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Hot Docs 2024 #3: Our First 8 Must-sees at the Festival!

Our Rating
Hot Docs Film Festival

This year, Hot Docs is unspooling some 168 films. Over the past few weeks, I’ve screened 51 of them. FIFTY. ONE. That’s a lot of documentaries. And I’m not done yet! All that doc-watching has left little time for much else (but I’m not complaining!), so even though I have a pile of must-see films to recommend so far, I’ll be parsing them out in two installments because, well, there are only so many capsule reviews I can write in a day.

Plus, more screeners are still coming in, which means the discovery of additional must-see docs is a distinct possibility! For now, though, here are the first eight I loved so far.

American Cats: The Good, the Bad, and the Cuddly (7/8)
Full disclosure: I love cats. I think comedian Amy Hoggart is brilliant. And, to me, removing a cat’s claws is tantamount to dipping its paws into a wood chipper. So, I may not be the most objective viewer when it comes to director Todd Beiber’s entertaining and essential look at why the U.S. is one of the only places on the planet where the declawing is not only widely practiced, but still considered acceptable. With cat-lover Hoggart as a guide, and structured much like an extended episode of her It’s Personal series, the film initially sets out to examine the relationship between humans and cats, but quickly detours to reveal a sharper focus (pun intended): the controversial topic of declawing. Standing firmly on the “Hell, no!” side of the issue is The Paw Project founder Dr. Jennifer Conrad, a dedicated veterinarian who’s spent the past 20+ years spearheading local and state initiatives to have declawing banned. Despite the physical and behavioral trauma declawing can inflict on cats, Conrad has nonetheless faced immense backlash from many of her industry peers, due largely to the financially lucrative nature of the barbaric practice. Through interviews with vets, behaviorists, cat fanciers, and even Curtis Sliwa, founder of the Guardian Angels and (who knew?) a prolific cat rescuer, Beiber and Hoggart craft an insightful, informative, HUGELY adorable and often-hilarious doc that uses humor and heart to drive home its message of humane treatment of our feline friends.

Ari’s Theme (7/8)
Using reenactments, animation and a unique film-within-a-film sort of structure, co-directors Nathan Drillot and Jeff Lee Petry create a magical, moving and marvelously musical biography of Victoria, B.C., composer Ari Kinarthy. Born with a rare genetic disorder called Spinal Muscular Atrophy Type 2, Kinarthy wants to leave a legacy through music by creating compositions based on his life’s most important moments. Aided by his music therapist Allan Slade, and Austrian composer Johannes Winkler (whose credits include the scores for previous Hot Docs films such as Someone Like Me and Handle With Care: The Legend of the Notic Streetball Crew), Kinarthy begins the arduous task, note by note, bar by bar, revisiting his memories along the way. Punctuated by plenty of home movies, family photos, and Kinarthy’s musings about the assorted challenges of his project (“I loathe pity,” he says, “but I do love an underdog!”), Ari’s Theme is a poignant exploration of determination, perseverance, the creative process and what it means to find your way as an artist.

The Click Trap (8/8)
If you weren’t already wary of the perils of social media — or of the internet as a whole, for that matter — then this comprehensive and completely terrifying doc about digital advertising, data mining, and the myriad ways in which they’re being used for nefarious purposes is bound to make logging off (of everything) immensely appealing. Directed by Peter Porta, the chilling and timely film takes a deep dive into the $400 billion digital-advertising industry, exposing the monetization of highly profitable mis- and disinformation, and the insidious ways they can easily creep into every corner of the internet through the targeting, tracking, and even tricking of users. (As one of the film’s experts puts it: “Clickbait is replacing thought.”) Loaded with insightful expert interviews — including Imran Ahmed (founder of the Center for Countering Digital Hate) and Nandini Jammi (founder of digital-watchdog org Check My Ads) — and a veritable terrabyte of alarming stats and personal stories, Porta’s doc provides a much-needed wake-up call about the gradual erosion of democracy through digital platforms and practices, and the risks we’re all unknowingly taking each time we’re online.

Family Tree (7/8)
Anyone who’s read my Hot Docs coverage over the years knows I’m a big fan of documentaries that examine Big Issues through the lens of comparatively “small” stories. If it’s got an environmental angle, even better! This is just such a doc. Directed by Jennifer MacArthur, the film is also a bit of a two-fer, simultaneously tackling the topics of sustainable forest management and racial justice by following two Black families in North Carolina, and their respective stewardship of family land. For the more-established Williams family, it’s finding a way to honor the past as they prepare their sons to carry on the family’s forestry legacy going forward; for the women of the newer-to-the-industry Jeffries family, it’s about overcoming familial challenges and learning how to establish the new roots needed to sustain future growth. And for both families, generational stewardship is the gateway to creating generational wealth. Informative and illuminating, MacArthur’s film is blessed with compelling, easy-to-root-for characters, and draws some clever-but-subtle parallels between the life cycle of a forest and that of the family helping it to thrive.

The Here Now Project (7/8)
Lemme just say this: every single climate-change denier out there should be forced to sit down and watch this documentary. Assembled entirely from videos shot by everyday people all over the world, the film captures a year (2021, to be exact) of devastating meteorological, agricultural and societal byproducts of global warming through the firsthand accounts of those experiencing them as they’re taking place. From a deep freeze in Texas and a dust storm in Brazil to swarms of locusts in Kenya, revolting “mucilage” in Turkey, floods from Germany to China, and wildfires in every corner of the globe, co-directors Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel deliver an urgent, engrossing and highly effective eco-doc unlike any other. There are no stats or diagrams here, no commentary from scientists or activists, just raw, sometimes disturbing and often extremely emotional footage of exactly what it means for humans and nature when the planet warms up by just a degree or two.

Secret Mall Apartment (8/8)
Imagine finding a secluded, undiscovered section of a shopping mall and then just… moving in. That’s the focus of director Jeremy Workman’s end-to-end-enjoyable doc, which chronicles the antics of a group of artists who did just that in 2003, and then spent four years (!) hanging out in a remote, 750-square-feet-ish attic-like area of Rhode Island’s Providence Place Mall they dubbed “The Nowhere Space.” Combining tons of archival footage the group shot themselves — on a Pentax Optio S5i! — at the time alongside present-day interviews with the four core members of the collective (three of whom had remained anonymous prior to the film), Workman unravels the key whys and hows of their carefully planned and deftly executed covert operation, from initially finding the anomaly in the mall’s architecture to moving in large pieces of furniture and building their own walls using smuggled-in cinderblocks. The resulting film is a fabulously fun celebration of friendship, imagination, rebellion, resistance, and the insanely creative way a bunch of artists decided to address the housing crisis.

Singing Back the Buffalo (8/8)
If you’re thinking, “Do I really want to watch a documentary about… buffalo?”, allow me to assure you: yes, yes you really do. Because director Tasha Hubbard’s gorgeous film exploring Indigenous efforts to rematriate, repopulate and restore North American buffalo herds — and to ensure their sacred significance in Indigenous culture and history is properly recognized — is as remarkably riveting as it is revelatory. Through interviews, animation and storytelling, Hubbard weaves together a robust historical tapestry chronicling the cultural, social and ecological importance of buffalo, and follows modern-day Indigenous conservationists, elders and communities in Canada and the U.S. as they work together to reclaim a pivotal component of their collective heritage. Info-dense and brimming with insight (who knew buffalo are a “keystone species” and climate-change mitigators?!), Singing delivers a fascinating, moving and enlightening look at a vital thread in the fabric of environmental health and Indigenous reconciliation.

Teaches of Peaches (8/8)
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: to me, the measure of a great rock doc is its ability to engage and entertain all audiences, even those who may be totally unfamiliar with its subject. As someone whose knowledge of Peaches was previously cursory at best, I therefore feel uniquely qualified to wholeheartedly attest: directors Philipp Fussenegger and Judy Landkammer accomplish that feat in this kick-ass film chronicling the evolution of electrifying musician Peaches. Comprehensive, thoughtful and, erm, packed to the t*ts with juxtapositions — then vs. now! onstage vs. off! newcomer idealism vs. veteran wisdom! the person vs. the persona! — the documentary is set against the backdrop of preparations for a new tour, and will undoubtedly be an orgasmic delight for fans. It’s a treasure trove of interviews, archival home videos, and blistering concert footage of the past and present, alongside insightful conversations with Peaches’ friends, collaborators, band members… and even fellow Canuck singer Feist, who was all three of those things and a roommate, to boot. For the uninitiated, it’s an equally thrilling and rewarding ride that celebrates unapologetic authenticity and a truly one-of-a-kind performer who proves she’s just as outrageous, uninhibited and creative today as she ever was.

Check out all of our Hot Docs 2024 coverage here!

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