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Hot Docs 2023 #9: Family Business

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Hot Docs Film Festival

When it comes to documentary topics and subjects, is there richer, more easily accessible, more universal material than “family”? Whether it’s carrying on tradition, rebuilding relationships, forging new paths or just figuring out how to talk to your mom while she’s in outer space, here are four family-infused screening at the festival this year.

The Lebanese Burger Mafia (7/8)
This is the kind of fun, lighthearted-yet-still-fascinating documentary I love finding at Hot Docs, and not just because it’s a wonderful counterweight to the comparatively heavy and heartbreaking fare that can sometimes overwhelm one as a festgoer. Directed by Omar Mouallem, Burger Mafia takes a spirited and affectionate look back at Alberta’s once-booming-but-now-disappearing Burger Baron restaurants, and their deep ties to the province’s Lebanese-immigrant community. Himself the child of a former “Baron,” Mouallem traces the history of the chain, from its heyday in the 1960s, to battles over ownership and IP, to the present-day realities of trying to keep independent fast-food businesses afloat amid economic challenges. Through interviews with franchise owners, superfans, and Burger Baron “godfather,” Rudy Kemaldean, the film serves up a super-compelling story about hard work, determination and family that, likely, few outside of Alberta have heard before. It’s a fittingly loving tribute to a beloved-if-dilapidated collection of diverse eateries all anchored in the same not-really-so-secret “secret” mushroom sauce, and a doc that I suspect may generate enough interest and spark enough nostalgia to actually reinvigorate the brand. We’ll see!

The Longest Goodbye (6/8)
Who’da thunk that me seeing Red Heaven back at Hot Docs 2021 would have been such an excellent primer for this doc that mines some of the same territory, albeit from a different angle? Directed by Ido Mizrahy, this film — like Red Heaven — explores how NASA is preparing astronauts for travel to Mars and for the isolation (from Earth, from friends and family, from gravity) those travels will require. Here, though, the psychological impact of extended missions in space, and of living in veryveryclose quarters from which there is no reprieve or escape, takes center stage. Using excerpts from the journals of 10 previous astronauts juxtaposed with present-day training for members of the Artemis program, the doc examines the quantitative and qualitative challenges of long-haul space travel: how is mental health evaluated, and will a “poor” test result cost an astronaut the chance to take part in a future mission? how do you create “connection” between the crew members in outer space and their families on Earth? and how do you build an effective support network to help manage the extreme-high-pressure environment in which astronauts must live and work while on duty? It’s an insightful and informative look at the mental toll of prolonged separation, and the efforts being made by NASA to bridge the physical and emotional distance inherent in an astronaut’s job.

The Mountains (6/8)
Most films take a bit of time to build to their first emotional wallop, but director Christian Einshøj drops his about three minutes into this deeply personal and effective film about family healing. Reminiscent of last year’s Sam Now, and sparked by his father’s plan to sell the family home in Norway, The Mountains is assembled largely from 25 years’ worth of family photos and home videos shot by Einshøj while he was growing up. In excavating the past, both good and bad, Einshøj hopes to figure out a way to mend the present as a way of creating a better future for his once-close-but-now-somewhat-estranged brothers and parents. Devastated by a family tragedy when he was a boy, the tightly knit clan drifted apart physically and emotionally in the years that followed, masking their feelings and, in turn, preventing the cracks in their relationships from truly mending. Setting out on a road trip with younger brother Frederik to visit youngest brother Alex, Einshøj’s heartfelt and understated doc uncorks the bottled-up memories to explore how the collective grief and pain of a profound loss can cause unexpected ripple effects for decades to come.

The Visitors (7/8)
Chances are, when you hear the words “immigrant experience,” a documentary about the residents of Longyearbyen, a community nestled along the coast of a fjord in Svalbard, Norway — and the northernmost city in the world — probably isn’t what first springs to mind. But director Veronika Lišková deftly weaves that theme throughout this two-year chronicle of life in the town of roughly 2,400 residents from 52 different nations, where all you need to immigrate is a job — anyone from anywhere can move/settle there, no visa required. Social anthropologist Zdenka Sokolíčková moves to Longyearbyen with her husband and kids to conduct research on how the hamlet has changed (and continues to change) as a result of immigration, climate change and sustainability. While the family grows to love their new, interviews with residents — from a pastor and a paediatrician to an artist, a space physicist and even Longyearbyen’s mayor — begin to bring an unexpected picture into focus: longtime locals, who were themselves once newcomers, are increasingly less welcoming to new(er)comers. From language barriers to housing discrimination, new arrivals — including Sokolíčková and her family — face mounting challenges. With stunning cinematography of the otherworldly location, and with the ebb and flow of ice floes a recurring motif reflecting the comings and goings of the town, Lišková delivers a thought-provoking look at how globalization is affecting even the most remote parts of the globe.

Check out more of our Hot Docs 2023 coverage here!

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