Hot Docs 2015 #9: Radical Thought

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The festival is slowly winding down, and a full week of non-stop film-going is starting to catch up with me – I’m getting pooped! But there are still a bunch of docs to see and only three days left to see ‘em.

Yesterday, I started out with a film that I’d been told was “really good but really hard to watch.” And, to some extent, that proved true of Welcome to Leith (5/8), a chilling look at what happens when notorious white supremacist Craig Cobb decides to move to – and attempt to take over – the titular North Dakota town. With a population of only 24, Leith is selected by Cobb as the location in which to set up a dedicated Aryan colony. His plan is to buy up super-cheap plots of land, move his comrades in and quickly establish a voting majority to take over the town. What he discovers, though, is a small but fiercely determined community that’s having none of it. At all.

While the first hour or so of the doc is riveting (and super-terrifying), it begins to lose steam a bit as it draws to a close. The epic tension that’s built up as Cobb moves in, confronts locals – sometimes with a shotgun in hand as he wanders the streets – and threatens their families (thankfully) never really crescendos, but instead slowly deflates, then reinflates, then plateaus and, ultimately, is never fully resolved.

Up next was a doc profiling a different kind of radical thinker: feminist nuns in the United States, who find themselves censured by the Catholic church for their “modern ways” and social-justice missions. Radical Grace (7/8) trains its lens on a number of these spirited Sisters, who eschew habits and support, among other things, affordable healthcare (which includes access to birth control) and equality for women in the currently patriarchal religious life. Tracking their road trip across several states – “Nuns on the Bus”! – and a pilgrimage to Rome to see millennia-old artifacts revealing the pivotal roles of women in the first few centuries of the church, the film presents an enlightening look at modern-day religious life, which I would guess is vastly different than the stereotype held by so many. (I went to Catholic school and had some awesome teachers just like these women, so it wasn’t a surprise to me!) These Sisters are fierce, vocal and unwavering in their dedication, both to their vows and to the reform for which they strive daily.

My only criticism, and it’s a minor one, was director Rebecca Parrish’s over-the-top campaigning for the Audience Award. She bounded onstage before the film and implored the audience – who hadn’t even seen the film yet – to vote for it. She did the same thing after the film during the Q&A, and again as people were filing out of the theater. It put me off, frankly, since it’s the equivalent of saying “my film is better than all the others, right?! vote for me! vote for me! vote for me!” I realize there’s a cash prize at stake, and that it would be nice to be handed a cheque at fest’s end, but visiting filmmakers veryvery rarely plead for votes in that way and, after such a great film about selflessness, it just felt a bit pushy and out of place.

Last on the docket for the day was a film I felt like I saw at last year’s Hot Docs. In 2014, I saw Fed Up, which detailed the evils of sugar and its role in the obesity epidemic. And last night, it was Sugar Coated (4/8) which… details the evils of sugar and its role in the obesity epidemic.

Though the approaches in the two films are different – Fed Up focuses on a number of personal stories of weight struggles, while Sugar Coated delves more into the politics and tactics used by the sugar industry to conceal the detrimental effects of sugar – the point of both films is the same: sugar is a toxin.

That said, Sugar Coated does offer some new insights (namely the link between the sugar-industry’s tactics and those of Big Tobacco in the States) and, since it’s a Canadian production, there was certainly more of a Canadian angle to this film – including a wealth of commentary from popular Ottawa-based food-industry critic Dr. Yoni Freedhoff. But much of what I watched simply felt like a retread of everything I’ve already heard or read about sugar in recent years, and I left feeling like I hadn’t really learned anything new.


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