Last year’s Hot Docs was a panic-in-the-pandemic kind of experiment. One of the first film festivals in the world forced to go the all-virtual route, the lineup was tighter, and the programming up-and-down (238 titles were initially announced, before that was pared down to just 135, thanks in part to producers’ initial uncertainty about online-only premieres). But the access was unprecedented. No longer did you have to make the physical trek to Toronto to enjoy the best in global documentary cinema.
This year, Hot Docs is again a digital affair, but size-wise it’s back up to the Before Times: there are 219 films from 66 countries to choose from, each available to audiences across the country. (From the moment ticket-buyers start streaming a title, they have 48 hours to complete viewing.) So: Where to start?
Here are The Globe and Mail’s 10 best Hot Docs 2021 bets, gleaned from advance viewing, industry buzz, filmmaker reputation and intriguing subject matter.
All Light, Everywhere
A hit at this past January’s Sundance Film Festival, Theo Anthony’s doc on the future of surveillance and police work is a stark, frightening, dizzying work. Those who have already seen Anthony’s 2016 film Rat Film, which used Baltimore’s vermin problem as a jumping-off point to examine American urbanism as a whole, know that the director doesn’t make straight-ahead narrative decisions. Which is welcome: more documentarians need to appreciate how elliptical and ambitious Anthony’s work can be. At once ferociously topical and startlingly meditative, All Light, Everywhere is a film that shines bright and blinding.
Dead Man’s Switch: A Crypto Mystery
If you know the difference between bitcoin and dogecoin and can explain exactly what a non-fungible token is without getting a headache, then perhaps this documentary about the perils of virtual currency is old news. But for the rest of us, director Sheona McDonald’s look at a distinctly Canadian blockchain-based mystery – what happens when a cryptocurrency king suddenly dies, taking the digital key that unlocks his investors’ fortunes with him to the grave? – promises to be both revelatory and entertaining.
Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy
This is set to be a big year for Canadian multihyphenate Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers: in addition to starring in Danis Goulet’s forthcoming dystopia thriller Night Raiders, which enjoyed an energetic reception at the Berlinale in February, the filmmaker/writer/performer is set to premiere her new feature-length documentary, which is both timely and heartbreaking. Focusing on the Kainai First Nation as it fights the opioid crisis sweeping Alberta, Kímmapiiyipitssini hits particularly close to home for Tailfeathers: her mother, Dr. Esther Tailfeathers, works directly on the Blackfoot reserve at the heart of the film.
Misha and the Wolves
Here’s a story that couldn’t possibly get any stranger: During the Second World War, the seven-year-old Misha Defonseca loses her parents to the Nazis, flees to the forest and is taken in by a pack of wild wolves. And yet director Sam Hobkinson’s twist-a-minute film manages to uncover an even weirder narrative than the one Misha recounts, one that ropes in resistance fighters, the publishing industry and Oprah Winfrey. Watch it and become amazed at your jaw’s capacity to repeatedly drop.
The Most Beautiful Boy in the World
Ah, finally a relatable problem: What happens when you’re proclaimed by a renowned filmmaker as the “most beautiful boy in the world”? This was the plight of Bjorn Andresen, the teenage star of Luchino Visconti’s 1971 drama Death in Venice, whose life was forever altered. In Kristian Petri and Kristina Lindstrom’s documentary, the filmmakers look at how such an epic compliment can completely unravel one man’s persona.
The Rossellini Family
You think your relatives have issues? Take a look, then, at the Rossellini clan, whose members have made tremendous impacts on both the world of cinema and grievance-airing. For a film that promises to be as entertaining as it is voyeuristic, Alessandro Rossellini, the grandson of famed director Roberto, tracks down his family members across the globe to uncover just what it is about the Rossellinis (including aunt Isabella) that make them great artists and greater squabblers.
Spirits to Soar
What happened in Thunder Bay, Ont., that caused seven First Nations high-schoolers to die between 2000 and 2011? That was the question that journalist and Globe and Mail columnist Tanya Talaga sought to answer in her acclaimed 2017 book Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City, and expands upon in her new documentary with co-director Michelle Derosier. Following a 2016 inquest into the teens’ deaths, the film chronicles Talaga’s return to Thunder Bay, where a community struggles to find a path forward in the face of historic injustice.
Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
When Ahmir (Questlove) Thompson’s film revisiting 1969′s Harlem Cultural Festival premiered at Sundance earlier this year, it felt like a blast of fresh air. After a wealth of dour faux-serious indie dramas, here was a genuine blast of artistic energy and political fury. The rare doc that deserves a making-of doc of its very own – it is remarkable how much archival material Thompson was able to unearth – Summer of Soul should be played as LOUDLY as possible. (Yes: ALL CAPS LOUD.)
WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47-Billion Unicorn
Can a documentary be depressing and entertainingly breezy at the same time? After watching Jed Rothstein’s chronicle of WeWork during this March’s virtual SXSW festival, I’ll bet you one office kegger that the answer is a resounding: heck yeah. For those who have followed the stupendous rise and chaotic fall of Adam Neumann’s workplace-sharing company over the past two years, there is nothing truly new in Rothstein’s straight-ahead indictment of corporate greed. But at the same time, its collection of disgruntled employee anecdotes and eye-popping accounting practices should haunt Neumann and anyone who buys into the IPO now/think later start-up boom for the rest of their days.
There is no shortage of COVID-19-focused docs screening at this year’s festival (In the Same Breath, Viral, Sieged). But if you can somehow stomach more pandemic content in your life – not an easy sell, I realize – Wuhan Wuhan should be at the top of your list. The latest film from Toronto-based filmmaker Yung Chang (Up the Yangtze), the doc follows life on the ground in the epicentre of China’s coronavirus outbreak during those first few critical months. “As an Asian filmmaker, I want to ensure that there are Chinese-driven stories getting out there,” Chang told The Globe last spring, when he was in the early stages of production, and sensing that there would soon be a flood of COVID-themed docs to contend with. “There’s a visible tension of trying to finish quickly, but for me it’s about making the best film possible. Better to make a strong film than a quick one.”
Hot Docs runs April 29 through May 9 (hotdocs.ca)
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