Hot docs

Richard Swift reviews some of the films at the 2021 international documentary festival in Toronto.

Behind the headlines

Behind the Headlines (128 minutes)

directed by Daniel Andreas Sager


Sager’s doc is a carefully crafted insider view of that rare bird: high-end investigative journalism. The director embeds himself with Bastian Obermayer and Frederik Obermaier, the Munich-based Süddeutsche Zeitung reporters who initiated the co-ordinated Panama Papers revelations in 2016. Over two years the director follows them as they explore a number of stories, finally focusing on the funding and corruption scandal that brought down Austria’s rightwing government in 2019.

In the opening scenes, a rare interview with US whistleblower Edward Snowden highlights the importance of, and high stakes involved in, careful investigative journalism. Danger lurks as Sager follows his two protagonists to Malta, where their collaborator in the Panama Papers story, Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, was murdered. The strength of this film lies in its intimate exposure of the journalistic process and the care taken in checking and re-checking the facts from various angles, putting the lie to facile charges of ‘fake news’ made by those in power who would rather commit their crimes in the dark.

Bank Job (87 minutes)

directed by Daniel Edelstyn and Hilary Powell


It’s not often that you get an activist documentary that leans on the side of wit and humour to score its political points, but Edelstyn and Powell’s Bank Job hits the spot. The pair present themselves as a quirky young couple, surviving in the low-income London suburb of Walthamstow, who decide to take on financial capital and its profitable system of ‘creditocracy’. They mobilize their own community by setting up a people’s bank that creates its own currency, replacing the face of the Queen with those of community activists and selling the bills to raise cash for the community and to pay off the ‘under-performing’ debts of poverty.

The film plays with various cinematic ‘bank heist’ tropes and includes snippets of interviews with critics of the money system such as Ann Pettifor, the late David Graeber and activists from the Occupy movement. Bank Job is radical hijinks with a serious purpose. Edelstyn and Powell plainly enjoyed making it and the contagion is catching. Not to be missed.

The Big Scary ‘S’ Word (82 minutes)

directed by Yael Bridge


This doc takes on the myth that socialism has no place on the political landscape of the US. Bridge hangs his film on a couple of dramatic stories from unlikely parts of the country: a teacher fighting education cuts in Oklahoma and the lone socialist legislator in the Virginia House of Assembly. But he doesn’t stop there, cramming the film with fascinating interview footage (Cornel West, Naomi Klein and many others) as well as revealing historical footage showing the ways in which without the US Left democracy and welfare provision would barely exist. Particularly revealing are the clips of Martin Luther King as the civil-rights icon moved decisively to the Left, remarking, shortly before his assassination, that ‘America already has socialism for the rich and preserves rugged pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps for the poor’. The Big Scary ‘S’ Word avoids the ponderous with a quick-paced presentation of courage and resolve and good-humoured optimism about the possibilities for a socialist America.

You are the Days to Come (75 minutes)

directed by Ronja Wu


Using an impressive array of archival footage, director Ronja Wu tries to counter the official Chinese effort to make the Tiananmen Square events of 1989 and the movement of cultural dissent that shaped it disappear from history. Indeed, much of the historical footage of the 1980s oppositional Wall Poster movement and the dissident exhibition outside the Beijing National Gallery that features in this Swedish production is little known either inside or outside China. The director’s own experience, as part of this youthful revolution of hope, melds well with interview material from a range of painters, sculptors and performers, including Chinese rock superstar Cui Jian, to give a sense of the power of art to animate social change.

The film captures the atmosphere of those heady days when Beijing became a rebel city and a rupture with the authoritarian nature of Chinese political culture seemed a real possibility. Ironically, the focus is now shifting south and it is Hong Kong that struggles desperately to keep what’s left of its democratic autonomy.

The Caviar Connection (104 minutes)

directed by Benoit Bringer


This straight-on political exposé shows how the regime of Ilham Aliyev in Azerbaijan was able to ‘buy’ the institutions of the prestigious Council of Europe which is mandated to monitor elections and human rights.

In classic exposé style, the film brings together such unlikely allies as Azeri dissidents and an insider whistleblower (the former Azeri ambassador to the Council, Arif Mammadov) plus dogged journalists from several countries. In 2013 a report on human rights commissioned by the Council was surprisingly rejected by it. It turns out that a group of key conservative politicians (mostly from Italy, Belgium and Germany) had mounted a campaign in favour of Aliyev’s inner circle. They had spread around the caviar (here a metaphor both for Azeri oil money and the opulent lifestyle of the Aliyev clan) through ‘a laundromat banking scheme’ to whitewash the brutality and corruption of the regime. One conservative German politician, Edouard Lintner, even enjoyed lavish Azeri hospitality while leading election monitoring teams in the country.

A Once and Future Peace

A Once and Future Peace (95 minutes)

directed by Eric Daniel Metzgar


Mixing animated sequences with live action, Metzgar provides a thoughtful critique of the punitive adolescent justice system and proposes an alternative drawn from indigenous practices. We are introduced to a cast of characters drawn from the mean streets of Boston and Seattle, and innovators in judicial practice from the northern Canadian territory of the Yukon. There, Judge Barry Stuart, drawing on the Tlingit tradition of peace circles, seeks to replace a punishment-based approach with one of building just and accountable relationships.

Stuart is a former chief justice of the Yukon whose view of the old system is that it was an ‘expensive failure’. The new approach is adapted to the criminal justice system in Seattle, where we see practitioners, like former Boston gang member Saroeum Phoung, struggle to bring it to life. This is no simple ‘feel good’ story but a clear-headed effort to plug up the poverty-to-prison pipeline that guarantees the US the highest rate of incarceration in the world.