Category Archives: Hot Docs 2017

Let There be Light, Directors – Mila Aung Thwin and Van Royko

This ranked as one of my favourite films if not my favourite film of the whole week. The topic is kind of geeky – Fusion power. Fusion is the process of generation nuclear power by fusing atoms rather than blowing them apart which is called fission is what we are doing in our current nuclear reactors. The latter is also the process used in hydrogen bombs. The important difference is that fusion power is safe, creates helium rather than nuclear waste and uses water rather than uranium to generate the energy. It is the process that stars use to generate heat and light and would be a clean, virtually boundless source of energy for billions of years to come. The problem is that it is really really hard to do. The process is to drive two hydrogen atoms together to fuse them and in doing so release energy. The problem is that atoms do not want to fuse and to make it happen you need to get them moving at tremendous speed so that the forces that keep them apart are overcome. This means heating them to 150.000.000 Kelvin which is very very hot; basically, the temperature at the centre of the Sun. Currently there is project to build a fusion reactor in France with funding from several different countries. The problem is that enthusiasm for the project is not great. The cost of building the ITER or International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor is a few billion dollars but the payoff of success is immeasurable. No more need for fossil fuels, solar energy or wind turbines. An unlimited source of energy would be at our disposal. The film visits the site of the reactor construction in France but also visits other physicists who are working on alternative approaches including a promising project in Canada. Interviews with everyone from the physicists to the construction workers on the site make the story come alive. Creative use of animation also helps us to understand the project and its promise as well as the physics behind the process. Two very depressing points are made. Funding is fragile and difficult to keep coming. Governments are not keen on an experiment that costs billions and will not be able to be conducted for 2 or 3 decades. Interest in fusion in the academic physics community is dwindling and few students are interested in taking on this area of research. The future of the projects is threatened by this kind of attitude. At the Q and A after the film we had the directors and the two leading physicists from the ITER project and our own independent Canadian initiative. They both made the point that governments are fine spending billions on things like the Olympics or the World Cup of Soccer but are not willing to invest in the future of mankind because it looks like it will take to long to realize. As we face climate disaster it is bizarre that we can’t find the money to fund a realistic and dramatic solution to our energy needs. Somehow the directors made this film and its topic entertaining and fascinating. Enjoy.

Last Men in Aleppo, Director – Feras Fayyad

Not surprisingly there were several films at this year’s festival that dealt with the Syrian civil war. Last Men in Aleppo was one of the best, describing the work of the White Helmet volunteers who have been doing rescue work for the residents trapped in the city. Aleppo has been the target of bombing attacks from both the Russians and the Syrian government the White Helmets go to the bombing sites and work to rescue survivors. The film is long, maybe longer than necessary but its portrayal of life in a war zone is difficult to watch. We hear about this conflict but do not get many opportunities to understand what life is like under the constant risk of bombings or the kind of sacrifice people make to recover from these attacks. It is very much a verité style film so no particular comment is made about the political situation but it does follow a small group of men who participate in the rescue work and their attempts to live something like a normal life in very abnormal conditions. You do develop a connection to these men as the events unfold before you. The White Helmets have been a controversial organization. They have been accused by the Russians and the Syrian government of being a front for the rebels and terrorists and far from politically neutral. Much of this has been debunked and the group continues to do its work to preserve what they can of their city and their lives. Definitely worth seeing to help understand what is happening in the Middle East.

For Ahkeem, Directors – Landon Van Soest and Jeremy S. Levine


This film is in total contrast to Step. Set in St. Louis it describes the struggles of a young high school student from a poor and underprivileged neighbourhood to overcome incredible obstacles to achieve her goal. The documentary follows her over two years with incredible intimate and emotional scenes. In this case however it is the public school system that comes through. St. Louis has established a school to support kids who for a variety of reasons are not making it in the regular school system. They have been suspended or expelled for a variety of behavioural issues and are placed here for their last chance. The school is however amazingly supportive. Daje is the 17-year-old student who is sent here after being expelled. She understands this is her last chance but circumstances of poverty and racism make it very tough. She is distracted by a boy friend, a pregnancy and birth of her son, Ahkeem, during her senior year. Does she continue or does she drop out to raise her son? In the end, she survives all the ordeals and graduates. The film focusses not only on her amazing story but on the nature of a society that puts many black students in urban America on a school to prison pipeline from which escape is incredibly difficult. One of the great parts of the festival is the Q and A at the end of many films. In this case we had not only the directors but also Daje who gave us more about the story. Sadly her boyfriend and father of Ahkeem did not escape the prison ending and is currently serving 7 years for what amounts to misdemeanours like possession of marijuana, driving while black and not showing respect to the officers who stopped him, and not meeting his parole requirements. Seven years! As for Daje however she starts an ultrasound technician training program this fall. One of the more moving scenes in the film is her visit for an ultrasound and seeing her fetus on the scope and learning it would be a boy. Her career path made so much sense.

This film also raised another issue for me. The two directors are white males. Daje was asked about this in the Q and A and made light of it. She noted that when they arrived at the school to ask for volunteers to be in the film, Daje and the other students were suspicious because, as Daje remarked, most encounters with white males in her neighbourhood and experience involved cops or some other kind of racist oriented trouble. However she liked the guys and was the one to volunteer for the film. She really liked the outcome of the movie and while some of the experience was difficult for lots of reasons she trusted the directors and what they were trying to do. I went to a second film that day and sat behind some people who had also seen For Ahkeem. Their friends asked how they liked it and their only comment was: “Its problematic, a film about a black girl made by a couple of white guys.” I guess they didn’t stay to hear Daje. In these days of political correctness and cultural appropriation I suppose there is some justification for this statement. I however learned a lot and the film is a great critique of our racist society, how we can work to overcome it and how public education properly funded can be part of that solution. Look for this film for an inspiring story.

Step, Director — Amanda Lipitz

Step is a dance/exercise program that is the focus of this documentary. The title and the description were a bit misleading but basically this is about a program in Baltimore to give a group of primarily female black kids from disadvantaged neighborhoods a shot at College and escape. The step program is part of the curriculum at The Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women. The girls are preparing for a state step championship as well as preparing to be the first graduating class from the school. Of course, the film is inspiring and all the girls make it. Not only winning the state championship but also all making it to College. The Director was present for a Q and A where I lost some respect for the film and its subject. The Director is rich, very rich and comes from a very rich family. She is a producer of Broadway shows and her mother, in an act of charity funded the Baltimore school in which this film is based. The school is a charter school and admission is limited although handled by lottery. So the girls who get in are lucky, very lucky and there is no other option of similar quality for the rest of the population in similar poverty in Baltimore. The director was confronted about this by one member of the audience but declined to respond saying: “I don’t want to get into that controversy”. Sadly this is the real point. The US is increasingly relying on charity or profit motive to provide quality education to kids rather than a robust public education system. This will be enhanced under the Trump presidency and Betsy DeVos the new Secretary of Education. The contrast to my perception was a group of girls from Jane/Finch who were also part of a step program who cheered the movie big time. I think sadly they did not understand the larger issue. I should also note that while some of the docs at the festival do have support from major funders like Netflix and Amazon, this film has been picked up for distribution by 20th Century Fox. Of course. For more of my leftist attitude on this issue please see the review of For Ahkeem.

Digilante, Director – Mike Nayna

This was a short documentary paired with Death in the Terminal. The themes had some overlap but very different situations. In this case we have a director making his first documentary based on his personal experience of a violent confrontation on a bus. Set in Australia, the situation involves a group of people forced to take a bus after their train is cancelled. There is drunk passenger who begins to taunt and insult a group of French female tourists. The comments are racist and the women respond and get confrontational which results in people taking sides on the bus and getting into fights. The Director who was present on the bus filmed the whole incident on his cell phone and later posts the whole thing on YouTube. The idea was to shame the drunken racist passenger but in the end resulted in some unfortunate and unintended consequences for all involved. Mike Nayna decides to make a film about the whole outcome and it raises some very interesting questions about social media and how it is used and the ethics around the same. Nayna himself was clear in the Q and A following the film that he would not have done the same thing again and maybe tried to handle the situation that evening on the bus very differently. Interesting film.

Derby Crazy Love, Director — Maya Gallus and Justine Pimlott

One of the reasons I love documentaries is that you can never be sure what you are going to learn but almost always it is something you did not expect. Those of you old enough to remember the 70’s and roller derby being on TV all the time would appreciate this film. Although roller derby declined in enthusiasm after a brief time after inspiring that great James Caan film Rollerball, it is now experiencing a revival internationally. This film focussed on an international tournament and in the process on some of the stars of the game. The film centred on a Montreal women’s team as they prepare to compete with teams from around the world. To increase the anticipation of the climax we also get insight into players on the team from New York City and London, England. The interesting thing is that the recent revival is largely by female teams and it is totally amateur. This film appears to imply that this is largely a subculture within the lesbian community but in reality, ability to skate is much more important to the players than sexual orientation. There is however a whole culture around player pseudonyms and tattoos. The names are great including Michelle O’Bam Ya and Princess Lay-ya Flat. The women interviewed expressed concern that this aspect of the amateur game may be hurt as popularity expands. There are talks of the game making the Olympics in 2020 and other moves toward professional leagues. Still the charm of the film itself is in the characters interviewed and the progress toward the tournament. I guess I was not sure what to expect and was surprised but as I reflect on it – it was fun.

Death in the Terminal, Directors – Asaf Sudry and Tali Shemesh

This film I saw late in the week but it is a remarkable and unusual documentary. The directors tell the story of a terrorist attack at a bus terminal in Be’er Sheva, Israel in 2015. The unique aspect of the film is the use of film from the surveillance cameras in the terminal which documented the actions of security guards, police and civilians caught up in the attack. Most the film is made from this surveillance footage although there are some short interviews with some of the participants and survivors. The incident itself resulted in several injuries and three deaths, including an Israeli soldier, the terrorist and one innocent victim. The latter is very much the focus of the film. The surveillance cameras document a single victim who is shot several times by a security officer and left bleeding to death on the floor. He is kicked and abused by several civilians who also assume he is one of the terrorists. It turns out he is an Ethiopian immigrant completely innocent of anything. The assumption of the security guard leads to his death and abuse. The film is difficult to watch and for much of it you assume the victim we see is a terrorist. It is only near the end that the truth emerges. The film illustrates what the fear of terrorism can do to otherwise civilized people. It also is an open critique of the inability of the Israeli security forces to cope or respond appropriately to terrorist attacks. The security guard who killed the innocent man was never charged although several of the citizens who assaulted him after the attack have been criminally charged.

One of the most amazing parts of the film is at the end. The tape of the main surveillance camera is rewound and the whole event unfolds in reverse. Stunning.

City of Ghosts, Director – Matthew Heineman

One of the themes of the festival this year is Syria and the Middle East with several films that address the conflicts there. City of Ghosts is about the city of Raqqa, an ancient Syrian town that has been a focus of conflict between ISIS and the Syrian government. The town has suffered under the rule of ISIS and the bombing and conflict it has endured. To highlight the situation there and in Syria generally a group of citizen journalists based in Raqqa have fought back with social media and created an organization known as RBSS or Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently. The group has gained international recognition and shown the power that citizens can have if they are determined and compelled to act by the horrors of the situation in which they live. Members live and report from Raqqa but many have fled to Europe to continue their work. Under constant threat, those who have left live in safe houses in Germany and Turkey. Nonetheless ISIS has managed to find some of them and assassinated them. The fear is real but so is the determination to keep up the struggle. Heineman, the director is a skilled reporter himself and is known for his earlier film, Cartel Land, about vigilante groups in Mexico that have arisen to fight the rise of Drug Cartel’s in rural Mexico. The latter is available on Netflix and I imagine this film will be also in the near future. Definitely worth your time to understand the situation in Syria today.

Chasing Coral, Director – Jeff Orlovski

The best movie of the whole week. Jeff Orlovski came to Hot Docs with a film called Chasing Ice which documented the collapse of the world’s glaciers. The current chase is documenting the bleaching of the world’s coral reefs. In both cases we are introduced to the telling signs of climate change and the devastation it will cause even if we were to do what is necessary to cut fossil fuel emissions. This movie like Chasing ice is beautifully filmed as the director and the people who are the focus of the film travel around the world to conduct their research. As well as the films being visually stunning, Orlovski also introduces us to the researchers who have their own story to tell. The combination of cinematography and characters make the films informative and highly engaging.

In Chasing Coral we are given incredible underwater images of reefs in the Caribbean, near Hawaii and on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Using time lapse photography we are shown the terrible damage even small changes in the water affect the health of the reefs and the speed with which it is happening. The problem we have with recognizing how fast climate change is occurring and how fast the damage it causes happens is the difficulty in filming the changes. In this film and in the previous film the researchers have tremendous difficulty collecting the necessary evidence due to the difficult conditions and because they are the first to try to film the changes. The films document that difficulty as well as the ultimate success. Not only are we the viewers stunned with the rapidity of change but so are the researchers. While they express hope that we can stop or reverse the damage, their faces betray their pessimism. They make it clear that this is not just about the decline of glaciers and coral reefs but about how those declines are going to result in more major changes that our society and civilization may not be able to survive. This film and the previous Chasing Ice are important for everyone to see. Chasing Ice is currently available on Netflix and Chasing Coral will also be available later this summer.

Brother’s Keeper, Directors – Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky

Brother’s Keeper is a film that was released 25 years ago and was a landmark film in that it was an example of verité documentary style. The filmmakers followed the murder trial of a man accused of murdering his brother. The film focussed on four brothers who lived together in poverty and squalor on their diary farm in rural New York State. One day they awoke to find the eldest dead in his bed apparently having died in his sleep. The coroner however determines that it appears he was suffocated and suspicion falls on his brother who shared the bed with him. The police decide to charge the brother with murder. The case drew statewide and nationwide attention as the small community came to the defence of the brother and raised awareness of the whole trial. The directors decided it would make an interesting study and without knowing the outcome came and asked permission to follow the process over several months. The images of the three remaining brothers in their poverty and illiteracy facing off against the prosecution is difficult to watch but very powerful. We were lucky enough to have Joe Berlinger there for a Q and A which gave even greater insight to the making of the film. I will not tell you the end as this is a movie you all should see but the verité style combined with brilliant editing make the story moving. Politically relevant, and full of tension too. It is available on Netflix and it is worth your time to find it and watch it.