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Hot Docs 2024 #8: Social Studies

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Hot Docs Film FestivalBe it disability rights, prisoners’ rights or even the right to take ownership of your own cultural heritage, many fest films explore complex social issues. Here are five that I checked out.

Norwegian Democrazy (4/8)
I’m not entirely sure this condemnation of hate speech works quite the way co-directors Fabien Greenberg and Bård Kjøge Rønning intended. Profiling Lars Thorsen, the leader of an anti-Muslim fringe group in Norway called SIAN (Stop the Islamisation of Norway), the doc follows Thorsen and his small band of followers — it feels like he has only six or seven supporters? — as they go from town to town to host unattended “rallies” and spread their message despite across-the-board rejection from residents. Though the directors gain exclusive insider access to the group, the film is largely one sequence after another after another after another of Thorsen arguing with passers-by, spouting unsupported “facts,” being shuttled away by police, and/or setting fire to a Quran. (And, be warned, there is a LOT of Quran-burning in this doc.) But… that’s kind of it. Interviews with Thorsen and his girlfriend shed some light on his mindset — he believes his self-admittedly “offensive” speech ≠ hate speech — but the documentary’s “neutral” approach starts to feel like just a showcase of shocking behavior, inadvertently giving Thorsen yet another platform to spew his opinions (this time, to a global audience) without really countering those opinions. There is one young anti-Thorsen activist featured in the film, who sits down with his arch-nemesis for what turns into an unexpectedly civil-if-frustrating conversation, but there’s a distinct lack of onscreen fact-checking and counter-balance to Thorsen’s diatribes, save for the everyday citizens who debate him in the streets. Yes, in theory, audiences should be able to glean for themselves exactly what and who Thorsen is just by watching the film. But to me, given how easily dis- and misinformation spreads these days, the absence of a clear, more overt “erm, here are alllll the reasons he’s totally wrong” stance means Democrazy risks unwittingly helping to promote, rather than prosecute, the actions of its subject.

Power (6/8)
Who polices the police? That’s one of several central questions in director Yance Ford’s comprehensive exploration of the history of policing in the United States. Narrated by Ford, the film examines various issues relating to law enforcement in America, from its roots — which can be traced to slave patrols in the 1700s and frontier militias in the 1830s — to its evolution into a flawed paramilitary-style system seemingly focused primarily on social control. Interviews with authors, scholars, journalists, and police officers are interspersed with often-disturbing body-cam and archival footage (including some of the most notorious examples of brutality) to create a multi-layered analysis of the institution, and a revelatory discussion-sparking documentary. What I felt was missing, though, was any glimmer of hope or possibility that things can change, or information on what efforts, if any, might already be underway regarding police reform beyond the “defund the police” movement. But perhaps there are none?

Red Fever (7/8)
In 2009, Neil Diamond (the Cree filmmaker, not the crooner) and Catherine Bainbridge co-directed the documentary Reel Injun, which explored the history of North American Indigenous peoples in the movies. This latest project from the pair uses Injun as a bit of a jumping-off point, as Diamond criss-crosses the globe and expands the scope to include the broader global influence of Indigenous culture on fashion, sports, government, and even mitigating climate change. Through interviews with scholars and subject-matter experts from designers to directors, the film examines issues such as the fine line between inspiration and appropriation, the erasure of tradition through forced assimilation, and the lack of understanding and respect for Indigenous culture and symbols. Packed with a wealth of archival footage and images, and insights from Diamond and the people he meets in his travels, it’s an informative, educational and entertaining analysis that stresses the need for collaboration over confiscation so that credit and cultural control remain where they belong.

The Ride Ahead (7/8)
If you saw My Disability Roadmap at Hot Docs 2022, then you’re already familiar with Samuel Habib, the subject of that short and this feature-length expansion, which he co-directs with his dad, Dan. (If you didn’t see it and have no idea who either Habib is, prepare to be impressed and entertained!) Building on Roadmap’s foundation, this frank and funny “extended cut”-esque doc once again finds Samuel — who’s about to start college and wants to embrace independence as an adult with a disability — seeking guidance and advice from a been-there-crushed-that group of mentors who are, Samuel notes, “living badass adult lives.” From hip-hop artist Keith Jones to comedian Maysoon Zayid, Tony Award-winner Ali Stroker, and disability-rights pioneers Judy Heumann and Bob Williams, Samuel probes each for their personal insights on topics such as work, relationships, courage, and sex. The result is a heartfelt, and incredibly helpful, film brimming with (direct and indirect) life lessons that will no doubt enlighten all audiences, regardless of where they fall on the ability spectrum.

The Strike (6/8)
If you’ve ever watched pretty a movie or TV series set in a prison, you may think you know what it is to be thrown in “the SHU.” (See also: “the hole,” “the slot,” etc.) But the temporary stints inmates serve in Hollywood’s version of Security (or Special) Housing Units, no matter how harrowing, pale in comparison to what was happening in real life, and for decades, at California’s Pelican Bay State Prison. Co-directors Lucas Guilkey and JoeBill Muñoz pull back the curtain on the penitentiary’s practice of locking prisoners in solitary confinement for “indeterminate” sentences — sometimes, for more than 30 years. (For context, the UN standard is 15 days, after which it’s classified as “prolonged.”) The doc then chronicles the state-wide Bobby-Sands-inspired hunger-strike efforts undertaken by SHU inmates in 2011 (when 6,000+ took part), and again in 2013 (when participant numbers ballooned to more than 30K), to demand more humane treatment. Featuring interviews with former inmates, activists, prison officials, and the journalist who first exposed the controversy, the compelling doc explores how the prisoners coordinated the strike and survived without food for such an extended period, and how their protest led to fundamental changes in the way California handles solitary confinement.

Union (7/8)
As I’ve said repeatedly in my film-fest coverage over the years: when it comes to documentaries, I lurrrve a good David vs. Goliath story. And, these days, you’d be hard pressed to find a bigger corporate Goliath than Amazon. This effective and engrossing verité film from co-directors Brett Story and Stephen Maing tells just such a tale, tracking the efforts of a group of employees at a Staten Island, NJ, Amazon fulfillment center as they attempt to unionize. Protesting low wages, dangerous working conditions and gender discrimination, among other workplace complaints, the grassroots organizers — led by former staffer Chris Smalls — undertake the Sisyphean task of forming the Amazon Labor Union. Battling the legal clout of none-too-pleased execs proves just as challenging as recruiting their fellow workers to the cause, though, as hidden cameras reveal the insidious intimidation and coercion tactics used by Amazon (including mandatory training sessions that demonize unions) to scare its employees into inaction. Eye-opening and, at the same time, totally unsurprising, the doc shines a much-needed light on Amazon’s shamelessly shameful approach to its 1.6 million low-income employees, and delivers a wake-up call regarding the true price of those “deals” shoppers snag on its site.

Check out all of our Hot Docs 2024 coverage here!

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