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 culminate in a well-organized ten-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 fifty-four feature films I saw this year, here are my personal favorites, in order of preference:
1. JAI BHIM COMRADE (India, Anand Patwardhan)
Due to its three-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 fourteen 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.
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.
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 marveled 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.
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 (thirty-four 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.
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 realize why this man would agree to document his story on camera, knowing the effects of his disclosure, the film comes together.
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 2 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.
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.
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.
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 twenty-three 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:
13. PLANET OF SNAIL (South Korea, Seung-jun Yi)
14. MARLEY (UK, Kevin MacDonald)
15. THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES (USA, Laura Greenfield)
16. MADE IN CHINA (China, Jian Du)
17. CHASING ICE (USA, Jeff Orlowski)
18. ESPOIR VOYAGE (Burkina Faso, Michel Zongo)
19. PRIVATE UNIVERSE (Czech Republic, Helena Trestikova)
20. THE LIST (USA, Beth Murphy)
21. THE REVISIONARIES (USA, Scott Thurman)
22. DOWNEAST (USA, David Redmon, Ashley Sabin)
23. THE WAITING ROOM (USA, Pete Nicks)
24. DROUGHT (Mexico, Everardo Gonzalez)
25. THE WORLD BEFORE HER (Canada, Nisha Pahuja)