Looking for more to-see recommendations? No problem — here are eight more terrific documentaries to check out at the fest!
Food and Country (7/8)
One of the key lessons the world has learned over the course of the pandemic is just how fragile our food system is, and director Laura Gabbert shines a revelatory light on the critical, COVID-amplified flaws in that system, which impact everyone from farmers to restaurateurs to parents trying to feed their families. Anchored by renowned food writer Ruth Reichl, who serves as the proverbial tour guide through Gabbert’s informative and insightful doc, the film criss-crosses the United States to expose the piping-hot wake-up call that COVID served up to Americans: the current food system in the U.S. is broken, and has been that way for a long time. Through firsthand accounts from famous chefs, ranchers, farmers and everyday citizens, Reichl and Gabbert examine the core problems (mass agriculture, industrialized farming, wealth concentration and the politicizing of food) and explore the development of innovative solutions (from modified business models to regenerative farming) geared towards creating a more sustainable, equitable food-supply ecosystem.
Much Ado About Dying (7/8)
I know what you’re probably thinking: erm, do I really want to watch a documentary about the final years in the life of an old man? Let me assure you that, in the case of this small but effective doc, you definitely do. As moving and thoughtful as it is funny, outrageous and entertaining, director Simon Chambers’ first-person account of the four years he spent caring for his elderly uncle, David, is a deeply personal exploration of aging, family, and the coping mechanisms we sometimes employ as we get older. A former actor, David is a bona-fide character: he’s perpetually positive (despite his assorted ailments and hardships) and delightfully theatrical (frequently reciting dialogue from past performances), but also obstinate and somewhat naive despite, or perhaps because of, his age — both of which prove challenging for Chambers as he attempts to cater to David’s ever-changing needs and whims. Capturing the insanity as the goings-on in David’s world get more and more bizarre, Chambers also begins to reflect on his own existence and mortality, drawing parallels between his uncle’s life and his own. The result is an engaging examination of living and dying on one’s own terms, and a film which will no doubt resonate with anyone who’s ever cared for an aging relative.
The Only Doctor (7/8)
Here’s hoping that this quietly potent documentary from director Matthew Hashiguchi does for its dedicated subject what a segment on PBS Newshour did several years ago: raise awareness about the selfless work she’s doing, and spur an influx of support and donations so she can keep doing it. The film profiles Dr. Karen Kinsell, who operates a tiny medical clinic in a middle-of-nowhere town in rural Georgia, and who’s been the sole physician serving the area — one of the poorest in the state — for more than 13 years. With dirt-cheap fees ($15 per visit) and working out of a ramshackle building, Kinsell works for free to treat all manner of ailments, from diabetes to depression. When Mercer University rolls into town to open a new health center, Kinsell’s future suddenly becomes iffy, and the plight of her largely uninsured patients — who can’t afford the new center’s comparatively exorbitant fees — even more uncertain. Insightful and suspenseful, the film distills the problems of affordable healthcare and economic inequity in the U.S. through the filter of Kinsell and her work, revealing the broken systems that continue to leave so many in need without the medical attention they deserve.
Satan Wants You (7/8)
I’ll admit that I had never heard of Michelle Smith or the 1980 book Michelle Remembers before sitting down (with, frankly, more than a little trepidation) to watch this doc. Satanic cults are not my bag, nor are movies with the word “Satan” right in the title, so I was worried it would be too scary or disturbing to sit through. But the film, co-directed by Sean Horlor and Steve J. Adams, turned out to be a fascinating — and shockingly relevant in today’s “fake news” era — not-scary mystery-thriller about what happens when the world latches on to fear. At the center of the story is the aforementioned Smith who, along with psychiatrist Dr. Lawrence Pazder, penned a memoir recounting the physical, sexual and psychological abuse she claimed to have suffered at the hands of a satanic cult when she was five years old. The book became a sensation in the 1980s, spawning massive media attention and countless police investigations as a result of the “satanic panic” it created — panic that subsequently left many lives ruined in its wake. Present-day interviews with many of the players most closely involved at the time are punctuated by archival news footage and interviews, alongside recordings of the therapy sessions between Smith and Pazder, whose relationship gradually crossed the doctor/patient line. What results is a gripping cautionary exposé that clearly demonstrates the dangers of blind faith, and how quickly and easily hysteria can spread.
Claustrophobics take note: right out of the gate, this gorgeously shot chronicle of curious and courageous Canadian cavers is filled with OMG moments of people squeezing themselves through dark, dank, insaaaanely tight spaces. But all the gasp-inducing moments are totally worth it — as one of the subjects deftly points out, caves are some of the only unexplored frontiers left on Earth, and discovering new underground veins and arteries is as exciting (and addictive) for the explorers as it is invaluable for geologists, archeologists, biologists, and myriad other researchers and experts. Directed by François-Xavier De Ruydts, the film follows a pair of adventurous British Columbia teams as they each attempt to break a different Canadian-caving record: the Bisaro Team is trying to claim the deepest-cave record, while the Argo Team has its sights set on the record for the longest. Filled with awe-inspiring shots of the beautiful, otherworldly environments the cavers discover underground, the doc examines the hows and whys of these intrepid explorers — including handy tips on how one goes to the bathroom while on a days-long expedition below the surface — and proves that, for them and for the viewer, the journey and the destination are equally thrilling.
Time Bomb Y2K (7/8)
More than anything else, this doc from co-directors Marley McDonald and Brian Becker is an astonishing feat of curation and editing. Assembled entirely from what must have been tens of thousands of hours of archival footage, and absent of any narration or present-day interjections, their film is an extraordinarily comprehensive cinematic time capsule that captures the uncertainty, dread and fear leading up to New Year’s Eve 1999. Specifically, the not-insignificant or unwarranted concerns about the “Millennium Bug,” which experts warned could result in a global computer-systems crash that could, in turn, have catastrophic results from famine and banking failure to total nuclear annihilation. Fun times! The film begins in 1997 and tracks the progression of the panic from year to year thereafter, as tension and anticipatory anxiety rises around the world, and “Y2K readiness” becomes a booming industry unto itself. It’s an in-depth look at how the planet reacted to a potential global threat, drawing unspoken but undeniable eerie parallels to our current pandemic.
White Balls on Walls (7/8)
I gotta hand it to the executives at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum: allowing director Sarah Vos to document their efforts to become a more diverse, inclusive organization — and to overhaul their collection of work created almost exclusively by white men — was a brave decision. Evaluating privilege vs. systemic prejudice can be a super-sensitive subject, and isn’t always an easy process, so having cameras capture it all for posterity was a bold, but important, move. Early on in Vos’s thoroughly engrossing fly-on-the-wall film, newly installed museum Director Rein Wolfs says, “I like high tension…”, which is a be-careful-what-you-wish-for moment that perfectly foreshadows the awkward conversations, uncomfortable meetings and undeniably tense discussions that follow. Forced to reexamine the museum’s collection and its policies to ensure compliance with the city’s revised funding criteria, Wolfs and his team pull on a decidedly challenging thread, raising countless questions — where is the line between artist and art? how can the museum evolve authentically and organically? should art created decades (or centuries) ago be reframed through a modern-day lens? — in the process. From nuanced language on the museum’s website to inclusive exhibits, it’s a fascinating exploration of the minutiae of decision-making, and proves that developing seemingly easy solutions to complex issues can actually be a very difficult endeavor.
Who’s Afraid of Nathan Law? (7/8)
In 2017, director Joe Piscatella brought Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower — about young Hong Kong dissident Joshua Wong — to Hot Docs. I saw it and enjoyed it, so I was eager to dive into this next chapter of what I kind of hope will be a trilogy (with Agnes Chow the subject of my imagined third installment). This time, Piscatella shifts the focus to our titular hero, who co-created 2014’s “Umbrella Movement” occupation with Wong and fellow high-schooler-at-the-time Chow to protest China’s growing control over Hong Kong. A few years older than his peers, Law decides to run for Hong Kong’s Legislative Council as a way of enacting political change from within but, as the film demonstrates, he and his team face immense resistance, intimidation and threats from a decidedly hostile Chinese government. As inspiring as it is alarming, the doc follows Law as he gets up to civil-disobedience “good trouble” over the course of several years, gradually evolving from uprising upstart to exiled (and revered) anti-government leader to Nobel Prize nominee and one of TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people. It’s also a sobering cautionary tale about the fragility of democracy and how quickly it can be eroded, and the lengths to which totalitarian regimes will go to silence their critics.
Check out more of our Hot Docs 2023 coverage here!