Hot Docs 2018: Recommendations

I was fortunate enough to see a few films at Sundance this year that are now making their way to Toronto for the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. The festival runs from April 26 through May 6 at several venues throughout the city, and is one of the best values in terms of festival experiences in my opinion. I’ve got two recommendations for now:

Still from Shirkers

Shirkers (Director: Sandi Tan)

In the early 1990s, Sandi Tan and her friends set out to make Singapore’s first “indie” film. With the help of a mysterious expatriate producer, they nearly finished the project, only for Georges to abscond with all the footage. More than two decades later, Tan returns to Singapore to reminisce with her collaborators, and tracks down the missing elements of the film. Not only is this a lovely look back at teenage friendships tested in the crucible of fevered creativity, it’s also an amazing look at what might have been: the restored footage of the original film will knock you out.

Showtimes and link to buy tickets

Still from BISBEE '17

BISBEE ’17 (Director: Robert Greene)

I’ve been following Robert Greene’s work for nearly a decade now. He’s one of the most exciting filmmakers working in documentary today, able to push formal boundaries while still remaining one of the most humanist people I’ve met. In his latest film, he immerses himself and his crew in the town of Bisbee, Arizona, which is about to commemorate the 100th anniversary of a dark episode in their history. The crew follow various townspeople as they prepare a re-enactment of the rounding up and exile (more like being dumped in the desert) of 1,200 striking mineworkers. Families were divided and the town quickly covered up the incident. A century has passed and it’s time to shed a little light on things.

Showtimes and link to buy tickets

Once again, Hot Docs has put together an amazing programme of non-fiction gems. I hope to share a few more with you over the next few days.

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The Workers Cup

Poster for The Workers Cup

The Workers Cup (Director: Adam Sobel): When Qatar was awarded the 2022 World Cup, there were audible gasps in the room. A gulf state with no discernible football culture or history, it seemed to win simply by virtue of its considerable oil wealth. Since there was no existing infrastructure for an event of this magnitude, soon dozens of companies were on the ground, planning and bidding on the myriad of construction projects that would prepare Qatar for its moment in the global sporting spotlight. Director Adam Sobel has lived in Qatar for many years, working as a journalist. He was interested in telling the stories of the migrant workers who come from all over the world in search of a better life for themselves and for their families back home. But he found that in his reports for mainstream media, there was only time and attention for a very simple narrative, that of the workers as hapless victims of an exploitative labour system. He wanted to dig deeper.

When the organizing committee of the World Cup announced they’d be organizing a football tournament for workers in 2014, Sobel saw his chance. 24 company teams were chosen to compete and Sobel embedded himself with the team from Gulf Contracting Company (GCC). We see how the workers are housed in camps far from the city of Doha and their work sites. They are bussed to and from work, but have no opportunities to leave the camp otherwise. Their food and lodging is provided, but the environment very much feels like a prison to them. Workers from different parts of the world (Kenya, Ghana, Nepal, India) are segregated from each other and most feel quite lonely. The tournament is a rare chance for them to mix with other nationalities and even to socialize with workers and managers from very different levels of the corporate hierarchy.

Watching the players carve out moments of joy away from their jobs is truly bittersweet. Captain Kenneth was lured to Qatar by assurances from his agent that working construction would lead to a chance to play football for a professional team. Realizing those promises were nothing but lies, Kenneth put his head down and resigned himself to long days of hard work. But being chosen captain of the GCC squad reawakens his love for the game, and reveals an inspiring and shrewd leader. After the team’s first win, he corners the chairman of the corporation and practically demands more training time for the squad. Nepalese Padam celebrates every goal with his newfound African friends, but also discovers that the line between teasing and racism can be razor thin. Kenyan Paul talks about women constantly, and yearns to leave the camp to go on a date.

Though both players and managers know that the tournament is a PR exercise and a way for their companies to attract positive press and recruit more workers, they can’t help but get caught up in the spirit of teamwork and competition, and the film does a good job of immersing the audience in that atmosphere as well. We follow the team’s progress through the tournament and share in the players’ joys and disappointments on and off the field. In the process, nationalities and jobs matter a little bit less. Near the end of the film, there’s an absolutely remarkable moment when Sebastian, a man with a comfortable (though still not lucrative) position in management, gives a jaw-dropping speech in the locker room to the players. It’s an example of what documentary is capable of, the ability to capture unpredictable emotions in real-time, and perhaps life-changing epiphanies, too.

Though I’ve always been aware of the corruption and exploitation behind large-scale sporting events, The Workers Cup does an excellent job of humanizing the people (at all levels) caught up in this infernal machine.

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Becoming Bond

Poster for Becoming Bond

Becoming Bond (Director: Josh Greenbaum): James Bond is one of the most enduring characters in film, and we’re used to seeing a new actor take on the role every few years. But back in 1968, Sean Connery WAS Bond, and the thought of anyone trying to replace him was almost unthinkable. When his replacement turned out to be a male model and former car mechanic from Australia, with no previous acting experience, expectations weren’t very high. And then when new Bond George Lazenby didn’t return after On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the hunt was on again.

Josh Greenbaum’s film allows George Lazenby, now in his mid-70s, to tell his own story of his rise from obscurity, brush with fame and wealth, and ultimate rejection of the Bond mantle. Using re-enactments to liven up what’s essentially a sit-down interview, the film has the feel of a tall tale, with colourful details perhaps embellished a little in Lazenby’s memory. He recalls his childhood and his failure to graduate from high school with a tinge of regret. But the ever resourceful Lazenby spins his job as a car mechanic into a more glamorous and lucrative one actually selling cars. It’s here where he meets the beautiful Belinda, the woman who will turn out to be the great love of his life. He also meets a photographer who encourages him to start modelling, a profession the rugged Lazenby had no idea existed.

After George wins Belinda’s heart, her disapproving father sends her away to England, and Lazenby soon follows. As he tries to rekindle the relationship, he takes up car sales and modelling again and achieves his first taste of fame. The story of how he actually gets the role of Bond is nearly unbelievable, but it’s an entertaining tale. Things don’t go as smoothly with Belinda, and the present day Lazenby shows real regret at letting her get away. Lazenby’s tales of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll do grow a bit tiresome, and you’re just on the verge of being fed up with him when he recounts how he turned down a contract for six more Bond films and a million-dollar bonus. There’s more to the old playboy than meets the eye.

Lazenby doesn’t elaborate too much on the course of his life post-Bond but you get the sense he’s been happy. He might regret a few of his choices, but overall he emerges as someone admirable for choosing his own way instead of the easy path that was offered to him.

Unfortunately, as a film, Becoming Bond wearies the viewer with its constant winking tone and endless re-enactments. There’s almost an element of Austin Powers parodying of the times, and there’s a dearth of archival material that would have given this some much-needed depth. One egregious example is an interview Lazenby did on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Instead of licensing the actual footage, the filmmaker uses actor Dana Carvey to impersonate Carson and it gives the whole thing a carnivalesque feel. Maybe Greenbaum was trying to convey Lazenby’s discomfort with the trappings of fame, but it comes across as an attempt to milk the episode for cheap laughs. It’s a problem that afflicts the whole film. Lazenby’s story is interesting and evokes pathos, but trying to make it more entertaining ends up making it feel shallow.

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Am Ende der Wald (Where the Woods End)

Am Ende der Wald (Where the Woods End) - Poster

Director Felix Ahrens won a Silver Medal at the Student Academy Awards for this taut mini-thriller. In just 30 minutes, Am Ende der Wald (Where the Woods End) manages to create an unbearable situation for its protagonist, young police officer Elke. While on patrol with her partner near the German-Czech border, she pursues a young man into the woods after a routine pullover. In a moment of panic, she shoots and kills him. The aftermath is quietly devastating as she struggles with opposing feelings of guilt and justification. She’s convinced the man and his accomplice must have been meth dealers or smugglers, but they find no evidence to prove it. In desperation, she takes her own infant son along as she visits the man’s family in the Czech Republic. Her rising guilt and panic collide in a brilliant climax that leaves the audience breathless.

Am Ende der Wald (Where the Woods End) - Still

As Elke, Henrike von Kuick combines a sense of innocence with deep exhaustion. Her piercing blue eyes look haunted as she carries the burden of her actions. The cinematography is both sweeping and intimate, and the director’s sense of pacing is precise. I suspect it won’t be long before the award-winning Ahrens is directing feature-length thrillers.

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2016 TIFF CAST Awards Announcement

For the fifth year in a row, I’ve compiled a special edition of the CAST Awards, just based on what people saw during the Toronto International Film Festival. Here are the CAST Top 10 based on the votes of 24 submitted ballots. Voters ranked up to 10 films on their ballot from top to bottom, with first choices receiving 10 points, second choices 9, etc. The Points column lists the total score for each film, Mentions indicates how many voters included it in their Top Ten, Average is the average point score, and Firsts shows how many voters chose it as their favourite TIFF film.

In the case of points ties, the film with the higher number of first-place votes is listed first, then by highest average score. Because our sample size is quite small, these “rankings” don’t actually mean much, but I thought it would give a good idea of what this particular group of festivalgoers enjoyed this year. I’m curious to see how many of these show up in our regular year-end CAST ballot and how they do.

Moonlight - Barry Jenkins
La La Land - Damien ChazelleToni Erdmann - Maren Ade
Manchester by the Sea - Kenneth LonerganPaterson - Jim JarmuschCertain Women - Kelly Reichardt
Colossal - Nacho VigalondoNocturnal Animals - Tom FordPersonal Shopper - Olivier AssayasThe Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki - Juho Kuosmanen

1. Moonlight 104 12 8.67 7
2. La La Land 75 9 8.33 4
3. Toni Erdmann 72 10 7.2 2
4.Manchester By The Sea 57 8 7.1 1
5. Paterson 37 5 7.4 0
6. Certain Women 37 6 6.2 9
7. Colossal 34 4 8.5 2
8. Nocturnal Animals 33 4 8.25 1
9. Personal Shopper 32 6 5.3 0
10. The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki 31 4 7.8 0


Here is a PDF (106K) with each person’s ballot and the full collated results, with a few more interesting stats included.

And for those still reading, here is my final TIFF CAST ballot. I saw a total of 12 films this year:


  1. Moonlight
  2. The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki
  3. The Giant
  4. Blue Jay
  5. Into the Inferno
  6. Planetarium
  7. Things to Come
  8. ABACUS: Small Enough to Jail
  9. Orphan
  10. Gringo: The Dangerous Life of John McAfee
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