With more than 200 documentaries from 45 countries, there is no shortage of good think-films showcased this year at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival, which runs April 23 to May 3 in Toronto. While you can find the entire schedule here, this is our list of 10 foreign affairs docs to keep your eye on.
Frame by Frame
“If a country is without photography, without historical, artistic and cultural photos, that country is in fact without identity.”
This film follows four internationally renowned photojournalists embracing the relentless work afforded to them since the reemergence of a free press Afghanistan in the post-Taliban years — during which time taking a photograph was a crime. A flurry of images from recent Afghan history reels in the opening credits, from the Soviet invasion at the end of the 1970s until the end of Taliban rule in the early 2000s. The framing of the film’s central point — the importance of domestic photojournalism — takes shape and is made all the more poignant by how beautifully this film is captured, edited and soundtracked. Attention is drawn to how the international spotlight has faded from Afghan issues leaving the truths and identity of an erratic environment to be captured by the people of Afghanistan themselves.
Tue April 28, 19.15, Hart House Theatre
Wed April 29, 15.45, TIFF Lightbox 1
Sat May 2, 19.00, Hart House Theatre
The Pinochet Case
“If we aren’t able to take to trial those who were responsible, at least memory will make for a historical trial of them.”
This 2001 Patricio Guzman documentary weaves the stories of the legal work done by a small team in Madrid, the testimonies of victims and the complicated and the precedent-setting immunity removal by the UK government that should have led to the human rights abuses trial of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. The merging of these stories climaxes with the escalation of horrific victim statements accusing Pinochet of crimes of torture and inhumane treatment and the sad reminder that justice is sometimes a difficult notion to attain in international law, despite Pinochet’s rewritten, uncovered and uncensored history.
Fri May 1, 14.00, ROM Theatre
“I believe the United States of America must remain a standard-bearer in the conduct of war that is what makes us different from those whom we fight.”
Drone explores the ethical and legal grey zone in which the CIA’s use of drones falls. From testimony of former drone pilots to the experiences of communities in non-declared war zones who have endured the constant hum of drones overhead, unknowing when and where the next strike will be, it is clear the impact of drone strikes has been far more grave than the taking out of high-level al-Qaeda militants. The interviews and arguments put forward feel as ominous as the sight of a military drone itself — there’s an unsettling feeling that this type of warfare is about to hit on a wider level worldwide. An important wake-up call.
Fri April 24, 15.45, TIFF Lightbox 3
Sat April 25, 16.30, TIFF Lightbox 1
Sat May 2, 10.30, Hot Docs Bloor Cinema
Those Who Feel the Fire Burning
“My wishes will never reach the graveyard. To a torn heart full of grief, sadness isn’t unfamiliar. All alone in a dark grave underground…”
Those Who Feel the Fire Burning is a striking documentary that uses subjective techniques in capturing the struggles of an array of characters caught in the crisis of illegal immigration to Europe. Dark images and pulsating camera movements mirror the murky issues and panic of the illegal immigration stories exposed. The audience is left wondering if the very notion of borders needs to be reimagined to restore harmony in a world filled with such outrageous inequality.
Sat April 25, 21.00, Scotiabank Theatre 7
Mon April 27, 16.45, Scotiabank Theatre 4
Sat May 2, 15.45, Hart House Theatre
Warriors from the North
“I never felt like I belonged anywhere, neither here [Denmark] or Somalia. There were a lot of us who felt like that.”
Warriors from the North highlights the recruitment tactics by Muslim extremists al-Shabab of disaffected European-Somalis (the children of Somali immigrants to Scandinavian countries) to fight in operations back in ‘stateless’ Somalia. An interview of the father of one of the recruits conveys how these boys’ situations are manipulated and that the failing assimilation of young Muslim men into white, European society needs to be addressed.
Fri April 24, 16.45, Scotiabank Theatre 7
Sun April 26, 11.30, ROM Theatre
Fri May 1, 21.45, Scotiabank Theatre 8
“Until the lions have their own historians, the story of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”
A snapshot in the lives of three civil workers and the story of how Congo’s capital city Kinshasa is struggling to rebuild itself following the lengthy DRC conflict, this portrayal captures the slow pace, beauty and frustration of a country adjusting to transition. This documentary offers a rare insight into the daily lives, aspirations and musings of the people of Kinshasa and lively images of a country and a people known better for the tragedies that have befallen it.
Tue April 28, 18.45, Scotiabank Theatre 7
Thu April 30, 17.00, Scotiabank Theatre 8
Sat, May 2, 19.00, Scotiabank Theatre 10
Sweet Micky for President
“Why do you want to be President of Haiti? It’s like wanting to be captain of the Titanic.”
Pras Michel, better known as a founding member of rap group Fugees, was prompted by the 2010 Haitian earthquake to set out to make change in his ancestral nation. His solution? Support and promote his friend Michel Martelly, known locally as a diaper-wearing, over-the-top performer Sweet Micky, as a presidential candidate in the 2011 elections. It is the most unlikely of election campaigns, and the film follows just as unlikely as a path — rivalries with Wyclef Jean, phone calls to Bill Clinton, run-ins with Sean Penn and all the while the tension of a dark political history and a country who needs and deserves a definite change lies just below the surface of the film’s main action.
Tues April 28, 18.30, Bloor Cinema (Scotiabank Big Ideas)
Wed April 29, 13.00, Scotiabank Theatre 4
Sun May 3, 17.30, Revue Cinema
“Suddenly it was a crisis. Suddenly…I’m in a war? It’s like the books. I’m going to war? Then suddenly… Then suddenly I felt that I didn’t want it. Suddenly I saw what a fool I’d been. Why did I ever want a war?”
Censored Voices is an emotional and haunting revelation. It pictures the reactions of Israeli war veterans listening to their own younger voices, stories and opinions, which were recorded days after the Israeli victory of the 1967 war. Israeli authorities up until their release by this documentary, had censored these recordings, presumably fearing that they would hamper the patriotic euphoria following Israel’s defeat of its invaders, Egypt, Syria and Jordan. The recordings also raise the issue of prisoner of war and civilian treatment during armed conflict as well as raising questions about the legality of orders given by commanders and actions carried out by Israeli troops.
The film discusses themes like what it means to be victorious in war, what post conflict appraisal could be and how our governments’ role in suppressing truth in order to propagate an image of strength can lead to an escalation of denial and lost honesty and wisdom among a generation when confronted with the prospect of empathy and reconciliation.
Tue April 28, 21.00, Isabel Bader Theatre
Thu April 30, 18.30, Bloor Hot Docs Cinema
The Amina Profile
“This experience has sadly only confirmed my feelings regarding the often superficial coverage of the Middle East and the pervasiveness of new forms of Liberal Orientalism.”
The Amina Profile is a multi-layered story based around the uncovering of a prolific blogger who came to prominence around the time of the Syrian uprising. The documentary focuses on the mysterious online profile of “Gay girl in Damascus” blogger Amina Arraf and how her posts from the beginning of the Syrian conflict became a source for credible western media. Soon it becomes clear that all is not as it seems. The issue of how online profiles and documentations, however well intentioned, can have serious personal and public consequences when they are not authentic uncovers.
Sat April 25, 19.00, TIFF Bell Lightbox 1
Thu April 27, 13.00, Hart House Theatre
“Since 9/11, over 500 individuals in the U.S. have been charged with terrorism-related crimes. Nearly 50 percent of those cases resulted from the use of a paid informant.”
The makers of this documentary attain for its audience access to an undercover FBI agent and, simultaneously, his target. More impressively they do this in real time without either side knowing the other is being filmed. The story unfolds into one simple and direct point: the FBI’s counter terrorism system is institutionally and philosophically flawed. Since September 11, the use of paid informants to cultivate terrorists has grown exponentially; the targets are almost exclusively Muslim teens and young men and are usually easily recruited due to their disaffection with society. Also complicit in this flawed system are the surveillance instruments, which are simultaneously heralded by those in office. This expose in ‘(T)ERROR’ shows a government so desperate to make terrorism arrests that its system is based on entrapping a targeted social, religious and vulnerable class.
Sun April 26, 21.45, TIFF Bell Lightbox 1
Tue April 28, 16.00, Scotiabank Theatre 4
Sun, May 3, 11.30, TIFF Bell Lightbox 1
All photos courtesy of Hot Docs 2015