Hallelujah! It’s Hot Docs time again! It has become, quite honestly, my favorite season. This year, the festival (April 23 – May 3) will screen more than 200 documentaries from around the world – among them, 47 world premieres – across a dozen different programs that span everything from late-night oddities to biographies, exposés and so much more.
Check out the full film list here.
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In the meantime, and as I ready myself for 10 days of back to back to back doc-going, I’ve been able to attend a bunch of pre-festival screenings. Here’s a look at the first batch of films I’ve seen.
Being Canadian (4/8)
Canucks will no doubt find this comedic doc cute and funny, and it certainly features a star-studded who’s-who of famous Canadians (from Michael J. Fox and Mike Myers to Rush, Martin Short, Seth Rogen and Dan Aykroyd) chiming in on all things Great White North, but – as a documentary – it falls a bit short. Writer-director-star Rob Cohen sets out on what he claims is a nine-day, cross-Canada road trip to answer the question: what does it mean to be Canadian? While he does hit a few provinces for vignettes on local culture, his timeline is iffy, there’s no rhyme or reason to his stops, and he completely skips over Manitoba, Saskatchewan and all three territories. Despite the plethora of comments from ex-pat celebs living and working in the States, there’s virtually nothing from actual everyday Canadians living and working in Canada. So, the film feels more like “Canadian Celebrities Discuss Canada” than an examination of the Canadian identity. I’m also not sure it does much to dispel the myths Cohen lists at its outset – in fact, one sequence where he visits Ottawa in “June” was clearly shot in the deep of winter, but I fear that wink will be completely lost on clueless non-Canadian viewers who don’t realize: HE’S KIDDING.
Gayby Baby (5/8)
While watching this Australian documentary, I couldn’t help but wonder for whom it was intended, audience-wise. The preaching-to-the-choir supporters of same-sex parenting will have no problem with these perfectly ordinary and uneventful slice-of-life portraits of four great kids, each being raised by a different set of gay men or women. But I fear that the staunch opponents of the issue, and likely even some on-the-fencers, may be another story. One pensive boy struggles with Catholicism vs. his love for his gay mums; another LURVES WWE wrestling, much to the dismay of his lesbian parents; the adopted son of two gay dads adjusts to life in a new country where homosexuality isn’t widely accepted; and a talented pre-teen prepares to audition for an arts school, while her mothers try to manage their family on government assistance. While some of the doc’s material is compelling, unfortunately some of it may also reinforce the very fears and stereotypes trumpeted by the religious and political right in their efforts to condemn gay parenting. Given that some of the film’s content might be very easily misinterpreted or manipulated if viewed through a biased filter, I’m curious to see how (or if) it will inform the debate.
Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck (6/8)
Blending animation with home movies, archival concert footage, diary entries, animation, photographs, and interviews with Cobain’s friends and family, this visually (and aurally) arresting film provides a wonderfully comprehensive – if somewhat bleak – portrait of the late Nirvana frontman, who committed suicide in 1994 at just 27. Chronicling his rocky upbringing and teenaged years in fantastic, never-before-seen-or-heard detail, and tracing Cobain’s evolution from depressed, (often) unhappy teenager to depressed, (often) unhappy, drug-addicted rock star, director Brett Morgen’s doc is unapologetically raw and honest. Many of the key players in Cobain’s life – including bandmate Krist Novoselic, and polarizing wife Courtney Love – are featured, but the absence of Dave Grohl (Nirvana’s drummer) combined with the film’s rather abrupt conclusion (“… and then he died, the end!”) left me feeling like a few pieces of the narrative puzzle were missing as the closing credits rolled.
Live From New York (4/8)
It’s too bad this surprisingly short documentary is hitting screens after all the hoopla and TV specials over Saturday Night Live’s 40th-anniversary celebrations, because now it kind of feels like an also-ran. Even though it features interviews with some of SNL’s key players – Lorne Michaels, Tina Fey, Chris Rock, Dana Carvey, Jane Curtin and Jimmy Fallon, among them – the doc seems a bit thin, content-wise. It briskly skims over the show’s four decades on the air, grouping clips and comments by theme (the original cast, sexism, lack of players of color, 9/11, etc.), but never really delves too deeply into any of them and steers clear of anything overly dark (i.e., drug use). The narrative seems scattered, jumping from subject to subject, without ever really providing new insight or information. To be fair, it’s impossible to cram a comprehensive look at an iconic comedy institution, and all of its immensely successful and well-known alumni, into barely 90 minutes given the breadth of material out there. Which is why I think this doc might have been better served as part of a larger, longer retrospective, rather than a standalone project.
Southern Rites (6/8)
There couldn’t be a more timely subject for a documentary right now than race relations in the United States, and director Gillian Laub examines that Big Issue through the microcosm of Montgomery County Georgia, where the local high-school prom remained segregated until 2010 (and only reluctantly integrated after Laub’s 2009 photos of the dual events ran in The New York Times, igniting a public firestorm). Initially planning a follow-up photo shoot, Laub instead winds up training her lens on a far more fascinating set of situations: the election of a new County sheriff, and the shooting death of a black teen by an elderly white man. Wonderfully paced and methodically unfolding like a novel with plenty of twists (kudos to the filmmakers for their seemingly belated but perfectly timed reveal of one of the proceedings’ central figures), Rites is something of a small-town meditation on racism, progress, assumptions and change, and makes for compelling viewing.
In this documentary, Tig Notaro triumphs in a battle that millions of women around the world lose daily: her straight-girl crush actually works out! That’s just one (comparatively minor in the grand scheme of cancer-y things, but super-sweet and not unimportant) component of co-directors’ Kristina Goolsby and Ashley York’s fantastically funny, insightful and moving film that tracks a year in the life of the titular comedian – specifically, the turbulent year during which, in rapid succession, she survived a potentially fatal gastro-intestinal infection, lost her mother, was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a double mastectomy. (And, yes, met and fell in love with the woman who’s now her fiancée!) Anchored in audio of Notaro’s star-making post-diagnosis set at a Florida comedy club, and featuring interviews with many of her comedic peers, the doc spins a wonderfully engaging story about one woman’s wild ride of a journey through a simultaneously harrowing and remarkable 12 months, and serves as a reminder that humor and grace can make even the most terrible situations survivable. And, once the dust settles, even funny.
On paper, this sounded promising: four twentysomething young (human) bucks from Texas embark on a 3,000-mile wilderness trek from the Mexican border to Canada. Their transportation? Wild mustangs they adopt, train and then ride through decidedly unforgiving terrain. But the resulting documentary feels lacking in a number of areas, not the least of which is how the wild mustangs are “tamed” enough to be ridden (I would guess this was left out of the film because “breaking” a horse isn’t necessarily pretty). And, while the cinematography is breathtakingly beautiful, the film winds up feeling more like a cinematic postcard than anything else. There are countless, super-flattering and gorgeously composed slo-mo shots of the guys (riding, fishing, goofing around, racing each other on horseback), but the story of the actual journey is left underserved. We get glimpses of the fellas’ hardship and triumph, interspersed with commentary from individuals on both sides of the “should wild mustangs be left to roam free?” debate, but the doc’s substance never quite matches its style.