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Hot Docs 2023 #7: Women in Pursuit

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Hot Docs Film Festival

Whether it’s battling deepfakes, promoting representation, seeking sisterhood, demanding justice or encouraging change, these five films showcase strong women leading a charge.

Another Body (5/8)
Deepfakes and AI scare the bejesus outta me. And that was even before seeing this chilling documentary, which employs a very clever approach to demonstrate the truly seamless, undetectable and sinister nature of the technology. Co-directed by Sophie Compton and Reuben Hamlyn, the film — assembled almost entirely from self-shot confessional videos and video chats between its subjects — follows an American university student who discovers that someone has digitally applied her face onto pornographic videos… and then uploaded them all over the Internet. Thus begins her lengthy and frustrating search to find out who did it and why, as she discovers along the way that her situation is not unique, and that the online posting of non-consensual pornography is a rampant, currently unsolvable problem. Alarming and eye-opening, the doc acts as a decent cyber-crime mystery/thriller (complete with apathetic authorities and an array of suspects), but might have benefitted from a bit more expert commentary to really drive its super-important, super-scary cautionary message — and the staggering magnitude of this digital abuse — home.

Black Barbie: A Documentary (6/8)
Equal parts history lesson, sociological commentary, and entertaining examination of Barbie fandom, director Lagueria Davis’s lighthearted-but-important doc profiles the key players — namely, a trio of Black women — instrumental in changing the landscape of the toy industry forever. Tracing the history of Black dolls and the decades-long dearth of offerings for children of color, the film introduces Davis’s aunt, Beulah Mae Mitchell, a former longtime Mattel employee credited with first suggesting a Black Barbie to the doll’s creators; Kitty Black Perkins, the designer who created Black Barbie in 1980; and Stacey McBride-Irby, creator of the So In Style (SIS) line of Black Barbies. Through present-day interviews, the women reflect on their work and collective legacy, and offer insight into the inherent importance of diversity and representation when it comes to toys — a topic that gets a deeper dive in the film’s final third, which features a series of experiments exploring how children perceive Barbies of various shades. Tracking all the key moments in the past, present and future of its titular subject, Black Barbie gives the longtime “sidekick” the leading-lady treatment she deserves.

Coven (5/8)
More about finding sisterhood and community than it is about witches and Wicca, director Rama Rau’s film profiles three young women in Toronto — who all identify as witches — as they explore their ancestry and seek out a better understanding of who they are in the process. Laura, who feels like the film’s anchor for the audience, is in search of a local coven to help her develop her skills, and travels to Scotland and Salem, Mass., to trace her witch-related roots; Andra heads to Romania and meets with the self-proclaimed “most powerful witch in the world” in a bid to learn more about her past and her potential future; and Ayo explores the origins and practices of voodoo on a trip to New Orleans. While each of the women’s stories has some great moments — Laura’s initial visit with a high priestess was effectively awkward, and Ayo’s voodoo blessing was particularly (and unexpectedly) moving — the film, as a whole, was a bit uneven, and not as robust or compelling as I’d hoped it would be. Some of the scenes seemed overly performative, and in some instances it felt like the film was inadvertently perpetuating stereotypes more than actually helping to de-stigmatize witches or witchcraft.

Cynara (6/8)
Documentaries about incarceration, and specifically women in prison, are always must-sees for me (blame Wentworth, Orange is the New Black, et al.), so it was no surprise that I earmarked this film from director Sherien Barsoum as soon as I saw it listed. The doc centers on Cindy Ali, a Toronto mother convicted of killing her teenaged daughter, Cynara, who suffered from cerebral palsy — but whose conviction, it seems, was due largely to legal gaffes and biases. Even Ali’s own attorney, James Lockyer, admits that he was skeptical of her innocence at first, and doubted her claims that her daughter’s death was the result of a violent home invasion. Through interviews with Ali’s friends, family, legal team and journalist Jim Rankin, Barsoum weaves together a somewhat damning reproach of a justice system that appears to have presumed guilt over innocence, and — perhaps fittingly — leaves the viewer asking far more questions about the case and its key players than it answers.

Rowdy Girl (7/8)
If former Texas cattle-rancher Renee King-Sonnen and her husband, Tommy, can give up meat (eating it and farming it), anyone can. That’s one of the key takeaways from director Jason Goldman’s quietly effective verité doc, which introduces viewers to the spirited couple and the menagerie of rescued farm animals — from horses and cows to goats, pigs, sheep and a plucky turkey named Sealy — housed on their sprawling property, which they converted from a beef ranch to the titular sanctuary. The now-vegan duo put their money where their mouths are, fervently advocating veganism while helping other animal-agriculture farmers across the United States make the transition to plant-based farming. But they’re not just proverbial preachers, they’re teachers — demonstrating to anyone who’ll listen exactly how developing new systems and business models can give way to new, viable, sustainable and profitable operations. Filled with more beauty shots of animals’ eyes, ears and unique features than you can count (a nod, no doubt, to a comment Renee makes about forging connections with her cows), the film proves that change is a worthwhile endeavor, and that sometimes making seemingly unthinkable decisions can open up a whole new way of living. Note: also, if you don’t get a little choked up when a cow at the sanctuary literally sprints across a field to greet her newly arrived, long-lost fellow-cow family members, I’m not sure we can be friends.

Check out more of our Hot Docs 2023 coverage here!

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