HOT DOCS 2022
Hot Docs is here again, this year available both within theatre screenings and streaming platforms. Docs are educational and informative, always showing audiences that there is much to learn about a number of topics, while being entertaining at the same time.
It is impossible to see all the docs screened this year - just too many. Below can be found capsule reviews of selected documentaries. These have been selected primarily for the reason that these films’ publicity reached out to this film reviewer.
CAPSULE REVIEWS OF SELECTED FILMS:
DELIKADO (USA/UK/Australia/HK/Philippines 2022) ***
Directed by Karl Malakunas
The doc opens with an introduction and a scenic view of the island of Palawan in the Philippines. The doc outs it as one of the oldest, largest and most diverse rainforests in the world and also one of the most dangerous places to be a land defender. The doc follows environmental land defenders inside the majestic tropical island led by Bobby Chan, a local environmental lawyer. The bold crusaders guard the rainforest by peacefully confiscating and dismantling the chainsaws of illegal loggers. But the bigger battle is against the corrupt politicians including the country’s President who is so evil he makes Trump look like an angel. He says on camera that he will kill anyone that does harm like drug trafficking while he plans false evidence on the defenders. Mayor Nieves Rosento of El Nido (the city on the island) is fighting for her political life as her entire family is slandered by her opposition with support from the land developers and infamous dictator President Rodrigo Duterte. DELIKADO plays like a thriller and director Malakunas sufficiently ignites the anger of his audience.
GIRL GANG (Switzerland 2022) ***
Directed by Susanne Regina Meures
The doc begins like a fairy tale in which a girl looks into a black mirror and sees herself. Very soon, many other girls possess these black mirrors and become friends with her. This is first time director Meures’ story of a 14-year old girl influencer and her mobile phone (the black mirror) living on the outskirts of Berlin with her former East German father and mother. With her star, Melanie on the rise, Leonie's parents become her managers, but they are unable to guide and protect her despite knowing less than their daughter about the enormous economic possibilities and pitfalls of her online activities. Though many are already aware of the pitfalls of over-exposed social media, GIRL GANG shows it like it is - a very scary fairy tale that eventually turns into a nightmare. There is absolutely no sense in this scenario - for example Leonie advertising eating an unhealthy McDonalds and calling it is lactose free and her being happier with followers than friends or attending parties.
HAULOUT (UK/Russia 2022) ****
Directed by Maxim Arbugaev and Evgenia Arbugaeva
Thousands of walruses are swimming much farther distances to seek refuge on shore when no ice is available. On land, they congregate in large groups known as haulouts - the theme of this amazingly shot doc. HAULOUT is a standout 25 minutes doc short that is stunning, beautiful, harsh and unforgettable. The directors do not reveal till the very end to the audience the purpose of the subject stationed in the cold winter of the land now dilapidated of ice. Maxim Chakilev watches and waits from a small, rustic cabin on the shores of the Russian Arctic. He walks along the beach, scanning the horizon—for what, we do not know (till the end credits roll). This eerie and beautiful documentary invites the audience to watch and observe nature in flux. The scene of the 96000 walruses and another 6000 in the sea is breathtaking. The directors do double duty as cinematographers. It is brutal watching the walruses attack each other with their tusks and they are all starving as a result of global warming.
IMAGES OF A NORDIC DRAMA (Norway 2022) ***
Directed by Nils Gaup
The doc opens with the camera panning a somewhat untidy apartment that belongs to a persistent art collector (Haakon Mehren) who is the star of the film. Mehren plays himself as he talks to the camera. The doc documents the unexpected resistance of Mehren championing the work of an unknown Norwegian artist, Aksel Waldemar Johannessen after his finding of a cache of paintings in a barn. Despite success abroad particularly in Italy, the undiscovered work of Aksel Waldemar Johannessen, an admired contemporary of Edvard Munch, takes nearly three decades to surface. IMAGES OF A NORDIC DRAMA shows Johannessen's pieces repetitively throughout the film, to the point of familiarity. As a result, many of Johannessen’s paintings will now be recognized by the audience. Director Gaup spends a fair amount of time complaining on the reasons Johannessen’s works have been rejected. Mehren has a lot to say and is given a good amount of screen time to say it. The doc ultimately champions the artist (also nicknamed the second Munch) whose work deserves attention.
INTO THE WEEDS (Canada 2022) ****
Directed by Jennifer Baichwal
INTO THE WEEDS examines the American company Monsanto’s Roundup weed killer that contains cancer causing agents. The company knows it but refuses to warn customers, preferring to cause death and illness while reaping profits. INTO THE WEEDS is not the first film to tout the evils of Monsanto. Canadian director Jennifer Baichwal tackles the evils of Monsanto once again in the new doc that opens HOT DOCS 2022 going audiences once again more ammunition against the company. Though beginning and ending her doc with her subject Johnson, one victim who took Monsanto to court, director Baichwal divests and concentrates her focus on Monsanto, and rightly so, to make her doc more effective and absorbing. She does a solid balance in her film. The film reveals a lot of clips of the employees of Monsanto lying on camera. She has also got on camera victims having their say after receiving monetary compensation. She has crafted a well researched documentary that rightfully angers her audience as well one that informs and educates.
THE KILLING OF A JOURNALIST (Denmark/Czech Republic/USA 2022) ****
Directed by Matt Sarnecki
Just as Slovakia was getting into the European Union and into NATO, a scandal rocked the country. Who would suspect such a scandal in Central Europe? Says one of the subjects on camera. The film begins with surveillance footage on the murdered couple, one the journalist, about to be wed. On the night of February 21, 2018, investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová, both just 27 years old, were brutally murdered in their home. It was the first targeted killing of a journalist in Slovakia's history, and shocked citizens protested on a scale not seen since the fall of communism. Kuciak was well known for covering questionable financial connections between politicians and "elite" business tycoons, namely millionaire Marián Kocner. When police failed to meaningfully investigate the prime suspect, journalists mobilized the public. Leaked files, Kuciak's posthumous reports and civic outcry led to scandalous discoveries of decades-old corruption networks involving Kocner and the police chief, high-ranking bureaucrats and the prime minister himself. But when prosecution efforts turn up honey-pot schemes, paid assassins and dubious political appointees instead of delivering justice, democracy itself may not survive in one of the European Union's most jaw-dropping corruption scandals. The segment in which a police spokesman tells the camera how the investigation led to the identification of the murder suspects is the most intriguing part of he film. The doc plays like an unsolved mystery that turns to an absorbing and informative watch.
MAKE PEOPLE BETTER (USA 2022) ***
Directed by Cody Sheedy
The doc opens in 2018 with Dr. He Jiankui who made the first "designer babies" having his say of his aim of MAKING PEOPLE BETTER. From this talk to the camera, it is clear that he has good intentions, but the world including the Chinese government thinks otherwise. JK disappears. With genetically sequencing twins under the radar, JK among others managed to procreate without any need for the human body—and was labelled a mad scientist and an outcast by the shocked scientific community. He was the scapegoat while others got away. Make People Better investigates Jiankui's research, the scientists around the world who aided in his studies and why he disappeared after the news broke. This thrilling documentary proves there were more scientists in the lab who worked on this experiment, but only one was left with his hands dirty. “We can now engineer human beings.” says a lecturer to his University students in Phoenix, Arizona. The film looks at the two sides of genetic engineered embryos. Reference to the sci-fi movie with Ethan Hawke and Jude Law GATACA, the result could be either dystopia or utopia. The doc does not really answer questions but effectively poses more questions.
MY OLD SCHOOL (UK 2022) ****
Directed by Jono McLeod
Jono McLeod’s My Old School tells the true story of Scotland's most notorious imposter Brandon Lee. It's 1993 and 16-year-old Brandon Lee is the new kid in school. Soon he’s top of the class, acing exams and even taking the lead in the school musical. He’s the model pupil, until he's unmasked, which happens right around the halfway mark of the documentary. The deception act is revealed half way through the film. This documentary stars internationally renowned actor Alan Cumming as both the face and the voice of Brandon. The real Brandon, at the start of the doc, refuses to have his real looks revealed on camera. But what Brandon looked like in the past during his school days are shown on screen, but only after the film’s half way mark. MY OLD SCHOOL is a doc about a subject who is an imposter for his own personal purpose in life - of going to a medical university and to become a doctor. The subject is not one that is world famous or one that would change the world but filmmaker Jono McLeod has helmed one of the most entertaining and feel good documentaries of the year. Definitely smart and funny, McLeod has created a minor doc masterpiece. MY OLD SCHOOL is the best doc I have previewed at Hot Docs 022 and definitely the most watchable and entertaining.
NELLY & NADINE (Sweden/Belgium/Norway 2022) ***1/2
Directed by Magnus Gertten
Reminiscent of the French Oscar nominated LES DEUX (THE TWO OF US), NELLY & NADINE is also a film about the longing and search as well as the everlasting love between two age old lesbian lovers - beautiful, moving, and inspirational. Director Gertten has used old archive footage and a treasure of lost letters to construct this unforgettable love story on film. The doc begins with archival film reels shot on Malmö's harbour in 1945. In black and white, women prisoners from Nazi concentration camps take their first steps of freedom in an unknown country. A face keeps reappearing, and slowly Gertten pieces together an astonishing love affair between two women in Ravensbrück concentration camp. Nelly Mousset-Vos was an opera singer in Paris, known to frequent Natalie Clifford Barney's literary salon in 1930s. Nadine Hwang was the daughter of a Chinese ambassador to Spain. They would meet on Christmas Eve, 1944, in the hell of a concentration camp and begin a relationship that would see their way to freedom in another world. Nelly's granddaughter discovers a trove of diary entries, photographs and private films that Gertten crafts into an unforgettable testament to two women who were determined to be truly free.
THE QUIET EPIDEMIC (USA 2022)
Directed by Lindsay Keys and Winslow Crane-Murdoch
THE QUIET EPIDEMIC referred to in this informative doc is the Chronic Lyme and tick-borne disease that in the United States, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) has a limiting in testing and effective treatment. The doc follows a few patients who have suffered tremendously which obviously makes the audience both concerned and upset. The film results from their seven-year journey in exposing the truth about this illness which strikes over 500,000 people each year in the US alone. 10-20% of those who are fortunate to receive a diagnosis and treatment remain sick after treatment. The filmmakers disclose new medical data and scientific discoveries, most still being denied or misinterpreted by the IDSA (Infectious Diseases Society of America), and by extension, the CDC, NIH and FDA. “Lyme disease was first discovered in 1975, yet there has been very little progress for patients. Meanwhile, ticks are spreading life-threatening diseases around the world. Some people are left without a cure, and many without a diagnosis in the first place. The doc is visionally a bit technical but the directors keep a good balance between personal (as in the interviews of the medical profession and sufferers) and the technical. Informative and scary!
ROJEK (Canada 2022) ***
Directed by Zaynê Akyol
ROJEK is a personal yet powerful documentary that features interviews with some of the members of the Islamic State (ISIS), who are currently being detained in Syrian Kurdistan. The Syrian Democratic Forces, mostly Kurdish, as well as the international coalition, have succeeded in dislodging the Islamic State from their last stronghold and ending their project of establishing a caliphate in Syria. Today, thousands of Islamic State members, along with their wives and children, end up in prisons and camps under the supervision of the Kurds. The audience sees inside makeshift prisons, where detainees speak candidly about their motivations, experiences and loyalties, offering an incredible range of perspectives on the formation, rise and defeat of the Islamic State. One can see the religious motivations of the interviewees as well as the struggles resulting from living in such harsh conditions. Amidst the interviews, Akyo's camera weaves in and out the camps as well as the landscapes, often revealing the aftermath of bombings and fightings, with one particular horrid scene showing the extent of an out of control fire destroying the country. A remarkable educational doc that will inform as well as shock!
SAM NOW (USA 2022) ***
Directed by Reed Harkness
SAM NOW is the story of Sam, as told by his half-brother Reed, the director of this documentary that traces Sam’s life from the age of 10 to 31. Sam and Reid come from the same father and Sam from the father’s second wife. Since the age of 11, Reed has been filming his brother in series of home movies. Sam is an energetic kid, loves to pretend to fall down and often wears a super action hero suit to become the Purple Avenger. One day, Sam’s mother, Jois disappears without a note or explanation. They decide to make a movie on finding her. Tracking cryptic clues of her whereabouts years later, Sam and his half brother head out on a West Coast road trip to try and find her. But solving the mystery of her disappearance is only the beginning of their story. SAM NOW is simply a delightful and playful documentary made up of home made movies but turning really into a mystery dealing with coming-of-age issues as well as discovering one’s identity. Totally entertaining and a celebration of what life has to offer.
SILENT BEAUTY (USA 2022) ***
Directed by Jasmine Mara Lopez
Director Jasmine Mara Lopez, like her younger sister and many of her relatives including her aunts have been abused by her grandfather, a Baptist priest, of all things. Jasmine comes from a Mexican family where often, silence is the best solution. Jasmine has remained silent and needs to come to terms with the sexual abuse. When Jasmine confronts her grandfather on the telephone, he vehemently denies the accusation calling her a liar. Jasmine goes to the police who then interrogates him, he still denies the accusations. Jasmine has been silent for so long that she needs him to apologize, hence the doc title SILENT BEAUTY. It is a simple message that the doc takes too long to come across. The doc contains lots of archive family footage, many of which are repeated. Director Jasmine seems too fond of filming the sea with slow motion and a poetic atmosphere. SILENT BEAUTY is slow moving, poetic and a bit confusing as one is never sure who is talking to the camera. The doc also contains quite the few re-enactments.