Hot Docs 2015: Jihadists, Drones and Nina Simone

By: Scott Alic

Seriously, do you even like Hollywood films anymore? Fine, the new Star Wars trailer doesn’t reek quite so hard of brand synergy, and Marvel’s game has been solid for an impressive run, but it’s hard not to feel marketed to, and even the prestige titles seem increasingly contrived year after year. Cable TV series, with their longer runtimes (not to mention reduced censorship and sponsor demands), are able to provide more complex characters, mature scenarios and operatic story arcs, taking chances on material that risk-averse studios would pass on, leaving us with a body of films that still grossly under-represent that majority of the population that isn’t white men. Indie and foreign films fare better, but having worked previously for a major Canadian film distributor and spent a week screening 4, 5, 6, 7 films in a day during multiple TIFFs, I can tell you, international and domestic auteurs are entirely capable of producing unwatchable garbage. (Granted, there are diamonds in the muck. And a lot of zircons.)

All this said, the one filmic avenue which I have found most reliable is documentary. Even lesser documentaries open windows on worlds and existences most likely different from your own, can transport you to places on this planet that you would be unlikely to see otherwise, capture crucial moments of joy and pathos in real lives. Some documentaries paint portraits of interesting real-life characters, or ways of life that are disappearing in the face of modernity, which deserve to be preserved, if only on film.

There is no shortage of incredible lives being lived and stories to be told on this planet, which is why I will gladly choose the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival over TIFF any year. This year’s festival, which ran from April 23 to May 3 at various screening venues around Toronto, screened 210 documentaries from Canada and around the world. Although the numbers aren’t in yet for this year, it’s entirely possible that last year’s ticket sales of 192,000 will be surpassed. The festival has grown prodigiously from its first screenings in 1993; today, it is recognized internationally as one of the top festivals of its kind, as well as an increasingly important documentary market, where distribution rights for various countries and markets are sold.

There were a number of marquee titles, many of which sold out well in advance of the fest: Brett Morgen’s Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck premiered at Sundance in January, and carried considerable buzz; the doc focuses on Cobain both as an hyper-sensitive adolescent and as a doting husband and father, ultimately ill-equipped for the fame which befell and ultimately destroyed him. The Nightmare, Rodney Ascher’s followup to the excellent Room 237 (about Kubrick obsessives’ pet theories on what exactly The Shing was really about), explores the phenomenon of sleep paralysis, and by most accounts is genuinely terrifying. The opening night film, Tig, follows stand-up comedian Tig Notaro in the year of her cancer diagnosis and her bold onstage admission of same.

More often than not, the filmmakers (and, occasionally, their human subjects) are in attendance, and it’s a pleasure to see them beholding enthusiastic sold-out audiences for the films that they have likely spent long months and years shooting, editing and maxing out credit cards over. Forty percent of the directors at this year’s Hot Docs were women, which is a huge improvement over the number of female directors for feature films.

The large screening list and wide range of subjects of the films screened at Hot Docs makes it possible that no two attendees would select the same slate of films. (Let’s just say that by the end of the day that the HD schedule is released, I’ve created a serious one-page schematic akin to John Cusack’s mixtape playlist in High Fidelity, mapping out permutations of screenings of my long-list titles.) This year, there were screenings of docs on: the group of young friends who formed Greenpeace. How the sugar industry has taken a page from the Big Tobacco playbook to sow confusion and doubt, and maximize profit. Rehtaeh Parsons. Being a marijuana reviewer for the Denver Times. The UN’s response scenario in the event of extraterrestrial contact. The government case against the alleged founder of online black market Silk Road. The global disappearance of populations of songbirds. (These titles: How to Change the World, Sugar Coated, No Place to Hide: The Rehtaeh Parsons Story, Rolling Papers, The Visit, Deep Web, The Messenger.)

I managed nine screenings over an intense three days this year:

They Will Have to Kill Us First

This doc follows a number of musicians from northern Mali, where Jihadist forces overran a Tuareg insurgence in 2012, imposing Sharia law and effectively banning the playing of music. Exiles from Timbuktu meeting in the capital city of Bamako form band Songhoy Blues, merging Mali’s trancey desert blues sounds with BB King and a touch of punk to create an electrifying hybrid; Brian Eno and Damon Albarn, not shown in the film but the latter an avowed enthusiast of Malian musics, discover the band and record them for a compilation; seemingly overnight, they are signed to Atlantic and touring Europe extensively, amazed at their luck but mindful of the perils still faced by their countrymen.

Meanwhile, local musical celebrity Khaira Arby faces great risks mounting a concert in Timbuktu during a fragile window of peace in the city.  While the doc could have benefitted from a little more background information on Mali’s rich musical culture, there is some incredibly immediate footage from the middle of a street battle between the Malian army and Jihadists, and Songhoy Blues are amazing to see and hear; I was elated to hear that they’ll be in town on June 7 for Field Trip.

Hadwin's Judgement.

Hadwin’s Judgement

Grant Hadwin was a rugged forest engineer on the Haida Gwaii coastal islands of BC, with a seemingly spiritual connection to the ancient forests there; incensed that the logging companies should protect a single 300-year-old spruce tree with a unique mutation that gave it golden needles, while clear-cutting huge swaths of land elsewhere on the islands, Hadwin felled the sacred tree in 1997. Whether Hadwin was a mad extremist or a visionary, and whether his ends justified the means is the subject of debate here. Director Sasha Snow re-enacts footage of Hadwin, casting a stuntman with a haunted look. The film is beautifully shot in hi-res digital, but Snow wisely refrains from showing the golden spruce directly during the film, to preserve the mythology around it. Another great NFB title.

Western

Western

Piedras Negras, Mexico and Eagle Pass, Texas are separated by a trickle of the Rio Grande, and have enjoyed strong amity and business relations for over a century. At first, it seems as though the doc is celebrating this strong bond, and supporting a less strict and militarized model for relations at this otherwise fraught border. Repeated shots of distant sheet lightning foreshadow narco violence which we are told grows ever closer, but unfortunately, most of the conflict in the film remains at a distance.

We follow a single-father rancher who stresses as Washington closes the border to the Mexican cattle which have provided his family’s livelihood for a century, and the Eagle Pass mayor as he attends functions on either side of the border, and then retires. Fortified fences are raised between the cities, and it appears that we have witnessed the end of a peaceful era for these towns, but the change happens in an undramatic fashion, and Western feels lacking as a result. There are some memorable slice-of-life sequences, and I’d be interested in a TV series with this setting and characters, but the film is unfortunately hobbled by low-res cameras which seem to hearken to the earliest days of DV, giving the film’s images an ugly grit on the large screen.

Strange Particles

I took a chance on this small-story Russian doc, shot by prolific young filmmaker Denis Klebleev with a one-man crew, about an exasperated young quantum physics professor at a summer physics camp, struggling to capture the attention of teenagers whose minds are on anything but Schrödinger’s Cat when there’s dancing girls not ten metres down the beach. He directs his attention primarily towards one beleaguered youth whom he sees as his “quantum son”, but ultimately acknowledges that he barely inhabits the same dimension as his students. Klebleev admits to shaping some of the events in the film more than might be acceptable in a harder-hitting documentary, but it’s conceivable that a clever scriptwriter could turn the subject of this doc into the lead character in an amusing indie feature film.

Nicola Constantino: The Artefacta

All I really care to say about this one is that I didn’t find Argentine visual artist Nicola Costantino nearly as interesting as Costantino clearly finds herself to be. The muted crowd response to this doc bore this out. The filmmaker can’t be faulted here – the doc is well-shot and assembled, and there is no shortage of compelling visuals here, but Costantino’s voiceovers fail to ascribe any significance to her narcissistic, pretentious and often ridiculous work.

Drone

Remote-controlled drone attacks on have been a game-changer for the US military in their sustained War on Terror post-9/11, and Drone does an admirable job of addressing the broad range of moral, ethical and legal issues at play in a tight 78 minutes, when any one of these could be the subject of its own documentary: the military’s development of video games designed to train the drone operators of tomorrow. The post-traumatic stress disorder experienced by former drone operators ordered to take hundreds of lives. The legal battle to hold America accountable for drone attacks on foreign soil. The efficacy of drone attacks, and the thousands of innocent lives lost in attacks. Life in the regions (such as Waziristan region of Pakistan) where drones are seen and heard on the daily. What happens when other nations adopt weaponized drones, and decide to act with the same impunity? Drone is an expertly-assembled, frightening and important doc on the future of warfare.

What Happened, Miss Simone?

Not being able to score tickets for the Cobain doc, I reserved much of my HD excitement for this Netflix-produced doc on the complicated genius that was Nina Simone. Groomed at a young age to be the first black American classical pianist but denied entry into music schools based on her race, Simone played popular music in bars, and only began to sing, after being ordered to do so by her bosses. “Discovered” and fashioned into an innovatively jazzy pop singer, Simone rose to fame, but was ground down by the punishing tour schedule dictated by her demanding and abusive husband / manager. Enraged by the dire state of American civil rights, Simone became both erratic and increasingly radicalized, and eventually left her husband and child for Africa. A depleted Simone returned to Europe, living in squalor and hobbled by manic depression, before friends restored her health, allowing her to return triumphantly to the stage, where her talents on the piano remained incredibly undiminished.

The doc, by Oscar nominee Liz Barbus (The Farm: Angola, USA), doesn’t shy away from the stickier facets of its subject – Simone’s daughter speaks frankly about the cruelty and abuse she suffered at her mother’s hands, and Simone is achingly candid in interview footage and naked in her journal writings about suicidal thoughts and an obsession with violence. The film is available on Netflix on June 26, but Simone’s incomparable music is worth hearing on a theatre sound system, if possible.

Speed Sisters.

Speed Sisters 

This fascinating doc by Lebanese-Canadian director Amber Fares follows four young Palestinian women participating in that state’s racing circuit, and in so doing, provides a valuable perspective at life under the Israeli occupation. The women face numerous challenges in finding practice space, procuring auto parts, and facing a racing authority that seems to want to throw all races in favour of the most telegenic and richest of the girls, but who nonetheless find supportive crowds wherever they go, and the sisterly bond between the charismatic racers is heartening.

Again, the doc is excellently shot and edited, and the access that the cameras gain is impressive; while the film takes pains to avoid any political messaging, the contrast between the deprivation in the refugee camps of Jenin and the beaches of Jaffa is striking. Like many of the docs that I screened this year, Speed Sisters was crowdfunded – a heartening trend that shows the support that exists for filmmakers to be able to deliver compelling stories.

Frame By Frame 1

Frame by Frame

Photography was forbidden by the Taliban, and although the regime was driven from power in Afghanistan in 2001, rebuilding a free national press in the country since that has been an uphill struggle. Since foreign troops have left the country, the Ghani government has proven unsupportive, if not hostile, to the national media, and violent acts against journalists hit record levels in 2014. This powerful doc follows four photojournalists, including a married couple, risking all to capture truth in a country where suicide bombings, rampant drug abuse and immolation of women are not uncommon occurrences.

There are a number of powerful sequences, mainly involving photojournalist Farzana Wahidy, as she struggles to gain access to burn victims in a hospital in the outer province, but manages to find a woman brave enough to share her truly horrific story. Wahidy dabs away tears, gathers herself, and finally fulfils her duty, raising her camera to her eye to capture her subject.

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