From April 26 to May 6 the Hot Docs Film Festival, alternatively known as the Canadian International Documentary Festival, took place for its 25th year. Hot Docs is North America’s largest documentary film festival and I’ve been looking forward to the festival for months. Over 240 are being showcased, with many directors and producers attended to speak personally about their works, in 14 venues across Toronto.
The sheer breadth and variety of documentaries showcased at the festival was impressive to say the least. Subject or categories included politics (my personal favourite), culture, sports, creativity, art, and people’s stories. There’s something for everyone at Hot Docs, and as someone who is passionate about learning this was a really exciting festival to attend.
I ended up watching four incredible documentaries about four very different topics.
The Granny Project
The Granny project was a really interesting and creative take on how we understand World War Two. The protagonists of the story are three grannies and their three grandsons. There are three interdependent dialogues within this documentary: three grandmother-grandson pairs discuss the grandmothers’ experiences during the war, the three grandsons discuss how they understand and interpret how the war affected their families, and all the protagonists come together at times to discuss their varied experiences. The three pairs have three distinct backgrounds which coloured their experience of WWII: one pair is German, another Hungarian Jewish, and the last are English. These ethnic background had profound impacts on the treatment of each grandmother and that grandmother’s experience during the war. One interesting aspect is the question of German guilt, and this ‘inter-generational guilt’ comes through vividly in the German grandson’s portions of the documentary. I especially liked this documentary because it looks—in a casual and approachable manner—at how experiences are understood on an individual level and how there are inter-generational changes to the understanding of events. The documentary looks at a topic that has been studied almost exhaustively (as it should be), and presents a new and creative take on it.
I’d like to preface my synopsis by saying that this was a powerful documentary. Inventing Tomorrow looks at a handful of individual high school students from (generally) developing countries around the world (specifically Indonesia, India, Hawaii, and Mexico), and their brilliant and creative ideas to mitigate climate change. This is a documentary about environmentalism and youthful ingenuity. The high school students are each working on a particular science project that they present at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, the world’s largest high school science competition. An amazing aspect of this documentary is the ability of the filmmakers to capture the nuances of each teenager’s personality, including their work ethic, their family life, and their aspirations. An important finding is that developing countries can innovate far more creative ways to deal with environmental change than developed countries, since the people living in developing countries live in much closer proximity to the effects of climate change than we do in developed countries (i.e. at one point in the film one of the students says in developing countries the landfill is right next to you so you immediately see the effect of burning garbage, whereas in developed countries we rarely ever come into contact with the landfill in which our garbage ends up).
Our New President
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a documentary like Our New President, a satirical pseudo-mockumentary that discusses the crucial question of Russian propaganda, and its relationship with the Trump campaign and American election. I found myself laughing far more often than I sat serious and silent during this film because the material just seemed so absurd. The entire Trump presidential campaign was presented through Russian propaganda (including Russia news and media reports, Russian music videos, and personal videos made by Russians discussing Trump). That anyone could watch the Russian news reports that were shown as part of this documentary and take them as fact or as serious, credible reporting seemed insane to me. But I’m also someone who enjoys reading about news and politics for fun, someone who likes to have a varied set of news sources to hear varied opinions, someone who is passionate about politics. However, the experience of someone who is not passionate about politics or who only receives their news from one state-opened news enterprise all the propaganda probably seems pretty believable. While this one was funny, I left the theatre feeling a little gross that news—something I passionately consider intrinsically valuable—could be so perverted with propaganda.
My War looks at the role of Western foreign fighters to the Kurdish struggle in Syria and Iraq. The documentary follows three individuals (two males and one female) as they explain their reasons for going to Syria or Iraq to fight alongside the Kurds. Each individual discusses feeling a ‘calling’ towards the Kurdish struggle, a pull that draws them away from their perceived mundane lives in the safe Western world. Each individual discusses their desire to help others and to fight against ISIS, however, each individual also has very personal and selfish (in a neutral sense) reasons for wanting to join the struggle. For one of the males, he desires an adrenaline rush; the female was not feeling fulfilled at home; the other male ‘wanted to become a better person.’ Both males were veterans of Afghanistan and had experience in a military setting, while the woman had absolutely no military background. This was a very intimate look at how different people explain their reasons for joining a struggle most of us would never sacrifice our comfort for.
If you’re in Toronto I definitely recommend watching something presented by Hot Docs (the festival goes until Sunday May 6). If you have seen a documentary presented by the festival, what did you see and (more importantly) what did you think?