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Hot Docs 2024 #4: 8 More Awesome Must-see Fest Films

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Hot Docs Film Festival

There’s no shortage of fabulous docs to check out at the fest this year. I’ve already posted about the first eight must-sees, and here are eight more I think belong on every Hot Docs festgoer’s to-see list!

 

Any Other Way: The Jackie Shane Story (7/8)
The term “trailblazer” doesn’t really begin to describe the titular heroine of this spirited documentary, and co-directors Michael Mabbott and Lucah Rosenberg-Lee have crafted a fabulously loving, creative and, yes, rockin’ tribute to the legacy of this fierce and fearless musical icon. Using animation, reenactments, archival footage, old family photos, and recordings from the only album Jackie Shane ever cut, the doc tells her life story in her own words. From her early days in 1950s Nashville as a groundbreaking Black trans R&B artist to opening for the likes of Etta James, Marvin Gaye and The Temptations in the 1960s after resettling in Canada, Shane paved her own way on her own terms… before eventually disappearing from the stage — and the world — in 1971, and living out her life in near-seclusion until her death in 2016. Undoubtedly destined to be turned into a Hollywood biopic, Mabbott and Rosenberg-Lee’s rich portrait of this label-defying vocal dynamo gives her the much-deserved (albeit posthumous) recognition she deserves, and introduces her to a whole new generation of fans in the process.

Billy & Molly: An Otter Love Story (8/8)
Breathtaking cinematography and off-the-charts cuteness are just two of the reasons that I absolutely loved this gorgeous heartwarming doc from National Geographic photographer Charlie Hamilton James, which had me teary right from its opening frames onwards. A must-see for animal lovers, the film chronicles the mutually healing bond that develops between Molly, an orphaned river otter, and Billy, the man who finds her near his remote Shetland Islands home. The process of nursing his new small friend back to health begins to fill a void in Billy’s life, and the duo’s friendship over the course of nearly a year is nothing short of magical. Beautifully composed shots, grade-A supporting players Susan (Billy’s wife) and Jade (the couple’s personality-packed border collie), and a hugely effective, evocative and moving score from composer Erland Cooper create a wonderfully eloquent nature documentary that demonstrates how recovering a sense of purpose and responsibility can lead to the rediscovery of joy.

Black Box Diaries (8/8)
Courageous, raw, emotional and deeply personal are just some of the ways I’d describe this astonishing documentary from director Shiori Ito, a young journalist who chronicles her eight-year fight for justice after she’s drugged and raped by a well-connected senior colleague. That she had the wherewithal to begin documenting her experience almost from the get-go is incredible in and of itself, and what subsequently unfolds is how unbelievably impossible it is for Ito to have any charges pressed thanks to the country’s archaic and patriarchal legal system. Repeatedly dismissed by police, rejected by her family for going public, scrutinized in the media about everything from her appearance to her patriotism, and subjected to endless online harassment for daring to accuse such a well-known political biographer of a sex crime, Ito nevertheless presses on. Engrossing, infuriating, heartbreaking and inspirational, her documentary shines a glaring spotlight on gender inequality in Japan, and how an innovative, advanced first-world country can still be so backward when it comes to the rights, safety and protection of women.

Every Little Thing (7/8)
I really enjoyed Playing With Sharks — director Sally Aiken’s profile of marine conservationist Sally Taylor — when I saw it at Hot Docs 2021, so when I saw that Aitken was behind this profile of California “hummingbird whisperer” Terry Masear, I immediately added it to my to-see list. And I am so glad I did, because the film is a beautifully realized meditation on impermanence and the fragility of life, and has some of the most breathtaking macro footage of hummingbirds that I’ve ever seen. In her home nestled in the L.A. hills, Masear is the go-to rescue for, it seems, anyone in the region who finds an injured hummingbird, having fielded thousands of calls from the public over the years. In personally rehabilitating each of her teeny tiny patients herself, Masear, we discover, is also mending her own wounds from a troubled past. Filled with amazing close-ups, sage wisdom, and plenty of heart-tugging moments (note: be warned, viewer, you will become emotionally invested in the health and recovery of insanely adorable patients such as Cactus, Charlie, Sugar Baby, Raisin and Larry Bird), the film is a wonderfully moving look at the profound value of incremental progress, the power of compassion, and how even the most damaged, seemingly hopeless among us can heal and thrive.

Fragments of a Life Loved (7/8)
This might just be the Frenchiest French documentary I’ve ever watched, and I mean that as a compliment. Admittedly, I was worried I’d actually hate it: a film in which the director picks at a proverbial scab and asks all her ex-lovers about their time together? Could there be a more potentially self-absorbed and self-serving premise? I’m pleased to report that my fears were unfounded, and I actually loved director Chloé Barreau’s intimate and reflective doc, which, yes, features interviews with all the girls (and guys) she’s loved before — but it’s so much more than just a rehash of past relationships. The conversations with her exes (which were not conducted by Barreau herself) reveal distinct patterns and commonalities, from the traits of her former partners (artsy, intelligent, daring, gorgeous creatives) to each romance’s eventual undoing (hello, secrets, lies and infidelity!). The more I watched, the more intriguing it all became, as a number of Barreau’s one-time flames are clearly still deeply affected by the time they spent with her. It was a fascinating exploration of love, time, connection, pain, closure, and the ways in which every relationship leaves its mark on a heart.

Lost in the Shuffle (7/8)
One of my favorite types of documentaries, especially amid the often-tragedy-packed lineup at Hot Docs, is the FUN doc. The kind that doesn’t leave me depressed or angry or nursing a crying headache when it’s over. And director Jon Ornoy’s whimsical and wonderfully offbeat film — about professional magician Shawn Farquhar’s mission to unravel the secrets that a deck of cards may hold to solving a possible centuries-old murder mystery — is a perfect example. Funny, fascinating and heaps of fun, the immensely entertaining doc follows Farquhar across Europe, where he explores the history of playing-card design, wows audiences with his super-cool card tricks, interviews fellow magicians about their work, and shares his theories about how the images on the court cards (i.e., king, queen, etc.) actually contain hidden clues to the death of King Charles VIII of France, who died in 1498 after hitting his head. OR DID HE? Filled with as many “HOW did they DO that?!” moments as expert insights from historians and card collectors, Shuffle is a wild ride that will have you immediately running to study a deck of cards the second it’s over. (Hot tip: stay for the entirety of the credits to discover one of the most amazing facts you will ever learn!)

A New Kind of Wilderness (7/8)
It’s really hard not to fall in love with the ridiculously charming Norwegian family at the heart of director Silje Evensmo Jacobsen’s thoughtful and contemplative character study — so much so that I suspect widowed patriarch Nik may find himself dealing with the dilemma faced by the Tom Hanks character in Sleepless in Seattle: being rabidly pursued by women from all over the world once his story gets out. Eschewing the rat race and determined to live in harmony with nature, Nik and his photographer wife, Maria, move to a remote farm to raise their young family, and Maria begins to document their idyllic lives. But Nik’s world comes crashing down very early in the film, when Maria dies and he’s left to figure out how to navigate that life — from the financial demands of maintaining their home to helping their kids come to terms with their grief — all on his own. Punctuated by Maria’s photos and home videos culled from her blog, as well as her bittersweet voiceovers (from recordings made before her death), Jacobsen’s documentary is a heartwarming and poignant chronicle of one family’s journey through uncertainty, the solace they find in each other, and the enviable purity of rural life.

Rouge (7/8)
Comparisons to Hoop Dreams may be inevitable, but the high-school basketball players in director Hamoody Jaafar’s slam dunk of a sports doc have their sights set on more-immediate-than-the-NBA goals: reclaiming their school’s long-dormant state-championship dominance. River Rouge High School in Michigan was once home to the winningest team in U.S. high-school-hoops history (with 12 state championships to its name between 1954-72), so coach LaMonta Stone and the 2019-20 squad set out to recapture the glory of the past. Tracking practices, games and the off-court lives of the players and coaches — from touring prospective colleges to dealing with the arrival of COVID — the film does a great job of exploring the profound legacy the team has created beyond the hardwood. Insightful and poignant interviews with River Rouge players from decades past reveal a life-changing athletics program that, in their eyes, delivers more than just epic jumpers and buckets, resulting in a well-rounded documentary that goes beyond a standard-issue sports story.

 

Check out all of our Hot Docs 2024 coverage here!

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