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#HotDocs19: Second Set of Capsule Reviews

April 26, 2019

By John Corrado

The 2019 Hot Docs Film Festival runs from April 26th to May 6th in Toronto, more information on tickets and showtimes can be found right here.

Buddy ★★½ (out of 4)

The Dutch filmmaker Heddy Honigmann looks at the bond between six people and their service dogs in her latest documentary Buddy. The subjects here include an elderly German lady who was blinded by an explosion in World War II and has had many service dogs over the years; a younger war veteran with PTSD whose dog is credited with helping him maintain a relationship with his wife and kids; an autistic boy who is helped in all aspects of his life by his beloved canine companion; and an older women who is partially paralyzed and uses a wheelchair, with her dog helping her with everything from opening door handles to pulling up the covers in bed and even retrieving pieces of paper from the printer.

There are some interesting and touching moments here, but the film ultimately focuses on a few too many different subjects and doesn’t really allow us to get to know any of them in a deeper way. Without a strong enough narrative structure to tie them all together, Buddy ends up feeling more like a collection of vignettes instead of a cohesive whole. It’s fine, and I imagine many viewers will take something away from it, but I wanted more.

Friday, April 26th – 3:15 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

Saturday, April 27th – 3:00 PM at Isabel Bader Theatre

Tuesday, April 30th – 10:30 AM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 3

Push ★★★ (out of 4)

With housing prices at record highs in cities around the world, including here in Toronto, many young people are no longer able to even dream about one day owning a house. This multi-pronged issue is explored in director Fredrik Gertten’s documentary Push, which follows Leilani Farha, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing, as she travels around meeting with different politicians and local changemakers, in hopes of finding a solution and getting adequate housing recognized as a human right.

The film offers an in-depth look at what has made the housing market so inaccessible to new buyers, blaming it on a variety of issues including corporate greed on behalf of sellers, and a market that has become stagnant with not enough people selling because they can’t afford to go anywhere else. Another one of the biggest issues is the commodification of housing, with foreign buyers snatching up properties in major cities for investment purposes and allowing them to sit vacant, creating scarcity and driving the prices even further up. Farha is also investigating the private equity firms that are in the business of buying up affordable apartment buildings and creating more expensive units in order to turn a profit.

These issues of course effect poor and working class people the most, and the film points to the tragic Grenfall Tower fire in London as an example of this, with the developers cutting corners by outfitting the building with cheap materials in order to make it more affordable. Toronto’s ridiculously unaffordable housing market is also explored at length in the film, including the residents of a building in Parkdale who are organizing a rent strike to protest rising prices. The film covers a lot of ground and does start to spin its wheels a bit at times, but these are some of the most pressing issues facing urban society today, and Push serves as an engaging and thought provoking look at how the the gross inflation of the real estate market has led to a global housing crisis.

Friday, April 26th – 9:15 PM at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema

Saturday, April 27th – 4:00 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

Wednesday, May 1st – 1:00 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

The Daughter Tree ★★★ (out of 4)

Returning to her documentary roots following her narrative debut Honey Bee, which premiered at the Canadian Film Fest last month, director Rama Rau focuses her attention on India in The Daughter Tree, exploring how the persistent lack of appreciation for women in many parts of the country has led to declining birth rates for girls. Many pregnant women simply choose to abort if they find out they are having a girl. One of the big reasons for this is that boys are still seen as superior additions to a family, and many poor villagers simply don’t have the money to put into dowries for their daughters, which women are expected to have if they are going to find a husband.

The film mainly follows Neelam Bala, a midwife in the Punjab region of India, who is not only educating pregnant women about the value of having girls, but has also stopped doing sex-selective abortions. We also meet three adult brothers living in a village that is mostly made up of men, who aren’t able to find wives because there simply aren’t enough women in their area, with no girls having been born there in decades. The film is most interesting and challenging when directly tackling the very tricky issue of sex-selective abortions, exploring what happens when something that is usually thought of as a woman’s right actually becomes a detriment to women and girls. This is a thought provoking look at the dangers of a society that doesn’t value girls, and the women who are trying to change it.

Saturday, April 27th – 6:30 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 2

Tuesday, April 30th – 10:15 AM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 2

Thursday, May 2nd – 9:00 PM at Hart House Theatre

The World or Nothing ★★★ (out of 4)

Rubert and Rubildo are 29-year-old identical twin brothers from Guantanamo, Cuba who moved to Spain with dreams of making it big. Sleeping on the couch in a cramped apartment with relatives in Barcelona, the two brothers still dress alike and spend their days teaching dance classes and making music videos to post on YouTube, in hopes of one day going viral. Reactions on Facebook and Twitter are everything to them, and they fantasize about being noticed by their idols like Christina Aguilera and Justin Timberlake, who they grew up listening to.

Directed by Canadian indie filmmaker Ingrid Veninger, making her documentary debut, The World or Nothing is a laid-back and charming portrait of the deep bond between two twin brothers with dreams of stardom on their minds. Rubert and Rubildo make for likeable subjects, and Veninger takes her usual naturalistic approach to following them in their day to day lives, capturing the more mundane moments while also sitting them directly in front of the camera to talk about their experiences growing up and how they miss their families.

Saturday, April 27th – 8:45 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 3

Sunday, April 28th – 1:15 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 2

Thursday, May 2nd – 3:00 PM at Hart House Theatre

Pipe Dreams ★★★½ (out of 4)

Following five young organists from around the world as they prepare to compete at the Canadian International Organ Competition in Montreal, Pipe Dreams is as compelling as any sports movie. The first few scenes introduce us to the competitors. Alcée Chriss is an African-American man from Texas who got his start playing keyboard at his father’s church and always dreamed of being able to afford a real pipe organ, and now he specializes in playing jazz compositions arranged for the organ.

Nicholas Capozzoli is a mild-mannered Pittsburgh native who calms his nerves before performing by eating with his “trusty banana” and has decided to try something a bit risky by choosing an experimental John Cage piece to play at the competition. Yuan Shen is a young woman from China who wants to make her father proud. Thomas Gaynor is an award-winning organist from New Zealand, who is on a winning streak and views himself as the front runner going into the competition. Finally, Sebastian Heindl is a former child prodigy from Germany who, at 19-years-old, is the youngest ever competitor at the CIOC.

Director Stacey Tenenbaum has crafted a confidently made film that does a good job of establishing each of the five main subjects and drumming up suspense as they compete against each other, even utilizing different aspect ratios and split screens during the competition scenes, which provides an interesting stylistic touch. Even if you don’t know all that much about organ music, I admittedly wasn’t really aware of the Canadian International Organ Competion prior to the film, Pipe Dreams is still a compelling and rousing documentary to watch. We really become invested in the stories of the different competitors, rooting for our favourites as the film reaches its climactic moments.

Sunday, April 28th – 3:15 PM at Scotiabank Theatre 4

Tuesday, April 30th – 9:00 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 3

Friday, May 3rd – 10:00 AM at Isabel Bader Theatre

Advocate ★★ (out of 4)

Viewed by some as a traitor and a terrorist sympathizer, and by others as a fierce champion of human rights and the rule of law, Lea Tsemel is an Israeli lawyer who has spent her lengthy career specializing in representing Palestinians who have been charged with a variety of crimes, ranging from anti-Zionist protesters to domestic terrorists and suicide bombers, often viewing them as freedom fighters. Directed by Rachel Leah Jones and Philippe Bellaïche, who gain inside access to her office, Advocate focuses on some of her key cases past and present, and mainly unfolds as she is defending a 13-year-old Palestinian boy who stabbed an Israeli kid.

The film borders on hagiography of Tsemel at times, when a more balanced and nuanced look at her life and work not only would have been welcome, but also far more interesting. The film’s most interesting and telling moment comes when she is questioned by her intern as to whether or not she would be reacting the same way if an Israeli boy was on trial for stabbing a Palestinian, forcing her to reluctantly admit her own bias. Watching her at work does provide some insight into Israel’s judicial system, but the film drags quite a bit at nearly two hours long and it feels one-sided, meaning that your appreciation of Advocate will likely depend upon your own personal feelings towards Tsemel’s work.

Sunday, April 28th – 6:00 PM at Scotiabank Theatre 4

Monday, April 29th – 3:30 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 2

Sunday, May 5th – 6:15 PM at Isabel Bader Theatre

Willie ★★½ (out of 4)

Born in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Willie O’Ree became the first black player in the NHL when he was signed by the Boston Bruins in 1958, leading him to be known as the “Jackie Robinson of hockey.” O’Ree reflects back on his life and career in Laurence Mathieu-Leger’s documentary Willie, often recalling the racist taunts that he got from the crowds at every game, especially when risking his life by travelling through the Jim Crow south. But O’Ree always chose to ignore the insults and rise above them by focusing all of his attention on being the best at playing the game, even overcoming an injury that left him blind in one eye, which he kept a secret throughout his career.

The film centres around him waiting to hear whether or not he will be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, and also showcases a new generation of minority players who are competing in what is still largely considered a white game, talking about the challenges they have faced in trying to break down barriers and make hockey more accessible. It follows the standard biodoc formula to a tee, and there is a sort of corporate sheen to it that isn’t exactly thrilling from a cinematic standpoint. But Willie is still worthwhile and enjoyable as an introduction to O’Ree, and it’s hard not to be in awe of what he has accomplished over the years. While the film chooses the most commercially accessible route to tell his story, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and I can imagine Willie becoming a good teaching resource for schools. O’Ree himself is still an inspiring figure and his achievements are remarkable, and that alone makes the film worth seeing.

Monday, April 29th  6:30 PM at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema (Big Ideas)

Tuesday, April 30th – 4:30 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

Friday, May 3rd – 10:15 AM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

Gaza ★★★½ (out of 4)

Filmmakers Garry Keane and Andrew McConnell offer a compelling portrait of everyday life in the Gaza Strip in their beautifully shot documentary Gaza. A strip of land along the Mediterranean shore that borders Israel and Egypt and is claimed by Palestine, the Gaza Strip is home to some nearly two million people, who are essentially locked in between the borders, living at the mercy of Hamas.

The film’s subjects include a family of fishermen trying to make a living off of what they can catch from the Mediterranean Sea, a cab driver chatting with people as he drives them around the city, and a young woman who is learning to play the cello and yearns of being able to know true freedom. Regardless of where you personally stand on the politics surrounding this land, Gaza is a fascinating, challenging and visually arresting look at the conflict from a purely human angle. It’s most remarkable achievement is allowing us to have compassion for people first and foremost, which means the conflict when we see it has more of an impact.

Tuesday, April 30th – 6:00 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 2

Wednesday, May 1st – 3:45 PM at Isabel Bader Theatre

Friday, May 3rd – 3:45 PM at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema

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