Six to see at Hot Docs

Six to see at Hot Docs. From the film If a Tree Falls: A story of the Earth Liberation Movement

It's that time of year again -- as Canadians search in vain for signs of spring, the Hot Docs International Festival sprouts in Toronto. Running from April 28 to May 8, North America's largest documentary celebration will unspool 200 films from 43 countries.

This time around, it comes during a dire period in the Canadian documentary landscape. Don't be fooled by the big announcements by our feds or the NFB. If you check out the recent report released by the Documentary Organization of Canada (DOC), you'll get the whole picture.

According to Getting Real, which examines the documentary industry from 2006 to 2009, the industry is in distress:

- Production in documentary dropped to its lowest level in 6 years.

- While French-language production remained stable, the English-language sector dropped $52 million.

- Broadcasters have increasingly turned to programming lifestyle and reality shows instead of the usual Point of View documentaries.

Here's the good news, there's been a 77 per cent boost in attendance at documentary film festivals across the country. If you're a documentary fan, join up with DOC's new We Love Documentary campaign.

With a diverse slate at Hot Docs this year, I've chosen six captivating films which will take you on some extraordinary rides. Naturally, there are dozens of others you could pick and I encourage you to go if you're in Toronto. Of note is the "Workers of the World!" roster of movies at the festival.

A reminder about all the films mentioned below -- even if you can't get to Hot Docs, these documentaries might appear at a local festival or air one of the networks at a later date.

What to watch

Wiebo's War

What vindication this film is for Wiebo Ludwig, the so-called domestic terrorist who has been fighting the Alberta oil and gas industry for two decades. This is a rare insider's access to the Trickle Creek Farm in northern Alberta where Wiebo and his Christian community are ensconced. The film unfolds to reveal the profound fight Wiebo has had -- sour gas wells near his farm are linked with five stillbirths/miscarriages and inexplicable animal deaths, multiple toxic leaks have resulted in evacuations from the farm, and the repeated RCMP investigations and farm searches (a form of harassment). Ludwig comes off as a reasonable fellow -- despite his 2001 conviction for a series of pipeline bombings. It's heartbreaking to see the toll it takes on Ludwig, who at the end of the film, realizes the enormity of the battle he still has at his doorstep.

If a Tree Falls: A story of the Earth Liberation Movement

Any film by Marshall Curry (whose 2005 Street Fight was nominated for an Oscar and was an audience fave at Hot Docs) is bound to be a quality experience. This is no different. The narration by Curry is spare and effective as he peels the layers off the shady environmental activist group, responsible for a series of arsons. It begins with a man arrested at the workplace of Curry's wife and the film keeps deepening and widening as the federal net catches more of ELF's members around the country. The 85-minute film manages to expand on the personalities involved while detailing how the movement became more radicalized. The film sparks more questions: when civil disobedience isn't working, what is the alternative? Are the ELF activists "terrorists"? As one federal prosecuto declares: "the world is not black and white."

The Pirate Tapes 

What you see will amaze, puzzle and freak you out in this Canadian doc, which has Mohammed, a young Somali-Canadian, joining an armed pirate cell with a hidden camera. Sections of the film feel like a music video, which goes far to imbue the disconnect one feels watching events progress, as you witness how piracy works in Somalia and how it's just a "simple business model." You can't get this kind of depth on the news -- the workings of piracy are more bizarre than you can ever imagine. Beginning with fishermen protecting their waters and ending in a muddle of international business dealings and local corruption, you will never forget what you learn. What is the choice for a Somali when a low-level pirate earns $10,000/year while the average salary there is $600 annually? Mohammed's journey is called into question about ¾ of the way through when the producers lose track of him. I won't reveal the ending.

Imaging Emmanuel

The bureaucratic bungle that has dogged Emmanuel, a Liberian man who declared refugee status in Norway eight years ago, is worthy of comparison to a Kafka novel. This inventive documentary, which examines multiple facets of Emmanuel's story and experience, keeps you guessing: Who do you believe -- Emmanuel or the Norwegian bureaucrats? It's more about the nature of identity and the larger issue of how we treat refugees. Strange and shocking at the same time, the story of Emmanuel's situation is well-outlined and treated with much respect and analysis. As authorities keep demanding paperwork regarding his past, Emmanuel (who is illiterate) proclaims: "I cannot give them what I don't have." Stuck in a no-man's land of non-citizenship, Emmanuel passes his days in a kind of solitude in Norway, hoping he can go back to Liberia as the bureaucrats keep spinning, refusing to admit to a possible mistake (they insist he's Ghanian). I say Free Emmanuel!

The Battle for Barking

An election thriller much in the style of Marshall Curry's Street Fight, this British film's verite style is key to uncovering the dirty shenanigans of the British National Party's determination to win the ethnically-diverse Barking district of London. The BNP candidate's views on non-whites are mind-boggling: "They're not bad, but they're not us." Using the high unemployment rate to grease their racist agenda, the BNP launches a full-on attack against the incumbent Labour candidate Margaret Hodge, whose spine of steel is evident: "He hates women, he hates immigrants and he hates Jews. I'm all of them!" This isn't a simple white people vs "ethnic" people dichotomy - emotions bubble up when the filmmaker interviews some of the working-class whites who feel left behind in the new Britain. As election day draws near, the frantic work on both sides gears up and things get very rough for the BNP candidate. Will reason win the day? Discover for yourself.

Family Portrait in Black and White

This film had me mad and sad. Olga Nenya is raising 16 bi-racial foster children (most have black fathers) in Ukraine, a country that has an active Neo-Nazi movement. In her ramshackle house, which has no heating and an outside toilet, she keeps her children well-fed and clean, while tracking their schooling and keeping them in line. Trouble looms when some of the children start expressing their own desires. Older boy Kiril (a music genius) becomes the thread inside the story. His observation that Olga is like Stalin -- the children are the "masses" who toil on the mini-farm while Kiril is treated like a "dissident"-- is not far off the mark. Olga, at times a warm figure, can be cruel and indifferent to the kids who do not toe the line. For me, the film ended too abruptly, raising many more questions about what happened to the children. Nonetheless, this is an engrossing film that keeps making left turns.

Other Films to Consider: Mighty Jerome, Mama Africa, Project Nim, Beauty Day, How to Die in Oregon, Gnarr, Cosmic Energy Inc., Boy Cheerleaders, How Are You and In Heaven, Underground.

Happy Hot Docs!

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

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