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Hot Docs 2023 #8: Pictures of Health

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Hot Docs Film Festival

Whether it’s altruistic organ donation, the ravages of disease, or just a brilliantly comprehensive and entertaining exploration of menstruation, this year the festival has plenty of docs on offer that deal with health, wellness, the healthcare system and/or how all of these affect the human condition. Here are seven we checked out!

Confessions of a Good Samaritan (6/8)
Why would someone voluntarily give up one of their kidneys to a total stranger? That’s the driving question behind this frank, honest and sometimes cheeky exploration of living non-directed organ donation. Directed by Penny Lane, the doc probes the history of organ donation, as well as the psychology and biology of altruism and empathy, as it chronicles Lane’s own journey as just such a donor. Adopting a literal “confessional” format, Lane tracks the day-to-day ebb and flow of her feelings as she explores the reasoning behind her decision, and her growing anxiety and doubt as her donation day draws closer. Along the way, she also speaks with other altruistic kidney donors to get some firsthand facts on what to expect, as well as insight into their motivation. Informative, insightful and weirdly suspenseful — “will she actually go through with the surgery?!” is a thread woven throughout the film — Confessions is a refreshingly real record that proves even the most generous acts can come with a lot of complicated emotions.

The Eternal Memory (6/8)
One of the buzziest docs at the fest this year, this chronicle of one couple’s enduring love through the onset of Alzheimer’s is certainly moving, but was not as devastating as I thought it would be, and did not give me the crying headache I was expecting. (The similarly themed Much Ado About Dying, on the other hand, took up that mantle!) Directed by Maite Alberdi, the quietly observant film follows former Chilean journalist Augusto Góngora and his partner of more than 20 years, actress-turned-Culture Minister Pauli Urrutia, as they do their best to cope with Augusto’s increasingly deteriorating mind. Set against the backdrop of archival footage of the duo’s respective careers and accomplishments, and with a beautiful score (from composers Miguel Miranda and José Miguel Tobar) that illustrates how important music is in creating the mood and tone of a scene, the doc tracks Augusto’s decline as he drifts in and out of lucidity, and becomes increasingly distressed. Punctuated by frank discussions about life, death and memories of their time together, it’s an unflinching look at the ravages of Alzheimer’s, the exhaustion experienced by caregivers, and the lengths we sometimes go to for the people we love.

Is There Anybody Out There? (5/8)
Director Ella Glendining was born with PFFD (Proximal Femoral Focal Deficiency), a rare disability that, in her case, resulted in very short thigh bones and no hip joints. Glendining’s film explores her sometimes conflicted but generally accepting relationship with her condition, set against the backdrop of a determined if not overly convicing search to find someone else anywhere on the planet who has a body identical to her own. Using old home movies, interviews with her parents, and archival documentary footage about children with disabilities, Glendining (who, early in the film, also discovers she’s pregnant) explores the concepts of ableism, body positivity, and finding community. Somewhat uneven and meandering at times, the doc benefits from the personal insights and point of view of its likeable director/subject but, to me, also ignores the far more compelling discussion about conformity and the notion of “corrective” surgery — specifically: who or what determines what’s “correct”? — lurking in its shadows.

The Only Doctor (7/8)
Here’s hoping that this quietly effective film 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 doc 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 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.

Periodical (8/8)
Lemme just say: 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, Hashtag Happy Period, 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.

Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie (6/8)
Just about every review of this refreshingly lighthearted and lively autobiographical documentary from director Davis Guggenheim has the word “inspiring” in it somewhere and, after having seen the film, I feel like its subject might cringe a little at the term. So, maybe “impressive” and “irrepressible” would be more apt when discussing Michael J. Fox, his career and his battle with Parkinson’s. Tracking Fox’s small- and big-screen success, from its humble beginnings on Canadian TV to its 1980s heyday, and cleverly using clips from his assorted projects to illustrate the stories being told, Guggenheim’s doc is as matter-of-fact as it is moving. Fox is the sole interview subject in the film, recounting the assorted highs and lows of his time in Hollywood, and allowing Guggenheim and his crew unfettered access to the challenges of his off-screen life today — whether it’s working with a physical therapist to practice how to walk without falling, reading excerpts from his memoir aloud to strengthen his voice muscles, or campaigning for Parkinson’s-research funding. Candid moments with wife Tracy Pollan and the couple’s three children are sprinkled throughout, creating a simultaneously celebratory and sobering film about a self-proclaimed “tough sonofabitch” who’s fought hard and, despite deteriorating health, continues to fight.

A Still Small Voice (7/8)
Over the past few years, the strain on the world’s healthcare systems and its workers has been a frequent topic of news reports, op-eds and concerned dinner-table discussion. Director Luke Lorentzen’s beautifully understated and contemplative verité doc delivers a delicate and deeply personal examination of the issue by training its lens on a New York City hospital’s chaplaincy department. The film — made up of long, thoughtful vignettes and completely devoid of music until its closing credits — follows Mati, who’s in the final months of her residency at Mount Sinai, as she and her peers provide spiritual care to patients. Day in and day out, the team deals with death and dying, and often-heartwrenching situations that take a toll on each of them in different ways: Mati struggles to manage the myriad demands of her job, while her advisor, Rev. David Fleenor, grapples with his growing desire to pack it all in. Astonishingly intimate and wonderfully complex, the film — as its title suggests — is a meditative “little” movie that successfully makes its decidedly big point through weary sighs and revelatory whispers.

Check out more of our Hot Docs 2023 coverage here!

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