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Our picks from the Toronto Hot Docs


Highlights from the largest documentary film festival in the world.

Chasing Coral (93 minutes)

directed by Jeff Orlowski

It’s hard to believe that a documentary can reduce the viewer to almost tearful identification with a bunch of polyps anchored on the ocean floor singularly lacking in cute faces or limpid eyes. But Orlowski and his team do just that, moving from the Caribbean to the Pacific, and ending up on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef – nature’s Manhattan – to show with spectacular underwater camera-work that coral is a living and wondrous thing. Time-lapse photography provides evidence of climate change that even Donald Trump would have trouble denying. Chasing Coral blends thoughtful testimonies from marine biologists, with stories like that of a self-confessed ‘coral nerd’ from landlocked Colorado, to paint an ecocide in the making. And it tells us what we need to do to stop it.


Winnie (98 minutes)

directed by Pascale Lamche

This is a political and personal profile of the charismatic and controversial first lady of South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement. Lamche combines well-deployed archival footage with startling interviews from various parts of the political spectrum in a largely successful attempt to revive the reputation of Nelson Mandala’s ‘struggle wife’. In doing so, she raises important questions about the deal struck to end apartheid and the subsequent Peace and Reconciliation Process, and the way in which both have set limits on South African emancipation. Winnie Madikizela-Mandela comes through as a complicated and strong figure, who often stood alone in some of the darkest days of white nationalist domination.


The film moves like a freight train through recent South African history, portraying Winnie as a proud rock of the movement who is targeted first by the security services of the regime, and then by many of her own ANC comrades. Did her pride lead her to commit crimes in the name of anti-apartheid? The film leans towards ‘no’, but the question remains unanswered.


Blurred Lines: Inside the Art World
(80 minutes)

directed by Barry Aldrich

A fascinating exploration-exposé of the business of modern art, this film seeks to address why, when stock markets around the world plunged in 2008, knocking billions off share prices, the price of modern art on auction at Sotheby’s and Christie’s barely blinked. Big-time art dealers, agents, auction houses, galleries, public museums, critics, major collectors, show organizers and artists themselves come under the director’s microscope, as he exposes the ‘nod-and-a-wink’ world of intersecting corruptions.

Blurred Lines

Art journalists and idiosyncratic insiders explain how this environment operates against a background of glitzy, high profile openings to international art shows. The only question not answered (or asked) is how did the super-rich gather the wealth necessary to participate in this game?


Joshua: Teenager vs Superpower
(78 minutes)

directed by Joe Piscatella


You can’t search Joshua Wong’s name on Chinese search engines. But nerdish, bespectacled Wong is both the unlikely star of this film and the catalyst of the democratic movement that shook Hong Kong in defiance of the overlords in Beijing. From age 11 (he is now 21), Wong’s indomitable spirit and impressive courage has meant trouble for the elite that wants to integrate Hong Kong into the authoritarian mould of Chinese capitalism. The film catches the movement from its early days, resisting a propagandist national education policy, to the 2014 mobilization of hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong residents to assert their right to the democratic self-rule promised under the ‘one country, two systems’ agreement. The film moves back and forth between street action and the strategy sessions of a core group of activists behind the movement. This kind of access provides a gripping blend of non-violent protest with an intimate biography of an emerging popular leader who just won’t go away.


Ask the Sexpert (75 minutes)

directed by Vaishali Sinha


This is a heart-warming profile of a 90-year-old Mumbai gynaecologist turned sex therapist. Dr Mahinder Whatsa started along the sex advice route when a local newspaper editor suggested he run a column in the paper; his non-judgemental common sense was an instant hit with those in need. Now, Dr Whatsa has become a local celebrity, seeing clients at all hours of the day and night in his apartment perched on the Mumbai waterfront. In a country with a reputation for puritanical moralism, he has been an irritant to local conservatives. One outraged woman is even trying to shut him up by taking him to court for defying arcane indecency laws. But with gentle humour and an unflagging commitment to gender equality and sexual health, the sex-positive Whatsa just keeps going. Ask the Sexpert is one small antidote that shows that multi-dimensional India cannot be contained by the narrow-minded, martial, religious nationalism of Narendra Modi’s BJP party.


All films reviewed by Richard Swift

City of Ghosts (91 minutes)

directed by Martin Heineman


This documentary about the citizen journalists behind Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS) is definitely not for the faint hearted. It contains shocking execution scenes (including some carried out by children) perpetrated by Daesh (ISIS) during the brutal ‘pacification’ of the capital of their caliphate in Eastern Syria. The camera moves between clandestine shooting in Raqqa itself, to footage from an increasingly dangerous Eastern Turkey, to RBSS ‘safe houses’ in Germany. We become acquainted with the incredibly brave but severely traumatized figures who make up the core of RBSS’s external group and who amplify the news gathered from increasingly desperate activists left behind in the city. The immediacy and direct access of City of Shadows leaves the viewer with an all too real sense of what Daesh is about and the perils involved in resisting them. In the end the activists of RBSS (many of whom have been killed) struggle to maintain their sanity and some sense of a normal life while still keeping up this desperately important work.


All films reviewed by Richard Swift

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