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2019

Hot Docs 2019 #11: Reform, Role Playing... and Emojis!

Okay, it might be time to discuss the new “live open-captioning” policy at screenings this year. In theory, it’s fantastic – a way to make the intros and post-film Q&A sessions at Hot Docs even more accessible to audiences. But so far, more often than not, the captioners are not able to keep up with the speakers on stage (so there are obvious omissions in the onscreen transcripts) and/or are making a slew of mistakes. Yesterday’s open captioning at Conviction – a film about female inmates – featured captions riddled with errors: “Jordana Ross” became “John Ross” in captions, “prisons” displayed as “prisms”... and perhaps most tragic was the captioning for the standard Indigenous Peoples statement at the outset. That’s a prewritten statement that's been given at every single screening for the past few years, and could easily have been provided (in writing) to the captioner in advance, but obviously wasn’t. Whoever was typing didn’t even attempt to type Iroquois Haudenosaunee, leaving it out altogether. (Another screening on another day featured "Anishnabeg" instead of "Anishinaabe.") It's unfortunate when stuff like that happens, so hopefully next year’s fest will either feature more seasoned captioners at the keyboards or perhaps figure out a new approach somehow.


Speaking of Conviction (6/8), it was the film that started my day at Hart House. It's a compelling collaborative project from directors Nance Ackerman, Teresa MacInnes and Areilla Pahlke, who teamed with a number of incarcerated women in Nova Scotia to examine the flaws of the prison system as it pertains to women. Arming the inmates with cameras, and involving them in assorted creative-expression and art-therapy classes, the filmmakers capture an up-close and personal look at these women’s flaws and fears, especially when it comes time for their release: one by one, we watch as they all wind up reoffending and returning to the very place they all vow never to see again. Sometimes repeatedly and usually as a result of the lack of post-release support for everything from addiction to mental-health issues. The doc also introduces audiences to Senator Kim Pate, who – along with the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies (a non-profit advocacy organization working with girls and women in prison) – is working to reform the justice system in the hopes developing alternatives to traditional prisons for at-risk and convicted women. Engaging, educational and occasionally frustrating (for all the right reasons), Conviction demonstrates the ongoing challenges facing prison reform in Canada, as well as the often-harsh realities facing those fortunate enough to complete their time and walk free, even if only for a proverbial moment.


Next up, I’d planned to see the award-winning beekeeping fable Honeyland, which I knew had gone rush but, to my shock and awe, even the media/industry tickets were GONE by the time I got to the Lightbox! Apparently, the film had gone “industry rush,” as well, several hours before showtime. That has never happened to me at any film at any Hot Docs over the years. Not wanting to risk waiting in the rush line and figuring I'd try for it again at one of its subsequent screenings, I opted to find something else to fill the three-hour gap in my schedule. Several of the available screenings were films I’d already seen, so I decided to head to the Scotiabank to check out a film I initially had no interest in seeing.


Unfortunately for me, my gut instincts about The Magic Life of V (3/8) when creating my original festival schedule were correct: I should have just skipped it and found something else to do with my time. Despite Gabor Pertic’s effusive introduction, I did not find the film magical or wonderful – it was tedious and I (and a few other filmgoers I spoke with after the screening) actually questioned whether it was, in fact, a documentary and not a fiction film. Because so much of it felt manufactured for the camera and, overall, played out very much like a dramatic work. The doc follows a seemingly fragile young woman of indeterminate age (she might be 16, she might be 25, it’s never entirely clear), who’s endured some kind of abuse from her father as a child (again, it’s never explicitly discussed, so it could be physical and/or sexual) that traumatized her. Per the film’s official synopsis but not made clear on its own in the actual film, she seeks solace and escape in the world of LARP (live-action role playing), where she becomes a brave, friendly character named “V.” We watch as she attends a few LARP events, casting spells or slaying aliens but always weighed down with emotional baggage, and we see her chat with her mentally disabled older brother about their estranged father, whom V hasn’t seen in more than a decade. And that’s kind of it. Watching and waiting, I presumed all of this was building to some kind of confrontation or meeting, which does happen... but it turned out to be such an underwhelming and flat a destination that it rendered the journey annoyingly pointless. I’m still not sure what the audience is meant to glean from the film itself. It does have some lovely cinematography, though, so there's that.


After an unsatisfying (and quickly scarfed down) dinner, I made my way back to Hart House for the (thankfully) refreshingly fun and lighthearted Picture Character (7/8), which traces the origins of emojis (emoji? emojis? which is the plural?!) and looks at the hows, whys and whos behind the 60 or so new emojis that are added to the emoji library each year. Directors Ian Cheney and Martha Shane introduce audiences to Unicode, the mysterious Silicon Valley organization that actually oversees emojis. As in: they decide what becomes an emoji and what doesn’t. FOR THE ENTIRE WORLD. It’s a lofty responsibility and one that many argue makes no sense: if emojis are emerging as a global “language” all its own, why should one small American group control everything that language contains? The filmmakers interview Shigetaka Kurita, the man responsible for creating the very first, now-rudimentary 12x12-pixel emojis back in 1997, who reflects on how his humble creations have evolved into a communication revolution. Linguists, professors and computer scientists also weigh in on the use and prevalence of emojis, and we simultaneously follow the efforts of a trio of hopeful new-emoji applicants, each hoping their proposal gets the stamp of approval from Unicode. It was all highly entertaining and a super-comprehensive examination of a cultural zeitgeist at exactly the right moment. Plus, it’s one of the few films at the festival that won’t make you cry! ;-)

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