Hot Docs 2022 #11: Compelling Characters

Troubled children in Ukraine. A jovial chef on a mission. A director grappling with identity. And a young Buddhist monk who loves metal. No matter which films you see at Hot Docs, you’re always guaranteed to “meet” a diverse array of compelling characters.

 

Crows Are White (7/8)
Many times during this lighthearted film, I wondered, “Hang on, is this for real?” The doc begins with director Ahsen Nadeem saying “I’m a fantastic liar…” in a voiceover, and the proceedings are so quirky and unusual that I felt like I was watching a British dramedy. (Erm, note to Hollywood: the story in this doc is pure cinematic GOLD. I look forward to its eventual adaptation starring Dev Patel.) Turns out, it *is* for real, chronicling Nadeem’s struggle to reconcile his Muslim faith and the expectations of his devout parents with what (and whom) he actually wants in life. So, he does what any conflicted soul does: he spends several years living a double life, while seeking out answers and travelling to a remote Japanese monastery where its super-strict monks regularly subject themselves to rituals involving extreme physical endurance. But it’s there that he meets Ryushin, the lowest-ranked monk in the order, who works in the monastery gift shop, loves heavy metal and dessert, and whose goal in life is, he says, to raise sheep in New Zealand. Together, these kindred spirits examine what a life of devotion and sacrifice means, explore how inner peace and enlightenment can be achieved, and forge a unique friendship that benefits both of them in unexpected ways. Relentlessly charming and incredibly entertaining, Crows Are White is a fun, warm-hearted doc about finding your way at your own pace, even if you’re not entirely enlightened as you go.

 

A House Made of Splinters (7/8)
When Hot Docs began this year, I wondered if any film could come close to the impact of 2021’s still-lingers-in-my-heart-a-year-later verité masterpiece It Is Not Over Yet, and while this beautifully heartbreaking doc from director Simon Lereng Wilmot doesn’t quite reach the same emotionally resonant bar, it comes awfully close. And, weirdly, it also serves as a thematic complement — It Is Not Over Yet is set at a seniors’ care home in the Danish countryside and documents individuals at the end of their lives, and A House Made of Splinters trains its lens on the caring staff and young residents of a shelter for children in eastern Ukraine, where life (however traumatic and troubled) is just getting started. The shelter serves as a sort of holding station, where kids from “broken families” can stay for up to nine months before either being returned to their often-unfit parents, sent to a foster home, or relegated to an orphanage. With composer Uno Helmersson’s poignant score setting the tone, and Wilmot’s brilliant use of light punctuating the storytelling, the narrative settles on four kids: Eva, who hopes to be sent to live with her grandmother; Sasha, whose alcoholic parents would leave her for days to fend for herself; redheaded Alina, whose “playful” fighting mirrors what she experienced at home; and rebellious little Kolya, who looks to be about 10 years old, and whose smoking, drinking, stealing and problematic behavior are juxtaposed with his fierce devotion to, and protection of, his two much younger siblings. Quietly illustrating how the cycle of abuse and addiction can repeat itself, while offering fleeting glimpses of hope amid the literal and proverbial darkness, A House Made of Splinters is a moving tribute to some truly resilient kids and the caring staff providing them temporary refuge.

 

We Feed People (6/8)
Director Ron Howard’s profile of renowned Spanish chef José Andrés and his food-reilef NGO World Central Kitchen (WCK) serves up an inside look at both the man and his humanitarian mission. The standard-issue doc tracks Andrés’s life and career, from the tapas-fuelled acclaim he earned after his arrival in the U.S. in 1993 to his television celebrity, growing fame, and his work at Washington’s D.C. Central Kitchen, which inspired the eventual founding of WCK. Interviews with self-described “cook” Andrés, his family and assorted colleagues help paint a portrait of a boisterous, passionate culinary dynamo, for whom “food is an agent of change” and who, in his words, “sees opportunities where others see mayhem.” Howard follows his enthusiastic but increasingly burned-out subject across multiple disaster zones around the globe, where Andrés and his team use every means at their disposal to prepare and distribute meals to those in need. The film provides insight into how and why Andrés does the work he does, as well as the toll it takes on him as the organization’s leader, who not only has to manage logistics but who also rolls up his sleeves to help prepare food. It’s an informative and inspiring biography that’s also guaranteed to boost WCK’s profile and undoubtedly help with its fundraising efforts.

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