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Soundtracker follows Gordon Hempton on a mission to track down and preserve the noises of nature.


The following short reviews of films screening at Hot Docs are by James Adams, James Bradshaw, Guy Dixon, Rick Groen, Liam Lacey, Gayle MacDonald and Dave McGinn. Films are rated on a four-star system.

A Drummer's Dream John Walker (Canada) *** A handful or so of some of the world's most exuberant, innovative and technically perfect drummers convene for a drumming clinic in rural Ontario. Nasyr Abdul Al-Khabyyr? Horacio (El Negro) Hernandez? Most, if not all, are not household names. These are drummers' drummers who have backed-up jazz and rock giants like Dizzy Gillespie and Carlos Santana. Non-drummers watching the film will be blown over by the joy in their virtuoso playing. But this is really a film for drummers to buy on DVD and study over and over until the rewind button breaks. G.D. May 7, 10 p.m. Royal; May 9, 1:30 p.m., Royal

Beyond Ipanema Guto Barra (Brazil/USA) ** An exciting topic, a less than exciting film. For anyone who came into record-buying consciousness in the Stan Getz/Joao Gilberto jazz era or with David Byrne's Brazilian compilation albums, the emergence of Brazilian music into the rest of the world is prime documentary territory. There are some wonderful insights here, such as Byrne talking about the first days he bought Brazilian albums at a San Francisco record store in the mid 1980s. Or rap-dance singer M.I.A. describing when she heard hard-hitting Brazilian sounds like funk carioca for the first time. If only we could see more of the performers and actually hear more of the music, instead of a contemporary Brazilian dance soundtrack grooving through much of the film. The end product is a pleasant mash-up of the music through different eras. But rarely do you feel transported to Rio or to the living rooms and clubs abroad where the music had its real influence. G.D. May 8, 9:15 p.m. Cumberland 3; May 9, 7 p.m., Royal

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Bhutto Duane Baughman, Johnny O'Hara (USA) ** No matter how much the film's driving soundtrack and choppy editing distract from the story, the life and death of Benazir Bhutto is truly a modern Greek tragedy. The film is convincing when noting how much the Bhuttos were and still are the Kennedys of Pakistan. Their lives of high education, privilege and assassinations have ripped apart the family and the country. Benazir, a two-time prime minister of Pakistan, was pushed into the political spotlight at a young age by her father, the reformist former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was forced from office by General Zia's military government and hanged. Years later, Benazir, returning to Pakistan from self-imposed exile, was killed by a gunfire and bomb attack, a case never solved. A fascinating story, retold well, though clearly from a pro-Bhutto perspective. Yet the fast-pace filmmaking, intended to build drama, only gets in the way. G.D. May 1, 6:15 p.m. Bloor; May 4, 11 a.m., Isabel Bader

Citizen Architect: Samuel Mockbee and the Spirit of the Rural Studio Sam Wainwright Douglas (USA) *** As one of the talking heads in this fine film says, "We spend almost all of our time in architecture." Yet when we think about architecture, our thoughts usually crystallize around famous, exceptional and expensive buildings. Samuel (Sambo) Mockbee thought differently. Which is why in the early 1990s, as an architecture professor at Auburn University in Alabama, he co-founded the Rural Studio to provide well-designed, smartly built houses, community centres, churches and the like to impoverished, small communities in the American South. Mockbee, a fifth-generation Mississippian, died in 2001 of leukemia but the Rural Studio persists as do similarly inspired organizations like Architects for Humanity and DesignBuildBLUFF. Sam Wainwright Douglas's doc is an absorbing, frequently moving, sometimes funny celebration of what can happen when architecture is practised as a social art concerned with creature and spiritual comforts. J.A. May 1, 7:15 p.m., Innis; May 4, 2 p.m., ROM

Complaints Choir Ada Bligaard Soby (Finland) * Finnish artists Tellervo Kalleinen and Oliver Koctha-Kalleinen have organized complaints choirs around the world for the past five years as part of their Complaints Choir Project. Everyone's got a gripe, and singing about it just might make it better. Here, the duo put together complaints choirs in Chicago and Singapore - but they fail to show much of the everyday people who want to air their grievances in song actually,you know, singing. The sense of fun and humour in such choirs is also missing here. This documentary gives other complaint choirs plenty to sing about. D.M. May 5, 9:30 p.m., Cumberland 2; May 6, 4:30 p.m., Innis

The Devil Operation
Stephanie Boyd (Canada/Peru) ** An agit-prop political thriller manqué, The Devil Operation has a whole lotta potent ingredients. Too bad they're hobbled by poor writing, weak, often confusing direction and an overbearing soundtrack. Using footage assembled over the last nine years, director Stephanie Boyd chronicles the struggle of Peruvian farmers and eco-activists to rein in the environmental despoliation perpetrated by U.S. and British mining companies at the same time as they strive to combat and expose the efforts (including murder) of shadowy intelligence agents to derail their cause. The doc's at its best when it lets the "good guys" (and gals) say their piece, at its worst when Boyd's voiceover slathers on the clichés ("History has a funny way of repeating itself") and the purple portents ("Their metal claws and fangs have eaten the mountains one by one"). The whole thing needs a re-edit. Location maps and more exposition and context would be welcome, too. J.A. April 30, 9 p.m., Cumberland 3; May 3, 2 p.m., Cumberland 2

Dish: Women, Waitressing and the Art of Service Maya Gallus (Canada) *** Waitressing is hard work, sometimes rewarding, sometimes demoralizing. It depends on the customers. That we all knew. But here's a much closer look at the myriad conditions waitresses have to face. In truck stops, it's about offering a smile to lonely truckers and discouraging lonely-heart fantasies. In Montreal's sexier restaurants, such as Houster (the French version of Hooters, where the outfits are more scantily cut), it's about being palsy with customers, but also asserting the ground rules. In Japan's "maid cafés," it's play-acting cutesy roles and calling male customers "master," while wearing girly-girl, Harajuku-inspired street fashion. Most telling are the waitresses in Paris competing in a male-dominated setting, where waiting tables isn't a job, but a vocation. Even in those conditions, male servers have the same kind of difficulties keeping customers happy. G.D. April 30, 9:15 p.m. Bloor; May 8, 1:30 p.m. Royal; May 9, 6:30 p.m., Bloor

Gasland Josh Fox (USA) *** A first-person activist documentary that really works, Josh Fox's film mixes the director's personal experience - after being offered almost $100,000 for natural-gas rights to his Pennsylvania family farm - with solid research and a startling number of anecdotal horror stories about the so-called "clean" fossil fuel. Fox's focus is on the process of hydraulic fracturing or "fracking," a system of natural-gas extraction that appears to endangers local water supplies throughout much of the United States. A rough poetic mix of agit-prop, anecdote and solid research, this is the sort of documentary that should serve as a wake-up call. L.L. April 30, 9:45 p.m., Isabel Bader; May 2, 12:30 p.m., Bloor; May 9, 9:30 p.m., Royal

How I Filmed the War Yuval Sagiv (Canada) *** This is one of the most formalistically interesting films at this year's festival. A graduate student in film at Toronto's York University, Sagiv alternates silent First World War footage with images of text excerpts, scored to an electro-acoustic soundtrack. The footage is from The Battle of the Somme, in its day (1916) a highly regarded, immensely popular documentary on the British war effort against "the Boche," the text from various sources, most notably the autobiography that gives the film its name, written in 1920 by Geoffrey Malins, the cinematographer who shot the Somme reels. Sagiv's motive is deconstructive, as he combines text and image to demonstrate how the camera can lie, seeing can be deceiving and a picture may need 1,000 words to accurately elicit its content and worth. There are some great revelations nicely revealed here: For maximum impact, don't read about Malin or his work before seeing it. J.A. May 2, 7:15 p.m., Innis; May 9, 9;15 p.m., Innis

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In the Name of the Family Shelley Saywell (Canada) ** This film explores a confoundingly complex question: How does one navigate a life stuck "in the middle" between conservative South Asian culture and interpretations of Islam, and the more permissive West? Told through the lens of four families, including that of Aqsa Parvez, the 16-year-old Mississauga girl who allegedly died at her family's hands in //CUT: an alleged honour killing in// 2007, the dramatic moments are soft-spoken and subtle, and much of it consists of the protagonists plainly telling their tales. But it's this sparseness that brings home the remarkable ordinariness of most of these families, aside from the cultural wars being fought at home. J.B. May 1, 7 p.m., Royal; May 9, 6:45 p.m., Isabel Bader

The Kids Grow Up Doug Block (USA) *** Block's poignant documentary focuses on his only child, Lucy, from the moment she's born until she leaves the family apartment at 17 for college. Seemingly in the blink of Block's eye (and his ever-present camera), Lucy transitions from an adorable, hop-scotching tot into a private, mature young woman who sleeps with her boyfriend in the room next door to her parents' - only one of the many changes Block struggles with as he tries to envision a future without Lucy as his mainstay. The documentary is an unflinchingly honest look at the void parents face when their kids pack up, move out and move on with their own lives. It's a tender portrayal of the blink-and-you-miss-it progression through childhood, told through a father's doting lens. G.M. May 4, 6:45 p.m., ROM; May 6, 4 p.m., ROM

Kings of Pastry Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker (France/Netherlands/USA/U.K.) *** A frothy little concoction, Kings of Pastry tracks a select group of chefs aspiring to be crowned MOF - for the uninitiated, that's Meilleur Ouvrier de France, a distinction conferred every four years on the winners of an Olympian competition as gruelling as any marathon. Under the stern eyes of some very serious judges, the nervous patissiers prepare bonbons and mousses and tartes and éclairs, bake wedding cakes of multiple tiers and, the pièce de résistance, carve vast sugar sculptures that look like Lalique glass on steroids, at least until a slight misstep brings the extravaganza crashing to the kitchen floor. The doc is much like those sculptures - light and a bit fragile, but fun while it lasts. R.G. May 5, 6:30 p.m. Bloor; May 7, 11 a.m., ROM

The Mirror David Christensen (Canada) *** Once upon a time there was an Italian mountain village that was dark through the winter, and no one wanted to stay. So the mayor, who also drove a train, decided to get a big mirror and reflect light from the sky into the town square to make people happy again -- all except, of course, for the group of German Buddhists on the hilltop who believe a mirror is but a pale reflection of ultimate reality. David Christensen unfolds his real-life fairy tale with a deft mixture of respect and humour. Can a Hollywood feature be far behind? L.L. May 3, 7:30 p.m., Royal; May 5, 11 a.m., ROM

My Perestroika
Robin Hessman (U.K./USA) *** Interviews with a group of one-time schoolmates presents a microcosm of life growing up in the latter stages of the Soviet Union and the liberation and disillusionment that followed as the Iron Curtain fell. Rather than the cold, grey USSR most often portrayed in the West, it's a quirky, somewhat joyful look back at an era that one woman says "all sounds like a joke now," laughing. Soviet life seems like some sort of bizarro world: Not so radically different as one might expect, yet just strange enough as to be deeply unsettling. J.B. May 3, 9:30 p.m. Cumberland 3; May 8, 2 p.m., Cumberland 2

Nénette Nicolas Philibert (France) *** Director Nicolas Phillibert, the man behind the French one-room schoolhouse educational documentary Etre et avoir, shows a similar gift here for generalizing from the particular to the general with this graceful, quintessentially Gallic meditation on the meaning of an elderly 40-year-old female orangutan in a Paris zoo. While visitors (seen against the reflected glass) comment on her straggly, mournful appearance, the zoo-keepers tell her personal history and other commentators discuss the zoo window, the barrier between the curious humans and their captive, not-quite-human primate cousin. L.L. May 6, 7 p.m., Isabel Bader; May 8, 4:30 p.m., Isabel Bader

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The Oath Laura Poitras (USA/Yemen) *** An intimate perspective on al-Qaeda is provided through interviews with Abu Jandal, an ideologically conflicted Yemeni taxi driver and former Osama bin Laden bodyguard, in director Laura Poitras's second film (after My Country, My Country) in her proposed trilogy on post-9/11 American policy. Following the Sept. 11 attacks, Jandal provided the FBI with vital anti-terrorist information, while betraying his brother-in-law, bin Laden's chauffeur, Salim Hamdan. The film also follows Hamdan's Guantanamo trial leading to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the detainee military commissions violated military law and the Geneva Conventions. L.L. April 30, 7 p.m., Isabel Bader; May 7, 4 p.m., ROM

Osadne Marko Skop (Slovakia) *** What happens when a small-town Slovak mayor, a priest and a downtrodden tourism promoter travel to Brussels? This small, unassuming film about a hard-luck village in eastern Slovakia trying to drum up tourism and money from the European Union won't appeal to everyone. But those with patience will be treated to a beautiful, often hilarious film. It not only subtly skewers the formalities of EU bureaucrats, it offers rich insight into local identity within a larger Europe context. But as the population of the tiny village continues to age and die away, so do the grand plans. An exceptionally well-made cinéma-vérité film. G.D. May 1, 4:30 p.m., Cumberland 2; May 3, 2 p.m., Innis

The Parking Lot Movie
Meghan Eckman (USA) *** The Parking Lot Movie is just that: 84 minutes of colour footage shot mostly at the Corner Parking Lot near the University of Virginia in downtown Charlottesville where director Meghan Eckman gets 18 attendants or so (all guys), current and former, to opine, pontificate, bemoan and ruminate on la vie de l'aire de stationnement. Parking lots, or this particular lot at least, seem to attract philosophical types. Then again, maybe it's the lot that makes the man? Regardless, Eckman's depiction of this "rag-tag group of fractured poets," these "tollbooth operators on the expressway to the weigh station to the American Dream," offers plenty to think about and laugh at. We learn that anthropology grad students make the best attendants, "law students are very bad parkers," "an element of the sacred" informs the life of an attendant and the worst clients, in no particular order, are "mid-life crisis guys," "sorority girls" and "frat boys." J.A. May 1, 6:30 p.m., Cumberland 3; May 3, 11:45 p.m., Bloor

Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage Scot McFadyen, Sam Dunn (Canada) *** From revelatory interviews with Alex, Geddy and Neil to the rarest of rare performance footage - with excellent sound! - this is a film for fans. A straightforward biopic on the surface, it's really a story of three admittedly geeky guys progressing through some pretty out-there phases (in a good sense musically, in a not-so-good sense sartorially). As other musicians describe Rush's influence, the Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan offers the fundamental notion that no one has successfully explained why Rush has connected with fans so strongly for so long. This film does that. The trouble is, now we need another film about their equipment, another about Neil Peart's drum technique, another about their songwriting process, their Ayn Rand lyrical flirtations and so on. G.D. April 30, 4 p.m., Isabel Bader

Sex Magic, Manifesting Maya
Jonathan Schell and Eric Liebman (USA) ** In his home-made temple in the Arizona desert, Baba Dez is a "sacred sexual shaman" dedicated to healing his female clients. He's also a pony-tailed, 50-year-old American who gets laid a lot, and, lately, is carrying a torch (okay, an incense candle) for the curvaceous Maya - she recently dumped him for a younger man. Ultimately, though, after all the new-age bafflegab has settled, Baba is just another shallow guy selling nudity and sex in the good name of enlightenment. The same might be said of this documentary. R.G. May 2, 6:30 p.m., Cumberland 3; May 4, 2 p.m., Cumberland 2; May 5, 11:59 p.m., Bloor

Shadow Play: The Making of Anton Corbijn
Josh Whiteman (Australia) *** At 54, Dutch-born Anton Corbijn is among the elite image-makers of pop culture. In the last 30 years he's photographed seemingly everyone -- U2, Depeche Mode, William Burroughs, Nirvana, REM, Springsteen, William Gibson among them -- and directed many a music video. Director Josh Whiteman hooks his profile around the making of Control, Corbijn's 2007 directorial feature-film debut, about the gloomy, doomy post-punk British band Joy Division. Shadow Play is never less than interesting to look at, thanks to the iconographic potency of much of Corbijn's work, and it's chock full of articulate talking heads including Bono, journalist Paul Morley, actress Samantha Morton and REM's Michael Stipe. However, it's not terribly revealing of the lensman. The son of a rather dour parson, Corbijn comes across as a solitary kind of guy, and protective of that. Yet Whiteman fails to deliver even modest biographical rudiments. Straight? Gay? Married? Divorced? Kids? The answers aren't here, just the art and artifice. J.A. May 7, 9:15 p.m., Bloor; May 9, 1 p.m., Bloor

The 'Socalled' Movie Garry Beitel (Canada) ** A difficult subject, even for an accomplished Canadian documentary-maker. The film tries to get into the mind of Josh Dolgin, who goes by the stage name Socalled. Dolgin melds klezmer and Hasidic music with hip hop and alt-crowd sensibilities in a way that's more rousing than kitsch. He's not poking fun, but presenting to his hip audiences a genuine passion for even the schmaltzier side of the music. The point isn't high musicianship. His skills are far from the level of, say, jazz clarinetist Donald Byron's explorations of klezmer. Dolgin is more on the mash-up, DJ side of the fence. As a musician, visual artist, magician, he is a man searching for identity, almost regressively as he looks through childhood knick-knacks. The film doesn't figure out what he's ultimately after in his art or in himself. Dolgin doesn't even know. The question is the extent to which viewers will have the patience to share in that creative struggle. G.D. May 2, 9:15 p.m., Bloor; May 4, 11:30 a.m., ROM

Soundtracker Nicholas Sherman (USA) ** If nature is endangered, so are the sounds that nature makes, and, armed with his recording equipment, Gordon Hempton is on a mission to track down and preserve those sounds - the canonical babbling of a brook, the whoosh of wind through tall grass, the song of a meadowlark in harmony with the whistle of a passing train. His mortal enemies on this quest are ubiquitous power lines with their ever-present hum, and overhead planes with jet engines in full blast. My, but the man can get quite worked up about such aural pollutants. The doc does best when it reproduces his captured sound and mutes his righteous fury. R.G. May 2, 6:45 p.m., ROM; May 4, 4:30 p.m., Cumberland 2; May 9, 4 p.m., Innis

The Story of Furious Pete George Tsioutsioulas (Canada) ** Seven years ago, Peter Czerwinski was admitted to Toronto's Sick Kids Hospital on the verge of death, his heart barely beating in a body emaciated from anorexia. And so began Czerwinski's inspiring battle to get his life back on track. With the help of a close-knit family and friends, the 24-year-old engineering student thwarts death by embracing food, better nutrition and the gym. And he bulks up. Big time. Today, Czerwinski - known as Furious Pete to his fans - is an internationally renowned competitive eater, able to chow down a 72-ounce steak (with side orders) in seven minutes and 600 grams of pasta in a minute and a half. His story is bizarre, touching and uplifting. It's the tale of an average guy who lost his way, but learned to eat his way back into the winner's circle. G.M. April 30, 7:30 p.m., Royal; May 9, 1:30 p.m., Cumberland 3

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