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Five fabulous films at Hot Docs

The Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto turns 20 this year (it starts April 25) and as with previous years, there’s a variety of documentaries to tempt every taste.

Here’s a select few that might intrigue you. I encourage you to seek out the Hot Docs schedule and find for yourself what tickles your fancy. First, I must mention Chimeras -- which I wrote about earlier (including an interview with the filmmaker) and highly recommend. Meanwhile, here are a few more films. Happy Hot Docs!

I Will Be Murdered (Dir.  Justin Webster, 88 min) -- a kind of police procedural that has enough twists to make you dizzy. Guatemalan lawyer Rodrigo Rosenberg Marzano records a video in which he begins: “If you are watching this video, it’s because I am murdered.”  Indeed, five shots to his body on a Sunday morning as he sat on a hillside after a bike ride. 

I Will Be Murdered

Pointing his fingers at a conspiracy at the highest levels -- and to the murders of a factory owner and his daughter -- the video becomes the basis of an investigation by the country’s prosecutor. The first half is bit of a dry setup but the last half is a rollercoaster of continuous revelations that will make your jaw drop. Key characters include Marzano’s son, the dead attorney’s cousins, his chauffeur and, as if sprung from a John Le Carre novel -- Marzano’s tailor. Just remember to pay attention in the second part, it will be worth your while.

Free The Mind (Dir. Phie Ambo, 80 min) -- examines the work of Wisconsin neuroscientist Richard Davidson (a self-confessed “closet Buddhist”). Davidson has two experiments going on -- one involving veterans with PTSD and another with pre-schoolers with ADHD. Ambo’s film flits between the veterans and one particular child whose problems seem to stem from the foster care he got in the first two years of his life. The film uses wonderful animation techniques to explain the science part of the story -- how parts of the brain work -- weaving them with the journeys of two veterans who volunteer to take part in a meditation/yoga experiment and that of the young boy. The idea that meditation can help re-wire the brain is something that’s come up for the past decade but what makes this film a must-see, is to witness the transformation of human beings before your eyes.

The Defector: Escape From North Korea (Dir. Ann Shin, 71 min) -- the Canadian filmmaker herself goes on a perilous journey with two North Korean women who, trapped in China in forced marriages but unable to reveal themselves for fear of being returned to the hermit kingdom, decide to pay a broker named “Dragon” to squirrel them out of China and hopefully, to eventually land in South Korea. At times a little languid, the journey is nonetheless a unique peek at the harrowing lives lead by defectors (who are overwhelmingly women) and the desperation of their journey to freedom across China, Laos and then to Thailand. Remarkably, it's Dragon (a self-styled "human rights activist" who is also a defector) who may peak the viewer's interest. His story also unfolds during the course of the film. Will the women make it?  Especially after Dragon, the only one who knows “the plan” and drop-off points, suddenly drops out half way. Check out the film yourself and our interview with Ann Shin.

As Time Goes By in Shanghai (Dir. Uli Gaulke, 90 min) -- hang out with and listen to the musical musings of the “World’s Oldest Jazz Band” -- an eclectic collection of Chinese men aged 60 to 87 who still have the rhythm and remembrance of things past. If you’re an old-school jazz lover (think Ella Fitzgerald), this film is a treat for the ears. The Peace Old Jazz Band are about to embark on a European adventure -- they’re booked for concerts in the Netherlands. Meanwhile, they have to audition for a singer, all the while squabbling amongst themselves during rehearsals and over dinners about their technique, “tradition” and each other. The filmmaker delves into each of the member’s sepia-toned recollections, musical philosophies and personalities. A lovely and charming experience.

Alphee of the Stars

Alphée  of the Stars (Dir.  Hugo Latulippe, 82 min) -- a beautiful and elegant ode to his daughter, Latulippe takes the audience through a year in which his family pulls up stakes and heads abroad to focus on Alphée. The Quebec director is hoping that the year-long concentration on his daughter will help her oercome her neurological and muscular challenges due to her rare genetic disorder. This is an intimate experience that is both lyrical and poetic as the filmmaker’s narration (echoes of French New Wave) observes the life of Alphée -- her interaction with the world around her and her own fairy-like observances. Latulippe believes that providing a more natural and humanistic environment will open up his daughter, preparing her for entry to a regular school. The film will challenge your own preconceptions of human development and possibility.

It is impossible to preview all the documentaries available at this year’s festival but I encourage you to seek out the incredible variety of films out there. Other documentaries worth your Hot Docs bucks: 12 O'Clock Boys, Last Woman Standing, Alias, Remote Area Medical, Everybody Street, Salma, The Auctioneer and Who is Dayani Crystal?

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