The Hottest Docs of Hot Docs 2017
From dashcam compilations to a filmmaker's own relationship, here are the best documentaries to keep an eye out for.
Each year at the Hot Docs film festival in Toronto, hundreds of documentaries screen for audiences voracious for non-fiction-based cinema. The size of the festival is daunting and impossible for any single person to size up. People go to learn new things, experience other places and other lives, and to see what the future of the documentary might look like. Last year also saw some big hits at the festival, including Tower, Weiner, and a screening of O.J.: Made in America.
At this year's fest, there was no clear hit, though a number of films did manage to make an impact, with word about them spreading during the festival's 11 days of screenings. Over the years, the number of venues for showing documentaries has greatly increased: in theatres, on cable, and now on streaming networks like Netflix. It's only a matter of time before the best of Hot Docs 2017 will make their way to general audiences.
And there were plenty of talked-about films, such as 78/52, a documentary about the famous shower scene in Psycho, and Long Strange Trip, the four-hour film about the Grateful Dead. Unarmed Verses, a film about a young child growing up in Toronto Community Housing and finding strength through a local music and arts program, won the Best Canadian Feature prize. In Playing God, lawyer Ken Feinberg is the man whose job it is to assign dollar values to human lives in legal settlements while in The Other Side of the Wall—another prize winner—follows Honduran immigrants in Mexico dealing with family life, economic pressures, and the decision of whether to cross the border into America for work.
Of the many films to show at Hot Docs, a few in particular stood out. Maison du bonheur, directed by Toronto filmmaker Sofia Bohdanowicz, broke the mold for what most would expect from a documentary. The doc moves much more like an essay—or a meditation, even, as it follows a month during which Bohdanowicz lived in Paris with a 77-year-old woman named Juliane Sellam. There's no story to speak of—only segments detailing aspects of Juliane's life and her daily routines. Shot on beautiful 16mm and constructed with marvelous subtlety, Maison du bonheur is a work of empathic delight, conveying the feeling of a life lived while providing only a glimpse at it.
Occupying the other end of the spectrum was The Road Movie, essentially a compilation of YouTube videos from Russian dash cams put together into a film by director Dmitrii Kalashnikov. Every video in the film brings another wild event, from car crashes to road rages to tanks getting car washes to corrupt police. Kalashnikov chooses his footage with care and edits them together to create a uniquely compelling journey through the roads of modern Russia. From moment to moment, you won't know what to expect, and the footage runs the gamut from the hilarious, to the shocking, to the genuinely tragic.
In World Without End (No Reported Incidents), director Jem Cohen (who impressed audiences a few years ago with Museum Hours) trains his camera on the southern UK resort town of Southend-on-Sea. During the off-season, the town is gray, with nothing going on. Cohen doesn't manufacture incident, choosing instead to capture the unending mundanity of life away from the major metropolises. Glimpses, via interview, into the lives and opinions of residents suggests a simplicity of existence that is at once completely enticing, while also yearning for importance in a world that would rather ignore them.
Flames was another fest standout, as artists Josephine Decker and Zefrey Throwell document their intense romantic relationship and its five-year aftermath with an incredible degree of openness. Sex, romance, anger, and affection are all there on the screen, letting the audience witness the more intimate of experiences. Yet the existence of the film itself raises questions about its own authenticity—and the authenticity of their relationship from the start. How much of it was doomed to fail for the cameras, and does that even matter when emotions get caught up in it anyway? It's a funny and bracing documentary, sure to garner strong reactions from anyone who watches it.
In Pre-Crime, directors Matthias Heeder and Monika Hielscher explore the international surge in technological adoption by police forces to predict crime in their districts. The film takes its name from Minority Report, in which police use psychics to predict crimes and arrest people before the crimes are committed. Pre-Crime doesn't suggest quite so dystopic a vision of our current reality, but it gets close. Police use complex algorithms and software to identify high-crime areas to patrol and even specific potential offenders. The social implications are scary, and other factors, especially unintended racial profiling, make the use of this technology problematic at best despite seeming to many police agencies like a wise investment. Heeder and Hielscher uncover the truly disturbing reality we're building for ourselves, in which the most vulnerable in society lose all privacy and become prey to our need to keep order through maximum efficiency.
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