TORONTO - Step away from the reality-TV!
Real reality is on offer starting Thursday at Hot Docs, North America’s largest documentary festival.
Often a barometer of films that will end up on Oscar’s list (2015’s What Happened, Miss Simone? and the short Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah were nominees at this year’s Academy Awards), Hot Docs gets underway with Rama Rau’s League Of Exotique Dancers as its opening night gala.
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The funny and touching film is set at the Burlesque Hall Of Fame weekend in Las Vegas, and profiles the veterans of Burlesque from the ’50s-’70s — with names like Lovey Goldmine, Holiday O’Hara and Kitten Natividad (of Russ Meyer film fame). There’s even one, Toni Elling, who broke the industry’s race barrier.
And yes, they’re all still willing to peel, wrinkles and gravity be damned.
Here are 10 more Hot Docs films we saw and recommend:
MIGRANT DREAMS: You may recall French’s saved tomato farming jobs in Leamington, Ont., on the back of a boycott of Heinz ketchup. But it turns out the “jobs” are those of migrant workers who are defrauded, extorted and exploited. Kind of makes me feel a little less saintly for joining the boycott. A classic of the I-can’t-believe-this-kind-of-crap-is-going-on-in-my-backyard genre.
SPIRIT UNFORGETTABLE: Heartbreakingly, in his ’50s, John Mann of the great Canadian Celtic-rock band Spirit Of The West, was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. This intensely personal, alternately sad and joyous doc follows SOTW’s final tour, leading up to a fingers-crossed finale at Toronto’s Massey Hall. Lots of archival footage of one of the most fun and energizing bands this country has ever produced.
UNLOCKING THE CAGE: D.A. Pennebaker and his wife and partner Chris Hegedus (The War Room) go for the long haul, following the prolonged fight of lawyer Steven Wise and his Non-Human Rights project. The object is to have chimps (and then, maybe, elephants and cetaceans) declared “persons” under law. And they are farther along legally than you think. Fascinating film about a passion-raising topic.
LO AND BEHOLD: I will listen to Werner Herzog wax existential any time. And his “reveries of the connected world” are a goldmine of such daydreams (including “Does the Internet dream of itself?”) supported or humoured by experts. Subjects include artificial intelligence and the possibility of a post-human world, and essays on the curse and blessing of connectedness on our consciousness.
CHEER UP: “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey” has seldom been more true than in this story of a perennially-last place Arctic Circle Finnish cheerleading squad (is there a country where cheerleading would seem more out of place?). The coach even travels to Texas for tips on how to rouse team spirit. But it’s a tough sell to a bunch of cynical young women who are simply learning how to cope with their grim surroundings. So personally shot, it’s almost a movie.
HOTEL COOLGARDIE: And more Finns. This one follows the trying times of Finnish backpackers Lina and Steph, bereft of cash and lured into a job slinging pints at a pub in a mining town deep in the Australian Outback. The customers are rough, chauvinist, sometimes menacing, sometimes touching, and every bit a product of their environment. This is a seldom-seen Australia, with wry moments of humour.
AIM FOR THE ROSES: One of the weirdest, artsiest and most oddly uplifting films at Hot Docs. The tale of three dreams/fool’s errands that piggyback each other, it starts with the story of the late Canadian daredevil Ken Carter’s rocket-car stunt over the St. Lawrence and segues into a bizarre performance album by avant garde B.C. classical musician Mark Haney. Ultimately, the film itself becomes a third-party with its audacious presentation of Carter’s story.
TICKLED: Almost too weird to believe, it’s the story of how a New Zealand filmmaker stumbled on a U.S.-based “competitive tickling” circuit on the Internet, and saw the lighthearted story turn sinister, with themes of sexual harassment, extortion and fraud. It turns into an extensive piece of investigative reporting, into fetishism that crosses the line into big-time criminality.
OFF THE RAILS: In an ideal world, this would be a feel-good story. Darius McCollum was a New York kid with undiagnosed Asperger’s syndrome, who fixated on the New York transit system and became a “mascot” of the drivers (who even let him drive the subway trains). Unfortunately, this was illegal, and McCollum was driven to drive trains and buses again and again, always safely and with attention to stops and schedules. As a result, the repeat offender has spent more than 20 years in prison. A frustrating story about a unique and touching character.
WIZARD MODE: The redemptive story of Vancouver’s Robert Gagno, a world-ranked pinball champ who has prevailed over and continues to deal with autism so severe that he was once deemed incapable of speech. It’s a portrait of an engaging young man with worldwide attention, overcoming fears daily with the help of a tireless family. And there’s pinball!
Hot Docs runs from today until May 8. For more info, visit hotdocs.ca.