Our capsule reviews highlight six of the standouts at the 2019 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival. Watch out for them as they travel the festival circuit and arrive on home viewing platforms.
The 2019 Hot Docs film festival featured a strong crop of documentaries engaged in social change. Our six capsule reviews, including five films directed by women, are all linked with a concern about the policing of who does and does not belong in particular spaces.
In My Blood It Runs (dir. Maya Newell)
Dujuan is a 10-year-old Arrernte who lives in Mparntwe, Australia. He is wise beyond his years, speaks three languages, and has a deep curiosity about Arrernte history, knowledge, and medicine. He sounds like he should be the ideal student. Instead, in the film, he faces school detentions, suspension, expulsion, and an uncertain future —for his resistance to Westernized schooling.
Newell perceptively shows that Dujuan is an active, engaged learner in his life, talking with elders and treating the natural world with a sense of awe and wonder. But school, for him, feels like a suffocating box, where he is both physically constrained in a desk and mentally constrained by a colonial educational system that not only refuses to value his knowledge, but subtly opposes it. For instance,when a white teacher tells the class about Captain Cook claiming Australia, Dujuan tries to interject that Australia didn’t begin then, but his efforts are fruitless.
Ultimately, Dujuan takes to running away from school, which only increases his risk of being taken away from his family and sent to juvenile detention, like so many Indigenous kids. My Blood It Runs shows us that colonialism is not just a painful legacy to grapple with, but an ongoing process necessitating resistance. – Brett Pardy
nîpawistamâsowin: We Will Stand Up (dir. Tasha Hubbard)
In 2018, a Saskatchewan farmer was acquitted by an all-white jury in the shooting death of Colten Boushie, a young Indigenous man. As director Tasha Hubbard illustrates, such injustice has long been the norm of Canadian-Indigenous relations. Despite broad calls for “reconciliation,” Indigenous activists are still in the position of needing to fight for basic human rights.
By weaving in a personal story, Hubbard elevates this documentary from a summary of the case to a poignant exploration of how to maintain Indigenous identity in a settler society An adoptee of a white farming family, Hubbard has reconnected with her Indigenous birth family as an adult.She talks to both families about each community’s connection to the land. Hubbard captures both the beauty and horror of this region through awe-inspiring deep focus shots of the prairie landscape and unflinching depictions of settler bigotry, including a town hall meeting with local police, which shows Canada’s hyped tolerance can be illusory. nîpawistamâsowin: We Will Stand Up won Best Canadian Feature Documentary Award at the festival, and it will open at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on May 31 before rolling out across the country. – BP
Push (dir. Fredrik Gertten)
Gentrification regularly gets blamed for rising housing costs, but Fredrik Gertten’s new documentary, Push, suggests the problem is much more pernicious. Around the world, big business has been buying up properties to hold as assets, keeping prime real estate vacant, which raises prices and pushes locals out. Push proves that Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Aquarius was rather prophetic in its depiction of a worldwide housing crisis (Jesse Thompson wrote about how the film was emblematic of the housing crisis in Sydney, Australia, as well).
Gertten follows Leilani Farha, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing as she travels the world — across Europe, North America, and South America — to better understand the housing crisis and make recommendations on how to resolve it. Farha faces an uphill battle; a telling scene in which she makes a presentation at the UN shows the entire audience focused on their smartphones, with one man browsing for fancy watches. If even colleagues at the UN won’t listen, how can Farha effect change around the world?
It’s depressing to learn that, around the world, cities are becoming so expensive that the people who work in them are being priced out. Fortunately, someone like Farha is out there, trying to find solutions on a global scale. – Alex Heeney
Willie (dir. Laurence Mathieu-Léger)
In 1957, Willie O’Ree was the first black player in the National Hockey League. Today, at 82, O’Ree remains committed to promoting diversity in the very white sport of hockey. Willie follows O’Ree as he meets with racialized hockey players to discuss survival strategies in hockey, and as he advocates for change within leagues so such strategies are unnecessary in the future. The documentary is aimed at sports fans rather than fans of social documentaries (for example, it explains the concept of segregation), though no specific sports knowledge is required to understand the film. Even if you have little interest in sports, O’Ree makes for an engaging figure. It is a joy to see how appreciative he is to be finally acknowledged as the trailblazer he has been for the sport. – BP
Buddy (dir. Heddy Honigmann)
Last year, HotDocs screened Pick of the Litter, a documentary about the grueling training process dogs must undergo to become guide dogs for the blind. This year, Heddy Honigmann’s Buddy looks at what happens once the dogs have bonded with their new owners — the special, loving and intimate relationship they share, and all that the dogs make possible for their owners.
Perhaps most fascinating is the fact that guide dogs for the blind are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how dogs can help humans with disability. In the film, we meet a blind woman who has been an active equestrian throughout her life through the help of her dog. We meet a woman paralyzed from the waist down who relies on her dog to do everything from open drawers, get items out of the fridge, retrieve printouts from the printer, and help her get into bed or turn once in it. A soldier with PTSD relies on his dog to calm him and pull him out of his nightmares; an autistic boy relies on his dog to keep him serene and pull him out of fits of anger, which the dog can do with more patience than the boy’s mother.
Honigmann approaches each of the dogs and their owners as people in a mutually beneficial relationship full of love and trust. There are many scenes of the pairs cuddling, and of the dogs sitting alert, watching their owners with concern, ready to help when needed. Particularly revealing is a series of scenes shot at night to show us how the dogs help their owners get through the night, and how close they always are together on their bed. Honigmann spends equal time lingering on the dogs and their body language and the humans and how they interact with their dogs and tell Honigmann their stories. But perhaps most revealing are the two-shots that show how strong the bond is: on a practical level, guide dogs make new things possible for their humans, but the emotional support they provide is just as important. – AH
Conviction (dirs. Ariella Pahlke, Nance Ackerman, & Teresa MacInnes)
Conviction follows a group of women in a Nova Scotia prison who are encouraged by the Elizabeth Fry Society (an advocacy group for women dealing with the justice system) to participate in a program imagining alternatives to prison. The film highlights how the rate of women being incarcerated in Canada is on the rise; the legal, medical, and educational systems, and sometimes even the women’s own families, do not know where else to send them to get the support they need. Canadian governments have failed to imagine alternatives – at one poignant moment, the representative from Elizabeth Fry reflects that it’s hard to get even incarcerated women to imagine rehabilitation solutions outside their own containment.
The film, partially shot by the incarcerated women themselves, does not follow popular depictions such as Orange Is the New Black, which ignore the rough situations that lead to incarceration. Instead, Conviction offers a complex portrayal of these women at both their best and their worst. What we do see is that even at their lowest, the women in prison are more of a danger to themselves than to society. Prison offers stability, but at the same time, sets them up for failure when they are released into society with no supports in place. Conviction sparks the imagination necessary to envision alternatives. – BP