We report on the best films and biggest trends of this year’s fest.
Toronto’s massive Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, though stuffed to the gills with cinematic treasures, is not necessarily known as the greatest launching pad for new films just having their world premiere. Falling on the calendar in the wake of a long list of other high profile festivals, North America’s largest documentary festival functions best as a curatorial highlight reel, featuring picks from all the festivals leading up to it, from IDFA, Sundance, CPH DOX, True/False, SXSW, all the way to Tribeca, which wraps just the week before. The trick is sifting through the 230 titles on offer over the course of its 11-day run.
One discovery actually had its debut a month prior to IDFA last year at Germany’s DOK Leipzig. Nestled in the eclectic World Showcase program, Claudio Capanna’s Life to Come depicts the seemingly simplistic tale of a mother giving birth to premature twins and the tenuous months that pass as they wait in the hospital for the newborns to function without the complications of life support. Initially told from the viewpoint of one of the twins, the film takes an incredibly bold perspective, beginning from within the womb, through the trauma of birth and finally the confusion of bright lights, beeping machines and new faces. Visually and aurally stunning in its intimacy, this quiet portrait of life struggling to find its way into the world is a remarkable debut that makes Capanna a talent to keep our eyes on.
Hailing from Poland, Norman Leto’s Photon is another film that deals with new life, though on a much greater scale. Essentially the scientific antithesis to Terrence Malick’s extraordinary spiritually tinged origins of the universe exploration Voyage of Time, Leto’s CPH DOX-debuted project attempts the seemingly impossible in explaining the roots of matter through the dawn of man and beyond. Its systemic breakdown of quantum physics uses mind-bending animation and a wryly austere British voiceover that lovingly recalls bone-dry educational documentaries of yesteryear. Making this all the more miraculous is the fact that Leto serves as a one man band of sorts, being not just director but also writer (somehow effortlessly explaining quantum theory and later delving in hard science fiction), editor and animator (composing some truly stunning CG visuals throughout, from the depiction of subatomic particles and their development through full-on visual future projections of the world). It’s not perfect — a mock interview with a disinterested quantum physicist awkwardly and routinely breaks up the information overload — but Photon’s success in asking and attempting to answer so many of the big questions of life is nothing short of breathtaking in its ambition alone.
Flirting with the future like so many other festivals around the globe, Hot Docs’s DocX program featured various virtual reality and interactive productions. Sam Green and Gary Hustwit collaborate on the VR project This Is What the Future Looked Like, about the late Buckminster Fuller and his architectural wonder, the geodesic dome. One of two efforts put together by Hustwit’s Scenic VR production house on offer at Hot Docs, it features both filmmakers standing in or around various domes, recording sound or holding tablets with video or sound clips of Fuller speaking about his invention. As simplistic as it sounds, it works beautifully as a way to freely experience the bulbous architecture itself, while also feeling like a natural extension of Green’s previous performance work and Hustwit’s inquiries into the design world. I’m very curious to see where they go from here.
The other Scenic project was The Fastest Ride by Jessica Edwards (Mavis!). This one follows cyclist Denise Mueller as she attempts to become the fastest woman ever on a bicycle while riding over Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats. Though narratively compelling as a short, it is less formally inquisitive than This is What the Future Looked Like. With the camera fixed to the back of a tow vehicle for the entirety of its high speed climax and its traditional goal-oriented story arc, it is less impressive as a VR experience. The short benefits most from the eye-popping, landscape-scanning drone shots that give you the freedom to take in the sights from the perspective of your choosing.
Of the few films that did have their world premiere at Hot Docs, there’s a pair of future-focused features that delve into the silent surveillance state of big data collection. You’re Soaking In It by director Scott Harper looks at how current technologies are already using our various personal devices to collect information in order to launch personalized marketing campaigns based on endlessly expanding parameters and calculations. Meanwhile, Matthias Heeder and Monika Hielscher’s Pre-Crime examines how that same information stream is being used by criminal justice systems to try to predict and prevent crimes before they take place.
While You’re Soaking In It suffers from a lack of formal focus in its mashed-up montage of advertising and interviews with modern day Don Draper types, Pre-Crime takes a more personal approach, albeit mildly more problematically, by following a handful of black men with no history of violent crime who are singled out by law enforcement and notified they are on a watchlist for future potential violent crime. Though Heeder and Hielscher’s film infuriatingly shows just how unjust this approach to crime fighting is, it also unintentionally paints a picture in which black men and only black men are portrayed as likely criminals, only asking in wryly poetic voiceover whether or not there would also be a system to predict white-collar crime. I presume not.
Complementing these feature-length surveillance-centered films was a pair of sleek, smart shorts found in the Singular Sensation(s) shorts program. Brilliantly, Kevin Byrnes’s Harvest takes the perspective of what at first seems like an all-knowing god but is shortly revealed to be that of a smartphone that’s been learning a lot about its unsuspecting owner, Jenni. This is socially urgent, inventive doc filmmaking at its best and would fit right in with the productions that have been coming out of Field of Vision.
Meanwhile, Hubert Davis’s HP-sponsored Rivolta explores the rise and fall of hacker Michael “Mafiaboy” Calce, who managed to bring down Yahoo, CNN, Amazon and eBay in a single week back in 2000 at the age of 15. Like a miniaturized take on the inherent flaws of cyber security in the reformed criminal storyteller mode of The Fear of 13, Davis’s film relies on Calce’s ability to weave a thrilling yarn while matching its techno-savvy subject matter with crisp, period reenactments and archival media reportage. A vast improvement over the filmmaker’s recent basketball doc feature Giants of Africa, Rivolta is a finely tuned, funny and troubling little thriller.
Looking at the opposite end of the technological spectrum, Kaisa Astikainen’s quietly heartbreaking debut, Heart of the Land, documents the final year of dairy production on a Finnish farm with remarkable grace. The couple running it comes to the decision to retire from the laborious life after their children (Astikainen herself being the oldest of them) decide not to carry on the family tradition now three generations on, tragically giving the farm and all of its timeless cultural manner and form an expiration date. Recalling the abiding, meditative blacksmithing process of Dominique Benicheti’s Cousin Jules, Astikainen lenses the fateful, ritualistic early morning proceedings of milking the cows and all that goes into working the land to provide a living for one’s family with deep affection.
Taking a decidedly more ethereal look at rural living and the threats that encroach upon its very existence, Pieter-Jan De Pue’s Girls and Honey, a brief follow-up to his brilliant feature debut, The Land of the Enlightened, beds down with the last remaining residents of Pesky, Ukraine, as the Ukrainian Army fights its own battles off in the distance. Like its long-form predecessor, Girls and Honey was shot stunningly on 16mm, lending an inherently nostalgic look to the immense sensory experience we’re immediately entrenched within. One moment we’re watching the process of traditional beekeeping unfold amid the sun and local greenery, the next we’re launched into the midst of a firefight on the front lines of battle, with roaring sound by Yoerik Roevens that makes you fear for your own life as bullets rush by in a hail of violence.
A wild reminder of home and the forces that perpetually threaten it, and radiantly experiential to boot, Girls and Honey seduced my senses like no other at Hot Docs this year. It reminded me that Henry David Thoreau once wrote that “The keeping of bees is like the direction of sunbeams.” I like to believe the same is true of making and watching docs: it’s utterly mysterious, and yet vital and fulfilling all the same.