Although the Hot Docs film festival began last Thursday, it’s just now really heating up. The industry people are coming to town for various events, conferences and meetings that are planned over the next few days. I’m halfway through my stay here so I’d like to give a review of what I’ve seen so far.

It’s been a real emotional roller coaster, going from intimately-told death tales (A Woman Like Me) to aw-shuck’s joy rides (Unbranded) and disturbing tales of injustice ((T)error). One of the greatest joys of attending a film festival is going into it with a schedule of films I intend to see, and then letting my plan organically fall apart as I find myself sitting in on films I’d hardly noticed.

Unbranded was a shocker, a totally unusual, if not perfect, film about four recent Texas A&M grads who go for an adventure taking wild mustangs from Mexico to Canada. Nothing earth-shattering or imperative here, although the film tries to connect their journey with the greater cause of preserving wild horses. And the director Phill Baribeau is clearly trying to put his subjects in a positive light that lacks any critical distance. But the film is really fun as the boys traverse our great country. Unbranded is a cross between The Hangover, The Horse Whisperer and a great National Geographic nature doc, which is a combination you’ll rarely get to see.

The biggest surprise was my highest high so far, Rolling Papers, a fun-filled film about Colorado’s first year of legalized marijuana and how the Denver Post covered it. Rolling Papers focuses on the Post‘s marijuana editor Ricardo Baca and it has a hell of a lot of fun with its subject, cutting to worshipful images of buds literally raised on fuzzy pedestals while heart-pumping music plays. The movie is interesting but primarily fun, and I particularly got a kick out of the moments the film itself takes on seemingly THC-influenced jags, funny tangents, intentional losses of focus, and a hilarious verbal diarrhea sequence.

Off the screen, there have been several touching revelations during the Q&A’s. First, there was a great relief to see Erich, the husband of Woman Like Me co-director Alex Sichel, who is the subject of her own film about dying of cancer (which she sadly ultimately does), seems to be handling things the best he could. And it was chilling to hear David Felix Sutcliffe, one of the directors of (T)error, which is about the FBI’s highly suspect system of using informants to root out terrorists, tell the audience that a person who is close to him is now being persecuted by the FBI. Sutcliffe alleged that it may be in reprisal for the film, which premiered at Sundance. (Perhaps more on this later.) And then there was the big reveal from Rolling Papers director Mitch Dickman, who replied to my question during the Q& A that yes, indeed, he had smoked pot the morning of the screening. Not unlike a wine drinker, he said, he smokes a few times a week. Which doesn’t hold a match to the inclinations of Zack Armstrong, the film’s DP, who smokes every day. As mentioned by the Hot Docs moderator, these guys are truly blazing their way through the festival.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen