Spring 2009's don't miss documentaries

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The biggest documentary festival in North America continues to grow exponentially. In 2009 programmers at the annual Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto sifted through some 2,000 entries to come up with 171 films from 39 countries. Since its inception 16 years ago, Hot Docs remains relevant in the most exhilarating ways.

Here are some stimulating films to watch for on television and at local festivals in cities across Canada:

The Cove is a stand out documentary -- it tracks the efforts of former Flipper dolphin trainer Richard O'Barry and The Oceanic Preservation Society to shine a filmic light on a hidden cove in Taiji, Japan where an inhumane, horrific slaughter of thousands of dolphins takes place annually. The film won Hot Docs audience award, as it also did at Sundance.

The covert mission includes Canadian Simon Hutchins as the expedition leader and two Canadian free divers. This movie is shot like a thriller and its underlying message and content will be seared into your consciousness.

If you never end up seeing this superlative film, what you should know is that the International Whaling Commission is a farce and Japan is continuing its dolphin slaughter -- some 23,000 are killed each year-- under the cover of "tradition." Japan doesn't need dolphin meat and in fact, most of it is frozen and stored in giant warehouses. The film team -- which tested the meat for mercury and found levels at 2,000 ppm, far beyond the health advisory of 0.4 ppm -- postulates Japan is doing it simply to refute the West.

Funded by Netscape founder Jim Clark, The Cove is the one documentary you must catch.

Another terrific doc is City of Borders -- an examination of the layers of conflict that emanate from the only gay bar in Jerusalem. American journalist Yun Suh has crafted a tight, compelling film that illuminates the complex web of the personal and the political for any one who is gay and living in Israel or the Occupied Territories. This is no typical Israeli vs. Palestinian story -- City of Borders never fails to keep doing left turns in its 57 minutes.

Orgasm Inc. has, undoubtedly, the best title. It took nine years for American director Liz Canner to unravel the world of "Female Sexual Dysfunction" (FSD) and the efforts of big and little pharma to push, what Canner says, is a fake disease and its medical solution. As a woman, I found myself increasingly enraged as companies and medical professionals claimed that 43 per cent of women were sexually dysfunctional. My rage hit a new high as Canner probed the world of vaginal reconstruction. The film's conclusion: there is no such thing as FSD and whatever sexual problems you may be having -- well, they are normal and can be attributed to a variety of causes, such as relationship problems or previous sexual abuse.

Two fascinating films at the festival scrutinized the role of media: Reporter and Burma VJ -- Reporting from a Closed Country.

Reporter, which I reviewed in April, follows two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nicholas Kristof as he heads into The Democratic Republic of the Congo along with two young Americans. The issue at stake is how the media can make its audience care any more about a humanitarian disaster. This film is a start in terms of exposing what ails the craft.

Burma VJ is a suspenseful film that sheds light on the work being done by the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB). Headquartered in Oslo, DVB consists of a group of about 30 Burmese reporters who secretly film the abuses in their country. The film chronicles the dangerous work the DVB's video corps did during the 2007 uprising. To say the risks they take are heroic seems an understatement.

Creative documentaries enrich the genre

Two Canadian documentaries at the festival proved how inventive our filmmakers are. The two films help enrich and expand the repertoire of the genre.

Fig Trees by John Greyson details the groundbreaking actions of two AIDS activists struggling to bring attention to the disease, while also trying to get medication to the people who need them. Greyson eloquently evokes the struggles of Canadian Tim McCaskell (a co-founder of AIDS Action Now) and South African Zackie Achmat to bring the AIDS epidemic to the forefront. This "opera doc" is a visual treat: sometimes surreal and other times silly, it is clever, triumphant and sad.

A few of those adjectives could also describe Laura Bari's Antoine -- a dreamlike doc that fuses the fantasy world of a blind six-year-old Montreal boy and his real life. Bari -- an arts educator who works with children -- has creatively knitted Antoine's make-believe world of the private eye and his "real" world, dealing with the ups and downs of being a blind kid attending school. Antoine's intelligence is off the chart and his imaginative world is alluring and expansive. Bari collaborated with Antoine on the film.

I need to slip a third Canadian film onto this list. H2Oil concerns itself about the extensive environmental and health effects of Alberta's oil sands project (it takes four barrels of fresh water to make one barrel of oil, by the way). The last half of the doc is riveting and worth waiting for. The first half is a bit dry with too many talking heads and statistics -- yet, a nice primer for those who want to know more.

The stories of native leaders, a local doctor that raised the health alarm and the couple running a spring water bottling company are great. I only wish there could have been a tighter focus. The highlight comes around the 45-minute mark of the 73-minute film -- an explosive confrontation between native residents and Suncor officials. "Do you live here?" asked one man. "Would you eat a fish that has a tumour?" Touche. H2Oil will be airing on Global TV and Tele-Quebec later this year.

Discomforting docs

Two documentaries that beg to be mentioned are Episode 3 -- Enjoy Poverty by Dutch artist Renzo Martens and The Red Chapel by Danish journo Mads Brugger. While both films bring up vital issues -- the methods used are sure to incite.

Marten's work is a piece of agit-prop that mocks the way Westerners treat and make money off poverty. In this case, he examines the state that Congo is in -- with its filthy lure of diamonds, copper and coltan (used in cellphones) and its abject poverty. Marten's camera is uncomfortable (a good thing) as he points it at malnourished children, labourers who make $4/month and the ridiculous money paid to photographers for their shots and footage of death, disease and disaster. Martens tells villagers to enjoy their poverty because the prosperity that Westerners have promised will never come to fruition.

Martens takes on the mantle of the arrogant Westerner while mocking the type. At the same time, his art film re-victimizes the very people he seeks help for.

Brugger's The Red Chapel is just as squirm-worthy. The journalist takes two Korean-Danish comedians (one of whom is a self-described "spastic") to North Korea in an effort to expose the vicious "nightmare that is North Korea." The trio deliberately create an absurd staging of The Princess and the Pea (complete with farts), which is then re-imagined by the North Koreans. The regime, known for dispensing with anyone deemed mentally or physically abnormal, is exposed for its dark, warped ways.

The effect of the experience on Jacob (the 19-year-old "spastic") is painful. He has a breakdown at one point and must endure the sickly, sweet ministrations of his North Korean guide -- obviously overdoing it for the camera. At a picnic in the countryside, a few of the teen girls joining in the festivities feed Jacob like a child. He finds the whole experience "psycho-creepy." That pretty much sums up the film for me.

Scandinavian love and hate

Lastly, there has to be honourable mentions for two films which delve into the family.

The Danish film, Side by Side, directed by Christian Sonderby Jepsen, is one of the most beautiful films I've ever had the pleasure of experiencing. It is a doc-fable which excavates a 15-year mystery: why did Jepsen's father and his elderly neighbour stop talking? Delineating that alienation is a nine-metre wide hedge that now separates the two neighbours. Funny and strange, Jepsen has concocted a cinema-worthy real-life fairytale that is enchanting, touching and leaves you wanting more.

Over in Norway, Havard Bustnes, has also fashioned a captivating yarn in Big John. In this case, it's a love story between a father and son -- Big John Klemetsen trains and coaches his boxer son Ole aka The Golden Viking. Bustnes has uncovered a tender tale of the pair's relationship -- emotional men inhabiting a brutish world. Bustnes uses archival footage and interviews to entwine the professional and the personal into a charming story of family and devotion.

Hot Docs has proven every year to be an essential forum for the stories that we never get to see in the mainstream. In this crazy world of economic collapse, media meltdowns and shrinking filmmaking funds, I urge you to keep watching and supporting documentaries -- nourishment for the brain and soul.

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