Moen Mohamed: The Best of Hot Docs 2012

by Moen Mohamed on May 10, 2012

in Documentaries,Film Festivals,Hot Docs,Lists

Editor’s Note: I’m very happy to wel­come back Moen Mohamed to Toronto Screen Shots. Chances are that if you see movies in Toronto, you know Moen. He sees more films than anyone I know and I’ve always valued his opin­ions highly. But apart from dis­cussing films with his friends, he doesn’t pub­lish his opin­ions any­where else. So I was delighted when he agreed to allow me to post the fol­lowing list, which he sent to a small group of friends in an email mes­sage. Use the com­ments to let us know your own list from this year’s festival.

The 2012 edi­tion of Hot Docs proved once again that the fest­ival keeps get­ting better and better, year after year. The enthu­si­astic audi­ences and inter­esting line-up of world doc­u­ment­aries cul­min­ated in a well-organized 10-day event. They expanded this year, but I believe they will need to expand even more next year. Such is the enthu­siasm for doc­u­ment­aries in Toronto. Of the 54 fea­ture films I saw this year, here are my per­sonal favour­ites, in order of preference:

Jai Bhim Comrade

1. JAI BHIM COMRADE (India, Anand Patwardhan)

Due to its 3-hour run­ning time, I expected an epic doc­u­mentary about the low-caste untouch­ables (Dalits) in India. However, this superb labour of respect chron­icles the plight and suf­fering of the untouch­ables in a way that elev­ates it to a work of poetic art. The dir­ector uses protest songs and poems, com­posed and per­formed by Dalits, not for the camera, but cap­tured at events and gath­er­ings. The poetry and songs serve as a Greek Chorus, stra­tegic­ally placed at various inter­vals as the dir­ector uses inter­views, media-coverage and heart-breaking testi­monies to make this film an unfor­get­table exper­i­ence. The gen­esis of the film itself is inter­esting and almost acci­dental. The sui­cide of a low-caste poet who was a friend of the dir­ector, prompted him to assemble footage of the poet’s songs on film, and from that, blos­somed the doc­u­mentary. The film took 14 years to be com­pleted, not because the dir­ector was inten­tion­ally making an epic, but for the simple fact that he was awaiting a ver­dict on a court case about atro­cities com­mitted by police against a group of untouch­ables, which incid­ent­ally was the reason the poet friend com­mitted suicide.

Where Heaven Meets Hell

2. WHERE HEAVEN MEETS HELL (USA, Sasha Friedlander)

The daily toil and struggles of Indonesian sul­phur miners are cap­tured with such respect by this first-time dir­ector, that it leaves you speech­less. From their toil to their tender moments, all is chron­icled so intim­ately that we feel priv­ileged to have spent this time with the miners and their families.

¡Vivan las antipodas!

3. ¡VIVAN LAS ANTIPODAS! (Germany, Victor Kossakovsky)

One of the most enjoy­able exper­i­ences of the fest­ival was this gor­geously pho­to­graphed film about set­tle­ments on pre­cisely opposite points of the globe (there are only a few due to the vast­ness of the oceans). The con­cep­tual design of this film is to be mar­velled at. No, this is not one of those Disney or Imax nature doc­u­ment­aries. Akin to the great films of Nikolaus Geyrhalter, this film gave me much to think about our planet, our exist­ence and how insig­ni­ficant we are in this sphere of nature. This film is not about how we treat our planet, it is simply illus­trating to us how we are all linked to each other, regard­less of the vast diversity. Distances and dif­fer­ences melt away watching this film; and that, in itself, is a great achieve­ment because the film is about places that are fur­thest away from each other.

Ballroom Dancer

4. BALLROOM DANCER (Denmark, Christian Bonke, Andreas Koefoed)

A rev­el­a­tion. I was expecting per­haps a fun film about a dan­cing com­pet­i­tion and the come-back of an aging ball­room dancer (34 is con­sidered old in that world), but this film is a sad, love story that dis­in­teg­rates before your eyes. In com­plete cinéma vérité style, no inter­views, no nar­ra­tion, the camera seems almost voyeur­istic as we watch this dan­cing couple battle their per­sonal and pro­fes­sional issues.

With My Heart in Yambo

5. WITH MY HEART IN YAMBO (Ecuador, Maria Fernanda Restrepo)

The dir­ector searches for the truth about her two teen­aged brothers’ dis­ap­pear­ance and murder that occurred in the 80s. Interviews and con­front­a­tions with the cor­rupt offi­cials in charge at that time, home movies, the last known footage of the brothers at a Scout camp, all come together to weave the making of a tragedy that happened over and over again to thou­sands of fam­ilies, all across Latin America in the 70s and 80s. At 140 minutes, this film felt much shorter.


6. OUTING (Austria, Sebastian Meise, Thomas Reider)

The most dif­fi­cult and uncom­fort­able film I had to sit through during the fest­ival. A shy young man con­fesses to his family (and the camera) about his growing attrac­tion to chil­dren. What ensues is at times unset­tling, candid but never sen­sa­tional. When you realise why this man would agree to doc­u­ment his story on camera, knowing the effects of his dis­closure, the film comes together.

Greetings from the Colony

7. GREETINGS FROM THE COLONY (Belgium, Nathalie Borgers)

Almost every year, I dis­cover an excel­lent doc­u­mentary about dark, family secrets. This year, it was Greetings from the Colony. A young child is brought from Rwanda to Belgium in the 1920s. She is fathered by a white colo­nial offi­cial. Her mother is native Rwandan. In Belgium, she is never told that her mother is black, still alive with her two younger brothers in Rwanda. As a child, she is given no inform­a­tion as to why the colour of her skin is darker than other chil­dren. Thus begins this intimate journey back in time as we explore family secrets, ali­en­a­tion, shame and racism.

The Prophet

8. THE PROPHET (UK, Gary Tarn)

The poetic prose of Lebanese writer Kahlil Gibran is the soundtrack of this mes­mer­izing film, beau­ti­fully read by Thandie Newton. It is an explor­a­tion of life, love and the human con­di­tion. Although it was filmed in many coun­tries, one may think this is a visual delight, but this is a film that begs you to listen first and then watch.

5 Broken Cameras

9. 5 BROKEN CAMERAS (Israel, Emad Burnat, Guy Davidi)

Profound and humanist in every way, five cam­eras (all broken due to clashes and gun­fire) used by the main sub­ject of the film to chron­icle six years of life in his tiny West Bank vil­lage which is threatened by new set­tle­ments. I know we have seen many of these doc­u­ment­aries, but there is some­thing imme­diate and deeply per­sonal about this film which con­tains no talking heads, inter­views or experts. It is all real footage, some shocking, of one man’s efforts to become a journ­alist and to doc­u­ment what is hap­pening to his home, family and the live­li­hood of the farmers.

The Imposter

10. THE IMPOSTER (UK, Bart Layton)

The most cine­matic doc­u­mentary you will see this year, or per­haps ever. A young boy, missing for years, is returned to his Texan family after being found in Spain. What unfolds is such an incred­ible story. No more can be revealed here.


11. COLOMBIANOS (Sweden, Tora Martens)

Two young brothers of Colombian origin, born and raised in Sweden, make dif­ferent choices in life. One has returned to Colombia for his med­ical studies and the other is in Sweden, dependent on drugs and alcohol. And he is only 23 years old. Yet another superb cinéma vérité work that allows us into the lives of two sons and a strong mother.


12. MCCULLIN (UK, Jacqui Morris)

Spanning dec­ades of wars and human­it­arian cata­strophes, we hear, in his own words, all about the life and career of cel­eb­rated ‘war pho­to­grapher’ Donald McCullin. He is con­flicted about how he feels about the title of war pho­to­grapher, and this is just one of the many things that make this dig­ni­fied man such a com­pel­ling subject.

The rest of my Top 25:

  1. PLANET OF SNAIL (South Korea, Seung-jun Yi)
  2. MARLEY (UK, Kevin MacDonald)
  3. THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES (USA, Lauren Greenfield)
  4. MADE IN CHINA (China, Jian Du)
  5. CHASING ICE (USA, Jeff Orlowski)
  6. ESPOIR VOYAGE (Burkina Faso, Michel Zongo)
  7. PRIVATE UNIVERSE (Czech Republic, Helena Trestikova)
  8. THE LIST (USA, Beth Murphy)
  9. THE REVISIONARIES (USA, Scott Thurman)
  10. DOWNEAST (USA, David Redmon, Ashley Sabin)
  11. THE WAITING ROOM (USA, Pete Nicks)
  12. DROUGHT (Mexico, Everardo Gonzalez)
  13. THE WORLD BEFORE HER (Canada, Nisha Pahuja)

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