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Hot Docs 2024 #11: Annnnnd… the Rest!

Our Rating

Hot Docs Film FestivalWhen posting my reviews of fest films, I like to group them by theme or subject matter rather than just randomly dumping them by day-of-the-week. But, every year, there are a handful of docs that, for whatever reason, don’t quite fit in with any of the grouping categories I create. Here, then, are this year’s pot-pourri outliers, and the final six reviews of my 2024 Hot Docs coverage!

7 Beats per Minute (4/8)
Last year, Hot Docs screened The Deepest Breath, which profiled champion free diver Alessia Zecchini, and explored her relationship with her safety-diver-and-boyfriend, Stephen Keenan. This year, Hot Docs screened this similarly themed but less satisfying (and more frustrating) film, which profiles champion free diver Jessea Lu, and explores her relationship with her safety diver — and the film’s director — Yuqi Kang. But unlike Breath, which had a clear focus and strong storytelling, this documentary feels a bit all over the map, due in large part to Kang stepping out from behind the camera, and stepping directly into her subject’s life and super-high-risk sport. Shot over five years, the film tracks the duo’s super-ambiguous co-dependent relationship (are they friends? romantic partners? who knows!), as Lu attempts to re-ignite a career stalled by a 2018 mid-dive blackout. Kang, meanwhile, initially sets out to document the process… only to cross the line from objective observer to invested participant in the story her doc is trying to tell. While it was neat to see some of the same events showcased in Breath from a different competitor’s perspective — both feature the same Blue Hole competition — everything is overshadowed by Kang’s voiceover commentary, which increasingly becomes about herself, her past, her feelings about Lu, the conflict in their relationship, etc., rather than about Lu. To me, the film would have felt more cohesive and worked much better if she’d simply removed herself from the proceedings.

Beethoven’s Nine: Ode to Humanity (4/8)
Like 7 Beats per Minute, this is another fest entry that, for me, derails when the director inserts his real-life trauma into a film that is initially intended to tell a completely different story. Right at the outset, director Larry Weinstein — whose 2019 doc Propaganda: The Art of Selling Lies I saw, and loved, at Hot Docs 2019 — introduces himself, looks into the camera and says that the film to follow is not the film he set out to make. Okay, fair enough. But what follows felt, to me, like what should have been two separate and equally compelling documentaries instead awkwardly shoehorned into each other so that, in the end, neither one really works. About 2/3 of the film is about Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, and how it’s being performed, modified, appreciated and analyzed in different ways all over the world by all kinds of people for myriad reasons, from the Ukranian Freedom Orchestra to a hearing-impaired composer in California to Charles Schulz’s Schroeder. But what starts off great begins to unravel when, during production, Weinstein’s sister, Judih, goes missing from her kibbutz after the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel. Weinstein’s family’s struggles to locate Judih and/or find out her fate become all-consuming, as one would naturally expect. But they also take over the narrative, and no matter how Weinstein attempts to tie it all into Beethoven’s 9th, it felt forced and inorganic to me. Introducing additional topics such as climate change and colonization didn’t help matters, either, resulting in a doc that relies on Weinstein’s narration to point out parallels that aren’t necessarily there in a film that feels like it’s trying unsuccessfully to tick too many dissimilar boxes all at once.

Love Machina (4/8)
For me, the most exciting part of director Peter Sillen’s muddled and disjointed look at the future of AI-driven humanoid robots was a fleeting glimpse of Einz, the wee cryogenically frozen subject of Hope Frozen, a moving doc I saw at the fest in 2019. That moment occurs during one of the many narrative tangents in this weirdly self-indulgent film that’s largely about multi-millionaire Martine Rothblatt (creator of, among other things, SiriusXM), and her multi-decade immortality experiment involving “Bina48,” a (frankly, terrifying) robotic bust of her beloved wife, Bina — who, FYI, is still very much alive. The film tells the Rothblatts’ story alongside the history and development of the Bina48 project, and hammers home the point that the duo are, after some 40 years of marriage, still very much in love. Also, in a less-hammer-y way, that they’re rich. And that’s all very nice but, rather than an exploration of technology and what the future might hold, the doc feels like more like an exploration of a technological hobby facilitated by Martine’s wealth (which is repeatedly on display), and what she wants the future to hold… for herself and Bina. The film feels like an uneasy glimpse into the lives of the rich, who have the means to do things like build robots of themselves for kicks and then make documentaries about it. And the already-iffy proceedings are made even more unsettling by occasional appearances by Bina48, who creeped me right out and who, at one point, comments that it wishes it had legs so it could “go outside.” <gulp> AS IF WE HAVEN’T ALL SEEN SCI-FI MOVIES BEFORE AND DON’T KNOW WHAT HAPPENS NEXT.

Seeking Mavis Beacon (5/8)
For a while, I was really digging this sleuthy documentary from director Jazmin Jones and her collaborator, McKayla Ross. But what starts out as a fun hat-tip to a pre-Siri, pre-Alexa bygone era of interactive computer software, and solving a decades-long mystery — tracking down the whereabouts of Renée L’Espérance, the real-life alter ego of the titular iconic digital-typing teacher — slowly becomes tedious and directionless, focusing more on the women making the film than the woman at its heart. As the “face” of Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, one of the best-selling educational-software products of all time, L’Espérance remains an enigma, so Jones and Ross set out to find her — a mission that leads them on a weird and sometimes confusing journey piecing together fragments of her life story. And while the quest feels like a noble one, the doc’s hyper-manic digital-art-project style quickly overshadows its substance, with many sequences that don’t really make sense (the entire work-space fiasco, for starters), or feel inserted either as filler or in service to the directors instead of their film. Ending with more of a whimper than a bang, it’s a feature-length doc that might have been more cohesive and worked better as a short.

So This Is Christmas (NR)
I have a lot of conflicting emotions about this holiday-themed film from director Ken Wardrop. So much so that I genuinely have no idea how to rate it. On the one hand, it’s a beautifully poignant look at the Yuletide season as experienced by a colorful assortment of wholly endearing characters in a nondescript Irish town. Each one — the widower raising two boys, the single mum, the eccentric seniors, and so on — finds the holidays (and all they entail) especially challenging for a specific reason. Wardop’s film explores how each one manages across key Christmastime scenarios, from gift giving and family dinners to decorations, music and memories. It’s simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming, and I loved that. BUT… on the other hand, calling the film a “documentary” feels like it’s reeeally stretching the term because quite a bit of what happens onscreen feels totally scripted and staged, which is one of the things I hate most when it comes to docs. For example, over and over again, the subjects have “spontaneous” conversations or encounters with others out in the world (at a shop, at a bar, etc.) that are very clearly planned (everyone’s mic-ed, there are multiple cameras already set up to capture the encounter, etc.). There are obviously scripted “B roll” vignettes — kids in church, kids chatting on a playground — that feel like they fell right out of a Richard Curtis movie (which is fine, because I love Richard Curtis movies, but they’re not documentaries, either). At one point, I even started to wonder if the subjects were actors, and if what I was watching was actually just one enormous Modern Love-esque reenactment based on interviews conducted for a magazine article or some such. So, in that sense, as a “documentary,” it didn’t work at all for me. Yet I still liked it a lot. Sigh. Maybe it’s just like the classic debate about Christmas trees: real or artificial? That is, it doesn’t really matter in the end, as long as you enjoy what you get.

Synchrony (NR/DNF)
If you’re prone to seasickness, you may want to avoid this doc from director Caro Bloj — or avert your eyes from time to time — because the constant up-and-down (and, sometimes, completely upside-down) motion/position of the camera during the at-sea sequences made me queasy… and I was watching the film on my TV at home, not in a theater on a 20-foot-high screen. That’s one of the reasons I didn’t actually finish the film, which was also meandering and vague to the point that I wasn’t sure what I was meant to be gleaning from the two women — 74-year-old Ilka and 35-year-old Bárbara — as each one hits the open water (the former in her fishing dingy, the latter for a swim in extreme conditions). There’s some beautiful cinematography on display, and (per usual) I gave the doc to the halfway mark, but it wasn’t enough to hold my interest.

 

Check out all of our Hot Docs 2024 coverage here!

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