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,

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