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A documentary festival leaves you with some startling images. Indigenous women in La Paz, Bolivia dressed in long skirts and blouses throwing each other around the ring in Lucha wrestling as enthusiastic fans cheer and jeer. A Palestinian activist in an Israeli prison for women completely without remorse for the deaths of eight children in the bombing she helped plan.

‘Evidence’ the stark response of a jurist in a Tampa ‘Patriot Act’ prosecution of a passionate Palestinian activist to a badgering reporter as to what the government case lacked in order to get a conviction. The activist, University of Florida Professor Al Arian remains behind bars despite the acquittal. Swazi slumdwellers gathering around a meal of fried chicken innards retrieved from a local dump. Muslim and Buddhist girls in Ladakh demonstrating for the right to have their own ice hockey team.  Family members of a Hungarian rights activist from Romanian Transylvania screaming at each other as they try and sort out fact from fiction in recent family history.

While still a minority taste, documentary film has over the past decade emerged as a vital and growing form. It has shown a growth in sophistication and range that is truly breathtaking. North America’s largest documentary film festival, the HOTDOCS Festival, is held annually in Toronto at the end of April. Documentary film makers from around the world come to show their wares. Whether dealing with the big issues of war and peace and social injustice or telling quirky little stories that celebrate the human spirit documentarians are coming to grips with diverse realities and presenting these to a growing audience for the non-fictional film form. For those with a curiosity about their world and the ability to sit in darkened cinemas for many hours HOTDOCS provides a rich kaleidoscope at once startling, revealing, and often surprisingly optimistic.

Being a political junkie I am drawn to films such as The Devil Comes on Horseback about Darfur or ¡Revolucion! about the Chavez government in Venezuela. But it would be a mistake to restrict oneself in such a way. Many small stories or more lyrical approaches make powerful documentary material. A Danish film called Monastery is a case in point. The film tells the story of Mr.Vig, a stubborn 82-year-old bachelor who has decided to give his crumbling Danish monastery to the Russian Orthodox Church so that it can be revived. He immediately runs into conflict with a feisty orthodox nun who challenges his assumptions at every turn. Then there is a beautiful film by the Quebec director Sylvain L’Esperance (The River Where We Live) about the people how live on and by the Niger River as it flows through Mali. The director uses the story of a ferryboat captain who plies the river to give a sense of how the rhythms of river and season shape the lives of Malians. We visit with a dugout builder, a nomadic herder, a fish merchant and a fisher family in an undertaking that while giving a sense of the hardships in peoples’ lives shows also the calm resilience and comfort in place of Niger life. The deterioration of the resource base caused by overexploitation of resources and climate-fueled desertification is the backdrop threat to once sustainable lives.

The documentary filmmaker often changes in the course of producing their film. Reality intrudes in a way that perhaps the studio moguls used to in big Hollywood features.  But this time its reality rather than the most marketable stereotypes that change a film’s direction. In a film like Manufacturing Dissent about US guerilla filmmaker Michael Moore the directors turn what was originally designed to be a paean of praise for Moore into a film that raises serious questions about his techniques of manipulation. In one sequence Moore’s handlers demand that the filmmakers turn off their cameras in a delicious irony for those who have seen Moore in exactly the same situation. While sympathetic to Moore’s politics Rick Caine and Debbie Melnyk take on the way in which the vagaries of ego and celebrity play in his work. Another film that shifts from the director’s original intention is New York filmmaker Michael Skolnik’s exploration of the Swazi royal family in Without The King. Skolnik had managed to insert himself into the Swazi royal family and set out to make a quirky documentary on one of the world’s last absolute monarchs. But gradually the realities of Swazi poverty and frustrated aspiration took hold and what emerged is a portrait of an oblivious and self-satisfied king (taking a new teenage bride every year) and an increasingly angry population with a charming princess caught in the middle.  Then there is the perhaps overly pedagogical ?Revolution! about the Chavez revolution in Venezuela also by a Quebec director Charles Gervais . Gervais uses the image of Don Quixote which first caught his attention when Chavez gave away a million copies of the book to his fellow Venezuelans. The film has footage of both pro and anti-Chavistas including some pretty interesting interviews with militant of the far-Left Tupamaros in Caracas barrios. But the film begins to shift as Gervais’ initial enthusiasm for Chavez fades as more authoritarian tendencies start to emerge.

This year HOTDOCS brought together films from around the world with a special emphasis on Brazilian and Romanian films. It also gave a life time achievement awrd to the Dutch documentarian Heddy Honigmann for a lifetime of subtle exploration of intimate human drama. Her film that I saw at the festival was entitled O Amor Natural was about the Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade who posthumously published a book of erotic poetry. He waited until after his death for fear of being accused of obscenity.  Honigmann  got elderly Brazilians to read the poems and reflect on the highlights of their own sex lives. They plainly enjoyed both. When they did the math after HOTDOCS closed this year, records had been set for the number of showings (200) and audience (68,000 or a 30% increase from previous years). When I looked at the awards for the different categories of documentary almost done of the ones that I discussed above or reviewed below were winners. Which I take to mean either that I am out of touch with mainstream opinion (hardly possible) or that the vein riches ran so deep that I was barely able to dig below the surface. For those who want to check further the festival website is www.hotdocs.ca

Documentary film is a potentially potent tool for the activist. While not all documentaries put forward an enlightened and radical case (although of the overtly political ones I have seen it is by far the majority) almost all dig beneath the surface and ask challenging questions. In this way they break with conventional journalism and approach their subject from a fresh perspective. They often ask the questions behind the questions. They blend entertainment and provocation. They vary dramatically with their bastard sibling – reality  TV with its contrived world of  wannabe celebrities playing the fool for the camera. Here you feel for the most part you have touched reality, sometimes uncomfortable but almost always engaging of your sense of empathy. So if you are a campaigner at a loss as to what to do next you could do worse than show a documentary film. Hell, start your own festival.

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