April 2013


Alias (Director: Michelle Latimer): Actor, producer, writer, director and former Hot Docs programmer Michelle Latimer unveiled her first feature-length documentary at Hot Docs 2013 on Friday, a portrait of Torontonian rap artists and producers, entitled Alias.

The film is a labour of love, four years in the making, an intimate look at the lives and careers of Alkatraz, Alias Donmillion, Trench, Keon Love and Master Knia. If some of these names aren’t familiar to you, Torontonians might know Alias Donmillion through his high-profile arrest and conviction, stemming from an incident at Caribana in 2007 where he attempted a “West Indian Salute” and fired a weapon in the air in a crowd. Out of jail and trying to recapture the career that he lost, Alias and this group of artists try to keep their lives from getting too real and overshadowing their art and dreams.

While Toronto does have a respected hip-hop and rap culture, there hasn’t been much respect given through mainstream media coverage. But as the film unfolds, it becomes clear that Latimer really took the time to connect and understand her subjects and they provide her access that is almost startling in its intimacy.

In one of the earliest scenes, Master Knia is organizing a hip-hop night at the Opera House, trying to get lesser-known artists on a bill for the evening. As he admits, things don’t start quite on time as the crowd arrives late, the show starts late, and the night runs out with several artists still left to perform. While the concert featured a bevy of young, moderately talented artists bouncing around with more entourage on stage than original hooks, our seasoned subjects are left standing at the side, ill at ease with the organization of the night, but trying not to give Knia a hard time, watching their chance to perform slip away. All five of them have kids, and as any parent knows, taking a night off from child care requires not just finding a babysitter, but losing out on quality time with their kid, and when reality sets in and they can’t get onstage, it’s hard to watch as they each reveal their disappointment. Not exactly the first personal reveal you’d expect to see in a film about hip hop artists and the scene.

After this scene, it’s very evident that we’re not watching a film about cocky, up-and-coming artists; these are veteran performers looking to stay relevant and get that next big break, while also juggling other commitments like family, work and education at the same time. But as the film progresses, it reveals the darkness that sits at the edges of each subject’s psyche. Violence, crime, discrimination and poverty, in some form or another, are daily reminders of the difficult reality during the day-to-day of their lives. Keon Love reveals early on that she’s lost 11 people to violence alone in the last year, and as two others admit to hustling on the side to survive, they live in fear from cops on a regular basis. But throughout it all, the documentary is full of moments that highlight the hustle and the struggle that this group puts towards their art, despite any mixed results. A mid-afternoon music video shoot is delayed by late dancers, a less-than-ideal weather situation and disorganized friends, but still they manage to pull it together in the end. In some moments however, real exhaustion seems to set in. For all the positives, there’s always the threat of violence, and when the instance occurs in the film, it’s from the hands of a force you least suspect, but unfortunately, ultimately expect.

Overall, Alias is a tight, unflinching look at a musical movement that is definitely generated by class struggles and geography, a genre created when people are told they can’t expect to do much with their lives and fight back through art, and a group of local artists trying desperately to not fall into the trap of living a life realer than their lyrics.

Alias plays with My Black Box, a short documentary about Quebecois hip-hop artist Dramatik and his use of rap to conquer his stutter.

Alias screens again on Saturday, May 4, 8:45pm at Scotiabank 4. You can buy tickets in advance at the Hot Docs website, hotdocs.ca


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Another Night on Earth

Another Night on Earth (Director: David Munoz): Munoz packs a lot into this hourlong verité observation of Cairo’s harried taxi drivers. Filmed in 2011, while protesters were still occupying Tahrir Square, everyone in Another Night on Earth has an opinion on the revolution. What’s most surprising and refreshing are the messy but absolutely honest exchanges between people you’d never expect to see together. The real revolution seems to be the emerging role of women, from the rare female cabbie who’s been driving for 30 years, to the young niqab-wearing revolutionaries arguing for their right to work and an education. Everyone complains about corruption and poverty, hoping that current events will help, though most seem resigned to more suffering.

Some of the best moments, though, aren’t political at all. An argument over the quality of Egypt’s footballers leads to a hasty exit; a cabbie scolds a kid because he only seems to play sports on Playstation; a woman’s rowdy kids sing a song about getting stoned while the driver complains of a headache. Throughout it all, Cairo’s lively culture of bluntness mixed with polite religious platitudes makes for an enlightening and interesting ride. Director Munoz mostly stays out of the way, but does vary the camerawork enough that you don’t feel trapped in the traffic, unlike his subjects.

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Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival 2013

So, the 20th edition of the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival starts next week. And normally by this time, I’ve posted several preview posts talking about the films I’m most excited about. Why not this year? Well, I’m very pleased to share that I’ll be working for the festival this year. I only found out about a week ago, but I’ve been busy preparing and that might explain my absence not just here, but on Twitter as well.

I’ll be doing the intros and Q&A sessions for about 20 films over the festival’s ten days (April 25-May 5, 2013). Even looking at my schedule makes me tired, but it’s going to be a great opportunity to meet filmmakers and to help them enjoy the festival and the city. I’m honoured to do it, but I have to admit it’s a little strange, too. The job of festival programmer can be divided into two halves: the pre-festival job of screening submissions and evaluating whether they’re festival-worthy, and then the work during the festival itself, showing the films and hosting the filmmakers. In 2009 and 2010, I was doing the first part of the job for Hot Docs, and this year, I’m doing the second part. Hopefully one day I’ll get to do the whole thing, but I’m tremendously excited (and a bit nervous) nonetheless.

I’m not going to share my schedule here because, frankly, I really don’t want anyone who knows me to be in the audience (although it’s bound to happen). But I am hoping to see a number of other films, too, and having to re-arrange my schedule at the last minute has put me into a little bit of a panic. I’ve been fortunate to have seen a number of films ahead of the festival, too, but here’s where things will become a little bit strange.

As an employee of the festival, I’m not certain yet what sort of coverage I can provide here. I’ve already written a few capsule reviews, which you may or may not see here. And as in past years, I have a few guest contributors who will likely be posting here during the festival. I hope you can appreciate the delicate situation I’m in, which is to say that I may not be able to “cover” the festival the way I have in previous years.

With that in mind, though, I’m happy to point you to some other great local writers who will be covering Hot Docs this year:

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