made a career of translating the work of the Japanese author Haruki Murakami. In his introduction to the screening in Toronto, the unassumingly articulate Anjaan set the stage by reading the opening passage of Murakami’s short story “Super-Frog Saves Tokyo”:
Katagiri found a giant frog waiting for him in his apartment. It was powerfully built, standing over six feet tall on its hind legs. A skinny little man no more than five foot three, Katagiri was overwhelmed by the frog’s imposing bulk.
“Call me ‘Frog,’” said the frog in a clear, strong voice.
Without this bit of obscure literary context, the fact that a giant, beautifully crafted CGI super-frog stalks our translator like a melancholic specter pulled straight out of David Lowery’s A Ghost Story as she works on rendering Murakami’s debut novel Hear the Wind Sing would make little to no sense to the uninitiated. In fact, the frog doesn’t feature in Hear the Wind Sing at all, so right off the bat things are excitingly impressionistic, if a bit enigmatic — mirroring Murakami’s own sense of playful ambiguity via visual experimentation and tone. As Anjaan observes Holm while she travels to Japan and elsewhere in the lead-up to the release of her most recent translation talking with those she encounters along the way, we begin to question the very nature of language and its role in our relationship with the world around us. Just under an hour in length, Dreaming Murakami packs a lot of big ideas and impressive formal experiments into its tantalizingly belletristic little package.
Like Anjaan, Irene Lusztig shares a passion for the written word with Yours In Sisterhood, a film which takes its maker across the United States as she invites various women to read and ruminate on letters sent in the 1970s to the editor of Ms., America’s first mainstream feminist magazine. Most of these astonishing letters — touching on topics from the experience of having a mastectomy to sex work, building log cabins, racial discrimination, homosexuality and beyond — went unpublished and remained so until now. Lusztig calls this performative act of reading archival letters in the present “embodied listening,” an exercise that conjures voices from the past with modern hindsight. Her experiment mirrors that of Ephraim Asili’s Fluid Frontiers, which witnessed Detroit locals recounting African-American poetry from chapbooks originally published by Broadside Press back in the ‘60s and ‘70s at the height of the Black Power movement. Both films bear the transformative fruit of mutual collaboration between their onscreen subjects and the exploratory mechanisms set in place by their filmmakers. Simple in construction — read letter, response to letter, repeat with new letter and locale — Yours In Sisterhood builds a quiet power as stories grow more personal and scarily resonate with contemporary issues of feminism and representation. Ms. launched in 1971, and nearly 50 years on, women’s issues remain unresolved.
Assia Boundaoui’s The Feeling Of Being Watched doesn’t directly focus on feminist issues per se, but does center around a team of badass women speaking truth to power through a lens of personal filmmaking and rigorous journalism. Boundaoui grew up within a tight knit Arab-American community in Bridgeview, Illinois, a quiet suburb outside of Chicago where suspicions of FBI surveillance had long been circulating. Having left town to pursue a career in radio journalism after college, Boundaoui realized that her and the community’s sense of paranoia in regards to surveillance was not the norm for most people. So, she hit the streets to start collecting stories of government surveillance throughout Bridgeview and in the process uncovered “Operation Vulgar Betrayal,” the largest pre-9/11 counter-terrorism surveillance program on record. The film shows traces of (T)error’s haunting influence of governmental manipulation of Arab-American communities, so it is no surprise to find that its director, Lyric R. Cabral, appears in the credits as a consulting producer. That said, this is no doubt a deeply personal passion project for Boundaoui. She appears candid and unreserved onscreen, both haunted by her own accounts of FBI surveillance (one of which is miraculously caught on camera) and the heroic gumshoe taking on a bureaucratic Goliath that has threatened her community with no evidence of terrorist activity for decades. An astounding, disheartening and occasionally messy bit of docu-journalism, The Feeling Of Being Watched feels like a profound act of patriotism poised to make waves.
Last on my list of highlights from this year’s festival is Braguino, the latest from Clément Cogitore (Neither Heaven Nor Earth). The audacious director takes on the Siberian taiga, embedding with the Braguines, a self-sufficient family who’ve settled in the farthest outreaches of the richly forested Russian tundra, accessible only by boat or helicopter. The Kilines, their only neighbors, are their arch rivals. We witness them as they prepare for the coming cold months, stocking up on as much food as possible — in one jaw dropping, darkly comedic sequence they encounter a massive brown bear, while in another they blast down the river on fishing boats in hopes of finding a catch. Meanwhile, the sprawling reach of industrial sport hunting has begun to encroach upon their land, causing caustic upheaval throughout their cloistered community. Shot with absolutely outstanding rigor by cinematographer Sylvain Verdet and edited with a taut sense of pacing by Pauline Gaillard that gives the film the feel of a thriller passed through a prism of fairytale ambiance, Braguino is unlike any documentary of recent memory.
Now the question is, with the 49-minute Braguino and 58-minute Dreaming Murakami making the rounds at high profile festivals like Hot Docs, where can the rest of the world keep an eye out for them? Mid-length films like these rarely see the light of day in normal channels of theatrical and home video distribution. Streaming services have picked up the slack in many cases, but there is still a lingering dimly lit mid-length no man’s land, where films which deserve a brighter future go to be forgotten. If you can find these films, watch them. They deserve your full attention.