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Hot Docs 2024 #6: Parental Leave

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Hot Docs Film Festival

Documentaries about families are always in abundance at Hot Docs (see: 2023, 2022 and 2019), but this year’s crop of family-focused selections includes four fine films that all involve a child dealing with the absence of a parent by carefully, and thoughtfully, re-examining the past.

A Mother Apart (7/8)
Director Laurie Townshend crafts a beautifully poetic examination of the mother/daughter relationship — and all the complexities, contrasts, and conflicting emotions that can arise therein — with this doc chronicling Staceyann Chin’s journey to reconcile her troubled past with her mother. A poet, performer and activist, Chin was abandoned in Jamaica by her mother, Hazel, at a very young age, and that loss/absence has been central to her work, informing everything she’s done since… including how she’s raising her daughter, Zuri. Determined to provide Zuri with the mothering she herself lacked, Chin sets out to piece together Hazel’s past, retracing her steps from Jamaica to Montreal and then across the pond to Germany, and connecting with those who knew Hazel along the way. Old photos, letters and home movies of Chin’s sporadic reconnections with Hazel (as well as Chin’s younger half-sister) over the years help color the narrative, as do clips of the entertaining “Living Room Protest” video series Chin’s created with Zuri. The film is an enlightening exploration of the sometimes rocky road to understanding, and how the emotional scars left by a parent can serve as helpful markers on the path to healing.

My Dad’s Tapes (6/8)
Why would a seemingly happy and much-loved husband and father suddenly kill himself? That’s the core question in director Kurtis Watson’s documentary, which excavates his own family’s grief and confusion over the suicide of his “fun dad,” Leonard, in 2006. As the title suggests, the process involves wading through a massive trove of home videos — family vacations, celebrations and the like — his father shot over the years, looking for any clues as to why Leonard dropped off eight-year-old Kurtis at camp one day and then… disappeared, his body discovered in a wooded area weeks later after having taken his own life. Through interviews with his mother, sisters Rebecca and Shannon, and even the police officer in charge of his father’s case, Watson tries to make sense of the tragedy. The resulting film is subtle but effective and, in the end, isn’t so much about solving the mystery or nailing down definitive answers as it is about a family learning to find peace and move forward without them.

A Photographic Memory (6/8)
Unsurprisingly, one of the things that stands out most in this simultaneously biographical and autobiographical documentary — chronicling director (and photographer) Rachel Elizabeth Seed’s efforts to learn about the life of her late mother, photographer Sheila Turner Seed — is the abundance of gorgeously composed shots it contains. Clearly the product of a keen visual eye, the beautifully filmed doc finds Rachel attempting to get to know her mother (who died of a brain aneurysm when Rachel was a toddler) by diving headlong into the work she left behind: a wealth of images, journals, recordings of interviews with renowned photographers of the 1970s, and even an old address book, which Rachel uses to cold call former contacts in a bid to gather more stories about Sheila. Criss-crossing the globe as she visits key locations in her mother’s life, and interviewing key figures in Sheila’s life as she goes, the younger Seed also begins to gain a better understanding of herself. In doing so, she successfully pieces together a wonderfully detailed (literal and figurative) photo mosaic of an influential artist, for both herself and the viewer.

Seguridad (6/8)
Weirdly, director Tamara Segura’s documentary is like the perfect amalgamation of the other three films in this grouping: like A Mother Apart, it’s an exploration of a less-than-picture-perfect parent; like My Dad’s Tapes, it’s about trying to understand a father’s actions; and like A Photographic Memory, it uses images and stories from the parent’s past to reconcile the present. For Segura, the turbulent relationship she had with her alcoholic and abusive late father is fraught with heartache and questions — how did things go so awry in his life, and why? Returning to Cuba from Canada just days before his sudden and unexpected death, she decides to probe family members and friends for their recollections of a man who often made their lives miserable. Through intimate and revealing interviews with her grandmother, mother and half-sister, she unearths long-buried secrets, discovers some reassuring truths, and triggers an important healing process for them all. Deftly employing double-exposure techniques to mimic the double exposures found in many of her dad’s old photographs, Segura slowly brings her father’s experiences under Cuba’s Communist regime into sharper focus, and creates a film with universal lessons about the impact of trauma and the power of forgiveness.

Check out all of our Hot Docs 2024 coverage here!

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