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2018

Hot Docs 2018 #8: Two Hits and a Miss

One of the “problems” of loving documentaries and attending Hot Docs is trying to figure out what you’re going to see. With so many great options in a given day, it takes a while to craft a schedule and, even then, I find myself second-guessing my choices... sometimes right up until the last possible moment.

That’s what happened yesterday, when I had decided that Inventing Tomorrow would be my first screening of the day. I’d earmarked that one since it was announced for the fest because it sounded right up my alley: a doc about eco-minded kids competing at a massive science fair! But then I heard some great buzz about United Skates – about roller-skating culture in the black community in the U.S., and which was screening at the same time – and wondered if I should switch my pick.

That hemming and hawing literally lasted until the ticketholders line for Inventing Tomorrow was being let into the theater. I actually had a ticket but, as the line started to move, I followed my gut instead of my fellow linemates and returned to the box office to swap it out.

And I’m so glad I did because United Skates (7/8) was all kinds of fun and enlightenment! Co-directed by Dyana Winkler and Tina Brown, the film trains its lens on the nationwide not-underground-for-much-longer world of roller-skating among the black community, and how roller rinks have served as gathering places, refuges, hip-hop performance spaces and neutral territory across America for nearly 100 years. But hang on – this isn’t your kid sister’s “roller skating.” The kind of skating the film showcases is EPIC: elaborate, choreographed, athletic and packed with stunts that will leave your jaw on the floor. The directors follow a number of skating enthusiasts – including a single mom of five in L.A., a rink owner in Chicago and a skilled skater in North Carolina – as they share their love for the sport amid one rink closure after another. The whole thing is set to a killer soundtrack and features some truly dazzling wheelwork that will leave you energized and eager to slip on a pair of skates... or, at the very least, grab a seat along the boards and watch other people do so.

Unfortunately, the high energy generated by Skates came to a screeching halt at my next screening, the woefully slow, measured and methodical The Lonely Battle of Thomas Reid (N/A). A glacial-paced character study of a determined (but possibly mentally ill?) Irish farmer, whose family’s homestead is threatened by big-business development and who refuses to sell his property. On paper, this sounds like a compelling film; onscreen, however, it is painfully uneventful, peppered with dramatic reenactments that made me question which parts of the doc were real and which were actually fake. I hung in for about 40 minutes and then gave up when I found myself starting to drift off. First walk-out of Hot Docs 2018!

Last up was This Mountain Life (6/8), and it was only during the film’s intro that I realized (much to my delight) it was directed by Grant Baldwin, who (with his wife, Jenny Rustemeyer) directed Just Eat It, which I saw and really enjoyed back at Hot Docs 2014! I hadn’t even looked at the production team when I selected the film, so that was a very pleasant surprise.

Happily, the pair’s new film is just as good – though in a whole new way – as their previous outing, this time profiling assorted Canadian West Coasters who live, work and play in British Columbia’s expansive mountain ranges. Their subjects include the nuns at the Queen of Peace Monastery and an avalanche survivor who recounts his experience in harrowing detail, and those stories are woven together with a secondary narrative about Tania and Martina, a 60-year-old mother and her adult daughter, who embark on a six-month, 2,300km trek through the mountains from Vancouver, B.C., to Skagway, Alaska. Filled with breathtaking cinematography and a clear love for the region, the film transports the audience to a world of natural wonder, both visually and anecdotally. My only criticism, and it’s a minuscule one, is that I feel like there’s enough material here for two great docs: one featuring just Tania and Martina, and one featuring everyone else.

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