Hot Docs Preview

This year’s edition of Hot Docs, Toronto’s international documentary festival, is already well underway. I’ll join in starting tomorrow: I arrive in Toronto mid-afternoon and will be seeing Shut Up and Play the Hits, the film documenting the final set of LCD Soundsystem shows that took place last year in NYC, later in the evening. After that raucous beginning, I’ve scheduled 11 films in 5 days, which should give me some sense of the documentaries on offer out there in 2012.

The festival has grown substantially since I left Toronto in 2004 and falls just after the equally brilliant Images Festival, the experimental film fest, in the city’s calendar of events. One of the highlights this year will be seeing the renovated Bloor Cinema, which has been transformed into a year-round documentary-focused screening space. While the press coverage about its opening voiced some worries about its feasibility, Toronto is a film town and one whose taste for documentaries has been carefully cultivated over the years by Hot Docs itself, so I would wager that the cinema will succeed.

I’ll do my best to report on films in between screenings, but for now here’s a brief preview of the five films I am most eager to see:

Marley (2012, Kevin Macdonald)

1. Marley (2012, Kevin Macdonald): There’s high hopes out there for this one. Made with the permission and involvement of the Marley family, but steering clear of pure hagiography, Macdonald’s film promises to situate Marley within the long, complex history of the Black Atlantic. If Marley has in recent years been reduced to icon without history, this documentary ideally would play some part in returning us to the man himself and showing the key role he played in the global 70s. Macdonald seems a good choice of director here. One Day in September proved him a deft hand at dealing with recent history and important historical events and Touching the Void showed his talent is drawing the best out of his interviewees.


2. Detropia (2012, Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady): I’ve written here and here about the contemporary cultural fascination with Detriot and Detropia joins Requiem for Detroit (Julien Temple) and Detroit: Wild City(Florent Tillon) to form a trio of films that examine the city’s descent into ruin but argue that there is continued life in the city. While Temple’s film delved deeply into the archives (both visual and musical) to juxtapose the past with the present and Tillon’s pursued the ecological in its representation of Detroit as a kind of recrudescent post-apocalyptic garden, Ewing and Grady’s doc look as if it will focus on the people of Detroit, those who have remained, have returned, or have found their way there.


3. McCullin (2012, Jacqui Morris): This documentary about the legendary photographer who worked at the Sunday Timesfrom 1966 to 1983 is already generating talk of a Hot Docs audience award.


4. Downeast (2012, David Redmon, Ashley Sabin): This looks like a terrific state-of-the-nation documentary that tells an economic and environmental story by focusing on the east coast fishing industry. It’s American and the fish process plant is in Maine, but I am expecting it to resonate powerfully with the Canadian experience and ongoing struggle in Nova Scotia (and the Atlantic provinces more generally) to sustain a fishing industry in the face of government mismanagement and corporate rapacity. Cynthia Fuchs has a review of the film, which played at the Boston Independent Film Festival, at PopMatters.


5. The Young Man Was (Part 1: The United Red Army) (2011, Naeem Mohaiemen): This looks as if will bridge the art gallery and the cinema and is being co-presented by Hot Docs and the Images Festival. Angie Driscoll provides a compelling description of the film at the Hot Docs website:

The first installment in a film trilogy that traces a history of 1970s ultra-left terrorist groups, Part 1 looks at the 1977 hijacking of flight JAL 472 by the Japanese Red Army and their landing in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Filmmaker Naeem Mohaiemen remembers missing his favourite TV spy show for pre-emptive live coverage of the hostage-taking. Relying almost entirely on radio transmissions between the airport tower and the hijackers, the film displays the interactions as on-screen text. The tension and drama that builds from the clipped verbal exchanges speaks volumes, escalating from polite courtesy to mortal threat. Part 1 is an experimental suspense story that relies on the sound of disembodied voices to convey the negotiations and tenuous alliance between the Japanese Red Army’s rogue rebels and the Bangladeshi military government.

Memory-film, essay-film, this sounds as if it could fall somewhere in between Chris Marker’s Le fond de l’air est rouge/A Grin Without a Cat (1978) and Johan Grimonprez’s Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y (1997). Very, very excited about this.

The Young Man Was

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