Hot Docs 2022 #6: Artists & Activists

Whether they’re creating art or pursuing justice — or doing both at the same time — artists and activists have the potential to change the world for the better, as evidenced in these four films.

 

And Still I Sing (6/8)
Imagine if a televised singing competition like American Idol became a social and political lightning rod, with its participants subjected to vitriol, harassment and death threats just for daring to compete… or, worse, win? That’s the backdrop for director Fazila Amiri’s compelling look at Afghan Star‘s 2019 season; Zahra Elham, its first-ever-in-13-seasons female winner; and Aryana Sayeed, one of Star’s judges and one of Afghanistan’s most famous singers — who’s also a courageous, outspoken advocate for women’s rights. The doc chronicles Elham’s journey on the show and friendship with fellow contestant, Sadiqa, and follows Sayeed on the sidelines as she watches history unfold before her eyes, both on the series and in her country… only to have the hope of a better, more-liberated tomorrow for Afghan women shattered when the Taliban sets its sights on Kabul. Amiri’s absorbing film provides a sobering look at the crippling impact of totalitarian regimes, and how these women — both famous and not — are using their unique platforms to lend a voice to the voiceless, risking it all not for fame or a record deal, but for equality, justice and human rights.

 

The Art of Silence (5/8)
I feel like I should preface this review by revealing that I have always found Marcel Marceau, when in full makeup, to be a bit creepy. Maybe it’s the exaggerated eyebrows, maybe it’s the white face paint, maybe it’s just some inexplicable deep-rooted and irrational fear, I dunno. (See also: harlequin masks.) So, it was with some degree of trepidation that I settled in for this cinematic biography — the first ever made — about the iconic master of mime. Using archival footage and photos, alongside present-day interviews with Marceau’s widow and daughters, director Maurizius Staerkle Drux chronicles Marceau’s life and career, interweaving it with several other narrative strands: how Marceau’s teenaged grandson is taking up the family mantle; how mime is being used to help Parkinson’s patients; and how the director has, since childhood, witnessed the way his deaf father experiences the world in silence. There’s a lot going on, and the film — while certainly comprehensive and a treat for fans of the artist — feels a bit scattered at times, jumping back and forth from topic to topic, so that the narrative wasn’t as cohesive or satisfying as it might have been with a tighter, narrower scope. Sensitive viewers should also be warned that, during the segment on Marceau’s butcher father, there’s suddenly an extremely graphic shot of a slaughtered cow having its blood drained. It’s jarring and, in my opinion, a needlessly distracting moment that shocks more than it supports the story being told.

 

Into the Weeds (7/8)
If your blood doesn’t already immediately boil at the mere mention of the word “Monsanto,” chances are you’ll experience this common physiological phenomenon before you’re even halfway through director Jennifer Baichwal’s infuriating-for-the-right-reasons doc about the legal battles involving the company and its weed killer, Roundup. Tracking the groundbreaking 2018 lawsuit brought against the globally reviled chemical manufacturer by California groundskeeper Dewayne Johnson, who claimed that using Monsanto’s “safe” commercial-grade version of the product (Ranger Pro) caused his debilitating cancer, the film plays out like a gripping legal thriller. There are incriminating depositions, corporate stooges, passionate courtroom arguments, and a plaintiff whose high-stakes battle may tip the scales of justice for countless similar suits worldwide — both Johnson and his team of dedicated lawyers are acutely aware that the outcome of his case will set a precedent for everyone who follows. More significantly, the doc brings to light (even more of) Monsanto’s decades of insidious tactics, which include but aren’t limited to alleged collusion with individuals at the EPA and the alleged doctoring of research materials to suit their corporate narrative. Riveting, heartbreaking and enlightening, Into the Weeds is another stellar entry on Baichwal’s resumé.

 

To the End (5/8)
Back at Hot Docs 2019, I saw — and LOVED — Rachel Lears’ Knock Down the House, so it’s not surprising that my expectations going into this follow-up were exceptionally high. And maybe that’s why this doc, which once again profiles a quartet of determined women in (or in the periphery of) U.S. politics, didn’t quite have the same impact for me. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez once again figures prominently, this time alongside fierce supporters of the proposed (and divisive) $100-million “Green New Deal” decarbonization plan: Sunrise Movement’s Varshini Prakash, Alexandra Rojas of Justice Democrats, and Rhiana Gunn-Wright, the climate-policy director at the Roosevelt Institute. Following the women over several years, Lears chronicles their efforts to mobilize youth, fight disinformation from the fossil-fuel industry, challenge opponents and, as with the previous film, get progressive young candidates elected. But the film starts to dilute the narrative and becomes less cohesive when it tries to cover too much ground — from Black Lives Matter and George Floyd to environmental racism, protest marches and COVID — eventually veering off on a prolonged Joe Manchin tangent instead of keeping the focus on the women the doc is about. It’s a good film profiling smart, tenacious women doing important work and fighting the good fight, it just kind of lost its way towards the end and didn’t leave me with that same energized, fire-in-the-belly feeling its predecessor did.

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