Hot Docs 2015 #2: More Pre-Fest Reviews

Our Rating

It’s almost time for the festival proper to get underway, and I managed to see another half-dozen films before the doors officially open on April 23rd.

The Closer We Get (6/8)
Sometimes, when a director makes his or her family members (and their dysfunction) the subjects of a documentary, you wind up with something that feels invasive and exploitative (see: The Manor, which opened Hot Docs 2013 and which I did not enjoy at all). But this quiet and subtle film from director Karen Guthrie is more thoughtful than salacious, and – though certainly intimate and personal, and dealing with material that’s no doubt painful to revisit for all involved – doesn’t feel like it’s airing the clan’s dirty laundry for the sake of shock value or condemnation of any of the parties involved. In the doc, which unspools a bit like a mystery and takes a respectful, let’s-understand-this approach to its subjects’ stories, Guthrie examines the complicated relationship between her parents. Namely, their divorce and subsequent co-habitation, damaging secrets kept by her father, communication problems between everyone, and how her mother’s debilitating stroke simultaneously unites and divides the Guthries again.

The Living Fire (6/8)
Let me begin by saying: if you’re looking for the definitive film about sheep and cattle herding in the Ukraine’s Carpathian Mountains, THIS IS THE DOC FOR YOU. I’ll be honest: I was not looking forward to seeing it, mainly because I feared it would be as painful as The Black Sea Pirates, another dud from 2013’s festival. But, much to my surprise and delight, The Living Fire turned out to be a lovely, poetic look at a disappearing way of life in a corner of the world I’ve never seen before. Devoid of narration, the film follows a season in the lives of the men and boys who leave their families to tend to their herds each summer. Most engaging of the lot are Ivanko, a spirited boy learning the ropes, and Ivan, a heartbreaking former herder (now in his 80s), who reflects on the work that meant he barely saw his late beloved wife despite their decades-long marriage. Beautifully shot and languid in its presentation, it’s a soothing, meditative and somewhat haunting film that makes for a nice fest-going cinematic respite.

Mavis! (6/8)
In the spirit of many recent biographical docs about music greats, director Jessica Edwards takes viewers backstage and behind the mic, into the life of a legend – in this case, gospel icon Mavis Staples. Combining interviews with live performances, archival footage and photos, the film tracks Staples’ rise to fame, as she recounts her early days in Chicago to her decades performing as part of The Staples Singers (alongside her siblings and family patriarch “Pops” Staples) and, now, her current solo renaissance. Packed end to end with plenty of great music, and commentary from many of Staples’ famous pals and supporters (including Bonnie Raitt, Chuck D, Marty Stuart, Jeff Tweedy and onetime paramour Bob Dylan), the doc also shines a light on the Staples’ connection to the civil-rights movement in the United States, and provides of wealth of information – often, direct from the source – on one of the music world’s most recognizable voices.

Blood Sisters (4/8)
I’m not entirely sure what to make of this exceedingly intimate look at a pair of closerthanthis adult twins trying to overcome childhood trauma. Practically joined at the hip – they travel hand-in-hand, sleep snuggled together in bed – Julia and Johanna are ex-pat Azerbijanis living in Sweden, having moved there as little girls after being kidnapped and abused as nine year olds in their home country. Now grown, their bond is like titanium, but Julia’s engagement and marriage throws everything off-kilter. Much of the film plays out like a drama – that is, it felt like I was watching a dramatic film, not a documentary. It’s almost always shot in close up, and (save for large group scenes at a club, a wedding, a competition) there is rarely anyone onscreen other than the two sisters. The result gives the doc a claustrophobic feeling, which I suppose is fitting given the depth of the sisters’ closeness but is nonetheless unsettling. And something didn’t quite gel for me. The doc consists almost entirely of the sisters telling us what’s happened/happening in their lives, and – due to a lack of secondary interviews – it did cause me to question of how much of what the audience is told is fact or fiction.

Foodies (4/8)
Meh. That was the overwhelming feeling I had watching this documentary about globe-trotting culinary aficionados criss-crossing the planet to eat very fancy food at veryvery fancy Michelin-starred restaurants. (Funnily enough, this article kind of sums up how I felt.) Indulging in what’s clearly a super-expensive, wildly opulent hobby, these bloggers – bloggers, not food critics, which is a distinction made in the film – sort of come off as self-indulgent rich people, who think nothing of dropping huge wads of cash on teeny tiny dishes prepared by the world’s most-renowned chefs. While the food all looks pretty, it’s rarely identified for the viewer (what’s that thing? what are those made of? who knows!), and watching other people sit and eat in silence – which happens often in Foodies – doesn’t exactly make for scintillating viewing. This is a distinctly niche film but, unlike the even-more-niche The Living Fire, it doesn’t really do anything to make itself or its subjects relatable or appealing to a broad audience. As it is, the doc will likely delight the bloggers’ followers and other hard-core foodies, but the Average Joe? Probably not.

Haida Gwaii: On the Edge of the World (6/8)
It’s not really surprising that “beautifully shot” are the first words that come to mind when I think of this film. After all, Haida Gwaii, the archipelago of more than 100 islands off the coast of British Columbia, is breathtakingly gorgeous in and of itself, so it already makes for a visually stunning subject. In this doc from director Charles Wilkinson (Oil Sands Karaoke), assorted residents of Haida Gwaii – from a Haida chief to organic farmers, marine biologists and charming locals – recount its history, the logging and fishing industries that continue to threaten its lush forests and abundant waters (one long tracking shot of cut logs is jaw-droppingly horrifying), and the ecological efforts to preserve what so many people hold dear: tradition, heritage and the environment. For folks like me, who don’t (or didn’t, anyway) know a whole lot about the region, the film is a wonderful eye-opener, presenting an enviably tight-knit community of diverse people, rooted in culture as much as nature, and all united in a similar, respect-the-land mindset that sometimes seems like it’s been lost in large urban centres. True story: as soon as I got home, I Googled “visit Haida Gwaii.”


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