Hot Docs 2013: Five Must-See Films

Hot Docs: Who is Dayani Cristal?
Today marks the first day of my faaaaaaavourite time of the year – the first day of Hot Docs! While I do love and obsess over many other festivals in the city, there is a special place in my heart for the little documentary festival that could.

Beyond the fact that I love documentary film and the impact that documentaries can have on cultural values, public policy and movements, I also had the pleasure of working for Hot Docs seasonally for six years, making great friends and watching great films. Every April I would have access to dozens of pre-festival screeners to get a head-start on all of the films. Last year was the first year that I didn’t work for the festival, but I was still writing reviews for blogTO, so screeners still fell into my lap.

This year however, I received absolutely nothing and will be attending the festival like a civilian (with a few reviews here or there) and I’m still just as excited as any other year! If anything, I feel like this blank slate of a year will help me have a different experience. Instead of simply absorbing EVERYTHING, good or bad, I’ll be able to pick and choose the films I absolutely want to see, and can also let myself get swept away by awesome reviews by others.

On that note, here are my five must-see films:

1. When I Walk

On first glance, this documentary appears to be to multiple sclerosis, what 65_RedRoses was for cystic fibrosis (You can stream/download 65_RedRoses from Amazon for $3.99 if you haven’t seen it yet!) The twist is that the subject matter is also the director. Young filmmaker Jason DaSilva was diagnosed at age 25 with multiple sclerosis, a disease that would quickly take him from being a world-traveller to needing assistance with daily tasks like brushing his teeth. From the trailer, you can see that he uses stock footage, photography, animation and other digital effects to really show his perspective about his condition, as a way to convey his artistic and personal feelings about his condition. An Official Selection at Sundance, the film gets its Canadian Premiere at Hot Docs and I’m really anticipating good things for it.

2. Who is Dayani Cristal?
Instead of featuring the trailer, I think the Hot Docs summary offers a better description.

Arizona’s Sonora Desert, also known as the Corridor of Death, is the deadliest crossing point from Mexico into the United States. Each year, it claims the lives of many migrants. This time, the desert’s deathly sands reveal the body of a migrant with no identification. His body bears the tattoo “Dayani Cristal”—the solitary clue to his identity. Beginning in Honduras, Gael García Bernal begins a recreation of this man’s likely journey, traveling through Guatemala, Mexico and finally Arizona. Tracing the traveller’s footsteps, Bernal, along with a forensic team in Arizona who begin the identification and documentation of the man’s remains, methodically piece together his identity. As the story of the tragic death unfolds, we discover the journey “Dayani Cristal” might have traveled and make links to find the family he left behind.

Like last year’s film The Imposter, Who is Dayani Cristal? also uses quite a bit of recreated footage to get the story across, and I think in this instance, one that will pay off immensely. Immigration and migration policy are two huge issues, not just in North America but globally. There is huge buzz surrounding this film, and I anticipate it will really shine a really cold light on the hardships that people undergo, just to try to make it TO another country for the possibility at gaining a better life. This film was the winner of the Cinematography Award for World Cinema Documentary and makes its Canadian Premiere at Hot Docs.

3. Rent a Family Inc.

I’m fascinated by documentaries that tackle small topics that are delicately wrapped in the cultural beliefs and values of the subject. Particularly, I’m always keen to watch a film about subjects in Japan, Korea and Scandinavia for their very distinct attitudes about cultural rules and identity. In Rent a Family Inc, Ryuchi, a seemingly normal Japanese businessman, runs a secret business that rents out actors to people for funerals, weddings and other events. He relishes the idea of assisting people with their own secrets, but somehow manages to hide his entire business from his own family. The trailer seems to push that there is a big reveal, this is one to watch.

4. Alias

When we watch documentaries, we spend so much time travelling to other cities, countries, or even remote pockets of the world, so it would be a shame to ignore a film about something that’s happening on our own front porch. Michelle Latimer’s debut feature documentary Alias follows Torontonian rap artists and producers Alkatraz, Trench, Alias, Knia and Keon. The documentary follows the group as they each try to achieve their dreams through music, while breaking away from violence, swagger and gangs, which can be hard when you live in highly marginalized places like Regent Park, Don Mills, and Jane and Finch. This is a world premiere and definitely, absolutely, not one to miss.

5. Furever

With all those emotionally charged selections listed above, I thought it would be nice to include something a little… “softer”. The late-night program at Hot Docs focuses on the quirkier side of documentaries, and this is no exception! Furever explores the lengths that people will go to preserve their beloved pet when it has passed away. From cremation to mummification, graveyards and cloning, people are willing to really go the distance to honour their beloved fur-babies. I’m a cat lady, but let’s see how I match up with the people in this film.

Still need some more suggestions? Dead or Alive, We Always Lie to Strangers, The Garden of Eden, The Great North Korean Picture Show, 12 O’Clock Boys,

Hot Docs runs from April 25 to May 5, 2013. Visit their website for more information and for screening times.

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