Stieg Larsson, 'patient zero,' and hockey hero Willie O'Ree converge at Hot Docs

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Willie O'Ree. Photo courtesy of film "Willie"

Three unique and influential individuals in three very different arenas of life come together at this year's Hot Docs documentary festival in Toronto.

There's such a variety at the festival, it's hard to key in on any specific set of films. Here, I've decided to highlight the singular lives of three men whose contributions can only be deemed outstanding and noteworthy. Their histories intersect at the biggest documentary festival in North America.

Stieg Larsson: The Man Who Played With Fire (director: Henrik Georgsson)

His "Millenium" series of books have sold more than 94 million copies to date but sadly, Stieg Larsson couldn't enjoy the fruits of his labour having died in 2004 at age 50. The searing books focused on layers and webs of cultural and sociopolitical intrigue, touching upon the darkest human experiences one can imagine. However, this is not about the books but centres on the fascinating life of Larsson, who was a fervent anti-Nazi and became editor of the magazine Expo -- a journalistic missile blowing up and exposing the inner workings of neo-Nazis. The film, done in traditional TV-style with interviews and reenactments, is a riveting examination of one man's determination to analyze and root out far-right extremism.

The documentary details the lengths Larsson went to in order to spy, track and connect the dots of white extremism in Sweden and Europe (in case you're wondering, he started writing The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo back in 1997 just to relieve the stress of his work). There are extraordinary insights and anecdotes that keep the viewer hanging throughout the 99-minute film -- Larsson taught his younger colleagues how to properly open packages which might contain bombs. He even fashioned a small weapon for a female reporter so she could defend herself in a small space if needed. Sections of the film speak of a bucolic childhood in the countryside with his grandfather and of Larsson's sweet, generous nature. His writings, diary entries and old interviews are resurrected and most interestingly, his partner, Eva Gabrielsson, also provides a rare insight into Larsson's life under constant threat from neo-Nazis. Gabrielsson almost never gives interviews and has tried to maintain a quiet existence.

Larsson was the only person investigating the early stages of the far-right movement back in the 1980s and he kept at it like a dog with a bone. There are still many surprises in the documentary concerning the conditions he and his colleagues worked under and his relentless pursuit of the far right. His accuracy in predicting and detailing the ways of white extremism and their rise to political power is eerily mimicked in today's world (from opposing racial mixing to challenging notions of multiculturalism and migration to glorifying Western culture -- sound familiar?). Larsson wanted to keep sounding the warning bells on the movement. How would he react today? I get the feeling he'd still be at it like no one else. The film, in a way, continues his life's mission. "To work for democracy is what a society is about," Gabrielsson says about her partner's life motto.

Killing Patient Zero (Director: Laurie Lynd)

I highly recommend this incisive documentary that takes apart the myth of "patient zero," the Air Canada flight attendant villainized and erroneously faulted for spreading AIDS in North America. Toronto director Lynd (whose credits including directing episodes of Murdoch Mysteries, Schitt's Creek and Queer as Folk) has crafted an astonishing work that covers everything from internalized homophobia to gay liberation to mapping the life of Gaëtan Dugas as it intertwines with the heady, sexy '70s, to the horror of AIDS and its aftermath.

Lynd's film -- based on Richard McKay's book, Patient Zero and the Making of the AIDS Epidemic -- includes bracing interviews with AIDS activists, medical researchers from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, gay icons such as Fran Lebowitz as well as the colleagues, friends and former partners of Dugas. The film establishes the repressiveness and self-hatred that often went with being gay during the 1950s and '60s and slides towards the '70s (after the Stonewall riots) when young gay men decided to hedonistically rebel against their repression. The reasons for partying, dancing and having sex are steeped in having unchained themselves from that darkness and suppression. Lynd cleverly builds his case as he introduces Dugas as a fun-loving, unabashedly homosexual man. It was still hard for many to be as "out" as Dugas was and his colleagues attest to his strong desire to be who he was and to express his sexuality. At the time, as one interviewee puts it, "sex was the gay man's obligation."

Dugas was cast by journalist Randy Shilts in his groundbreaking book And the Band Played On as a callous, AIDS-spreading, hard-partying gay man. Yet, in speaking to his closest friends, Dugas was highly regarded as a thoughtful person who, in fact, helped the medical community by providing the names of 72 of his former sex partners. He was at the centre of the CDC's famous cluster study of patients with AIDS. This is, unfortunately, where Dugas' "patient zero" moniker was forged through a misunderstanding of the label "Patient (O)" in that study -- watch the documentary for that amazing explainer. Due to Dugas' help, researchers were able to establish how the disease spread.

According to Killing Patient Zero, the real monster of those times was homophobia. Dugas was a scapegoat, the person everyone could demonize and blame -- that became his "thank you" for helping researchers. Shilts' publisher and editor admits in the film that it was the book's publicity campaign utilizing Dugas as patient zero that broke the inaction and silence over the "gay cancer," which had killed more than 1.5 million individuals in the U.S. between 1981 and 1995 (using amfAR -- the Foundation for AIDS Research statistics). As one doctor at the forefront of the battle notes -- 96 per cent of his patients had died from AIDS while smallpox only kills about 60 per cent of those infected, "and all we got was silence."

Willie (director: Laurence Mathieu-Legér)

You can't get a better subject than this. Fredericton's Willie O'Ree broke the NHL colour barrier when he played for the Boston Bruins in 1958. What could play out as rote story of a hardship journey is given plenty of spark by director Mathieu-Legér, who brings solid directing and storytelling chops to O'Ree's narrative. The Montreal native, now based in New York, is an award-winning producer/director who had been the senior video producer for the Guardian U.S.

O'Ree is often called the Jackie Robinson of hockey but, in his words, he's the Willie O'Ree of hockey. Damn right. The film begins with O'Ree's childhood, the youngest of 13 kids and living on a street that had only one other Black family. There are dips into incidences of racism but mostly we get his old buddies reminiscing about how athletically versatile and fun their friend was. In fact, O'Ree was good enough to be scouted for the Milwaukee Braves minor league baseball team and went down to Georgia to be tested: "My parents didn't want me to go probably because they thought I'd get killed." The film has a knack for contrasting sweet, light moments with the brutal realities of racism.

The harsh realities of a Black man playing baseball in the U.S. changed O'Ree's mind about pursuing the sport. When he got back to Canada, he chased hockey the way Wayne Gretzky, a.k.a. the Great One, would do with a puck during a breakaway -- and yes, Gretzky is interviewed. O'Ree spent 20 years in the NHL and if you don't know the details of his story, I'll leave out the surprise at the one-hour mark of the film. There is plenty to chew on throughout the documentary -- from the earnest efforts of his Canadian friends to get him into the Hockey Hall of Fame to O'Ree's work as the NHL's diversity ambassador since 1994. Present-day moments include current Black NHL players, who still suffer the indignities of slurs and racist actions, and O'Ree coaching kids of diverse backgrounds -- "Hockey is for everyone," he declares.

Catch these and other documentaries at Hot Docs from April 25 to May 25, 2019 in Toronto or watch for them as they roll out in cinemas and TV.

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

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