As HotDocs 2020 goes online, B. P. Flanagan takes a whirlwind tour around the world with Mayor, Stateless, All That I Am, Love & Stuff, and Ottolenghi.
HotDocs is a festival with a reputation for swift action. In 2018, just months after the Harvey Weinstein story broke and #Metoo launched into the stratosphere, the Toronto nonfiction festival responded with a strand of ‘Silence Breakers’. This year, the festival has adapted to change, again, by migrating its 10-day run (May 28–June 6) fully online during the ongoing SARS-CoV-2 crisis, though many films will screen until June 24.
The festival has made over 140 films available to stream, either individually ticketed or as a part of streaming bundles — but only to Ontario residents. Investing in the streaming bundles is the perfect way to recreate the festival experience at home, as I discovered on Monday during a six-film binge. Mira Burt-Wintonick’s Wintopia, a eulogy for her father, the documentarian Peter Wintonick, is a stand out. My interview with the director is running on Seventh Row later this week.
Love & Stuff (dir. Judith Helfand)
In keeping with the madness of the physical festival, I stumble into the living room at 8 a.m., my own Palais or Lightbox, for Judith Helfand’s Love & Stuff. A memoir covering the last months of her mother’s life and her subsequent adoption and adjustment to motherhood, Helfand explores the camera as a self-professed ‘umbilical cord’ between daughter and mother. The material link of video footage proves her major creative inspiration, as well as the thing that holds her back personally. As she attempts to come to terms with the changes in her life, Helfand slowly tries to clear her apartment of her mother’s things, stacked in boxes for years on end.
Helfand, no stranger to being her own subject in A Healthy Baby Girl (1997), is as unusually compelling a character as her mother, and she skillfully avoids self-mythology; the visual metaphor is strong enough on its own. Between her hoarding and ongoing weight loss saga, the desire to shed conflicts with the inherent indexical nature of film and filmmaking.
Working with so much old footage alongside new shots of the spaces she’s occupied for years on end in Love & Stuff, she can access older iterations of wardrobe and clothes as though they are memories. ‘Documenting what happened to us was the only way to make me feel better,’ she explains. Like the best of Ross McElwee, who’s Sherman’s March (1985) and Time Indefinite (1993) effortlessly tie together strands from his own life, Love & Stuff is so clear-eyed in its ruminations that it feels set in past tense, as if it’s cascading through months and years like a diary.
Stateless (dir. Michèle Stephenson)
In Stateless, director Michèle Stephenson contrasts two women in the public sphere: one deals with people, the other with reactionary ideals. In the aftermath of the supreme court ruling stripping citizenship from Dominicans of Haitian descent, nationality has been turned into a legal and bureaucratic labyrinth. Rosa Iris, a young attorney, attempts to help. As she educates local children and her neighbours about the functions of government, Stephenson cuts to verité scenes of street life.
Stephenson doesn’t shy away from showing Iris’s spacious house in contrast with the poverty of the people she helps. Iris even travels to Santo Domingo with Juan Teofilo Murat, a cousin who has fallen victim to the new laws, to attempt to receive confirmation of his identity. They get stopped by the military several times en route, which is captured in tense static shots as their car is repeatedly searched.
The face of the Dominican Nationalist Movement, Gladys Felix-Pimentel, is a Marine Le Pen-style populist descendant of ex-president Pedro A. Pimentel. Visiting the Dajabon border crossing, where she hopes to raise support to build a wall, Felix-Pimentel brags that her government takes suggestions from Israel on immigrant problems.
Stateless brings us inside Felix-Pimental’s world, at a sort of Karen’s Anonymous meeting, where Felix-Pimentel drinks wine and spouts hate with other women of the movement. She and the government gaslight and deny what those impacted by the regime tell them. “You can’t have been born to a 13-year-old mother,” an official tells Murat on receipt of his paperwork, denying its validity; “You’re too young to have been a sugar cutter,” says Felix-Pimentel to a displaced worker, in an attempt to cancel out his lived experience. Reality, it seems, can be shifted to their will.
In somewhat a riposte to the attempted feel-good feminism of Netflix’s Knocking Down The House (HotDocs 2019), here in Stateless, grassroots campaigning is localised, personal, and a tool used by those on both sides. Stephenson’s nonjudgmental approach, cross-cutting between the two women, exposes the hypocrisy of nationalism, and the toll on those who fight it.
Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles
A different kind of authoritarianism takes place in Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles, which insists that the viewer believe in the Yottam Ottolenghi phenomenon. (The man makes middle-eastern inflected cuisine that’s easy to make and looks good on Instagram. One must respect the hustle of selling a million books and selling out live shows worldwide.) In the film, the Israeli-British restaurateur enlists the help of a global team of novelty dessertmakers to put together a themed food exhibit for New York Metropolitan Museum of Art’s show, ‘Visitors to Versailles’ (2018).
While the food porn on display will appeal to lovers of cakes and jams, this has the corporate sheen of a commercial and the structure of an episode of Bake Off. Even the merciful 75-minute runtime suggests this would have gone straight to TV. This is probably why it isn’t included as a streaming title on the Hot Docs slate. In an illustration of how the festival has been negatively affected by circumstance: one might have expected The Cakes of Versailles to premiere with a Q&A from the celebrity chef to add some glamour to the festival event. A guaranteed sold-out show. If watched online, it’s a sorbet between more sober viewing, but hardly worth paying out for in its own right. That’s probably why the filmmakers opted not to participate in the online festival this year.
All That I Am (dir. Tone Grøttjord-Glenne)
Far more challenging is Norway’s All That I Am, from director Tone Grøttjord-Glenne. She follows 19-year-old Emilie, who returns to her family home after years in foster care, having been abused by her step-father from the age of six. Across two years, she testifies against him, moves into an apartment by herself, and attempts to rebuild her life.
Taking place in small conversations and without grand moments or gestures, Grøttjord-Glenne captures moments captured on the fly without regard for conventional filmmaking coverage. Emilie is shy on camera but perfectly normal; the tension in the film develops from the drip feed of details, notably as she attempts to talk to her young siblings about what she’s been through. It’s amongst the most impressive works I’ve seen at Hot Docs, an issue film that refuses to make an issue of its subject.
Mayor (dir. David Osit)
Seeking escapist entertainment, I travel next to Ramallah, Palestine’s de facto capital, the setting of Mayor. American director David Osit locates audiences with a map and scrolling-text explanation of the predominantly Christian Ramallah’s place in the world, which slowly fades into an establishing shot of a city cafe. You’d be forgiven for thinking Mayor is in thrall to Golden Era Hollywood. As Osit orients the viewer around the city, with static shots around the Mandela statue, street life, and Popeye’s chicken shop, it’s as much of an ode to a city as Manhattan (1979, dir. Woody Allen).
The Mayor of the title is Mousa Hadid, portly, reserved, but nonetheless magnetic; he cuts a heightened figure of comedy and keen strategy. Between low-key Wisemanesque scenes of government meetings, and a mad Dubstep-themed Christmas celebration in the city centre, Hadid worries that he’s cut off from the people. When Donald Trump announces the relocation of the American embassy to Jerusalem, Hadid misses it because he doesn’t have a TV or radio in his office. A visiting priest watches with bemusement at Hadid’s bumbling as he shouts at his secretary to buy a radio. Although this plays out as farce, the humour rings hollow, bouncing against the desperation of the situation. Hours later, he still doesn’t have a radio.
Osit’s vision of a naif’s local decisions shifting the bigger picture seems Capra-esque, but Mayor‘s idealism comes up against airpods and the trials of small municipal government, and escalating conflict on the West Bank. “It looks like a Barcelona match up there,” says Hadid’s driver as protesters march the streets and throw rocks at Israili military.
Hadid is constantly caught up in these moments of violence at a slight remove, conflicted between being the ostensible leader and having no material power within the ecosystem of Isreali occupation. Even as he learns the utility of social media and livestreaming as a way to communicate with his people, further afield, he worries that he can’t do much more than fix a broken fountain or choose when to switch off the Christmas lights.
This builds to an incredible final half hour set piece, as the Israili army descends into the streets one night, intimidating and firing bullets and gas indiscriminately, with no fear, even as cameras capture the events. Osit depicts every step of how Hadid deals with the emergency, stuck in his City Hall office. As the central authority figure, his personal inclinations become secondary to what his choices politically signify for Palestine. Suddenly, he might just change everything.
As protests in North America against police violence continue, sparked by the murder of George Floyd by a policeman in Minneapolis, and the USA descends into military occupation, Mayor is essential viewing about the lines between small and grand acts of resistance.
As the SARS-CoV-2 lockdown continues, burning through the personal watchlist has become an arbitrary, academic act. Without the communal response to new work, it can feel like just blindly filling in the blanks. Taking myself away from the timeline by dedicating a day to the Hot Docs pass, and choosing to blind-watch these offerings is a way of engaging with the outside world in a way that I haven’t been able to from rural Wexford, Ireland.
In these global stories of struggle, love, authoritarianism, reconciliation, and so much more, you wonder how the current situation flips everything. Or doesn’t, as the case may be. As the world moves at a hitherto unseen pace, these films might seem in danger of lagging behind, but their truths are right up to date.
Mayor is available online until June 6; Stateless, All That I Am, Love & Stuff, and Wintopia are screening on the HotDocs website until June 24, geoblocked to Ontario.
Stateless and Wintopia are also screening at DOXA in Vancouver later this month. The screenings will be online and geoblocked to BC.