Report from Hot Docs: Bhutto, Budrus, and a questionable contract with Coke

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Hot Docs has careened down the path of screening outstanding documentaries, facilitating frenetic networking and busting out boozy social gatherings for a 17th time this year. One of the largest documentary film festivals in the world, it is an understatement to say that the festival is intoxicatingly exhausting. Five days in to the ten day extravaganza, I do have some notes to share on the parties, the people, the films and the ethics of the festival itself.

First the parties: The opening night fundraising extravaganza at the ROM was a delightful treat. Plenty of incredibly delicious food, tasters of tequila, music and energetic attendees kept things fun until the wee hours. The social gatherings are the unofficial networking orgies—an aspect of the festival I once harangued for its cold uber-business quality—but this time around I found to be more amicable, sincere and constructive. There are artists and industry-types from all over the world, stumbling around looking down to mid-torso level to check out everyone’s info on the passes dangling from necks sore from staring up at screens. And where in the past I was met with a cool and cruel aloofness once I had declared myself as a programmer for a “grassroots non-profit media arts organization,” this time around people didn’t scoff and scuttle away to the next potential deep-pocketed ego, but instead engaged in meaningful conversation. Aside from the opening gala, the “Get Tipsy” gathering, along with the Scottish and Irish film party, all proved to be excellent spaces for sharing knowledge and forging new collaborations.

Babies, so much babies…

The films: I’ve only seen nine films so far, and they’ve generally been well-crafted works, with some more provocative than others. The opening film, Babies, seems to be a darling favourite with critics, and it is indeed an impressive display of creative prowess in the able hands of director Thomas Balmes. But the cute factor, especially 80 minutes of it, left me eager for something a little more edgy, or political, or non-baby-like. Babies is an observational doc that follows the first year of life of four babies, in Mongolia, Japan, America and Namibia, respectively. There are touching and hilarious scenes that one expects to find when a camera is pointed at a baby. And under the cuteness veneer there are layers that reveal tensions and connections between the haves and have-nots of the world. But these deeper issues felt too buried beneath images that elicited more collective “aaaaaaaawes” from the audience than a program of YouTube kitten videos. Still, I understand the programming decision to find a way to appeal to as many as possible with the opening film, and starting with something more controversial or political is for other festivals, such as RIDM in Montreal, Quebec.


Bhutto is a polished piece of art that gleams with a technical perfection that impressed more than Avatar. Part of this is of course the skill of the filmmakers (Duane Baughman and Johnny O’Hara), and part of this surely is the money they were able to access to make this love letter to the slain politician Benazir Bhutto. The opening sequence packed such a punch my partner and I looked at each other in the dark theatre with eyes bulged and mouths agape. While the seemingly well-connected Baughman said they tried to make an even-handed film about the first female leader of a Muslim country, and would let “the audience decide,” Bhutto is made by her close friends and is ultimately a hagiography that glosses over much of the criticism of the controversial figure. And while the narrative structure and composition is fairly standard fair for docs (interviews, archival, graphics, etc) the film is so flawless in its artistic rendering of an avalanche of information, it is hard not to walk away loving the experience, American liberal political ethos and all.

Budrus (pictured at the top) is so far my favourite film of the fest and one I will definitely look to program in the future. The feature length doc, directed by Julia Bacha, compiles 250 hours of activist footage and Bacha’s interviews set in the Palestinian town of Budrus (population 1500), between 2003 and 2007 when local residents mounted a non-violent movement to resist the scarring of their land by the Israeli government’s planned security fence construction. Aside from the fence dividing the town’s cemetery the contentious issues was the destruction and appropriation of hundreds of acres of Palestinian land where one of the only sources of income grow – olive trees. The film expertly paces out the story, starting slowly and creating a real feel for the day-to-day life in Budrus, as well as the budding political plans that come to maturity there. Bacha told the audience that her film is not about the fence, but about the ways in which so many bridges were built and alliances forged, around the one issue. Indeed, what is so inspiring about this film is the moment when scores of Israeli peace and anti-occupation activists join the fight against IDF soldiers and bulldozers. Scenes of Palestinian women risking their lives and being beaten by soldiers as they attempt to save an Israeli activist from being hauled off were incredibly inspiring, powerful and moving. As were scenes of Israel activists putting their bodies in harms way to defend and protect not only Palestinian land, but the villagers of Budrus. This doc tells the incredible story that sparked a movement throughout Palestine, and injects life into the notion of solidarity and the possibility for peace in the Middle East – if it’s left up to the people and not their governments at least.

The Devil Operation is another incredible story, only this one gets a little muddled in the filmmaking. Director Stephanie Boyd has lived in Peru for 13 years and has documented all kinds of political tales involving human rights and the environment in that country. Her previous documentary, Tambogrande: Mangos, Murder, Mining is a great film – personal, political, well-researched, and put together in compelling and cohesive way. This time around she brings to the screen the incredible story of the fight against the US-owned Yanacocha mine by Peruvian activists and the subsequent sordid tale of murder and espionage that should be one of the most compelling political docs at the fest. It doesn’t quite get there unfortunately, and there are two reasons for this: production levels and narration. The first can be forgiven, as this film clearly suffered from a lack of budget and at least some of the footage seems to come from activists. However, as with Budrus, this could have been pieced together a little more coherently, and without the recreated scenes that detract from the overall mood of the film. The second problem, the narration, is a huge strike against the film. Aside from sound levels that made it seem as if the director was narrating through a megaphone in the row behind us (which, admittedly, may have been the mix in theatre), the writing suffers from a lack of faith in the ability of the audience to decipher the nuances of the story. The narration is mostly unnecessary, and explains awkwardly the images shown in front of us. At one point the narrator even tells us an interviewee’s name and title – immediately after that is revealed to us in titling on the screen. Heavy-handed narration needs to die a quick death in non-personal docs, and instead I am seeing a resurgence in many works. It can totally taint a film, confuse the story and leave the audience feeling like a bunch of under-appreciated dolts. Narration is best used sparingly, and written with an affect that actually makes the audience feel like they can make up their own minds about the images before them. At the end of the day though, this is an important story that needs to be seen, but if narration was removed from this film I feel it would be a better doc, certainly much less frustrating.

Parking lot philosophers

Other films worth checking out: The Parking Lot Movie by Meghan Eckman peeks at the weird and wonderful world of a parking lot and its attendants in Charlottesville, Virginia. The owner only hires offbeat graduate students who wax poetically and philosophically on consumer culture, car culture, classism and entitlement, art, and transcendental esotericism. Charming and funny, especially the music video at the end.

talhotblond is a feature-length doc by Barbara Schroeder that follows the fascinating story of online identity theft, role playing and ultimately murder. The doc can feel a little sensational (although not nearly as sensational as the shameless DVD cover – good god, who designed that thing?) but the filmmakers should be commended for making a compelling and dramatic feature doc with only a few interviews (someone hand that psychologist a rag to whipe the sweat off his lip people!), archival footage and an inordinate amount of text. The twist in this insane tale of identity-bending is so bizarre it’s hard to believe it really happened. The doc raises very compelling issues around online accountability that could have used a little more teasing out.

I Bought a Rainforest is from the producer of Bananas, and directed by Jacob Andrén and Helena Nygren. Nygren’s incredible talent for cinematography saves the film from a central character (Andrén) who is a little too deadpan to carry a narrative filled with so many dynamic characters and locations. The film follows Andrén as he searches the Amazon rainforest to find out if a donation his class in Sweden made twenty years earlier has actually had an effect. I would have liked to have seen a little more treatment of the politics and economy of this part of the world, as could have been told more extensively by the incredible heros risking their lives to save trees deep in the foliage. Instead the focus is on finding “his” forest, and the ultimate message is that small acts like donations can have a profound effect. Something a little more political would have been more interesting, but this one-hour documentary is so expertly constructed (in its cinematography and editing) that it is still compelling and enjoyable to watch. (Also: my faves Dreamland and American Radical are playing this year).

And now finally, the ethics of the fest: I plan on writing about this more in the future, but for now I’d like to flag a huge problem with this year’s edition of Hot Docs. Organizers have made the massive mistake, ethically inexplicable as it is, of signing on with none other than Coca-Cola as their, get this, environmental film sponsor. At many of the social events I accosted Hot Docs management about the festival facilitating greenwashing for one of the world’s worst human rights and environmental abusers. For a festival that showcases a film genre interested in not only truth but social justice, it is bizarre that they would take such a careless decision to not just bring on Coca-Cola as a sponsor, but give the company the space it needs to misrepresent itself as a corporation concerned with the environment. Coke’s eco-record is well-documented, and judging from my conversations with many audience members at Hot Docs, I’m assuming also well-known. Imagine a cigarette company sponsoring the festival’s cluster of films on health issues. Imagine BP sponsoring a program of eco-disaster docs.

“Thanks to Coca-Cola Canada for supporting the presentation of environmental films at Hot Docs” – ugh

Off the record, Hot Docs organizers told me that there is a “firewall” between programming and the business of the fest, and that there was a discussion about bringing on Coca-Cola as a sponsor, but it seems it wasn’t a protracted debate. This separation between art and economy at a festival like Hot Docs is about as real as objectivity in documentary, or the tooth fairy. The relationship is a delicate balancing act that determines the ability of the organizers to show quality documentary cinema. I appreciate this tension, but it is hardly a firewall when Coca-Cola is given the opportunity to associate their brand (in fact, the opportunity to rebrand) with environmental documentary cinema.

Hot Docs is risking their reputation with this new partnership, and if they think it will pass over without notice they are wrong. The Coca-Cola commercial played before every film I watched at the festival, and each time I overheard audience members around me, surprised and in disbelief: “What? You’ve got to be kidding me!” The reaction from documentary filmmakers was, of course, even more sever. Festivals like Hot Docs may feel immune from questions of ethics, when confronted by those of us who bring attention and protest to unethical sponsorship, but with their Green Galas, carbon offsetting, and other eco-friendly initiatives (and promotions), I’m venturing festival organizers actually do see the importance of addressing a newly-formed alliance with a company with one of the worst track records on human rights and the environment in the world (and I’m also sure Hot Docs ist familiar with Coke’s record, considering the documentaries on this very subject). Let’s hope enough people talk to them about this issue and they drop Coke for next year.