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Hot Docs 2023 #11: Fighters

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Hot Docs Film Festival

Whether it’s a battle for justice, for freedom, for change, for one’s life — or for all those things at once — the festival is filled with documentaries about incredible and inspirational warriors fighting the good fight. Here are four that, each in their own way, will linger in my memory for some time to come.

Hong Kong Mixtape (7/8)
An excellent double-feature option to screen alongside Who’s Afraid of Nathan Law?, director San San F. Young’s personal-essay doc provides an immersive look at how the creative community in Hong Kong is using the most powerful tool in its collective arsenal — namely, art — to fight oppression and totalitarianism. Through interviews with musicians, artists, performance artists, dancers and her own family members, and using super-slick digital effects to “restore” lost art to the city, Young explores this subversive and inventive resistance movement, which emerged in response to 2020’s hugely restrictive National Security Law and the criminalization of creativity. Risking arrest and imprisonment, and without knowing exactly what’s illegal and what isn’t, Young follows her film’s “artivist” subjects (most of whom maintain their anonymity for fear of repercussions) as they rap, sing, draw, sculpt, paint and dance their way through the increasingly clear-cut creative landscape of Hong Kong. Filled with Young’s own reflections on what the city was vs. what it’s become, it’s an eye-opening film about bravery in the face of oppression and how, despite everything, the soul of Hong Kong has not (yet) been lost.

Innocence (7/8)
Poignant and haunting are the two adjectives that kept reverberating in my brain as I watched director Guy Davidi’s incredibly moving and tenderly assembled documentary about the suicides of young soldiers in the Israeli Defense Forces. With enlistment mandatory once they turn 18 — three years of service for boys, two years for girls — teens in Israel are often faced with a set of equally frightening options: join the military or go to jail. Juxtaposing archival home videos, diary entries, cell-phone footage and letters home from several late recruits — including animal lover Adam, reflective Ron, tomboy Doroni and bookish objector Halil — with present-day footage of carefree young Israeli children who’ll one day be conscripted, Davidi explores the emotional, psychological and, sometimes, physical trauma inflicted on teenagers who are forced to take up arms — and then to use them to kill. With composer Snorri Hallgrímsson’s beautifully mournful score complementing footage of their younger, happier days, the late soldiers’ words are read aloud, detailing their fears, anxieties, doubts, regrets and their seemingly collective sense of a loss of their true identities once in uniform. It’s a quietly powerful film with important questions that, one hopes, will contribute to a much-needed reevaluation of compulsory enrollment in the armed forces.

Seven Winters in Tehran (8/8)
As heartwrenching as it is infuriating, director Steffi Niedzeroll’s powerful documentary examines the case of Reyhaneh Jabbari, the 19-year-old Iranian woman who was arrested in 2007, imprisoned, tortured and sentenced to death for inadvertently killing a man who tried to rape her. Niedzeroll skillfully pieces together the story using audio and video recordings (which had to be smuggled out of Iran), alongside interviews with Jabbari’s parents, sisters and lawyer. What emerges is the shocking story of Jabbari’s sham of a trial, and subsequent incarceration and execution, at the hands of a patriarchal system notorious for its subjugation and oppression of women. Framed and convicted thanks to planted evidence and forced confessions, Jabbari resolves herself to her fate: she’s sentenced to “blood revenge,” which gives the victim’s family complete control over possible clemency — if they forgive her, her life will be spared. Unfolding like a super-taut, super-emotional crime thriller, Niedzeroll’s film exposes not only misogyny and deep-seated, far-reaching corruption, but also the strength, solidarity and sisterhood that Jabbari forged with her fellow female inmates. Most of all, it introduces the fiercest fighter for Jabbari’s freedom: her mother, Shole, whose fearless, unwavering support of — and pursuit of justice for — her daughter leaps off the screen and right into your heart.

Vicky (5/8)
Shot over several years, this doc from director Sasha King profiles Irish women’s-health advocate Vicky Phelan, whose cervical cancer went undiagnosed for three years due to medical negligence, and who wound up with a terminal prognosis as a result. After discovering that the Irish government had outsourced cervical-cancer tests to a U.S. firm (which botched the analyses) as a way of saving money, Phelan is spurred into action — becoming a crusader for justice, discovering along the way that her case was far from unique and that more than 200 other women had likewise had their test results botched. A devoted mother and determined warrior, Phelan battles the Irish healthcare system (the HSE) in court, campaigning for answers and accountability… all the while undergoing debilitating treatments in a bid to extend her life as much as possible and fighting to help her fellow misdiagnosed allies get access to critical immunotherapy drugs. Phelan’s tragic story, along with those of several other families affected by the national scandal, is immensely compelling, but the film itself — which is made up largely of talking-head interviews — felt a little flat for me. While not the emotional gut-punch I was expecting, it’s nonetheless an important exposé of how poorly women’s health was managed as a result of a government’s tacit misogyny.

Without Precedent: The Supreme Life of Rosalie Abella (7/8)
You know, if all judges were as wise, thoughtful, considered and fair as Canada’s Rosie Abella, many of the flaws the justice systems around the world could probably be eliminated. That was one of the takeaways for me in director Barry Avrich’s rich and robust biography of the Canadian trailblazer, who was the child of Jewish-immigrant Holocaust survivors and who, at age 29, became the youngest judge in Canadian history. The latter is just the tip of Abella’s remarkable career iceberg, which includes multiple history-making judgments and reports focused on equality, accessibility and discrimination, and her eventual appointment to the Supreme Court of Canada in 2004. Through interviews with everyone from Abella’s friends and family to peers, politicians, Prime Ministers and, of course, Abella herself, Avrich paints a beautifully textured three-dimensional portrait of a dedicated advocate, who was as devoted to her husband and sons as she was to the law, and who is as joyful and fun as she is a ridiculously fierce and intelligent defender of rights and freedoms. Balancing the doc between Abella’s life on and off the bench, Avrich very effectively and entertainingly pays tribute to one of the most notable figures in Canadian history.

Check out more of our Hot Docs 2023 coverage here!

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