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Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press, Director – Brian Knappenberger

I think this is one of the most important films at the festival. The movie starts with the recent collapse of Gawker following a successful lawsuit filed by professional wrestler Hulk Hogan. On the surface this was about an invasion of privacy claimed by Hogan when Gawker posted a video of him having sex with the wife of one of his friends. The film takes time to look at the case and exposes how bizarre the whole episode was. Nonetheless Hogan won a huge settlement that send Gawker into bankruptcy. The film then takes a turn. It is revealed that the lawsuit was funded in full by Peter Thiel a billionaire with an axe to grind with Gawker for previous posts. His successful use of Hogan to bring the publisher down is something that the ultra rich can use to shut up or shut down other publications that they may not like. The ability of a free press tp speak truth to power and expose wrongdoing is threatened when those with unlimited financial resources can use that to sue and threaten the press. Trump has recently mused about changing litigation laws in the US to make such lawsuits easier to pursue. The threat to free speech and the 1st Amendment of the US Constitution is clear and present and well described in this film. More scary stuff which is of course what I love about documentaries.

Meuthen’s Party, Director – Marc Eberhardt

In the days of Trump this kind of film is imperative to see. Trump is an extreme ranter and joins other right wing, fascist oriented leaders in Western democracies. Meuthen’s Party reveals another sort of right wing leader more in the style of Mike Pence. Meuthen is an economics professor who enters German politics with the leading right wing party. Unlike the more extreme members he puts force a more moderate face, backing off outrageous rhetoric and working to win over more centrist oriented voters. The director gets permission to follow him during his campaign and gives us an inside look at this new kind of right wing politician. Meuthen is successful in overcoming protestors and winning over the votes with a very moderate and rational approach. What changes is when we get to follow him to the party convention where his true political views are revealed to be as odious as any of his more crazed colleagues. It is a very scary film since Meuthen wins and leads his party to a “respectable” result although not to the point of taking power at that time. Democracies must remain on the watch for similar politicians who might reach for power in these tumultuous times.

Maison de Bonheur, Director – Sofia Bohdanowicz

Sometimes a documentary is not about a major political theme, a disaster, war or other kind of crisis. Sometimes is a lovely portrait of a charming woman living in a beautiful flat in Montmartre in Paris. Maison de Bonheur is that film. This is a film about an elderly woman who lives alone in a flat in a beautiful building in Montmartre where she has lived for over 50 years. She is charming with wonderful friends and a love of gardening despite her garden being entirely on her balcony overlooking Paris. We should all be so lucky. I am not sure the film will appeal to everyone but if you want to relax in a charming trip through the everyday life of this remarkable woman you will be fine. We follow her through her daily routines, making coffee, caring for her flowers, entertaining family and friends you are gently lulled into a very relaxing hour or so in Paris. A nicely done look at the everyday. Not so bad really. Watch if you get the chance. Don’t confuse this with a film entitled La Maison du Bonheur. The latter is a French comedy and while good not at all the same.

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.