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Hot Docs 2023 #13: And, Last But Not Least… the Unrateds and Also-rans

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Hot Docs Film Festival

This year, I screened more than 60 (!) films. That’s a lot. And, while most were very good to great, there were a handful that, for one reason or another, I either didn’t finish, didn’t feel I should rate, or just didn’t enjoy. As my coverage now winds to a close, here they are!

After Work (4/8)
Here’s an example of a documentary that really needs a stronger, clearer, tighter thesis. Watching director Erik Gandini’s film, I was never really sure what exactly it was supposed to be about. Bouncing around from topic to topic — workaholics! mental health! people who love their jobs! people who hate their jobs! engaged vs. disengaged employees! universal basic income! — the doc seems rooted in the concept of “work,” but winds up being more a collection of disconnected thoughts, opinions and statistics than it is a cohesive exploration of any of those topics. I actually did watch this one to the end, but it didn’t help matters.

The Castle (NR)
I’ve said it before but will say it again: one of my criteria when evaluating a documentary is whether I’d be able to discern what the film is about if I hadn’t read the synopsis first. When it comes to great docs, the answer for me is always “yes.” Unfortunately, 40 minutes into this character study of a mother and daughter living in a dilapidated mansion, the answer was still “not really.” Who are they? Why are we watching them? What’s going on? With plenty of other films to check out, I turned it off.

July Talk: Love Lives Here (NR)
Here’s the thing about this doc: it’s actually really well-made, but is geared entirely to fans of the titular Canadian band. If, like me, you’ve never heard of them before (OMG, when did I become an old?!), it’s really hard to connect to the film. Its rapid-fire, music-video-paced editing and largely B&W aesthetic are very cool, and July Talk fans will certainly LOVE all the behind-the-scenes material, to be sure, but there really wasn’t a “way in” for me as someone unfamiliar with the group and its music. I lasted about half an hour before I moved on to another doc.

Name Me Lawand (NR)
There had been a lot of fuss made about how fabulous this documentary is, so my expectations were somewhat high when I sat down to watch. But, maybe 10 minutes into the film — which follows a traumatized deaf boy, who immigrates to the UK from Iraq — it became clear to me that it isn’t so much a documentary as a docudrama… with an emphasis on drama. Many of its sequences were obviously staged and many of its subjects very clearly acting. I turned it off shortly thereafter because I found myself questioning the line between fact and fiction, and how much of what I was watching was “documented” vs. “dramatized.”

Tax Me If You Can (NR)
Normally, this kind of make-your-brain-bigger film is right up my alley, but I had a really hard time staying engaged. When the topic is as dense (and potentially dry) as finance and tax shelters, you gotta keep things moving and lively. But the pace of this doc was, for me, much too slow and, by the 20-minute mark, I had totally lost interest.

Unseen (NR)
I fear that “unseen” may also be the unfortunate fate for this documentary, due to director Set Hernandez’s questionable decision to purposely shoot large portions of it completely out of focus as a way of “showing” the viewer what it’s like to be visually impaired. I understand the intent but, problem is, a little goes a really long way with that kind of creative choice — the viewer gets the idea pretty quickly after only a couple of dizzying minutes. Sadly, I actually gave up on the film and turned it off after about half an hour because the nondescript onscreen blurs combined with unrelenting wobbly handheld camerawork were completely nauseating. It’s a shame because I was looking forward to watching this doc, but the on-again/off-again focus was distracting and off-putting. You wouldn’t do that with sound, having audio loud then quiet then loud then quiet, over and over and over again, so why do it with picture? Alas.

And, with that, my 2023 festival coverage has ended. See you in 2024!

Check out more of our Hot Docs 2023 coverage here!

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