Hot Docs 2016: Top foreign affairs documentaries to watch

The Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival began this week. In anticipation of the festival, we scoured the list for the most exciting, insightful and touching films dealing with international affairs.

By: /
April 27, 2016
fukushima
Naoto Matsumura, the last man living in the red zone of Fukushima, walks in a desert street. Credit: Hot Docs

Between April 28 and May 8, Toronto hosts Hot Docs, North America’s largest documentary film festival. Over 200 documentaries from 51 countries will be screened across the city and, as reflected in this list, nearly 40 percent of the directors featured in this year’s program are female.

The internationally-minded festival-goer will be spoilt for choice this year, with subject matter ranging from child gangs in Afghanistan to the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster to an inside look at North Korea. Here are our top ten picks.

The Land of the Enlightened

Gangs of children pillage caravans for opium, control trading routes and unearth explosives to sell to other children working in mines in this startlingly beautiful portrait of war-torn Afghanistan. Shot on 16mm film over the course of seven years, The Land of the Enlightened is both alluring and evocative. Weaving together shots of U.S. military bases, mountainous landscapes and intimate portraits of his subjects, Belgian filmmaker Pieter-Jan De Pue blends fiction and reality in this hybrid documentary that traces the legacy of the American invasion and presents a stirring depiction of the country these children – resilient and determined to survive – have inherited.

Screenings

Monday, May 2, TIFF Lightbox 3

Wednesday, May 4, TIFF Lightbox 4

Friday, May 6, TIFF Lightbox 2

Under the Sun

It was to be a propaganda film, until Russian director Vitaly Mansky used his unprecedented access to North Korea to expose the absolute control of Kim Jong-un. Mansky was granted permission by the government to chronicle the life of a “perfectly ordinary family” as their daughter prepared to join the Korean Union for Children. The script was written by the government, which also chose the shooting locations, reviewed each piece of footage and insisted on a 24-hour minder service to the filmmakers. Mansky worked around this censorship by including shots of officials setting up each scene, where they can be seen meticulously directing the “actors” on where to stand and how to deliver their lines. Under the Sun provides a glimpse into a society isolated from the rest of the world, living under a regressive regime whose control has no limit. 

Screenings

Saturday, April 30, 7:00 p.m. Innis Town Hall

Sunday, May 1, 4:00 p.m. TIFF Bell Lightbox 4

Saturday, May 7, 12:30 p.m. Scotiabank Theatre 14 

Gulîstan, Land of Roses

From a deeply intimate perspective, Canadian filmmaker Zaynê Akyol explores the lives and dreams of female Kurdish fighters. The documentary follows the brigade throughout the rough mountainous terrain of Kurdistan as they train in preparation to battle Daesh (the so-called Islamic State). It is said that combatants who die at the hands of a woman will not go to paradise, making female fighters a feared force across battlefields in Syria and Iraq. The women boast revolutionary and feminist ideologies, motivated by the horrific sexual abuse Daesh has inflicted on Kurdish women and a longing for a free, democratic society where they are no longer bound by traditional gender roles.

Screenings

Tuesday, May 3, Scotiabank Theatre 3

Wednesday, May 4, TIFF Bell Lightbox

Sunday, May 8, Scotiabank Theatre 13

No Man Is An Island

This visually stunning film tells a story of compassion and displacement. Belgian filmmaker Tim De Keersmaecker follows the story of Adam, a 16-year-old from Ghana, and Omar, a 21-year-old from Tunisia, who arrived on the tiny island of Lampedusa in the middle of the Mediterranean by boat. Both were adopted into families on the island, but struggle to integrate into a close-knit Italian society undermined by subtle racism. As both men go about their new lives, their isolation and longing for their homelands intensifies. No Man Is An Island depicts the global refugee crisis from a perspective of longevity; while the two young men survived a dangerous journey across the sea, efforts to assimilate into a new culture pose a more difficult challenge.  

Screenings

Sunday, May 1, Hart House Theatre

Tuesday, May 3, Scotiabank Theatre 3

Saturday, May 7, Isabel Badar Theatre

The Apology

The Apology transcends the borders of China, South Korea and the Philippines, where three former “comfort women”– also referred to as “grandmothers”–now in their 80s and 90s campaign for the Japanese government to recognize and issue a formal apology for the kidnapping and forced sexual slavery of women and girls that occurred during World War II. Grandma Gil in South Korea, Grandma Cao in China and Grandma Adela in the Philippines share their stories of imprisonment and sexual abuse at the hands of the Japanese, and are the few women still alive to tell the horrific tale. After decades of silence for fear of familial and societal reprimanding, Canadian filmmaker Tiffany Hsiung immortalizes their shared traumas and efforts to rewrite history. 

Screenings

Sunday, May 1, TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

Sunday, May 8, Isabel Badar Theatre

Gun Runners

Julius Arile and Robert Matanda spent years terrorizing local villages in northern Kenya, stealing cattle and maize across the countryside. Canadian filmmaker Anjali Nayar follows the two notorious men on their individual paths to redemption as they leave their life in the bush and turn in their guns for pairs of running shoes in hopes of becoming professional marathon runners. Their ambitions are plagued by the social and political landscape of Kenya; Matanda tries his hand in politics while Arile trains for the New York Marathon. As both men put everything on the line for their respective dreams, they face mounting pressure to provide for their families.

Screenings

Monday, May 2, TIFF Bell Lightbox

Tuesday, May 3, Scotiabank Theatre 4

Friday, May 6, TIFF Bell Lightbox 3

The Age of Consequences

This isn’t just another climate change documentary. The Age of Consequences tells the story of global warming from a national security and international stability perspective, guided by Pentagon insiders, academics and military personnel. Through stunning wide-angle shots and news clippings, American director Jared P. Scott investigates how environmental shifts correlate and often exacerbate a web of global issues such as conflict, mass migration, humanitarian crisis and state collapse. True to his style (see Requiem for the American Dream), Scott breaks down the film into chapters, using state of the art graphics and visuals to illustrate this complex relationship. The film serves as a call to action through a narrative that cements the notion that further inaction on climate change is not only reckless but poses the greatest national security threat of our time.

Screenings

Sunday, May 1, TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

Wednesday, May 4, Hart House Theatre

Saturday, May 7, Revue Cinema

Half-Life in Fukushima

Following the aftermath of the nuclear disaster at Fukushima, Naoto Matsumura and his father Daisuke remain some of the only residents in the radiation red zone. Grappling with the loss of his community, Naoto strolls through his now abandoned town, which is permeated by an existential other-worldliness. While the film invokes certain post-apocalyptic images, the two men manage a calm normalcy in their daily lives, at points causing the viewer to be forgetful of the ever-present and potentially fatal radiation. Just below Half-Life in Fukushima’s simple surface boils a philosophical discourse that meditates on a sense of loss, regrowth and hope.

Screenings

Monday, May 2, Scotiabank Theatre 4

Wednesday, May 4, TIFF Bell Lightbox 3

Sunday, May 8, TIFF Bell Lightbox 2

The Peacemaker

The Peacemaker chronicles the life of Padraig O’Malley, the Irish “mad scientist” of international peace brokering. The film follows O’Malley all over the globe to peace conferences and negotiation tables where he tirelessly works to resolve some of the world’s most violent conflicts. He has a unique approach: bringing together cultures with the aim of having those who have endured sectarian conflict share their stories with others who are currently experiencing it. While the film provides a glimpse into the often closed door sessions of international dealings, it is a portrait of a man who has devoted his life to creating peace for others while his own has eluded him.

Screenings

Friday, April 29, TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

Saturday, April 30, TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

Saturday, May 7, Bloor Hot Docs

Migrant Dreams

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Courtesy Shasha Nakhai

Migrant Dreams exposes the exploitation and coercion of migrant workers in Canada's agriculture industry. Canadian filmmaker Min Sook Lee follows a group of brave women workers who, with the help of local activists, fight back at the agents and business owners who deceived them into coming to Canada by promising an opportunity to pay back their ‘debts’ while sending thousand of dollars home to their families in Indonesia. The film unpacks the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) in Canada that allows for migrants to be treated more or less as modern indentured labourers – forced to work and live in deplorable conditions – and uses threats of deportation to trap the vulnerable into a system stacked against them.

Screenings

Sunday, May 1, TIFF Bell Lightbox 2

Tuesday, May 3, Scotiabank Theatre 3

Sunday, May 8, TIFF Bell Lightbox 2

Other notable mentions

Chasing Asylum

The Crossing

When Two Worlds Collide

Do Not Resist 

In the Shadow of the Hill

Callshop Istanbul

A Revolution in Four Seasons

City 40