The best of Hot Docs 2008

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I recall seeing my first documentary at Toronto's Hot Docs Festival back in 1994. It was a small lineup on College Street and we settled into a community theatre that no longer exists (replaced by a condo building back in 2000).

When the projector began, my friend and I were transformed by the film on screen - it was Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media by Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick, two Canadian filmmakers who would go on to do additional highly acclaimed films.

Since its modest beginnings 15 years ago, Hot Docs has blossomed to become North America's biggest documentary festival.

After 11 days and 172 films representing 36 countries, I have whittled down my list of favourites from the 2008 festival, which wrapped up on April 27. By the way, my list is rather limited because I was unable to see all the films.

I'll begin with some home-grown talent. Club Native by Tracey Deer is a whimsical, illuminating examination of who gets to call themselves a member of the tribe âe" literally. Deer, a filmmaker with pop culture esthetic who made a name for herself with 2004's Mohawk Girls, uses humour, some animation and compelling female characters to chronicle their struggles to retain or attain band membership. Deer manages to weave texture, depth and emotion into a rather dry topic. You will not forget the testimony of Olympian Waneek Horn Miller as she recalls the 1990 Oka crisis and her struggles to reconcile her Mohawk heritage with falling in love with a white man. (For those of you in Toronto, Club Native will be featured at the NFB Cinema on June 21, 23, 24 and 25).

Next up, Murray Siple's Carts of Darkness almost defies description âe" a former snowboarder now strapped to a wheelchair because of a car accident, Siple decides to take a closer look at the homeless men who surf like the Crazy Canucks on shopping carts down the hills of North Vancouver. As Siple slides into their lives, we are given a profound but brief glimpse into their psyche. The film brims with "outlaw energy" (as described by a character in the film) and the point-of-view shots are astounding.

Meanwhile, Shock Waves by Quebecois journalists Pierre Mignault and Hélène Magny, chronicles the dangers encountered by the reporters of Radio Okapi in the Congo. Facing violence or death, these plucky reporters give "voice to the voiceless." Shock Waves captured the CIDA prize at Hot Docs.

And while we are in the Congo, the gorgeously filmed Victoire Terminus, by Renaud Barret and Florent de la Tullaye, is a triumph of documentary and spirit. The French filmmakers follow four feisty female boxers, intertwining their hard knock lives with the country's unstable political situation. Images, sounds and dialogue are seamlessly knit together in a documentary that represents the best of the genre. For these women, "boxing washes away bad memories" and protects them from abusive men, but, as we discover, the real thuggery is done in the political ring.

Remaining in Africa, you'll never be prepared for what unfolds in The Art Star and the Sudanese Twins. This unwavering portrait of eccentric artist Vanessa Beecroft and her overwhelming, and rather questionable, desire to adopt twin brothers from the Sudan takes dips and dives into her psyche and issues of post-colonialism. Kiwi director Pietra Brettkelly has created a film that pokes into uncomfortable territory âe" what are our true attitudes towards Africa and Africans?

Another film examining post-colonial conditions is An Island Calling, directed by Annie Goldson âe" who made the critically acclaimed Georgie Girl in 2002. Based on a book, Deep Beyond the Reef by Owen Scott, the documentary tells the tale of the brutal murder of Owen Scott's brother John and his lover Greg Scrivener, who were living in Fiji. Not a straightforward story by any stretch, the film delves into the Scott family legacy in Fiji and the treatment of homosexuals. Politics, sexuality and emotions combine into a potent cocktail.

Moving from old colonial ties into the post-Communist world, we end up in the Czech Republic and the Ukraine.

In Citizen Havel, we are treated to the behind-the-scenes machinations of politics as the film takes you on a rollicking ride into the 10-year tenure of poet president Vaclav Havel. Always the jokester, Havel manages to maintain his humanity and sense of justice throughout his time in office. Fabulous moments include the minutiae of getting ready for diplomatic events, meetings with Bill Clinton as well as the Rolling Stones (!) and, always, Havel's colossal personality: "I am the President of Truth, not of Lies." Havel emerges as luminous and human. By the way, this film broke box office records in the Czech Republic.

The English Surgeon, made for the BBC, lands us in a busted Ukraine with its sad blocks of grey buildings, poverty and masses of people in dire need of healthcare. British brain surgeon Henry Marsh has been going to the Ukraine for 15 years to perform free surgeries. He is extraordinary âe" providing "failed hope" to the masses with his brilliant skills, Marsh is haunted by the memory of a failed surgery on a Ukrainian girl. Marsh asks the key question: "What are we if we don't try to help others? We are nothing." This film was named top picture at Hot Docs.

Lastly, I am haunted by the Iranian doc, It's Always Late For Freedom by Mehrdad Oskouei. Given 10 days to shoot in Iran's top rehab facility for boys under age 15, Oskouei finds five of the most enthralling boys with heartbreaking stories of abuse and drug use.

Damaged but defiant, the boys spout clever commentary as Oskouei follows their long, boring days in the facility punctuated by fights, television, beading (?!) and counselling sessions. His access is unprecedented and your heart will be shredded by the scene of one boy as he is released. âeoeWhy are you crying?âe the director asks. "I am afraid my father will beat me when I go home." As the boy waves goodbye, his arm in the firm grip of his father, you wonder where the world went wrong. Oskouei was rightly handed the trophy for best mid-length documentary.

It was difficult to come up with this list, so I have some honourable mentions to include: Steypa from Iceland and Cyanosis from Iran. Here's to the next 15 years at Hot Docs.

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