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#HotDocs17: Final Batch of Reviews

May 8, 2017

By John Corrado

The 24th edition of Hot Docs has come to a close, and below are my thoughts on the final few films that I saw at the festival, including Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World, which took home the $50,000 Rogers Audience Award for Best Canadian Documentary before an encore screening on Sunday, and was announced as the winner of the general Audience Award as well the next day.  Enjoy!

Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World – ★★★★ (out of 4) Named for Link Wray’s highly influential guitar piece “Rumble,” the only instrumental song to be banned for radio play in the United States for fear that the driving chord progressions and percussion might start a riot, Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World offers an extensive history of Native American contributions to music.  Touching on every genre from blues, folk, rock, heavy metal and pop, the film focuses on some of the many musicians with indigenous heritage, exploring how artists like influential 1920s blues guitarist Charley Patton initially tried to hide their native roots for fear that it would hinder their music from being played, before artists like Jimi Hendrix, Robbie Robertson and Buffy Saint Marie, and more recently Taboo from the Black Eyed Peas, started to embrace their culture and raise awareness through music.  Directed by Catherine Bainbridge, following her exploration of how aboriginal people have been depicted on film in the 2009 documentary Reel InjunRumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World is a compelling and emotionally resonant film that uses music as a way to explore the history of Indigenous culture as a whole, and how it has all too often been suppressed.  And the soundtrack is incredible.

Strad Style – ★★★½ (out of 4) When Daniel Houck, an eccentric violin obsessive living on a rural farm in Ohio, friends Romanian violinist Razvan Stoica on Facebook, he impulsively agrees to make him an exact replica of Il Cannone, a violin that was made by Giuseppe Guarneri in 1743 and was played by Niccoló Paganini.  Having never attempted something of this complexity before, Daniel finds himself on a tight deadline to complete the project, believing himself to be guided along by the old masters who he feels are watching over him as he handcrafts the instrument.  But with his somewhat scatterbrained nature, messy and crowded work environment, and his struggles with mental health issues, the odds are seemingly stacked against him to complete the instrument in time for a concert in Europe.  Director Stefan Avalos gains candid access to his subject throughout the process, and Strad Style is the sort of documentary that strikes the perfect balance between being amusing and inspiring.  It’s highly enjoyable to watch Daniel persevere through making the violin, obsessing over every little detail to make it just like the original, as the film builds perfectly towards the highly rewarding payoff.

My Enemy, My Brother – ★★½ (out of 4) Following her 2015 short film of the same name, director Ann Shin expands upon the stories of Zahed Haftlang and Najah Aboud in My Enemy, My Brother.  The film catches up with the two men, former adversaries from the Iran-Iraq war who first encountered each other in the Battle of Khorramshahr and happened to meet each other again by chance over two decades later in a Vancouver waiting room, as they try to sort through the pieces of the lives their old lives in the Middle East.  Najah left behind a wife and young son in Iraq when he was sent off to fight and is hopeful of being able to finally reunite with them, and Zahed wants to visit his dying father in Iran, but faces a hard time getting back into the country.  This story is a powerful one, but the film seems to have edited out some of the more interesting parts, including DNA tests and bankruptcy which happened during the three or four years of filming and the director brought up in the Q&A, in favour of a simpler narrative that focuses more on crowdpleasing moments rather than the multilayered story as a whole.  Parts of it are emotionally affective, but these subjects deserve a more interesting and nuanced movie.

A Better Man – ★★½ (out of 4) More than two decades after escaping her abusive boyfriend Steve, Attiya Khan sits down with him to start a conversation about their troubled relationship together, which lasted two years and started when they were still in high school, trying to find closure for this chapter of her life.  Through working with a therapist, Steve starts to confront the horrific and shocking violence that he inflicted upon her, and Attiya is able to regain a sense of power over Steve by being able to be in the same room as him, with him no longer posing a threat to her.  Although Steve appears to feel guilty over beating her, we also get the sense that he isn’t quite ready to open up about his own past and whether or not he had been abused as a child, at least not on camera.  Directed by Attiya Khan and Lawrence Jackman, A Better Man is an often interesting film for the way that it offers a unique look at abusive relationships from both sides, questioning if rehabilitation or forgiveness is possible towards your attacker.  But with the challenging content on display, and the film’s limited production values which essentially confines much of the running time to watching people talk in medium closeups, A Better Man will likely play better and be easier to handle on TV.

Nobody Speak: The Trials of the Free Press – ★★★ (out of 4) When Hulk Hogan sued the online celebrity tabloid Gawker for publishing his sex tape, the wrestling superstar won the case, forcing the website to pay over $140 million in damages and bankrupting them in the process.  Although his lawyers tried to make the case about the privacy rights of celebrities, trying to draw a line between the character of Hulk Hogan and the real man behind the persona, there were ultimately larger forces at play in terms of who benefitted the most from the final verdict.  Director Brian Knappenberger takes us through the case in Nobody Speak: The Trials of the Free Press, exploring how the lawsuit threatened freedom of the press by setting a dangerous precedent, and came at a time in the political climate when distrust of the media was reaching a fever pitch, and becoming a staple of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.  It’s fascinating to watch the filmmaker connect the dots from Hulk Hogan all the way to PayPal cofounder and Facebook investor Peter Thiel, who has a personal vendetta against Gawker.  The film uses the Hulk Hogan trial merely as the jumping off point to explore the real powers behind the case, and the result is a terrifying look at how billionaires are exercising their powers to essentially control the media and the corruption that is running deep through Silicon Valley.

Bring the Jews Home – ★★★ (out of 4) Koen Carlier is a Christian man from Belgium who believes that if he can convince all of the Jewish people of the world to return to Israel, than Jesus will return to the earth.  Travelling through Ukraine with a volunteer from his charity group Christians for Israel, he goes around to different villages to knock on doors, inquiring if there are any Jews there and passing out bags of food as incentive for them to join him.  Although many folks politely brush him aside, Koen seems completely dedicated to this absurd cause which he sees as a divine mission, and he actually has convinced some people to return to the Holy Land.  At just under an hour, Bring the Jews Home is an entertaining little film that provides an interesting look at an odd kind of religious fanaticism, and one man’s dogged dedication to his beliefs.

…when you look away – ★★ (out of 4) After her young daughter sleepily muses that she sometimes feels more like an animal, Danish filmmaker Phie Ambo sets out to discover if this is actually possible, and the result is the mixed bag experimental film …when you look away.  She is determined not to follow a set path, instead letting the subjects come to her by chance, leading to interviews with a clairvoyant and a Buddhist monk among others.  For the first part of the film, which features interviews with a string theorist and explores what exactly consciousness is and if it’s possible to exist on different planes of reality simultaneously, I was willing to go along with it.  But then the film essentially becomes an infomercial for the Grander water revitalization unit, a curved metal device that is supposed to change the molecule shape of water or something like that and which a quick Google search afterwards reveals to be a complete sham, and …when you look away goes from being theoretical and turns into a whole lot of bunk pseudoscience.  And when the film’s initial question of whether or not it’s possible for her daughter to actually feel like an animal is resolved in the most obvious and banal way in the last few minutes of the film, it feels like we’ve been had.

#HotDocs17: Fourth Batch of Reviews

#HotDocs17: Third Batch of Reviews

#HotDocs17: Second Batch of Reviews

#HotDocs17: First Batch of Reviews

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