Five Weird, Wacky, and Wonderful Films to Watch at Hot Docs

Torontoist

news

Five Weird, Wacky, and Wonderful Films to Watch at Hot Docs

Toronto's documentary film festival runs till May 7, and will showcase 230 films from a record 58 countries.

Carson

PACmen (Democrazy, USA/Australia)

Directed by Luke Walker, 82 minutes

Screenings:

Tuesday, May 2, 7:00 p.m.

TIFF Bell Lightbox

Wednesday, May 3, 3:30 p.m.

Hart House Theatre

Friday, May 5, 11:00 a.m.

TIFF Bell Lightbox

Saturday, May 6, 12:30 p.m.

Fox Theatre

This documentary looks at the controversial system of SuperPACs (political action committees that are allowed to raise unlimited donations without directly coordinating with the candidate) through observing the quixotic presidential run of Dr. Ben Carson, the Black, conservative brain surgeon whose appeal to evangelical voters made him, for a brief time, the front-runner in the race for the 2016 GOP nomination.

Like Donald Trump, Carson had no major political experience and ran an outsider campaign tied to his autobiography, but, unlike Trump, increased media scrutiny that turned up embarrassing stories from his past (like his belief that the ancient pyramids were used for grain storage or the news of a stabbing incident in his teens) finally wrecked his campaign, to the despair of Carson’s true believers who saw him as God’s chosen candidate.

Filmmaker Luke Walker was granted access to two SuperPACs that worked in tandem to raise the millions needed to finance Carson’s run, and we see their planning meetings and fundraisers (which included “movie nights” showing Cuba Gooding Jr. playing Carson in an old made-for-TV movie). Their machine becomes unglued when Carson loses badly in the evangelical state of Iowa to, of all people, Trump, with rumours (promoted by Trump and Carson’s SuperPACs) that Ted Cruz had cheated on voting day to bring down Carson’s turnout. Despite Carson’s public promises to press on, he suspended his campaign a few weeks later, leaving his most devout supporters shocked.

It’s clear that Walker aimed to make an observational political documentary on the level of Robert Drew’s Primary or D.A. Pennebaker’s The War Room, but this film is not as focused; it’s not clear whether it’s supposed to be about the money-raking world of SuperPACs and their effect on the fairness of the electoral process or a greatest hits collection of highlights from the doomed Carson candidacy. It is somewhat interesting to be a fly on the wall as the wheels come off the SuperPACs featured here, with Carson’s boosters gobsmacked that such an ungodly man as Trump could lock up the evangelical vote, but so much of the story of the Carson campaign is told with familiar clips and soundbites from network and cable news coverage of the campaign, much of it underscored with plucky, insistent comedic music. PACmen is more enjoyable as a film that collects candidate Carson’s great on-air meltdowns and screwups all in one place than as a look into the world of Political Action Committees and their nefarious influence in modern American politics, since the ones featured here are shown to be so ineffective.

– JH


chicken

Pecking Order (Magnificent Obsessions, New Zealand)

Directed by Slavko Martinov, 88 minutes

Screenings:

Saturday, April 29, 4:30 p.m.

TIFF Bell Lightbox

Sunday, April 30, 10:30 a.m.

Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema

Saturday, May 5, 10:00 a.m.

TIFF Bell Lightbox

Just when one thinks there are no tiny niches left to explore in a documentary comes this tale of competitive poultry pageantry in New Zealand, which follows one of the longest-running teams, the Christchurch Poultry, Bantam & Pigeon Club, as they prepare for the 2015 Nationals, their 148th year in the game. Says one of the lifelong club members: “I can’t help it, I suppose it’s like alcoholism, you just can’t give it up.” But behind the scenes of measuring the standards of chicken breeds and the annual circuit of shows leading up to the major tournament, trouble is brewing in the club, with a power struggle breaking the group into factions. The older generation is loathe to modernize its record-keeping and resents the pressure from the (relatively speaking) younger members who want to expand the appeal of poultry pageantry to stop the entire enterprise from withering on the vine.

Comparing Pecking Order to the mockumentaries of Christopher Guest in general and Best In Show in particular is unavoidable, as we spend time with several of the eccentrics who have devoted their whole lives to long-hand record-keeping of chicken pageantry and harbouring petty grudges amongst each other while the rest of the world keeps turning around them. This film offers gentle mockery of the participants and this aggressively niche demi-monde, and there is no deficit here when it comes to onscreen chicken puns, but the grander metaphor in this story (the hierarchies that can develop in self-contained social coops disengaged from the rest of the world) is only fitfully developed as the film splits its focus between the infighting and the chicken pageant circuit itself, with a genial but anticlimactic resolution.

– JH


officer

Unarmed Verses (Canadian Spectrum, Canada)

Directed by Charles Officer, 86 minutes

Screenings:

Monday, May 1, 6:30 p.m.

Isabel Bader Theatre

Tuesday, May 2, 3:00 p.m.

Scotiabank Theatre

Saturday, May 6, 3:15 p.m.

TIFF Bell Lightbox

Toronto filmmaker Charles Officer pivots between an elegy for an endangered space and a cinéma vérité document of the people who live there in Unarmed Verses. The film offers a beautifully observed look at a young poet from Toronto Community Housing’s Villaways neighbourhood, currently part of a euphemistically named “revitalization” project that will effectively relocate its residents. Amidst that turmoil, Officer fixes his camera on Francine Valentine, a preternaturally mature and articulate 12-year-old in the process of expanding her artistic horizons via a local music program that sees her putting her confessional poetry to beats under the mentorship of Krystle Chance and both literally and figuratively finding her voice in the process.

Officer avoids the talking head interviews and infographics that have become the stock-in-trade of social issues documentaries. Instead, he strikes a subtle balance between impressionistic images of the physical minutiae of the community—everything from ratty mattresses and rusted power outlets to a pair of trees that frame an ominous billboard for Tridel condos—and intimate frontal close-ups of the majority Black students who make up the music program. In doing so, he documents a vibrant physical space on the verge of being surrendered to the condo boom as well as the faces of a Toronto that a white real estate market would casually and thoughtlessly displace. The result is an understated but vital piece of poetic nonfiction—at once a work of political resistance to revitalization efforts at the expense of Black lives and a lyrical portrait of the infinite potential and varied voices of the Black youth for whom the city doesn’t seem to want to find a place.

– AM


betterman

A Better Man (Canadian Spectrum, Canada)

Directed by Attiya Khan and Lawrence Jackman, 79 minutes

Screenings:

Sunday, April 30, 6:30 p.m.

Isabel Bader Theatre

Monday, May 1, 1:15 p.m.

Isabel Bader Theatre

Saturday, May 6, 4:00 p.m.

Scotiabank Theatre

Co-director Attiya Khan stages an uncomfortable and bold reunion with her abusive high school boyfriend Steve in A Better Man, a sobering effort to talk through the trauma and lingering effects of intimate partner violence for survivors as well as abusers. Khan engages her former partner in a series of emotionally direct conversations about his physical and emotional abuse of her when she was just 16 years old, their soft-spoken dialogues presented in unfussy long takes with minimal cuts. She also invites him on a memory tour of their toxic relationship, bringing him back to the Ottawa apartment where he routinely assaulted her, in the hopes of getting him to speak to the pain he caused. Khan’s decision to steer their conversations and act as a kind of host—gracious but no pushover—powerfully subverts the expectation for survivors to account for the part they ostensibly played in their own suffering: As she puts it in a pointed voiceover directed to her conversation partner, “Women were always asked why we stayed, but I had questions for you.”

The film begins with a much-needed content warning, and viewers’ assessments will vary as to whether Khan’s investigation into her past with Steve is therapeutic, triggering, or both. Some will no doubt be frustrated at the film’s efforts to give agency and voice to an admitted abuser, especially in the therapy sessions we glimpse throughout where Steve is given props for so much as acknowledging that he used to make his partner feel afraid. Though the film is careful not to extrapolate too much from Khan’s personal acknowledgement that the project has given her a feeling of closure, some survivors will also struggle with the implicit suggestion that it takes engaging with an abuser to begin to heal from the damage they’ve caused. As affecting as the film is, then, and as useful as it might be in an educational context, it ought to be approached with caution, as its opening disclaimer admits.

– AM


shiners

Shiners (Canadian Spectrum, Canada)

Directed by Stacey Tenenbaum, 78 minutes

Screenings:

Saturday, April 29, 7:30 p.m.

Isabel Bader Theatre

Sunday, April 30, 1:00 p.m.

Hart House Theatre

Thursday, May 4, 9:30 p.m.

Hart House Theatre

“They’re too beautiful; I can’t wear them,” a patron of Yuya Hasegawa’s gentleman’s club, Brift H, says of his newly polished shoes in Stacey Tenenbaum’s Shiners, a glossy, charming, and eminently accessible paean to the lost art of shoe shining. Tenenbaum’s interest in the once-common, now-antiquated practice takes her from Hasegawa’s immaculately stylized shop in Tokyo, which his client compares to a tea ceremony, to a retro Toronto barbershop, a street corner in Manhattan, and a rural community in Bolivia. Her eye is cast toward the class differences that make shoe shining everything from a shameful profession, to an upmarket boutique good, and a refuge for enterprising addicts in recovery.

The film’s buoyant tone and snappy cutting and score don’t always do justice to its subjects, and it’s hard to square its sympathy toward Bolivian shoe-shiner Sylvia’s bare subsistence for a day’s hard work with its clear interest in the ritualistic, almost fetishistic pleasures of having a pro’s hands delicately labour over the part of your wardrobe that most often comes in contact with the dirt and grime of the world. What resonates most here are the idiosyncratic voices and starkly different methodologies of the individual shiners. That’s true whether it’s New Yorker Don’s variety-show-host style of soliciting snotty upper-class customers—which sees him calling out to passersby with taunts like “The hair looks fine, but those boots concern me”—or Hasegawa’s sweet but goofy dream of a modern Japan revitalized and reconnected to the individual beauty of the products it crafts (or pumps out) through carefully maintained footwear.

– AM

Comments