Hot Docs 2013: Wrapping up by five short reviews

Published by the Alternate Dream

Tonight is a sad night as the glamorous fiesta that is the world’s second largest documentary film festival finally coming to an end and also gone will be endless hours of doc-watching and writing reviews, fueled on Second Cup coffee, by this author.

After writing fifteen reviews during the festival, here are eight more five ones to wrap things up.

Revolution a la verite

Winter Go Away

By: Sofia Rodkevich and 9 other directors

Russia | 79 mins

To make a verite film without a single interview or a narrative caption (except for those merely naming the various figures and their position) about a recent protest movement can perhaps be only done when ten young directors, all students of a documentary film school known for innovating this method, take their cameras around Russia in one of the most exciting recent periods in the country’s history. Rodkevich et al travel around the country to document the protest movement that mushroomed in Russia in the two months leading to Putin’s re-election as the elected despot of the world’s largest country. They excellently capture the mood of the different layers of the movement while making a world-class documentary. Seeing the internal tensions in the Anti-Putin camp, which ranges from liberals to nationalists to supporters of the Communist Party or the far-left Left Front to anarchistic Pussy Riot types, is the most refreshing part of the film. Here is a raw portrait of the forces that will shape the future of Russia.


When Punks film Punks

The Punk Singer

By Sini Anderson

USA | 80 mins

Previously I complained that the vast gap between the outlook of the directors of this year’s documentary on Pussy Riot with that of their subject has hurt the film and made their understanding of the group superficial. The Punk Singer doesn’t suffer from that as it is made by a director who wholeheartedly shares the punk perspective of her subjects, Kathleen Hanna and her riot grrrl movement. Yet Anderson’s film is also not hagiographic and, with a generous use of footage and interviews, beautifully narrates the rise of Bikini Kill and the subsequent personal and artistic life of Hana. This is a significant film, both from the perspective of the history of art and that of US feminism. Yet, a bit more of an objective view could have actually helped the film. Your reviewer is not nearly informed enough to cast doubt on the historical narrative that the film presents but Hanna’s significant changes (dubbed as ‘selling out’ by some ardent fans) are glossed over and explained by a sentence or two. A deeper look at this tension would have enriched the film. As it stands, however, it is a fit tribute to Hanna and exciting to watch. Anderson’s session with the audience afterwards was one of the liveliest ones at the festival and she, who crowd-funded much of the film’s 300,000 dollars budget, one of the funnest filmmakers at this year’s festival.


Respectable but not great

Big Men

By Rachel Boynton

USA, UK, Denmark | 99 minutes

Boynton’s respectable work on the story of discovery of oil in Ghana and the battle between the country’s government and American oil tycoons over it is clearly the work of an insistent investigative journalist. It has, however, not only all the virtues of such creatures but some of the typical follies as well. The film is commendable in its width and breadth: It thoroughly investigates the story, interviews all the parties involved (oil tycoons, American equity investors, government figures, Nigerian armed militias and left-wing Ghanian journalists and commentators alike) and does so with fresh footage, shoot across the few years in which the story takes place. But it awkwardly shies away from a clear standpoint and instead relies on generalized moralizations like ‘When oil is discovered, everybody becomes greedy’ (emphasized by shots of ant colonies as they battle over their own scarce resources.) It still remains an engaging film and Boynton has to be commanded for being equally at ease in a militia camp, editorial offices adorned with Guevara and Lumumba images and receptions held by ceremonial African kings and by her patient following of the story over the years.


Our Nixon

By Penny Lane

USA | 85 mins

With access to more than 500 reels of private home videos shot by Nixon’s three closest advisers (who all had to resign and faced jail time before the big boss himself went down), it is hard to make a film that is not interesting. But if you see anything more, Our Nixon is bound to disappoint. One could instantly think of many ways in which the film could have been hundred times more thrilling or at least funny. As it stands, I have to agree with Toronto Star’s Peter Howell that it barely adds anything to what we already knew and fails to draw a lively portrait of one of the twentieth century’s worst elected despots.


Dragon Girls

By Inigo Westmeier

Germany | 90 mins

Hot Docs juries prove a lack of taste one more time by giving the award for best international documentary to this barely-more-than-mediocre film. The film is about Shaolin Tagu Kong Fu school, located in China, next to kung fu’s birthplace (the Shaolin Temple Monastery) and its female students. Its style is the very opposite of Verite as instead almost the entire film is accompanied by interviews of the female children of the school together with their teachers and families.

The film has many hight points and would have been less disappointing had it not been crowned with the award (and thus, elevated expectations that come with it.) It has some virtues to it. The shots are simply gorgeous and the way the narrative changes from a celebration of the admirable skills of the young girls to recounting the inhumanity of the stern ways they face, and the social conditions that accompanies their admission to the school, and the attempted flight of many, is laudable. It is a good film but not good enough to deserve the ‘Best’ title it won.

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