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Hot Docs 2024 #10: Human / Nature

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Hot Docs Film FestivalEvery year, the festival serves up a heaping plate of eco-themed docs and plenty of films about nature or humanity’s relationship to the natural world. This year was no exception. Here are eight that I checked out — some were great, some weren’t… and a couple were docs that, for reasons well known to them, I didn’t actually finish (DNF).

 The Bones (6/8)
A fascinating look at the battle between science and commerce, director Jeremy Xido’s exploration of the dinosaur-bones market reminded me a lot of previous behind-the-scenes Hot Docs films about art collectors (e.g., 2017’s Blurred Lines: Inside the Art World, 2020’s Made You Look). This time, it’s wealthy fossil collectors — who pay millions for cachet and bragging rights — at odds, and sharing the documentary spotlight, with paleontologists, who are desperately trying to ensure that scientifically valuable fossils are protected and kept out of the hands of private collectors. Criss-crossing the globe to follow some of the industry’s key players, including paleontologists in Canada, Mongolia and Morocco, and an auctioneer and a fossil dealer in France (who both defend their sometimes-sketchy trade with a kind of “so what? who cares?” attitude), the well-rounded and wildly informative film does a great job of explaining the intricacies, circuitry and shady corners of the business, giving way, as well, to an examination of the legacy of colonization: namely, should valuable fossils claimed by the West be returned to their countries of origin to help preserve and recognize local history?

Chasing Time (7/8)
When browsing films at the fest this year, I didn’t realize (initially) that this short-ish doc from co-directors Jeff Orlowski-Yang and Sarah Keo is, in fact, a beautiful epilogue to Yang’s 2012 film, Chasing Ice (which I loved). Buried in one of the fest’s shorts programs (with zero mention of its relationship to Yang’s award-winning earlier work in its official fest description), the doc’s significance not only deserves mention, it should have been trumpeted to the film-going masses lest they miss it. My kudos go instead to a segment on CBS Sunday Morning a couple of weeks ago, which was what tipped me off to the connection. Where Ice chronicled the launch of photographer James Balog’s Extreme Ice Survey, which captured global glacier melt using time-lapse images from strategically placed automated cameras, this gorgeous and contemplative film is the bookend to its predecessor, marking that project’s closure and the removal of the Survey’s final camera. It’s also Yang’s loving tribute to his ecological and cinematic mentor, and the tireless work he undertook for more than a decade to draw attention to climate change through some 200,000+ photographs.

Fire Tower (6/8)
Forest-fire season is, unfortunately, already well underway in Canada, and the dedicated subjects of director Tova Krentzman’s quietly reverent mid-length documentary are, fortunately, no doubt already standing watch. Profiling an eclectic group of fire lookouts — who spend more than half of each year living alone in remote areas, perched high above the trees in hexagonal huts, scanning the region for any hint of a burgeoning fire — the film examines the joys (freedom, quiet, being immersed in nature), the physical and mental challenges (complete isolation), and the risks (storms) associated with their jobs, revealing the unique personality traits required to not only excel in extreme conditions, but to simply tolerate them without losing it. While I would have liked to know more about the actual logistics of the gig (how/where do they get groceries? do they have any internet access? what if they have to pee while on duty? etc.), the doc is a compelling look at what the job takes, what it gives back, and the brave souls willing to assume such a great responsibility on behalf of the rest of us.

Noctures (NR/DNF)
If you really REALLY love exotic moths, this might be the perfect doc for you. I will say up front that I only watched it until about the 47-minute mark, and then gave up, because it was so epically glacially S-L-O-W. I could not take one more l-o-n-g, ponderous shot of… mist rolling into a valley. An inchworm undulating, bit by bit, along the full length of a branch. A man walking… and walking… and walking… and walking along a road in the distance. Rain. It also wasn’t until a whopping 37 minutes into the film (I checked) that its central point — researching the effects of temperature change on moths at different altitudes in the mountains — was even mentioned. To me, that scene should have started the doc because, up until that point, I had almost no idea what was happening onscreen, whom I was watching or what they were doing, save for the fact that two people were repeatedly (and near silently) observing hundreds of moths and other insects landing on an illuminated screen in pitch darkness in the middle of a jungle. (Note: were it not for the film’s fest description, I also wouldn’t have known it’s set in the Himalayas). While the moths themselves were colorful and unqiue, there are only so many times you can watch one land and then just… sit there… before it starts to get old. I simply wasn’t interested or invested enough to keep watching them flutter around (again and again and again) and, therefore, didn’t actually finish the film. It may be meditative, but it wasn’t for me. My cat, however, was riveted.

Once Upon a Time in the Forest (4/8)
I really wanted to love this eco-warrior doc from director Virpi Suutari. On the surface, it seemed like it had all the elements needed to be right up my alley: an environmental topic, young activists fighting big corporations, Finland. Yet I found myself disappointed in the end, and increasingly disinterested as it went along. Following dedicated friends Ida and Minka, the film explores deforestation in Finland, where 90% of forests are being used for the commercial lumber industry. It tracks the efforts of the passionate pair to protect the land, including enlisting like-minded pals to scavenge the wilderness for any sign (no matter how microscopic) of an endangered plant or animal that might meet the criteria for “protected” status. But the doc gets lost in its own whimsy to the detriment of its direction/focus, lingering for what feels like forever on repeated shots of the young women swimming or forest walking (we get it, the forests are beautiful!) or thinking, and then spending a great deal of time capturing conversations about the planning and prep for their protests (and their thoughts and feelings), instead of showcasing the actual work they do, the impact it has (or doesn’t), and so on. Maybe my expectations were awry, but it felt more like the story of the relationship between its subjects than one about ecological activism.

Standing Above the Clouds (6/8)
Director Jalena Keane-Lee’s observational doc demonstrates the power of sisterhood and solidarity, profiling a group of Indigenous Hawai’ian women leading years-long efforts to protect Hawai’i’s Mauna Kea from overdevelopment, and exploring the toll it takes on them as they work together to care for the mountain as they would an elder. The tallest mountain in the world when measured from the sea floor, Mauna Kea is sacred to Indigenous Hawai’ians — holding tremendous ancestral significance and ecological importance — but has become a prime location for developers. Fed up with years of mismanagement and appropriation of their land, including the construction of some 13 observatories on its summit, the women band together to protest the impending addition of #14 (the Thirty Meter Telescope). Blocking access roads and adopting a “heart-forward” approach, the women battle bureaucracy and the law, their successes and setbacks ebbing and flowing like the island tides. While the film is effective, I kept thinking — given its underlying message of cultural understanding and education — that audiences would have benefitted if the terminology and traditions shown onscreen were explained. The women often use Hawai’ian words, expressions and songs that aren’t translated for the viewer (what do they mean?), nor is an extended sequence of a haka (what is the significance of that particular haka in that moment? what are they saying?). The lack of context/explanation became distracting and, to me, felt like a missed opportunity to broaden knowledge and draw the viewer in by sharing the experience instead of just showing it.

The White Mountain (7/8)
This is a smartly subversive eco-doc that approaches the topic of climate change from a sports-and-adventure angle. Set amid the iconic Mont Blanc range in the Alps, this cleverly executed film from co-directors Gwyn Williams and Luke Wiles profiles two thrill-seekers, whose mutual love of on-the-slopes activities is increasingly threatened by global warming, the gradual melt of Mont Blanc’s glaciers, and the resulting instability and unreliability of the conditions on the mountains. Bastien Fleury is a mountain rescuer by profession and an outdoor-adventure enthusiast by passion, who notes the risks and challenges that milder weather is causing in both his personal and professional pursuits, but who’s determined to complete a super-risky 46km traverse in under 24 hours. Hadley Hammer is a pro skier from the U.S., who’s eager to experience the extreme runs that Mont Blanc can offer, but who’s still recovering from a serious injury and haunted by the untimely death of her alpinist boyfriend, David Lama, who was killed in a Banff avalanche. Jaw-dropping white-knuckle body- and helmet-cam footage from both participants helps create a thrilling, edge-of-your-seat energy to the proceedings, as each sets out to conquer the mountain, pushes their body to the limit, and hopes the snow and ice beneath their feet doesn’t let them down — or send them hurtling to their deaths. It’s a wild ride, and one that drives its message home in a nicely subtle-but-effective way.

Wild Gleaming Space (NR/DNF)
Much like Noctures, this is an incredibly s-l-o-w, pensive documentary filled with long, ponderous shots, for which I simply did not have the patience. To me, it also takes an absolutely fascinating topic — what is consciousness? where does it go after we die? — and somehow manages to make it… boring. And, again, maybe that’s the fault of my own expectations and whoever penned the film’s official festival synopsis, I don’t know. I do know that director Mauro Colombo’s film felt, to me, directionless, drifting from one location and one subject to the next without drawing any clear connections between them or to the film’s premise (which, in and of itself, was unclear), seemingly focused more on capturing a cool shot or stunning landscape than addressing its purported theme. I gave it until the halfway mark and then bailed.

 

Check out all of our Hot Docs 2024 coverage here!

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