Initially, and perhaps naively, I thought I’d have the full list of must-sees ready to go today. But it gradually dawned on me: that’s not actually realistic. With more than 200 films screening at Hot Docs this year, there’s a LOT to watch. Sometimes, amazing films reveal themselves early in the festival. Sometimes, they pop up mid-week. And, occasionally, the best film you (or I) will see unspools on the very last day.
So, while I’ve already devoured a slew of screeners before the fest’s even begun, there are still more to go and, inevitably, there will be more as-yet-unseen must-sees to recommended. Here are eight that have landed in my must-see folder so far:
Alllihopa: The Dalkurd Story (7/8)
When discussing this spirited, feel-good footballer doc from director Kordo Doski, comparisons to Ted Lasso will almost certainly be drawn. Heck, I drew them myself when I flagged this film as one of the Hot Docs titles I was most excited to check out this year. And, it turns out, those comparisons are totally fair because Doski strikes the same kind of narrative gold that made Lasso a worldwide phenomenon: an underdog team of hugely likeable players and coaches (with a whole lot of heart) attempts to beat the odds and rise through their league’s ranks to prove all the naysayers wrong. In Allihopa’s case, it’s the titular squad in Sweden, founded by a Kurdish refugee and featuring many Kurdish-immigrant players, whose lives on and off the pitch are shaped by their experiences as immigrants and contextualized by the Kurdish people’s ongoing struggle to form an independent nation. Battling injuries, uncertainty, racism, skepticism and the final three do-or-die matches that will determine whether they join the premier Allsvensken division, Dalkurd sets its sights on victory and takes the viewer along for the high-stakes ride. The result is an incredibly entertaining, wonderfully suspenseful and totally satisfying could-not-have-been-scripted-better crowd-pleaser about an easy-to-root-for team chasing their dream.
Angel Applicant (8/8)
Anyone who has a friend or family member with scleroderma will no doubt forge a profound connection with this wonderfully poignant and poetic cinematic memoir from director Ken August Meyer. That was certainly the case for me: one of my dearest friends passed away from scleroderma-related complications in 2019, so Meyer’s deeply personal account of his own struggles with the autoimmune disease struck a very familiar chord. In the doc, Meyer — an ad-agency art director diagnosed in 2000 — chronicles the progression of his scleroderma (which causes, among other issues, the hardening/tightening of skin, blood vessels and internal organs), and juxtaposes it with the progression of the prolific work of Swiss artist Paul Klee, who also suffered from the condition. Equal parts everyman journey and fascinating art-history lesson, Angel Applicant is filled with heartfelt insight, cheeky asides, and gorgeous visuals courtesy of both Klee’s art and Meyer’s keen art-director eye for beautifully composed shots. A tip of the hat, as well, to composer Peter Broderick for his lovely score.
Dear Ani (8/8)
Lemme just say: I LOVED THIS SHORT FILM. Loved it. Fiercely joyful and ridiculously creative — just like its immensely entertaining subject, Keith Wasserman — director Micah Levin’s doc (screening as part of the Human Kind Shorts Program) chronicles Wasserman’s decades-long unconventional friendship with singer Ani DiFranco, which he forges through years of intricate, sometimes-delusional, art-driven correspondence born of his manic episodes. The brilliantly assembled doc employs many of Wasserman’s elaborate mixed-media creations and techniques, and is an unapologetically feel-good celebration of art, empathy, kinship and truly engaging storytelling.
This film should be required viewing for everyone. Men, women, teens and, perhaps most importantly, politicians and policy makers — there are so many people on the planet who need to learn what this documentary does a stellar job teaching. Ridiculously comprehensive, wildly entertaining and refreshingly frank, director Lina Lyte Plioplyte’s deep dive into menstruation — the history! the biology! the myths! the realities! the stigma! the cringe-y pop-culture references! — takes an often hush-hush topic and shoves it squarely into the spotlight. Featuring candid interviews with celebrities, athletes, physicians, researchers and a whole array of inspiring menstrual-justice advocates, the film introduces period pioneers of the past and present, from feminist icon Gloria Steinem to the trailblazing women of PERIOD., NextGen Jane, #HappyPeriod, and other empowerment-and-education organizations. Explaining everything from the onset of menses to the challenges of menopause, Periodical is as informative as it is necessary. A definite must see.
Praying for Armageddon (7/8)
The division of church and state is a governing philosophy that’s been around in the U.S. since the 1800s, but it’s never felt as urgent or as critical it does today — something that’s made all the more clear in director Tonje Hessen Schei’s examination of the ever-growing influence religious extremists have over American politics. Believing themselves to be “warriors” (and arming themselves accordingly), Evangelical Christian Zionists eagerly await the second coming of Jesus Christ — something they believe will only come about if, among other assorted portents outlined in the Book of Revelations, Israel is under Jewish control. As a result, they use Biblical justification to promote radical right-wing policies, and have a singular goal: to ensure as many right-wing Christians as possible are elected to office in the United States (and abroad) in order to affect and direct foreign and domestic affairs. Schei trains her lens on a number of Evangelicals, including Pastor Gary Burd and Donald Trump’s “spiritual advisor” Robert Jeffress, along with their religious and political foils, including reporter Lee Fang, Rabbi Arik Ascherman and activist Fayrouz Sharqawi. The result is a chilling examination of the weaponizing of religion, and the rising threats to freedom posed by the religious right.
Razing Liberty Square (7/8)
What happens when a big city discovers that some of its most valuable land sits under public housing? That’s the subject of this absorbing doc from director Katja Esson, which examines the troubling situation in Miami’s Liberty City neighborhood — specifically, Liberty Square, built in 1937 and one of the oldest public-housing projects in the United States. Constructed on a “ridge” of land with an elevation that protects it from Miami’s problematic weather- and climate-related flooding issues, Liberty Square is home to more than 700 families, but developers’ plans to capitalize on the area’s real-estate potential quickly begin to unravel the fabric of the tightly knit community. Following a number of key players — including: dedicated and determined school-principal Samantha Quarterman; redevelopment coordinator Aaron McKinney, a past resident of the projects trying to build a bridge between his firm and his former neighborhood family; and a wonderfully blunt chorus of neighborhood friends, who chime in on the proceedings throughout the film — Razing shines a frank first-hand light on a critical (and ever-increasing) housing crisis facing many urban centers: low-income locals being directly or indirectly pushed out to make way for gentrification.
Here’s the magical thing about this beautifully shot and ecologically poignant nature doc from director Jean-Phillippe Marquis: within minutes of its first few frames, the majestic trees of the old-growth forests on Vancouver Island are as much living, breathing, feeling entities as the humans onscreen. Largely observational, with long contemplative sequences — fallers at work, the life cycle of a seedling at a nursery, tourist snapping photos alongside enormous trunks — set to composer Samuel Laflamme’s evocative score, the melancholy film is simultaneously a love letter to the centuries-old (sometimes millennia-old) trees and an unsettling exploration of how they are quickly disappearing. An assortment of individuals, from a retired logger to a tree planter to a ‘Namgis First Nation hereditary chief, reflect on how their lives are inextricably tied to these forests, providing thoughtful insight, the occasional pang of remorse, and more fascinating forest facts than you can shake a stick at along the way. All of this combined creates an almost meditative and immersive experience, and makes the doc’s final glimpses of the trees at its heart so subtly effective and unexpectedly moving.
This World is Not My Own (7/8)
One of my favorite things about Hot Docs is discovering hidden-gem films completely by chance. That was the case with this fittingly imaginative biography of American folk artist Nellie Mae Rowe, whose colorful, whimsical work — which ranged from paintings and drawings to sculptures made out of chewing gum — once filled her small Georgia home and now hangs in some of the most prestigious museums and galleries in the U.S. Co-directed by Petter Ringbom and Marquise Stillwell, the creative and engaging doc traces Rowe’s life and career, combining interviews with historians, collectors, curators, and her family and friends with animated vignettes that bring the self-taught artist (voiced by Uzo Aduba) and her art to life. The film also explores Rowe’s many influences (from her favorite TV wrestler to her own mortality), and her late-in-life symbiotic relationship with eccentric gallery owner Judith Anderson, in whom she found a friend, champion and kindred spirit. As entertaining as it is enlightening, This World is Not My Own is a robust portrait of a gifted soul, whose talent was rivaled only by her perpetually playful spirit.
Check out more of our Hot Docs 2023 coverage here!