Hot Docs: Future Baby, Migrant Dreams, and Off the Rails
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Hot Docs: Future Baby, Migrant Dreams, and Off the Rails

Hot Docs livens your weekend with films about the migrant worker crisis in Canada, the eerie but possibly hopeful future signalled by new reproductive technologies, and a compulsive bus hijacker who only wants to get his passengers to their destination safely.

Still from Future Baby.

Still from Future Baby.

At Hot Docs: a probing look at the designer baby industry, an excoriation of Canada’s use and abuse of migrant workers, and an absorbing character study of a New Yorker who compulsively hijacks buses and trains.

Future Baby (World Showcase, Austria)
Directed by Maria Arlamovsky


Monday, May 2, 1 p.m.
Isabel Bader Theatre (93 Charles Street West)

Sunday, May 8, 10:15 a.m.
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)

Depending on your perspective, the future is either utopian or dystopian in Maria Arlamovsky’s Future Baby, an illuminating, exhaustive, and frankly eerie primer on reproductive technologies in the modern age. The Austrian filmmaker coolly glides around the world in pursuit of some answers about how advances in biotechnology have transformed in vitro fertilization and genetic testing into a dark art that arms expecting parents with knowledge and options about their likely issue. Without grandstanding or stooping to manipulative techniques, the film poses troubling questions about the next steps of humanity in a world where error can be erased as easily as a press on the backspace key.

Arlamovsky proves to be the appropriately low-key, unfussy stylist for this emotionally charged material—a cool head with a strong formal command and a finely attuned sense of visual irony. An early sequence where a doctor rattles on about making a collection room for sperm donors more “friendly” while calmly firing up a porno on a tiny screen before him nicely encapsulates her approach: professional, even bordering on clinical, but not without a sense of humour about the ethical as well as physical messiness of reproduction despite all our efforts to contain it.

This aesthetic marriage of content and form is refreshing, but Future Baby’s strongest quality might be its ambivalence—its ability to entertain multiple, potentially competing values at the same time without simply seeming confused. Arlamovsky is particularly deft at balancing parents’s desires to know what they are in for with a sharp critique of selective breeding advanced by sociologist Barbara Katz-Rothman, who points out that the recent effort to put the weight of the next generation’s health on prospective mothers’s decisions about whether to carry children with genetic defects to term is wildly unrealistic and insidious. This effort, she points out, forces pregnant women to retroactively accept sole responsibility for all of the bodily contingencies—from congenital physical and mental illnesses to acquired impairments—that might befall their children. That the film can give credit to this perspective while maintaining a mild, wary hope for science’s ability to do good for future generations is a testament to its complexity and the seriousness with which it takes its issues.

Migrant Dreams (Canadian Spectrum, Canada)
Directed by Min Sook Lee

Tuesday, May 3, 1:15 p.m.
Scotiabank Theatre (259 Richmond Street West)

Sunday, May 8, 1 p.m.
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)

Nonfiction audiences who believe the highest goal a documentary can aspire to is social good will want to take in award-winning filmmaker Min Sook Lee’s engaged, infuriated, and in turn, infuriating Migrant Dreams. A multifaceted and empathetic look at a pair of migrant workers who left Indonesia to work in a Southern Ontario greenhouse as part of Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program, the film shows the arduous working lives lived by the nation’s most precarious, insecure workforce. This portrayal examines a class of people preyed upon by shameless brokers and all but abandoned by a federal government that hardly acknowledges their experiences.

Though Lee focuses on the individual plights of workers Umi and Dwipa as they undergo legal proceedings against their former employer, the film works best as a complex portrait of a completely broken system that has zero accountability to either the people it most exploits or the citizens and taxpayers who keep it running without realizing the lives it is destroying rather than aiding. She attends equally to Jamaican migrants exposed to harsh pollutants with no recourse to change their conditions and to a fearless, disparate group of allies who do their best at securing legal representation for a people treated as disposable. Lee also occasionally widens the scope of her inquiry—signalled by aerial photography that takes in the adoptive countryside from which these labourers are so alienated—to consider the sometimes ignorant, sometimes sympathetic chatter of average Canadians, beamed into radio shows like an unmoved chorus while migrants like Umi and Dwipa await their fate.

The result is a fierce, intelligent, and powerful referendum on Canada’s future. As one talking head points out in the final minutes, Canada has steadily transformed itself from a nation of immigrants to a migrant nation full of disposable citizens. What Lee’s film asks, not just of its viewers but of the governments, is whether their lives can be anchored here more securely, through a complete reimagining of their rights as provisional citizens.

Off the Rails (Canadian Spectrum, Canada)
Directed by Adam Irving


Wednesday, May 4, 9:15 p.m.
Scotiabank Theatre (259 Richmond Street West)

Friday, May 6, 1 p.m.
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)

Saturday, May 7, 9 p.m.
Scotiabank Theatre (259 Richmond Street West)

Sunday, May 8, 7:15 p.m.
Innis Town Hall (2 Sussex Avenue)

“I hope that there’s some place for him in the world,” a social worker muses, a bit apprehensively, in the coda to Adam Irving’s sure-to-be crowd-pleasing Off the Rails. She’s referring to the film’s affable and idiosyncratic subject, Darius McCollum. A Queen’s, New York native who knows the city’s transit system like the back of his hand, by the film’s outset, McCollum has already been imprisoned for half of his adult life for behaviour his psychiatrists, lawyers, and family members feel is compulsive to the point of being inevitable. His crime: hijacking a number of buses and trains, not to claim the property as his own or to endanger the passengers, but to drive them safely to their destination and inject a bit of life into their commute.

Darius is a great subject for a quirky, personality-based documentary, and Irving certainly makes a lot of hey out of the generic potential his subject affords him. He parallels his moments of daring and sense of purpose throughout with the trajectory of that other misunderstood alien, Superman, in interspersed animated passages that are, frankly, a bit too cute a point of analogy given Darius’s dire situation. To Irving’s credit, though, he rarely minimizes the seriousness of Darius’s predicament, which is that his Asperger’s syndrome frequently compels him to put his obsession into practice, and continually endangers his future, resulting in 32 convictions and the threat of being returned to a maximum security prison where he clearly does not belong.

As for where Darius does belong, the film doesn’t seem to know, though that isn’t necessarily a problem. Irving’s coup here is to raise serious questions about the way people with more or less functional mental illnesses are indiscriminately processed through a criminal justice system that has no use for them, no desire to learn about their conditions, and no interest in integrating them back into a society that, judging from the film’s inevitable success with audiences, would be all too happy to have them if it could get to know them. That he does so in such a charming and aesthetically slick package will likely turn some austere nonfiction lovers off, but it’s an impressive feat in itself.