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2018

Hot Docs 2018 #7: Lives Transformed

As the fest goes on and I rack up more screenings, I’m noting that many of the films I’ve selected at this year’s Hot Docs are winding up thematically linked on any given day... which wasn’t always intentional. And I’m really digging this happy accident!

First on today’s agenda was reuniting with my film-fest pals, who always make moviegoing so much more fun and with whom I inevitably wind up having some sort of festival-related adventure: meeting Michael Gross in 2014, meeting Madonna’s dancers in 2016 and, today, meeting Janae Kroc (but more on that in a moment). After repeated delays on my journey to the theater (::: shaking fist at the TTC yet again :::), we had time for some quick catching up before the lights went down.

The feature was preceded by the short Mommy Goes Race (6/8), a poetic reflection on taking chances, directed by and starring Charlene McConini. A mom of two, McConini races cars in her First Nations community, and the film is an empowering message about young women putting themselves in the driver’s seat of their lives.

That was followed by the remarkable Transformer (7/8), a documentary that – without hyperbole on my part – will organically and without preaching change perceptions and change lives. Truly. Directed by Michael Del Monte, the film focuses on Janae Croc, a trans woman who (as a man) was world-record-setting weightlifting champ and competitive bodybuilder Matt “Kroc” Kroczaleski. After decades spent hiding his secret from most, Matt gradually begins the process of transitioning, a little at a time, in fits and starts, but finds the juxtaposition of the hulking male body he inhabits and the female body he dreams of seeing in the mirror challenging to overcome. Supported by three fabulously amazing young sons (a heart-swelling tribute to Kroc’s open, honest and loving parenting, to be sure), Matt gradually gives way to Janae full time, and the audience is invited to share in her inspiring, courageous and deeply personal journey.

Destined to erase the misconceptions and stereotypes of what a trans woman looks like, and undoubtedly help countless young (and old) men and women struggling with their identities, Transformer is must-see viewing.

After the screening, Del Monte and Kroc stepped onstage – earning a teary, much-deserved standing ovation – for a Q&A, and then hung out in the Scotia lobby to field more questions, give and receive many hugs, and take plenty of selfies (including one with yours truly). I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to discover this wonderful woman’s story and to have the had the opportunity to tell her so before hopping in line for screening #2.

Women making waves was also the theme of my next film, 93Queen (6/8), which tells the story of Rachel Freier and the establishment of Ezras Nashim, the first all-woman Hasidic EMT team in New York’s Borough Park neighborhood. Directed by Paula Eiselt, the film tracks Freier and a group of dedicated, determine Hasidic women, who balance their deeply religious lives with bucking the male-dominated system that their community has used, followed and supported for years. Despite opposition from (shocker!) many of the rabbis and the men who operate Hatzolah, the all-men Hasidic volunteer ambulance corps (who banned women years prior), Freier nonetheless forges ahead, recruiting and training her own team of emergency personnel. At the same time, she’s running for a civil-court-judge appointment, forcing her to walk the delicate line between enacting change and doing so without being perceived as so radical as to lose voter support.

Eiselt, herself orthodox but not Hasidic, gains unprecedented access to the community, and the women speak frankly about the patriarchy keeping them down for, it seems, no other reason than its own insecurity. The result is an insightful doc about a group of women who, one hopes, will model a new kind of tomorrow for their daughters.

After having an on-the-run “dinner” of two Krispy Kreme donuts, I sat down for my final film of the day. As someone who sees as many eco-centric films as possible, it was no surprise that The Devil We Know (6/8) was on my to-see list early on. And, I suspect, its story of corporate cover-up in the name of the almighty dollar will shock, dismay and enrage many.

The film, directed by Stephanie Soechtig and co-directed by Jeremy Seifert, tells the story of the groundbreaking class-action lawsuit brought against DuPont by residents of Parkersburg, West Virginia, who discovered the chemical corporation – responsible for making Teflon – had been dumping toxic waste into their waterways. For decades. Birth defects in humans and livestock in the area were, it turns out, just the tip of the iceberg, with the contamination effects now reaching all over the planet and into the bloodstream of virtually every human being on it (you and me included!). Disturbing, infuriating and fascinating (watching DuPont execs squirm while being questioned during depositions is fantastic), with several compelling first-hand accounts from residents and former DuPont employees directly affected by the toxicity of their water supply, the film tells an all-too-familiar story about rural communities exploited and destroyed by giant corporations who figure the locals won’t raise a stink. Only this time, they did.

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