Often overshadowed by its flashier, fiction-friendly cousin, Hot Docs remains something of a hidden gem for Toronto cinemagoers, despite its stature as North America’s largest documentary film festival. Certainly, though, whatever it lacks in TIFF’s style and star power, it more than compensates for with the terrific substance of its programming. Altogether, I saw 18 of the 200-plus films on offer, and was very seldom disappointed. Indeed, the following films – my top 5 of the festival – will rival anything else released this year. Hats off to Hot Docs 2011 for some truly inspired selections.
5. Project Nim (UK-USA, James Marsh)
The story of a mercurial primate captured in the misguided service of human curiosity, Project Nim is King Kong writ small. Ostensibly, with respect to Nim, that curiosity was scientific – a test of the timeless nature vs. nurture question, and whether a chimpanzee raised in human surroundings could be taught to communicate, via sign language, in the same fashion as a human child. In practice, while Nim, marvelously, did develop a significant vocabulary, it was often his caregivers who surrendered to their animal instincts, regularly and outrageously departing from standards of scientific propriety. Meanwhile, as Nim rapidly matures from plaything to powerful and threatening, we see him betrayed, abused, and abandoned. Throughout, director James Marsh (of the Oscar-winning Man on Wire) relates Nim’s plight with consummate skill, slickly combining archival footage with subtle reenactments and outstanding production values. Alternately magical and moving, Project Nim is, in both form and content, a remarkable demonstration of our communicative capacities, as well as a potent reminder of the extent to which we remain rooted in our basest urges.
4. Boy Cheerleaders (UK, James Newton)
In light of my other selections, Boy Cheerleaders represents a much-needed boost to the adorability quotient of this best-of-fest list. Accounting even for Being Elmo, there cannot have been a more endearingly uproarious film at Hot Docs 2011. Originally produced for the BBC, Director James Newton presents the wonderfully improbable story of the DAZL Diamonds, the only all-boys team to compete in the UK’s National Cheerleading Championships. Whereas, today, it would be relatively unremarkable for nine lovable scamps from south Leeds to have joined a street dance crew, in this case, “cheerleading” means cheerleading, pink pom-poms and all. Typifying that distinction is the group’s sensationally camp head coach, the ice-blonde Ian. Despite sounding something like a Yorkshire Richard Simmons, he commands total respect, and is a firm-but-fair father figure. As many of the boys are from single-parent homes, the competition also serves as a surprisingly poignant source of mother-son solidarity, even for all its gender-bending pageantry. Hilarious and terrifically touching, its inclusion was a no-brainer, both on this list, as well as on my Mother’s Day itinerary.
3. How to Die In Oregon (USA, Peter D. Richardson)
A film of extraordinary compassion, sensitivity, and candor, the highest tribute I can pay How to Die in Oregon is that I sincerely wish it had been screened for the Supreme Court of Canada prior their narrow, 5-4 decision against Sue Rodriguez, who petitioned to de-criminalize assisted suicide in 1993. Of course, the verdict may have remained unchanged, but it is genuinely difficult to conceive that the majority justices would not have been moved, variously, by the poise, courage, and grace of the film’s subjects, as captured with astonishing intimacy by sophomore documentarian Peter D. Richardson. His protagonists are several of the 500-plus terminally ill Oregonians who have gratefully availed themselves of the state’s Death with Dignity Act, as well as an advocate of a similar law recently enacted in Washington. His fullest portrait is of the amazing Cody Curtis, a radiant 54-year-old wife and mother of two, suffering from inoperable cancer. To say that the film is heart wrenching is a considerable understatement, but it is also truly gratifying to witness, first-hand, the autonomy, peace of mind, and contentment for which Oregon’s law allows.
2. Hell and Back Again (USA, Danfung Dennis)
While I would never deny that the Oscar-nominated Restrepo is an important, and extraordinarily courageous piece of filmmaking (a fact underscored by Tim Hetherington’s recent untimely passing), its unrelenting assault of frontline footage ultimately left me more inured than immersed. Initially, I was wary that Hell and Back Again – another high profile, first-person foray into the Afghan war – would yield a similar result. Instead, I found it quietly devastating. To be sure, that’s not to be taken as saying the film is lacking in sound or fury. Indeed, photojournalist-director Danfung Dennis conveys the chaos of his embedded deployment with an intense, graphic, and high-definition immediacy. His true masterstroke, however, is in artfully interweaving his stunning battlefield images with glimpses of the physical and psychological battle waged by Sergeant Nathan Harris, a recovering soldier who, upon returning to the U.S., is abruptly confounded by the mundanity of civilian life. Notable, too, for foregrounding the plight of bewildered Afghanis caught in a literal and ideological crossfire, Hell and Back Again hits hard, and from all sides.
1. The Redemption of General Butt Naked (USA, Eric Strauss & Daniele Anastasion)
If this were merely a list of the best titles at Hot Docs 2011, The Redemption of General Butt Naked would obviously occupy positions 1 through 5. Instead, veteran filmmakers Eric Strauss and Daniele Anastasion will have to content themselves with top spot alone. Though broadening the parameters does introduce some competition, Butt Naked comfortably remains the best film I saw at this year’s festival. In fairness, considerable credit is owed to the film’s subject, General Butt Naked himself. Now known as Joshua Milton Blahyi, he is everything a documentarian could hope for: forthcoming, charismatic, and, formerly, a murderous warlord, responsible for countless atrocities. (Under oath, Blahyi himself cites a figure of 20,000.) During Liberia’s unfathomably anarchic civil war (1989-1996), Blahyi led the Butt Naked Brigade, a militia of cannibalistic child soldiers who fought with the voodoo-inspired belief that nudity and invincibility were one and the same. More improbable than even that description, however, is his newfound career as an evangelical preacher, and his apparent determination to seek out his surviving victims in order to atone for his sins. Wisely, Strauss and Anastasion let the magnetic Blahyi do almost all the talking. At times his contrition appears genuine, but, at others, you sense he’s willfully exploiting an evident national need to forgive and move forward. Expertly crafted and comprehensively fascinating, the film is every bit as indelible as its title.