Last Thursday the Canadian International Documentary Festival – better known as “HotDocs” – began.

HotDocs is the largest documentary film festival in the world and I’ve been awash of documentary film watching. Love it!

Paris 1919
by Paul Cohen, and based on the wildly popular novel by Margaret
MacMillan (I say wildly popular, but I’m an historian by training so
take that as you may), this docudrama merges archival footage with
live action to demonstrate the difficult art of peacemaking that was
the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I. When the armistice
was signed on November 11, 1918 the world powers met in Paris not so
much to make peace but punish Germany. American President Wilson knew
a different sort of peace was necessary and came armed with his
League of Nations proposal, but in the end the old ways of Europe
prevailed and the Treaty was little more than a land grab for
England, France, Italy, Japan and the United States and a brutalizing
penalty for the German people in the form of war reparations. Paris
1919 is fascinating look at a time none of us should forget, and a
prime example of how we, as humans, never seem to learn the lessons
of war. My rating 8 out of 10.


Rembrandt’s J’accuse
artsy director Peter Greenaway gives us his edition of the DaVinci
Code with Rembrandt in the starring role and his famous painting –
the fourth most famous painting in the western world we’re told by
Greenaway – The Night Porter, front and centre in a tale of murder
among Amsterdam’s military elite in the 17th century. The documentary
recounts 30 evidentiary pieces of a puzzle found within the painting
that purportedly point to murder, cover-up, a homosexual relationship
and revenge. While it is all very intriguing and is certainly
perfectly visually constructed as only Greenaway’s can do,
Rembrandt’s J’accuse falls short. The documentary is slow and had
me nodding a couple of times, I think a failure of the documentary’s
non-linear construction and the fact there’s just too many
characters to get your head around. Yet, read as a sly comment by
Greenaway on our inability to see the forest for the trees, and
worse, our tendency to take things at face value rather delve beneath
the obvious messaging, Rembrandt’s J’accuse does make one go
‘hmmmm’. My rating 5 out of 10.


End of the Line
biased, sure, but The End of the Line makes for compelling viewing
for all piscivores and ought to change your habits when buying or
ordering seafood. Directed by Rupert Murray and based on Charles
Clover’s novel of the same name, it traces our impact on the oceans
of the world and how, if we continue our current ways, our children
will live in a world completely void of fish by 2048. None. Gone.
Finished. The message here is clear and succinct and supported by
science and demands we each, individually, make a moral decision when
sallying up to the fish counter at the grocers. While it’s a lot of
doom and gloom, and while you’ll never look at the Mitsubishi
Company with any degree of respect again, there is hope. The End of
the Line does equip you to be a more knowledgeable piscivore by
simply asking questions before you order or buy fish. I for one am
hooked on the idea. My rating 7 out of 10.


The Red Chapel

documentary that offers bang for your buck on several levels, the Red
Chapel’s initial pretext is a cultural exchange between a small
Danish theatre group and the totalitarian state that is North Korea.
The theatre troupe is headed by the documentary’s director
Brügger and comprises two Danish/Korean comedians, Simon and
Jacob, who is disabled. As they land in Pyongyang
are ferried about by the capital by a very motherly government
handler as they prepare for their performance at the National Arts
follows though is an incisive look inside a brutal regime that begins
to take its toll on the teenaged Jacob as he learns other disabled
children in the country are simply killed at birth or moved to camps
in the wildness. With moments of hilarity clearly lost in translation
between the Dutch and Koreans, moving emotion, and cutting commentary
on what remains the most horrific military state on the planet, The
Red Chapel is a must see. Book a ticket. My rating 9 out of 10.


Children of God
Korean Seung-jun Yi directs this lyric and emotional look at a group
of young boys in the Nepal capital of Kathmandu who survive by
fishing the detritus of Hindis cremated on the steps

on the banks of the Bagmati River. In particular we come to know
12-year-old Alesh and his younger brother and sister. Their mother
works the streets as a beggar herself, caring more for alcohol than
her children and it is the middle son who acts as a family broker.
Alesh is drawn to the livelier streets downtown where money is easier
had but falls into glue sniffing with his small troop. Children of
God is a difficult documentary to watch, yet remains strangely moving
as we see these youngsters with very adult perspectives, living
between heaven and hell. My rating 8 out of 10.


I should note these two films I also watched recently, neither of which are HotDocs babies, obviously.

The Eye (aka Gin gwai)
by the Pang brothers, The Eye is a psychological thriller that takes
the case of donated corneas to new depths. The story centres on blind
Wong Kar Mun (Angelica Lee) who starts seeing all sorts of creepy
things after receiving a donated pair of corneas from a young Thai
woman considered evil by her villagers. Disturbed by what she is
seeing – you think! – she enlists the help (and love) of Dr. Wah
(Lawrence Chou) and together they begin to unravel the mystery. There
are some great slow and eerie scenes here – particularly when Wong
Kar Mun finds herself in an elevator with a ghost – and some genuine
shock-the-hell-out-of-you moments. The acting is solid and the
soundtrack, mirroring Mun’s profession as a violinist, is pitch
perfect. The Pangs lay on the doom far too thickly at the end yes,
but their film-making is solid and proof the best horror directors
know how to get you scared: by delivering frights without the gore.
My rating 6 out of 10


Romeo & Juliet
Zeffirelli directed this excellent version of
classic tale of romance and tragedy, a synopsis for which is hardly
necessary. It starred two relatively unknowns, Leonard Whiting (as
Romeo) and Olivia Hussey (as Juliet) and a very young Michael York
(as Tybalt), and no less than Lawrence Olivier doing the voice over.
The film is successful thanks to Zeffirelli’s direction which is
bold and immediate and full of mobs and passion and young nudity and
even handheld camera work (shocking for 1968). We believe these
youngsters truly love each other and despite Hussey’s irritating
inability to cry with any degree of belief (a failure mimicked by
Claire Danes in Baz Luhrmann’s
1996 Romeo & Juliet effort), the film brings Shakespeare to life
like few films ever have. Shakespeare would approve me thinks. My
rating 7 out of 10.


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