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hot docs 2016

A scene from A League of Exotique Dancers.

The Apology

Directed by Tiffany Hsiung

Classification N/A; 105 min

4 stars

League of Exotique Dancers

Directed by Rama Rau

Classification N/A; 90 min

4 stars

As women age, they become invisible to the society around them. There are many heartbreaking moments in the National Film Board of Canada documentary The Apology; one occurs when Gil Won-Ok, a Korean woman in her 80s, reminds a group of teens that she was once the same age as they are now. It may seem to them, as it does to the viewer, almost impossible that this wrinkled, white-haired creature was also a girl, but it is crucial to remember Grandma Gil at many ages, for when she was all of 13, she was snatched from her family by Japanese soldiers and forced into sexual slavery for several years, an experience that cast a long shadow over the rest of her life.

The Apology is partly a documentary by director Tiffany Hsiung about that war crime – it is estimated that more than 200,000 women from Korea, China, the Philippines and Indonesia were enslaved by the occupying Japanese armies – but mainly it is a film about the incredible resilience of the survivors who have been petitioning the Japanese government for an apology and restitution since the stories of the so-called comfort women first came to light in the early 1990s. Their refusal to disappear is inspirational.

So, too, is the exuberant continuance of a happier group, the former strippers, now women in their 60s and 70s, who are the subject of another Canadian documentary, Rama Rau's League of Exotique Dancers, the opening-night film of the Hot Docs Festival in Toronto on Thursday. As they prepare to make their appearances at the Burlesque Hall of Fame in Las Vegas, women such as Gina Bon Bon, Lovey Goldmine and Holiday O'Hara discuss how they entered the field and how they left it.

Some of them insist on the artistry of burlesque, a form of popular entertainment that was eclipsed in the 1980s by lap dancing, pole dancing and looser legislation governing porn cinemas; others acknowledge they are sex-trade workers. "It wasn't the symphony," says one. Some of them still work in the trade – there's a phone-sex worker, a club manager and a dominatrix – while others have blended into civilian life. All of them seem overjoyed at the opportunity to strut their stuff again, this time for a mixed audience that views burlesque as a lost art form and celebrates its camp.

In hindsight, the women all speak of their work as a kind of sexual liberation, a way to use their bodies to hold power in a man's world and earn a good living that didn't involve marriage and housework. Still, that empowerment clearly came at a price: Many of them discuss serious problems with drugs and alcohol.

If they were sexual objects in their heyday, their joyous reappearance now is a notable retort to the fetishization of young, female bodies as they reveal their sexiness through broad hips and sagging flesh. The Apology, on the other hand, ends without triumph: Two of the women interviewed died during the course of filming and Grandma Gil is visibly tiring of the fight. Perhaps not wishing to muddy the story, Hsiung does not mention the half-hearted apology and paltry compensation the Japanese did offer in later 2015, after the film had wrapped.

In all kinds of different circumstances and places, women lead lives bounded by male sexual desire. One former stripper jokes that she inherited her mother's long legs and needed to make a living; a Japanese politician refuses to retract his comment that the comfort women were necessary. Yet, in these films the anonymous men who took their pleasure are all long gone and what emerges powerfully is the insistence of these aging women that they are free and that they are themselves.

The Apology and League of Exotique Dancers both premiere at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, which runs in Toronto through May 8 (