The 10 films you need to see at Hot Docs 2016
An eye-opening exploration of guns in America, a behind-the-scenes look at the world's best restaurant and eight more compelling docs from this month's fest
Under The Gun
There’s a perverse sort of pleasure in watching gun nuts hoist rifles in one hand and homemade signs in the other. Katie Couric’s shocking study of guns in America gives plenty of screen time to those Second Amendment fanatics, but its most moving moments are those featuring the parents of people killed in shootings. The film pairs personal stories with answers to tough questions: why does the gun lobby always win on the senate floor? Why do otherwise pleasant citizens cling to the right to bear arms? Expect to be floored and frightened, but don’t go looking for nuance. The film concludes with a hands-down condemnation of the NRA, and not a single official from the association agreed to be interviewed to stand up for the other side.
Strike A Pose
Madonna’s 1990 Blonde Ambition tour gave the world a lot more than just voguing and a pointy Gaultier bra. It provided the queer community with a new generation of red-hot role models: Madge’s seven backup dancers, who became the faces of a diverse sexual revolution. Strike A Pose catches up with these zeitgeist kids in the present day. The meatiest bit is voyeuristically watching them read their fan mail aloud, more than 25 years after they responded to an ad seeking “fierce male dancers who know the meaning of troop style, beat boy and vogue…wimps and wannabes need not apply.”
HARDEST TO WATCH
Would an apology repair the damage done by Japanese troops who kidnapped and sexually abused thousands or women during World War II? Probably not, but the Japanese government has nonetheless refused to issue so much as an acknowledgement of the violence. “For over 70 years, I have not lived like a normal person,” says Gil Won-Ok, one of the three living survivors featured in this documentary. It’s poignant, heartfelt and ultimately devastating—a reminder that time does not in fact heal all wounds.
Former congressman, shouting-match enthusiast and unfortunately named sexter Anthony Weiner is a case study in how to self-destruct. This tongue-in-cheek Sundance hit peers into the inner workings of his sexting scandal: his painfully comical inability to back away from a fight, the unending string of jaded looks from his campaign team, the increasing regularity with which Weiner tells the camera he needs to speak with his wife in private. The most fascinating takeaway: the public and political realms are fickle, but Weiner’s wife—Huma Abedin, the vice-chairperson of Hilary Clinton’s current presidential campaign—is unfathomably forgiving.
Brothers is a bit like a real-life version of Boyhood—it’s the result of the near-decade that Norwegian director Aslaug Holm spent filming her two sons, who are five and eight at the beginning of the film. As the boys go to school, play on soccer fields and stroll along the coasts of Oslo, they transform from little boys to big boys, but not quite men. Holm’s narration and discerning eye captures the listlessness and promise that underpins childhood—and the single-mindedness of her own parenthood: “My whole world is in this tiny universe,” she says. There’s humour in the way the boys start complaining about the camera, annoyed by the constant prodding as they grow older. “But life is about existential questions,” Holm coos over images of the boys playing along the beach. “We’re looking for the unique event that overshadows daily struggle.”
League of Exotique Dancers
This flamboyant doc charts the rise and fall of burlesque, from its heyday in 1950s to its decline in the ’70s. The stars are, of course, the dancers. The only thing better than their names—Camille 2000, Holiday O’Hara—is their insider knowledge of how to put on a memorable show. (It’s all about the three Ps: parade, pose, and peel.) The film frames them as forerunners of subversive feminism, but that underlying theme is masterfully hidden within heaps of fun: plenty of performance footage, an indulgent S&M scene, and the story of Judith Stein, a self-described farm girl from Woodbridge, Ontario, with a legendary reputation and glimmering red slips.
This triumphant yet angry doc follows Anoosh and Arash, two Tehran-based DJs struggling to produce, promote and play electronic music in a country where anything but traditional music and classical piano is illegal. When Anoosh gets sent to jail in the middle of the film, he just gets more dogged about his music. The pair decide to host an exhilarating undercover rave in the middle of the desert and eventually set their sights on escaping Iran so they can keep making the music they love—even if it that means breaking up with their anonymous, off-camera girlfriends.
The Incomparable Rose Hartman
Photographer Rose Hartman knows how to capture Hollywood glitterati when they least suspect it. She has shot some of the defining images of contemporary glamour: behind-the-scenes pics of Donna Karan runways, intimate snaps from Andy Warhol’s infamous Studio 54. This documentary catches her at the end of her career, afraid of being forgotten. She’s argumentative, forlorn and slightly beat up, and it’s an absolute joy watching her confront strangers whose eyes are glued to their smartphones, asking, “Hello, do you know me? Are you looking at my work? Well, no, why not?”
Publicists expressly asked reviewers not to divulge the details of this film so as to preserve a sense of disbelief for audiences. As maddening as that is for us, it’s the right move; the mystery at the centre of this movie is best experienced in real time. Here’s what we can tell you. Tickled looks innocent enough—it starts out as a light-hearted exploration of a subculture that really loves tickling (really)—but quickly turns into the creepiest doc in the festival. It chronicles an insidious online conspiracy that could have easily been left unearthed were it not for journalist David Farrier’s tenacity.
Ants on a Shrimp
For those of who’d rather not leave the Hot Docs theatre crying and distraught, there’s this delicious flick. It’s a lush insider perspective on Noma, the Copenhagen restaurant that regularly places at the top of Restaurant’s annual rankings, and their five-week operation in the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Tokyo. It’s funny, fast-moving and insightful, offering glimpses into 20-hour work days in a subterranean kitchen, experiments involving not-yet-ripe strawberries and live snapping turtles, and the most memorable of diner demands: “No meat, no fish, but dairy and insects are fine.”
An earlier version of this post included the incorrect trailer for Weiner.