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June Chua
Hot Docs 2015 radiates with personal, high-stakes stories

| April 20, 2015
Photo: How to Change the World

Hot Docs 2015 has a lineup with some fabulous documentaries this year and as I peruse the pickings, I see it's going back to some fundamentals. Over the years, North America's biggest documentary showcase has become a glossy panorama of over-produced, TV-centric films. This year, I'm finding a lot of personal films, focussing on individuals and their challenges, that harken back to basics.

Consider that the 11-day festival launches in Toronto on April 24 with Tig Notaro, the American comedian who opened her act in 2012 with "Good evening, I have cancer." With brutal humour, Notaro faces her condition and her audiences head-on. I can't think of a better film to set the tone for this year's festival, which is screening 210 documentaries from 45 countries.

How to Change the World

How to Change the World (dir. Jerry Rothwell) unravels the beginnings of Greenpeace in the Vancouver of the early '70s.

Never-before-seen footage of those days spike the film with plenty of action -- from clashing with U.S. authorities to dangerous confrontations with Russian whaling ships. The story is told through three of the movement's most well-known leaders: Bob Hunter, Paul Watson and Patrick Moore, who quit the group in 1986 and essentially became anti-Greenpeace. The shenanigans, backbiting and real-life risks of the movement are brought to light in a film that is captivating to its core.

Rothwell's film is at heart, a nostalgic and poetic paean to Hunter -- the journalist/activist who spearheaded the movement in its infancy. Hunter is posited as the "glue" of the organization and it's surprising to learn he reluctantly bore the mantle of leader.

"I've always hated leaders," the narration intones. "[When] I realized I'd become group 'father' I felt nauseated." 

Watson's injection into the group during the protest over Newfoundland's seal hunt sparked what would become the group's undoing. Some of Greenpeace's senior members blame Watson for taking the movement into more dangerous territory -- physical confrontations and property damage. Eventually, the movement survives Moore's defection and a period of extreme expansion in which it lost its way. The film is a bittersweet ode to a movement whose call to arms has only gotten more urgent in these times of climate change.

Chameleon

Chameleon (dir. Ryan Mullins) concerns a man known as "the James Bond of journalism." You can't have a better slogan than that for a film which twists and winds with the muckraking investigations of Ghanian reporter Anas Aremeyaw Anas.

 Chameleon

Photo: Chameleon

His unorthodox ways include partnering with police and local authorities on gotcha-style investigations as well as disguises that cover the gambit from pretending to be a sheik to dressing as a woman and as a giant rock. The film (co-presented by the Canadian Journalists for Freedom of Expression), styles itself as a '70s cop thriller chronicling Anas' various adventures that include infiltrating a religious sect in an isolated village to expose abuse and child trafficking. Mullins, based out of Montreal, has created a full and complicated portrait of a man on a mission.

Anas confronts our own Western notions of what journalists are supposed to do.

Freely admitting that he uses "journalism as a weapon," his stories for the newspaper and for TV have a taint of sensationalism.

Parachuted throughout the film is a member of the Ghana Journalism Association, who casts a sober view on Anas' tactics. Acting much like a Greek chorus, he compares Anas' gonzo style with tabloid style, which under the banner of journalism is "dangerous."

On the other hand, he gives Anas his due, noting that the reporter's stories have made a big difference in a country infected with self-styled prophets, shady dealings and human trafficking.

Famous throughout Ghana, Anas must always don a disguise when out in public talking about his exploits. You never see his face but you certainly get the feeling of his core.

"When you get an opportunity to make your mark, you better put it there," declares Anas, speaking to an audience of schoolchildren about this crusading form of journalism.

Mission accomplished.

Blood Sisters

Various hues of intimacy imbue Blood Sisters (dir. Malin Anderson), a raw and revealing portrait of fraternal twins from Azerbaijan whose shared trauma binds and haunts them in their new lives in Sweden.

 Blood Sisters

Photo: Blood Sisters

Julia and Johanna survive a horrific month of abuse after being abducted as children. They form a bond that is both claustrophobic and complementary. But that tender connection is threatened when one of them marries a man whose true personality becomes a wedge driving the sisters apart.

"The loneliness is in me all the time," divulges the married Julia in a moment of crisis. "Like I need someone to see me."

With honesty and depth, Anderson has fashioned a story that honours the beauty and the deficiencies of the sisters' relationship.

Though twins, one acts like a big sister, warning that "boys are dream destroyers" while the other pouts and frets. One asserts her independence while the other longs to be subsumed by a relationship.

The documentary is an immersion into the sisters' inner lives. With naturalistic scenes, frank conversations and transcendent cinematography, Anderson has captured a spellbinding experience for the audience that is unforgettable.

Films for every taste

There is a cornucopia of documentaries to chose from and it's impossible to encapsulate in one article. So, here are other films, in no particular order, for your consideration:

  • Drone (dir.Tonje Hessen Schei)  

Please watch for these films at your local festival, independent cinema or community screening.

The 22nd Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival runs from April 23 to May 3, 2015 in Toronto, with a special country focus this year on India.

June Chua is a Toronto-based journalist who regularly writes about the arts for rabble.ca.

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