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Hot Docs 2024 #5: Action Heroines

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Hot Docs Film Festival

Chances are, if there’s a Hot Docs film about women taking action — be they trailblazers, activists, performers, politicians, athletes… or anything in between, really — it’ll likely wind up on my to-see list. In addition to the astoundingly great Black Box Diaries (which I included in my must-see roundup), here are eight more impressive female-driven fest films about strength, resilience, determination and the power of sisterhood to check out this year.

Curl Power (7/8)
The awkward and sometimes confusing lives of a quintet of teenaged best friends play out against the backdrop of the awkward and sometimes confusing sport of curling in director Josephine Anderson’s compelling and contemplative coming-of-age doc. Anderson trains her lens on Hannah, Brook, Amy, Ashley and Sav — the members of the 4KGIRL$, a super-tight-knit British Columbia curling team — as they set their sights on making it to the junior-national championships. With several of the girls’ mothers (including 2002 Canadian Olympic bronze medalists Diane Dezura and Georgina Wheatcroft) serving as coaches, the film follows the rink from practices and training camp to bonspiels and boyfriend drama, capturing conversations about competition, but also timely topics such as insecurities, body image, relationships, fears, family, depression, anxiety, personal challenges, and life itself. In doing so, Anderson gifts her subjects with an invaluable cinematic keepsake of their friendship, and creates for the viewer a fascinating, fly-on-the-wall chronicle of kinship, unity, and what it means to be a teenaged girl today.

The Day Iceland Stood Still (7/8)
Iceland is a country known for dramatic eruptions, but perhaps none was as dramatic — and historic — as the eruption of female solidarity showcased in director Pamela Hogan’s fabulously informative and appropriately reverent documentary. Blending archival footage and photographs with whimsical animation and present-day interviews with the key players (including Vígdis Finnbogadóttir, Iceland’s fourth president and first democratically elected woman president in the world!), Hogan revisits October 24, 1975, when 90% of Iceland’s women went on strike to protest the country’s dearth of equal rights. Now in their 70s and 80s, the trailblazing women who led the movement reflect on what sparked the idea, what their actions meant, and how that day — which made worldwide news at the time — changed everything for Icelanders of both sexes going forward. Told with humor, heart and heaps of insight, it’s an entertaining documentary that pays tribute to these game-changing “sheroes” in the global fight for equality.

Drawing a Line (7/8)
The old adage “the pen is mightier than the sword” might as well be the tagline for this inspirational and empowering documentary that pits a stylus-pen-wielding proverbial David against a clearly terrified-of-the-truth-getting-out — and therefore extremely reactionary and suppressive — governmental Goliath. The film profiles Rachita Taneja, a cartoonist in India, who uses her subversively simple web comic (Sanitary Panels) as a means of creative opposition against Hindu nationalism, and the social, environmental and political injustices in her country. But that comic promptly runs her afoul of the powers that be, including India’s Supreme Court, which charges her with contempt and threatens prison if she continues to post panels they feel are in any way critical of the government or the courts. Subjected to threats of rape, death, violence and further legal action, Taneja is faced with a decision: forge ahead or retreat. (I’ll give you three guesses as to her course of action.) With a palpable sense of urgency and danger — so extreme that the film’s director uses a pseudonym (“Sama Pana”) instead of her real name for fear of prosecution herself — the documentary demonstrates the power in the literal art of protest, and how a brave young artist has put herself on the line in the name of freedom.

Kelly: Someone Else’s Dream (6/8)
What happens with a young athlete’s innate talent is exploited by a parent trying to live out their own dreams through their child? That’s the overarching theme of this sports documentary from co-directors Helen Lōhmus and Leana Jalukse, which profiles Estonian Olympic freestyle skier Kelly Sildaru. A record-breaking child “prodigy” on the slopes and the youngest Winter X Games gold medalist in history, Sildaru became a sensation before she even became a teenager, amassing a huge following thanks to her incredible skill and her online vlogs documenting her life. But, unbeknownst to the world for many years, behind her record-breaking accomplishments and lucrative sponsorship deals was a physically and emotionally abusive father, who frequently pushed his daughter into overtraining, injury and psychological turmoil — something Sildaru revealed publicly in 2021. Interviews with friends, fellow skiers and Olympians, reveal an increasingly problematic dynamic that was obvious to nearly everyone and routinely put Kelly in danger on various fronts… yet was allowed to continue. And while the film would have benefitted from more commentary from Sildaru herself (who seems reluctant to speak about the abuse in the doc), it’s nonetheless an interesting examination of the often unseen perils facing elite young athletes in their pursuit of greatness.

My Sextortion Diary (6/8)
Digital blackmail is a thriving criminal industry with an array of permutations, but none is perhaps as psychologically traumatic as intimate-image abuse (translation: “I have your nudes and I’m gonna send them to everyone you know!”). That’s exactly what happens to director Patricia Franquesa, who captures her experience in this smart and super-stylized mid-length doc that takes a digital-first approach, telling its story solely through emails, text messages, social-media notifications, and cell-phone footage. Shortly after her laptop is stolen from a diner, Franquesa begins getting messages from a hacker threatening to share her intimate photos with all of her contacts unless she deposits $2,400 USD into a Bitcoin account. A cat-and-mouse game ensues when the ransom isn’t paid, the police prove wildly unhelpful, and the hacker (who continues to press her for money) gradually begins making good on their promise to distribute the pics, leading Franquesa to take matters into her own hands. While the film is a creatively told thriller with an incredibly effective soundtrack, I nonetheless found it slightly unsatisfying. There’s a lot of what feels like “filler” included (to beef up the running time?), and the self-empowerment payoff ultimately doesn’t jive with the “WHO DID THIS?”-mystery setup woven throughout the entire project.

Never Look Away (6/8)
Known around the world for her former TV gig as an onscreen kick-ass warrior princess, Lucy Lawless steps behind the camera to tell the story of another notable (real life) ass kicker: CNN combat camerawoman Margaret Moth. From its tone-setting opening riffs of Heart’s Barracuda, the doc makes it clear that Moth was a formidable and fearless force to be reckoned with in both her personal and professional lives, diving headlong into conflict zones around the world in the 1990s to capture the brutality of battle — especially its impact on innocents. Combining archival footage and interviews with Moth’s siblings, ex-lovers, and former colleagues (including Christiane Amanpour), Lawless crafts an eerily timely biography of a determined, unapologetic and headstrong journalist who stopped at nothing — including a near-career-ending injury sustained on the job — to focus her unflinching lens, and the world’s attention, on what one of the film’s subjects succinctly refers to as “the messy human reality of war.”

The Sharp Edge of Peace (6/8)
There were many times my stomach was in knots while watching this simultaneously inspiring and heartbreaking documentary from director Roya Sadat. Shot over two years, the film tracks the efforts of four influential Afghan women — politician Fawzia Koofi, women’s-rights activist Fatima Gailani, former provincial governor Habiba Sarabi and former MP Sharifa Zurmati — who are chosen to be a part of the official delegation attempting peace negotiations with the Taliban before the latter group’s eventual return to power in 2021. Sadat’s doc takes viewers behind the scenes in the lead-up to the talks, as the women prepare to bring their demands (namely, guaranteed equality for women in work, education and political participation) to the table, their cautious optimism tempered with the knowledge that theirs will be a dangerous uphill battle. Given what the world knows now about how things have turned out in Afghanistan since the Taliban reclaimed power in 2021, watching these four determined women embark on their mission is, frankly, difficult and incredibly depressing. With incredible access to the quartet — who speak candidly about the harsh realities of Taliban rule, the sense of responsibility they feel on behalf of their fellow Afghans, and the emotional toll of the protracted negotiation process — Sadat’s film nonetheless honors the work, dedication and sisterhood of these fearless crusaders.

An Unfinished Journey (6/8)
When I first read the synopsis for this documentary, I did a momentary double-take, thinking it was perhaps telling the same story as The Sharp Edge of Peace. Instead, it makes for a perfect companion film: equally effective, just as heartbreaking, and set against the same backdrop of turmoil and gender apartheid in Afghanistan, but here profiling a quartet of influential women who are evacuated from the country to begin new lives in Canada. While Sharp explores the efforts of four women working inside Afghanistan’s borders, co-directors Aeyliya Husain and Amie Williams track Afghan journalist Nilofar Moradi, former MP Homaira Ayubi, politician Zefnoon Safi and former minister Nargis Nehan as they attempt to rally the international community, mobilize political leaders, and drive change from the outside. The doc follows the four as they adjust to new homes, new communities and a new language, while dealing with homesickness and the knowledge that many of their family members are still trapped by the Taliban’s oppressive regime. Poignant and quietly powerful, this film (like Sharp) shines a much-needed light on what feels like a largely overlooked human-rights catastrophe, and gives credit to the tireless “soldiers” fighting on the front lines of this gender-equality war.

Check out all of our Hot Docs 2024 coverage here!

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