Hot Docs #10: People Making Waves

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From land defenders protecting the environment in the Philippines to social-media influencers navigating a problematic platform, people are making waves in these four wildly different films.

Delikado (6/8)
When it comes to environmental activism, the work of the Palawan NGO Network Inc.’s “para-enforcers” in the Philippines ranks as some of the most dangerous in the world. As this disheartening doc from director Karl Malakunas demonstrates, the dedicated citizen “land defenders” — unarmed and wearing flip-flops — patrol the region’s old-growth rainforests to deter illegal logging and clear-cutting, and cruise the nearby harbors to thwart illicit fishing. Their goal is to preserve the province’s natural resources and protect its ecosystems, but doing so puts them in the (literal) crosshairs of government officials, who view these courageous eco-warriors as frustrating obstacles to the investor-dollar windfalls that tourism and development would bring. Malakunas follows three of the movement’s key players — environmental attorney Bobby Chan, local mayor Nieves Rosento, and Tata Balladares, a one-time logger turned para-enforcer — as they perform surprisingly effective citizens’ arrests, while also enduring intimidation, threats and even murder. It’s all a rather depressing affair, demonstrating the abuse of the immense power and influence government leaders yield, and how some of the country’s poorest residents, who literally sacrifice their lives to protect the environment they call home, are being forcibly silenced.

Make People Better (6/8)
Here’s a question: is the movie Gattaca a portrait of dystopia or utopia? For the subject of this “genetically engineered babies” documentary thriller from director Cody Sheehy, it’s probably the latter. From its Westworld-esque opening credits and futuristic cityscapes to the decidedly theatrical approach to the story, the film centers on controversial genetic-engineer He “JK” Jianku, whose 2018 genome-editing work resulted in the world’s first CRISPR babies — twin girls Lulu and Nana — and a firestorm of bioethical controversy, censorship… and JK’s mysterious disappearance after a November 2018 genome summit. Spurred on by his peers and, per the film, initially encouraged by the Chinese government, JK became an instant pariah, his work condemned and the entire project promptly covered up. What happened to JK? What happened to the babies? Why did the scientific community, including previous proponents of JK’s experiments, turn on their collective heel to disavow him? And did the investigation by MIT Technology Review editor Antonio Regaldo inadvertently contribute to, instead of help solve, the mystery? Even after having watched the film, it’s not entirely clear, but the story itself is gripping enough that me walking away with more questions than answers feels oddly fitting.

The Quiet Epidemic (6/8)
I will admit that, initially, subjecting myself to a documentary about chronic Lyme disease wasn’t really high on my Hot Docs to-do list. But when I finally sat down to watch this unexpectedly effective and informative film from co-directors Lindsay Keys and Winslow Crane-Murdoch (who both suffer from the condition), I was glad I did. Like long-haul COVID, chronic Lyme disease can result when treatment for the initial infection is ineffective, and can cause a wide array of debilitating long-term side effects for its sufferers. Yet, as the doc explains via the experiences of one teenaged patient and her family, it remains a divisive and controversial medical issue, with many experts dismissing it as a psychological (not physiological) malady. Filled with enough alarming info on ticks — and the staggering number of Lyme cases diagnosed every year — to keep you from ever setting foot in a forest or field again, the unsettling film also exposes the flawed testing models, lack of research funding, uninsured treatments and outdated CDC policies that are keeping chronic Lyme disease on the fringes while its sufferers desperately pursue vaccines, support and validation.

TikTok, Boom. (5/8)
Director Shalini Kantayya takes one of the most popular social-media apps on the planet and puts it through the wringer in this exposé that may have you thinking twice about signing up (or deleting the app if you’re already onboard). Much of the information isn’t particularly new — the platform’s Chinese origins, lack of transparency, and the perils of that nation’s data-collection policies and the security concerns they raise — have been explored in the past. But its focus on influencers and the scope of the “creator economy” provides some fresh insight and commentary… even if you roll your eyes at the idea of random teenagers making millions just by wearing a particular brand of shoes or endorsing a makeup line in a 30-second video. Kantayya interviews a number of these “internet celebrities” about some of the benefits and downsides to their TikTok success, but largely sticks to the effects of being “shadowbanned” (when the app’s algorithm essentially censors content deemed unacceptable), and avoids many of the bigger socio-political issues. Flashy and briskly paced, the doc seems crafted to appeal to the platform’s target demographic. Time will tell whether its cautionary message has any real effect on the app, its developers or its ever-growing base of young users desperate for online fame.


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