Each year, I become more enamored with Toronto’s Hot Docs, dubbed the largest documentary film festival in North America. It may now partly be to do with the fact that Canada is one of the last English speaking countries that hasn’t lost its mind. Toronto is so (seemingly?) blissfully multiracial and Canada is able to support the arts in such a comprehensive fashion, as is evidenced in the way Hot Docs blankets the city with its offerings. Did you know that there was a movement in Canada to make documentary the national art form?
Imagine a city, a large cosmopolitan city, dedicating itself to documentaries for a week. The Tribeca Film Festival comes close but of course it isn’t just docs and, anyway, it’s the city of New York that gets all the credit, not the country.
This year, I started out my Hot Docs with a sobering chat with City of Ghosts director Matthew Heineman who’s film is a grueling portrait of a group of Syrian journalists, Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, who have bravely — many have been killed — reported the atrocities committed by ISIS in their home city of Raqqa.
“I am astounded by the bravery of these guys,” Heineman says. And yet, when we talked about Syria’s current geopolitical situation, he doesn’t have much hope. Heineman was working on City of Ghosts while his 2015 film Cartel Land was in the running for an Academy Award, so he would jump between Hollywood promoting and working on the Syria film, an experience he describes as “bizarre.”
Festivals and award campaigns tend to have a frothy, unreal patina which is always a little strange when you’re talking about serious nonfiction films. Although there is a glitzy, Mr. Robot-meets-CSI element to the film Pre-Crime, it’s pretty dead serious. The film, which had its world premiere Saturday night, is a striking analysis of the increasing use of predictive policing in different parts of the world focusing mostly on programs in the United States. Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report immediately comes to mind except these cops use something not as loveable as a super-human Samantha Morton: they use big data. Police forces are using data to anticipate individuals who may commit crimes based on their behavior and that of their peers. Scary stuff.
I ended my first day with Whitney: Can I Be Me, which just premiered at Tribeca, the story of pop diva disaster Whitney Houston, who died of an overdose. Directors Rudi Dolezal and Nick Broomfield do an effective job telling the story, toeing the line between fan-friendly hagiography and bloodlust for the dirty bits. The film won’t change lives nor does it stand out like Asif Kapadia’s Amy, but it’s a pretty good diversion, especially after watching the world fall apart in City of Ghosts and Pre-Crime.
Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival is from April 27 – May 7. Visit the official website for more information.