David Cuevas concludes his Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival 2021 coverage with a selection of hotly anticipated capsule reviews. 

With the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival now successfully over — after a week-long celebration of virtual screenings of some of the most empowering works of non-fiction filmmaking in our current cultural sphere — it now seems appropriate to highlight some notable titles from this year’s selection. Keep in mind that some films are more successful in presentation, execution, and direction compared than others. But most importantly, this following list is meant to serve as a testament to the Hot Docs programming team, and their keen eye for subject variety within each of their program-selected titles. Now without further ado, here’s a compilation of capsule reviews from this year’s festival selection.


Come Back Anytime


We all have a favourite joint. A pub, a restaurant, or even a quick take-out spot. There’s millions of them in the world, but there is only one place  that resembles Bizentei; a one-of-its-kind Ramen shop based in Chiyoda City that offers a uniquely salivating experience for its dedicated customers. Providing decades worth of history behind the current ownership of Bizentei and their fluctuation of customers — Come Back Anytime is an emotionally satisfying tribute. The film’s greatest fault however, is the pandering and needless focus on the materialistic over the empathetic. For a film that is prominently meant to serve as a time capsule of a year in the life of a uniquely independent restaurant — some of the more satisfying moments specifically come from the customers and their own experience. The film instead focuses on elongated scenes of farming, alcohol distribution, and a peculiar fascination with Bizentei’s eclectic menu of ingredients. 


Dirty Tricks


I should probably preface with a disclaimer that there are various films in this article that feature a repeating issue. In the case of Dirty Tricks, the film is yet another offender of a fascinating subject diminished by the villainous clutch of poor direction. Edited in a similar vein of a high-octane youtube infographic, the film ironically enough shares a great amount of vapidity with the film’s core interviewee and his staggering story of Bridge, cheating, and infamy. 


Generation Utøya


On paper, the components of Generation Utøya would have made for an enthralling documentary. Reminiscent of another Hot Docs selected feature entitled After Parkland from a few years back, both Utøya and Parkland share a similar thematic premise. In both films however, I found myself frequently un-engaged with the material onscreen. In the case of Generation Utøya, the film consistently relies on exposition and sloppy intercutting of sequences that fail to capture a rhythm or even an overarching focus. What’s most concerning is that I’m part of the demographic depicted in the film. As a left-wing based teenager, something never clicked within Generation Utøya’s detailed examination of trauma and the infiltration of facist government policy. 


Her Socialist Smile


Easily the most fluid film in its experimentations and deconstructions of traditional documentary conventions at this year’s festival, Her Socialist Smile is an abstract document on Helen Keller’s political views. It can be described as a cinematic walk in the forest — one of Keller’s preferred past-time activities merged with her own writings and timeline of events. It’s a film that has a consistent amount of creative ingenuity behind the camera that frequently provides a unique cinematic angle, specifically targeting the senses of sight and sound. Bordering on sensory overload, Her Socialist Smile is a beguiling piece of nonfiction filmmaking. 


Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy


With already three feature films compiled in her ever-growing filmography, Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers is slowly becoming one of the most important artists working in Canada today. Her latest feature Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy highlights the opioid crisis from the Indigenous people of the Kanai First Nation in Alberta; a film that tackles public stigmatisation against harm-reduction services, contemporary colonialism in Canada, and the work that is currently being done by all parties involved. Tailfeathers offers a glimpse of hope for her audience within a compiled document of human stories, in a film that consistently provides empathy and hope towards marginalised Indigenous communities and people. 


Last Days At Sea


Richly textured and pensive, Venice Atienza’s feature debut Last Days at Sea offers a hypnotic exploration of childhood, traditional customs, and nostalgia. A highly reflective and contemplative film told through Atienza’s perspective, Last Days at Sea highlights the final days of childhood with a keen eye for narrative aimlessness. It’s a beautiful anthropological venture that occasionally overstays its welcome. 


The Last Forest


Making headlines with his critically acclaimed animated feature Rio 2096: A Story of Love and Fury, director Luiz Bolognesi returns with The Last Forest. A completely different medium-based departure from his previous endeavour, The Last Forest still shares a similar thematic DNA with Bolognesi’s aforementioned animated feature. His latest prominently focuses on the Yanomami people and their constant fight against contemporary colonialism. The film embraces their traditional ceremonies and practices, through a gaze that never feels exploitative nor unnecessary. The rich texture of the immaculately rendered sound design offers the viewer an enriching audio-visual experience. The Last Forest does occasionally drag; partially in due part with the vignette structure and its abundance of hybrid reenactments of verbal storytelling scenes. But even with its occasional bumps along the way, the film still manages to flourish as a sublime cinematic experience and an essential cry for attention towards the current state of Brazilian politics and their colonialist attempts at assimilating the Yanomami people. 


Writing With Fire


Detailing the turbulent every-day routine of Khabar Lahariya — a news company solely run by Dalit Women — the documentary Writing With Fire frequently enlightens the various trials and tribulations found within corrupt Indian-based political and economic parties. The end result of the film is a timely, although slightly repetitive document on the importance of Journalism, and how the women who work at Khabar Lahariya often risk their own lives for the sake of holding sources of power accountable. As one of the journalists states: “Journalism is the essence of democracy”


You Are The Days To Come


Historical context means everything. Especially when contrasting a national tragedy with the influence of Western media and contemporary ideologies — documentaries can offer a unique perspective on key historical footnotes. It’s the primary focus of You Are The Days To Come, a film that highlights key preceding events within China’s growing art scene, that eventually lead to the Tiananmen Square Massacre. The film, while packed with insightful testimonies and entertaining stories from the interviewees, does occasionally become redundant due to a lack of an original artistic vision behind the editing suite. The film’s presentation is painfully flat due to its consistent portrait coverage and assembly of B-Rolls — in a lackluster attempt to reinvigorate a timely period of revolution and personal trauma. 


The Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival ran from April 29th, 2021 to May 9th, 2021. 

By David Cuevas

David Cuevas is a writer, reporter, and the official festivals editor (US/Canada) for FilmHounds Magazine. In his spare time, you can find him watching a bunch of movies while contemplating on his own existence.

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