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Hot Docs Festival Online Reviews (Part 3)

June 6, 2020

By John Corrado

While the in-person edition of Hot Docs was cancelled this year due to COVID-19, roughly 140 films that were set to screen at the festival were selected to stream online during a digital festival from May 28th to June 6th, with many titles being available for even longer until June 24th. Tickets are $9 apiece, $8 for members, with select screenings featuring pre-recorded Q&As. The screenings are geo-blocked to Ontario, and the full lineup can be found here.

I have been streaming documentaries all week through the festival’s online platform, and below are my thoughts on six films that I watched over the past few days, arranged in alphabetical order. My first and second sets of reviews can be found here and here.

The 8th – ★★★ (out of 4)

In 1983, Ireland passed the 8th amendment to their constitution, making abortion illegal in the country, leading women to head to England and technically break the law in order to access the procedure. This led to several tragic cases, including that of a 14-year-old in 1992 who was raped and impregnated by her friend’s father. But in 2018, the Irish people got the chance to cast the deciding votes in a referendum on whether or not to repeal this amendment, and change the law to allow abortions up to twelve weeks of pregnancy.

Directed by the filmmaking trio of Aideen Kane, Maeve O’Boyle and Lucy Kennedy, The 8th is a very well put together film that follows the grassroots political campaign to get the Irish people to vote “yes” and overturn this restrictive law. The main subjects are Ailbhe Smith, a veteran pro-choice activist who has spent years fighting for reproductive rights in Ireland, and Andrea Horan, a local manicurist who never really considered herself that politically active before joining this fight.

We already know how the referendum turned out and that these women were successful, but The 8th is mostly compelling to watch to see the inner-workings of the well-oiled campaign that helped deliver this result. What’s most interesting to see is how these women took a slow and steady approach, knowing that their path to victory involved appealing to those in the middle and winning over undecided voters through their messaging. While remaining firmly on the pro-choice side, the directors also get added points for allowing reasonable pro-life advocates on the “no” side to make their voices heard.

While the result of the referendum was ultimately pretty overwhelmingly in favour of abortion rights, the vote still revealed deep divides in the historically Catholic country, as opinion was split among young versus old, rural versus urban, and religious versus secular. With The 8th, Kane, O’Boyle and Kennedy have crafted a very balanced discussion piece on the issue of abortion, while also offering an engaging document of this historic vote.

Available until June 6th

Coded Bias – ★★★ (out of 4)

Joy Buolamwini is a computer scientist at the MIT Media Lab and founder of the Algorithmic Justice League (AJL), who discovered that facial recognition technology has trouble recognizing Black faces when she was doing a project and realized that the camera would only see her when she put on a white mask. Buolamwini is the main subject of director Shalini Kantayya’s documentary Coded Bias, which explores biases in machine learning, and the increasing prevalence of facial recognition technology in daily life.

The film mainly focuses on Buolamwini’s research into the historic racial and gender biases that are built into facial recognition technology, and Kantayya follows her as she tries to get the use of such technology regulated in the United States. The other central subject is the mathematician and author Cathy O’Neil, whose book Weapons of Math Destruction helped ring the alarm bells about algorithmic biases. We also hear from Silkie Carlo of Big Brother Watch UK, who is warning against the police force’s use of facial recognition cameras in London, England.

Because these programs are very poor at recognizing facial differences between people of colour, this leads to false identification and arrest. Through this, Coded Bias explores pressing issues of how this technology is being used for increased surveillance, including at an apartment building in a largely African-American part of Brooklyn that wanted to put facial recognition cameras on the door. The film also touches on China’s constant monitoring of citizens to uphold their draconian social credit system which, in one memorable sequence, a Chinese resident defends for its “convenience.”

Available until June 24th

The Earth is Blue as an Orange – ★★★ (out of 4)

As shells explode outside their house in the city of Krasnohorivka during the Russian-Ukrainian conflict that started in 2014, Anna Trofymchuk and her four kids cope with the war by making films, reenacting their nights spent huddled together in the cellar in front of a camera. The kids and cats become actors, with tanks and soldiers providing production value. Fact and fiction blur together, as the filmmaking process becomes as much a part of life for this cinema-loving family as the conflicts raging outside.

Director Irina Tsilyk offers a vivid portrait of this family in The Earth is Blue as an Orange, a nicely done vérité documentary that showcases both their independent filmmaking as well as their day to day lives that inspire it. Over the course of the film, the eldest daughter Myroslava gets accepted into film school so that she can pursue her dream of becoming a professional cinematographer, spurred on by her family’s love of cinema. This is a touching look at the unique ability that film has to help us heal from trauma, and how one family is using it to process and document life during wartime.

Available until June 24th

The Forbidden Reel – ★★★½ (out of 4)

Director Ariel Nasr explores the untold story of Afghanistan’s cinematic legacy in his documentary The Forbidden Reel, which digs deep into the fascinating story of Afghan Film, a national archive housing the country’s entire cinematic history that was ordered to be destroyed by the Taliban. But the films were saved from being burned by brave workers who hid the film reels, and now they are in the process of being digitized for preservation, with help from the National Film Board of Canada.

At two hours long, Nasr’s film offers a dense, comprehensive history of Afghan Film and the country’s surprisingly rich cinematic landscape. Nasr compellingly tells the story through interviews with the filmmakers themselves, including Engineer Latif, who was able to continue making films in Kabul after the communist coup and Soviet invasion in the 1970s.

We see snippets of these works throughout, which are not only impressive for their technical proficiency, but also serve as fascinating snapshots of Afghanistan itself, and the many changes that the country has gone through over the years. What The Forbidden Reel offers is a powerful testament to the importance of preserving cinematic history, because it often times represents the history of a culture as well.

Available until June 24th

iHuman – ★★★ (out of 4)

Director Tonje Hessen Schei, who previously explored the implications of drone warfare in her 2014 documentary Drone, returns to explore the rising tide of artificial intelligence in her new film iHuman, which looks at many aspects of the oncoming AI revolution. Topics range from the implications that AI has for surveillance purposes, to the increasing reality that machines are taking jobs away from humans.

Many factory jobs have already been automated away, with experts predicting that AI will eventually render much of the human workforce obsolete, from driverless vehicles taking jobs away from truckers to computer algorithms replacing a lot of desk work. The security and privacy concerns are equally pressing. Michal Kosinski, one of the subjects in the film, discusses the ability to use algorithms and facial recognition technology to figure out someone’s sexual orientation and political leanings with a startling degree of accuracy, which would have disastrous consequences if used by authoritarian regimes.

These tools are already being employed by advertisers and social media companies to map out people’s habits and interests. The film is equally focused on the race by scientists to invent a form of Artificial General Intelligence (AGI), which would keep educating itself at a speed unknown to man, and rapidly outpace the smartest humans. It’s worth noting that China has plans to become the world leader in AI by 2030, which should make all of us worried.

Even Stephen Hawking, whose quote opens the film, warned us before his death that inventing AI might be the last thing humans ever do. For some, iHuman will be an exciting glimpse at where we are headed, and for others, like me, the film serves as a terrifying dystopic nightmare, complete with futuristic graphics that unfurl onscreen during chilling interludes that play between interviews and provide a strong visual component to the film.

Available until May 31st

Keyboard Fantasies: The Beverly Glenn-Copeland Story – ★★★½ (out of 4)

Named after his 1986 album, Keyboard Fantasies: The Beverly Glenn-Copeland Story introduces us to the music and life of Glenn Copeland. Born in Philadelphia of West African descent, Copeland came to Canada in 1961 to study music at McGill University, and was the only Black student in class. Copeland lived as a lesbian and openly dated women, nearly a decade before homosexuality was decriminalized in Canada, and would later realize his true identity as a trans man.

Despite cutting an early album of folk songs in 1970, Copeland never found mainstream success, and moved to a small town in Ontario to live a quiet life. It’s here that he recorded Keyboard Fantasies, a groundbreaking electronic album that he made on an old Atari computer and self-released on cassette tape. Copeland and the album faded into obscurity, until being rediscovered by a Japanese record store owner many years later, who offered to reissue Keyboard Fantasies and turned it into a cult classic.

Director Posy Dixon follows Copeland as he embarks on his first international tour in his seventies, playing with a band of young musicians who embrace his experimental style. The film is built around an intimate interview with Copeland that was shot at his home in Canada, while also featuring some great performance footage. Copeland is an inspiring, remarkably open subject, especially in moments when talking about discovering his queer identity.

There is a thrilling feeling of discovery when we first hear Copeland’s music, and the film seems poised to turn more people into fans of his. At just over an hour long, Keyboard Fantasies: The Beverly Glenn-Copeland Story serves as a lovely portrait of Glenn Copeland, that plays out against a wonderful aural landscape of his gorgeous, haunting music.

Available until June 6th

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