It was the final day of Hot Docs, and even though I was pooped, I decided to take in three more screenings before the curtain closed on the 2017 festival. The sun was (finally!) out, but I opted to spend the day inside my fave venue: the Lightbox.
First up: Thank You For the Rain (7/8), which takes a huge issue (climate change) and tackles it in a very small but immensely powerful way. Director Julia Dahr heads to Kenya to introduce us to farmer Kisilu Musya (who shares directing credits), a jovial, hopeful and loving father who’s experienced firsthand the effects of climate change – his land and livelihood are subject to crippling drought or damaging floods, depending on the season. Musya, though, believes it’s his duty to do whatever he can to combat climate change, rallying his fellow farmers in a tree-planting initiative and heading to a COP21, the UN’s sustainable-innovation forum in Paris, to share his experiences in the hopes of convincing world leaders to do their part. Inspirational and frustrating, the doc is anchored in the fiercely determined Musya – who’s a fabulous subject for a film and a hero for whom it’s very easy to root – and puts a very human face on a global problem that’s often spoken of in much bigger, broader terms. He’s just a guy, standing in front of presidents and policy makers, trying to get them to care as much as he does.
I had time to dart out for a super-quick lunch before my second film, which turned out to be less of a documentary and more of a whimsical drama in which some of the action felt staged for the camera. The Girl Down Loch Änzi (3/8 as a documentary, 5/8 as a coming-of-age drama) is directed by Alice Schmid, set in a remote Swiss mountain village and centered around independent 12-year-old Laura, who lives on a menagerie-filled farm with her family and whose inner thoughts form the basis for the film’s narrative. There’s a local legend about the ghost of a maiden who lives deep within a nearby gorge, and that story is explored through interviews with some of Laura’s neighbors. But what unfolds feels a lot like a structured, scripted (at least in terms of direction if not dialogue) docudrama, as Laura types out her thoughts on her laptop, forges a friendship with a visiting student who comes to the farm as part of a school practicum, and embarks on a mission to see if the legend is true. Very little of the film feels like a true documentary, but – as a fictional drama – it works a bit better. Be warned: not a whole lot happens in the film, and it’s s-l-o-w… there’s also a rather graphic rabbit-skinning sequence that goes on much longer than necessary (and had many audience members squirming in their seats). There were a number of walkouts during the screening, and I suspect many of those folks felt the same way I did.
I always hope to end any film-festival experience on a high note, so I was thrilled that my last screening at Hot Docs 2017 was the immensely heartwarming and poignant School Life (8/8), which tracks a year in the life of two soon-to-be-retiring teachers at the Headfort School, an old, idyllic, Irish-countryside boarding school for children aged three to 13. Directed by Neasa Ní Chanáin and David Rane, the film introduces us to John and Amanda Leyden, a married couple who have taught at Headfort for some 40-ish years, and whose dry humor and innate compassion and affection for their students make them the kind of teachers everyone wishes they’d had. Through them, we meet a number of Headfort’s students, including brilliant introvert Eliza, amiable dyslexic Ted, and drumming sparkplug Barbara (who, though not featured as prominently as the others, was my favorite – both for her name and for her wild-eyed drumming style). The film features the ups and downs of boarding-school life for both the kids and the adults, and there is so much material to work with that I kind of wish this has been turned into a documentary TV series. It had me smiling from start to finish, and was a fantastic final fest film for me.
And with that, another Hot Docs drew to a close. As is the case every year, the fest was amazing and I’m tired but delighted to have packed in so many films. See you in 2018!