One of my favorite things about this year’s festival is the abundance of great films directed by women. Here are four fab films I’d suggest adding to your festgoing roster.
African Moot (6/8)
As I say almost every Hot Docs: when it comes to documentaries about competitions, viewers have to care about the competitors and be invested in the outcome, or else a film will fall flat. Happily, director Shameela Seedat’s look at the 2019 African Human Rights Moot Court Competition, and the gifted law students from across the continent coming together for a week to argue a fictional refugee-centered case (in front of a panel of real judges!), is packed with likeable personalities, genuine stakes, and some revelatory moments for the participants and audiences alike. The film tracks the preparation and progress of a handful of talented teams from different universities, including: Botswana’s Daniella and Jerome, who are defending champs; brilliant best friends Amor and Rachel from Kenya; and South Africans Edward and Tawfeek, whose challenges at the event go beyond just winning arguments. Lively and absorbing, African Moot showcases the cross-cultural fellowship amongst the competitors, and takes a smart approach to examining a global issue by doing so through the lens of the passionate young lawyers-to-be destined to tackle it.
In this eye-opening doc, director Julia Bacha brings to light some unsettling legislation slowly creeping its way from state to state across the U.S., and sounds the alarm on the repercussions if/when this type of legislation is quietly passed without many ever realizing it: namely, the ability of foreign governments to influence the political discourse in the U.S., and, equally disturbing, the gradual squashing of Americans’ First-Amendment rights. Training her lens on a number of everyday freedom fighters mounting legal challenges against these restrictive bills — which prohibit the support of anti-Isreal boycotts, and which penalize individuals and businesses alike for simply not agreeing with the legislation itself — Bacha explores the historical impact of boycotts in the United States and around the world, and their pivotal roles in bringing about social change, from desegregation in the American South to the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa. More alarmingly, though, the doc examines the origins of (and funding behind) these current anti-boycott bills, which are often driven by right-wing organizations pushing for other discriminatory laws, and illustrates how easy it can be for state-level politicians to strip their constituents of their Constitutional rights. Chilling and enlightening, Bacha’s film recognizes the everyday citizens working to thwart these bills, and makes clear the importance of paying attention to, and challenging, seemingly small-scale state laws for the betterment of the national big picture.
Category: Woman (6/8)
I *love* it when documentaries introduce me to something — a person, a problem, a place, whatever — that I didn’t know about previously. And I’ll admit that I had to pick my jaw up off the floor after watching this powerful and incredibly unsettling film from director Phyllis Ellis because I (probably like many others) had no clue about the ‘”femininity testing” that goes on in international sport. Centered around “hyperadrogenism,” which is the excess presence of male hormones in women, the doc explores how naturally occurring high levels of testosterone in some female athletes (including India’s Dutee Chand, Uganda’s Annet Negesa and, most famously, South Africa’s Caster Semenya) has led to shocking violations of their human rights and a storm of publicity, condemnation and discrimination that makes living their lives in their home countries not only challenging, but dangerous. The procedures, pills and archaic practices to which these athletes were and, in some cases still are, forcibly subjected — in order to reduce their testosterone or “prove” their gender — are mind-boggling, and Ellis’s interviews with physicians, attorneys, advocates and the women themselves pull back the curtain on the extent, and racially motivated roots, of the issue. The result is a film that will (or should?) infuriate as much as inspire.
On the surface, director Rita Baghdadi’s film might seem like it’s about young Lebanese thrash-metal band Slave to Sirens, the only all-female metal band in the Middle East. And, while the group does factor into the narrative, the metal-heavy doc actually revolves primarily around two of its members — guitarists Shery and Lilas — as they try to navigate their musical aspirations, burgeoning sexuality in an unwelcoming environment, and relationship with each other. Set against a (weirdly fitting) backdrop of conflict, unrest and protest, the doc hones in on these two and their personal struggles: Lilas is a teacher by day, deeply closeted and in a secret relationship with a woman in Syria; Shery, meanwhile, is still carrying a torch for Lilas, with whom she, too, was once involved. It might sound like a stereotypical lesbian drama with a very loud soundtrack, but it’s much more of an introspective character study. Baghdadi’s skilled storytelling turns what could have been a textbook tale of unrequited love amid war (and the male-dominated metal scene) into an effective exploration of two young women finding themselves and their voices, literally and figuratively, through the music they make together.