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Looking ahead to Toronto’s Hot Docs 2012

Hot Docs 2012 runs from April 26th to May 6th

So living in Toronto has some huge advantages for film fans. And now I’m not talking about the civilised, intelligent audiences, but instead the city’s phenomenal festival offerings!

Leading the charge is the world’s biggest film festival, TIFF, which burns through the city every September. But in second place is the world’s preeminent documentary festival, Hot Docs. I was lucky enough to get to my first Hot Docs last year (and wrote a little about it here and here) and it’s a fantastic festival which excels with the small things like ticket sales, line-ups and Q&As.

This year the festival has been bolstered by their new venue, The Bloor Hot Docs Cinema in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood. The historic cinema felt like a strange kind of mecca when we first arrived in Toronto nearly two years ago and following a change in ownership and extensive refurbishment it now stands as one of the city’s most intriguing venues, with documentaries making up almost 95% of its monthly programming.

A festival is always packed with a curious mix of films that can prove challenging to navigate through as you struggle to work out the age-old question “what looks good?!”. Big name offerings always get most of the media coverage, and while seeing something like Kevin MacDonald’s Marley or Alison Klayman’s Al Weiwei: Never Sorry is always going to be great, it’s a nice feeling when you find a film that no one else is talking about which just knocks your socks off.

This year I’ll review whatever I here and may also publish some selected reviews from contributors too. Here’s a quick taster of a few of the films on my agenda. All info/blurbs taken from the Hot Docs website.


Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry


Why I’m watching it: Time Magazine’s runner-up in their 2011 Person of the Year list (losing to the wonderfully ambiguous “Protestor”). The doc gained its fair share of headlines at Sundance and was awarded the honour of being Hot Docs 2012’s opening night film. I’ll always just know him as the mad fellah who designed the bird’s nest for the 2008 Beijing Olympics though.

China’s most famous international artist, Ai WeiWei, is shown with unprecedented access in this Sundance special jury prize-winning portrait. Artistic consultant for the Beijing National Stadium for the 2008 Olympics and named the most powerful contemporary artist by ArtReview magazine, Ai gained worldwide attention after his arrest and two-month detention by Chinese authorities last year. Amid growing concerns for his safety and facing a constant battle with the government, including the bulldozing of his studio, physical attack and his blog being taken offline, he continues to express his feelings towards strict Chinese censorship through his art and social media. Blurring the boundaries between activism and art, Ai has gained international acclaim and a devout following. Through art, politics and humour, Ai WeiWei: Never Sorry takes us into the artist’s world to reveal a man of unrelenting spirit and defiance who inspires millions across the globe. []

The Invisible War


Why I’m watching it: While the main attraction in Susan Saladoff’s 2011 documentary Hot Coffee was undoubtedly the story of the pensioner who spilt coffee on herself and sued McDonalds, the most interesting story may well have been that of Jamie Leigh Jones. Jones tried to sue military contractor KBR for putting her in an unsafe work environment in Iraq, which led to her being assaulted and gang-raped by her fellow soldiers. Not surprisingly her legal challenges all failed. The Invisible War has noting to do with Jones’ case but deals with similar territory.

The Invisible War, the latest groundbreaking investigative documentary by award-winning director Kirby Dick, is about one of America’s most shameful and best kept secrets: the epidemic of rape within the US military. Today, a female soldier in Iraq and Afghanistan is more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire. The number of assaults in the last decade alone reached the hundreds of thousands. Focusing on the powerfully emotional stories of several young women, the film reveals the systemic coverup of the crimes committed against them and follows their struggles to rebuild their lives and fight for justice. The Invisible War features hard-hitting interviews with high-ranking military officials and members of Congress that reveal the perfect storm of conditions that exist for rape in the military, its history of coverup and what can be done to bring about much needed change. []


Brooklyn Castle



Why I’m watching it: Whisper it, but chess is kinda bad-ass as anyone who saw last year’s Bobby Fischer Against the World will attest. Throw in elements of Spellbound and Waiting for Superman and I’m sold.

Public school I.S. 318 is a chess powerhouse, producing national champions straight out of junior high. The secret to the school’s success? Coaches who hold leadership skills and divergent thinking above standings and trophies, and students eager to learn and improve. Brooklyn Castle follows the challenges and triumphs both on and off the chessboard as the financial crisis brings severe budget cuts to after-school programs. With three-quarters of the student body living under the poverty line, will the chess club survive the economic downturn? Will the students realize their goals? Will Rochelle become the first female African-American chess master? Will sixth-grade prodigy Justus conquer his stage fright? Will Patrick overcome his ADHD by honing his powers of concentration? In life, as in chess, the answers aren’t clear. The truth is not about right and wrong, it’s about infinite moves and the choices we make. []


The Imposter



Why I’m watching it: #mysterious #creepy #conspiracy #huh

The Imposter is probably the most unusual story in this year’s Festival. In 1994 a 13-year-old boy disappears without a trace from San Antonio, Texas. Three and a half years later he is found alive, thousands of miles away in a village in southern Spain with a story of kidnap and torture. His family is overjoyed to bring him home. But all is not quite as it seems. The boy bears many of the same distinguishing marks he always had, but why does he now have a strange accent? Why does he look so different? And why doesn’t the family seem to notice these glaring inconsistencies? It’s only when an investigator starts asking questions that this strange tale takes an even stranger turn… []


Bones Brigade: An Autobiography



Why I’m watching it: Dogtown and Z-Boys had a pretty big impact on me back in the final years of secondary school as I learned that skating culture was so much more than Tony Hawk and X, SQUARE, R2, TRIANGLE. Of course I still wasn’t able to do any tricks but at least I could bluff my way through a conversation – “Of course I know all about the addition of urethane wheels which revolutionised the industry!”

A follow-up to his award-wining doc Dogtown and Z-Boys, Stacy Peralta brings us back on board with his famous ‘80s skateboard team, the Bones Brigade, a staggeringly innovative band of misfit kids who forever changed the sport. Tony Hawk, Rodney Mullen, Steve Caballero, Lance Mountain, Tommy Guerrero and Mike McGill formed a motley crew of young teenage outcasts committed and obsessed with their art form. The Bones Brigade, helmed by an 1970s ex-skateboard champion, became the most popular team in history. Through the invention of tricks that remain iconic today, they revolutionized skateboarding, rescuing it from its status as a pastime thought to be over and turning it into the billion-dollar industry it is today. Bones Brigade is the next chapter in a story of seven young kids whose spirit and dedication helped define a part of popular culture. []


Shut up and Play the Hits



Why I’m watching it: LCD Soundsystem were a very, very, very, very good band. Pow pow.

On February 5, 2011 the message went online:

good people of earth: lcd soundsystem are playing madison square garden on april 2nd, and it will be our last show ever. we are retiring from the game. gettin’ out. movin’ on.

James Murphy, the creative force behind LCD Soundsystem, posted the message on the band’s website, officially announcing that the end is here. With only three full studio albums and a handful of EPs, the band’s swift rise and relatively quick exit only added to their frenzied appeal. The film depicts the pre-show anticipation with footage from the incredible event along with Murphy’s revealing interview with pop culture journalist Chuck Klosterman. Blending the concert you never want to end with the intimate personal moments that follow (where the ringing of the show can still be heard), the film appropriately echoes the title of the band’s final album: This Is Happening. []

The Revisionaries



Why I’m watching it: Creationism and evolution are never going to get along, but surely any right-minded individual would admit children in state-run schools deserve a bit of balance in their education? No? Oh right, fair enough then…

Who do we trust to influence what goes into our school textbooks? In Texas, it’s Don McLeroy, an unabashed creationist who chairs the Texas Board of Education. Up for re-election, he has a fervent mission to put his version of history and science into every textbook in America. As a leader in the textbook market, the Texas Board of Education has powerful sway. Once every decade, the highly politicized board rewrites the teaching and textbook standards for its nearly five million schoolchildren. As McLeroy’s campaign begins and the 15-member board goes head to head, historical and scientific fact blur with opinion, and the confidence one might have had in the board to make educated contributions plummets to an almost amusing yet certainly terrifying low. Revisionaries is a must-see documentary that takes you to the frontlines of a battle between the theory of evolution and creationism in a rewriting of US history. []


The Queen of Versailles



Why I’m watching it: The documentary that opened the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. And yer one in the picture has a crazy, massive rack.

Meet Jackie, former Mrs. Florida 1993 and current wife of David Siegel, the self-styled king of a vast timeshare empire. She loves her husband, eight children and shopping. A leggy blond teetering on high heels, Jackie is thrilled to show us her work in progress, the largest single-family home in America. Modeled on the palace of Versailles but arguably more lavish, it features 30 bathrooms and a skating rink. At the same time, David is building the largest timeshare property in Las Vegas, selling average citizens a small piece of the good life for just a little money down. Then the financial crisis of 2008 hits. As the threat of losing it all looms, David’s personality undergoes a marked shift from boastful billionaire to tired old man, but Jackie soldiers on with a bright smile. One wonders what it will take to wake this queen from her American dream. []