Sunday, April 27, 2014



What a great movie! Take the  creator of the fantastic Marinoni hand crafted bikes renowned far beyond his home in Montreal. Marinoni was a great cyclist in his youth and now he's preparing to challenge the record for furthest distance cycled in one hour by a 75-year-old, a race that the great Eddie Merckx said was the hardest race of his life. He'll use the bike he crafted for champion Canadian cyclist Jocelyn Lovell - why had I never heard of this great Canadian athlete of the 60s and 70s?

We see the filmmaker break through Marinoni's initial suspicion and resistance to the filming. We see Marinoni's passion for building the best possible bikes. We're charmed by Marinoni's excitement at finding mushrooms in the woods, as he did when he was a kid in Italy. We're delighted by his wonderful dry sense of humour. We're touched when Marinoni visits Lovell, who is now a quadriplegic after an accident during training. There was so much to enjoy in this film, and we all had a great Sunday afternoon watching it.

The director thanked Hot Docs for lighting a fire under him to finish the movies. Hot Docs accepted the film when it was only half done, and the film was finished with 4 days to spare before its premiere on Friday. Thank goodness he finished, so we could enjoy this treat of a movie.

Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart


Pamela Smart's 1990 trial as accomplice in her husband's murder was the first trial ever to be broadcast 'gavel to gavel' and was the subject of relentless coverage and commentary in the media and subsequent books and movies. Smart had had an affair with one of the students at her school and was convicted of conspiring with him and three friends to murder her husband.

The subtitle of the movie is very apt - The Trials of Pamela Smart - for she was tried in the media as much as she was in the courtroom. Initially, Smart appeared to seek and relish media attention as she discussed her husband's recent death. But her manner soon turned cold and taciturn; her behaviour contributed to the public concluding she was an evil seductress who had led on her young lover and his friends.

The movie is not about whether she was guilty or innocent, but about whether she was given a fair trial.  Given what the movie unveiled, no TV lawyer would ever have lost this case.

The movie was a very interesting commentary on the power of media to shape a story. However, I found the movie was too long and needed further editing to make it tighter. Funny how seeing many movies in a row gets you thinking that you're a movie critic!!!

Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Measure of all Things


This was an interesting experiment, billed as a 'live documentary'. Essentially, it was a movie, with the director Sam Green narrating and a live band instead of canned music. The movie followed an interesting set of Guiness Book records. Before the movie started, Green narrated an interesting story which was perhaps the highlight of the evening. Great idea for Hot Docs to innovate like this.

Mission Blue


Mission Blue is a paean to both Sylvia Earle and our oceans, both so inspiring in their own ways. An intrepid explorer throughout her career as a marine biologist, Earle grasped every opportunity to explore new oceans or plunge to new depths. Still active at 78, the beautiful and articulate Earle is a dynamo in a petite package. She combines scientific research with passionate advocacy for the oceans she loves. The oceans are a vital link in our exosphere: they produce most of earth's oxygen, they are a carbon sink, and the home of most of the planet's biodiversity. They also provide absolutely gorgeous photo ops!

Whereas 12% of the earth's surface is protected in some way (surprising stat), less than 3% of the ocean is. Earle's advocacy now focuses on redressing that with the creation of Hope Spots - protected ocean areas. She introduced this as her TED wish when she won the 2009 TED Prize, and director Fisher Stevens said he was inspired to make the movie during a TED-organized Galapagos voyage. 

 A lot of that has been protected in the last few years, sparked at least in part by Earle's efforts. 

The Overnighters


This moving documentary has all the drama of people in a tense situation. There's compassion, hope, rejection, redemption and betrayal. That's a lot to pack into a documentary about the surge of people moving to Williston North Dakota looking for work in the oil fields.

The town of Williston had a population of about 15,000 in the 2010 census. Then, fracking started an oil patch boom, and the population doubled in a few years and is on track to triple by 2017.

Each bus debouches men desperate for a fresh start after failures back at home. They see the economic boom as a change for high-salaried employment, and redemption.

But there's simply not enough housing for these men. So Pastor Jay Reinke squeezes beds and blankets into the church and RVs into the parking lot. The ever cheerful and upbeat Reinke welcomes them, he counsels them, he shows endless patience and compassion for these broken men. He tries to build a community.

But the existing community doesn't like his actions - not his congregation, not his neighbours, not the town council. The conflict that unfolds is the heart of this movie. The wrenching ending packs incredible punch, a huge surprise for the filmmaker, and  the audience.

E-Team - my second Hot Docs film

Very good

The sky in the distance is mauve and pink as Anna and Ole set off towards the Syrian border. Before the border they leap out of the car, run across a field, and carefully step over the roll of barbed wire.  They're in. 

Anna (a Russian) and Ole (Norwegian) are from Human Rights Watch and they're in Syria to witness and document human rights violations in the Syrian uprising. Putting themselves in great personal danger, they painstakingly collect evidence, both forensic and from witnesses.  They are careful to seek out corroborating witnesses for any stories of atrocities. It's a dangerous and important job.

Kosovo marked a turning point for Human Rights Watch. Before Kosovo, observers would do their investigations after the fact and write dry reports. In Kosovo, they created an emergency team called the E-Team which heads into the heart of conflicts where human rights violations are suspected. And their mission is now targeted at getting media attention for violations hoping to stop the atrocities. 

Of the two, Anna is the public speaker. She stages her press conference announcing the Syrian atrocities in Russia, challenging Russia for its support of the Syrian regime. The organization then struggles with whether they should take an advocacy position in favour of a no-fly zone over Syria. Would it be helpful, or would it lead to unintended consequences and jeopardize their reputation for objectivity?

The movie also introduces us to Fred, an earnest American who was a key witness in the Milosevic trial in the Hague, and Peter, the munitions expert. The movie highlights the personal sacrifice of these men and women.  Anna and Ole are married and we see Anna saying goodbye to her teenage son as she heads out for Syria. The movie ends touchingly in Anna's hospital room just after she gives birth to another child. The camera lingers on the wonderment on the faces of Ole and Anna's son as they cradle the newborn in their arms, while Anna looks on fondly. The phone rings and someone is asking for an interview with Anna. There's a brief hesitation. Then she asks "What time?"

Friday, April 25, 2014

The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz


Aaron Swartz wanted to make the world a better place. He applied his astounding technical brilliance to leverage the Internet as a tool to improve the world. And he took his own life as a result of being hounded by aggressive prosecutors over a pretty modest misdemeanour. Such an incredibly sad and powerful story. This was the opening film of Hot Docs and my first film of this year's festival.

Family film footage shows Aaron reading sophisticated books at 3, and the emergence of his ferocious curiosity and propensity for action.  In his 25 years, his technical output was prolific.

At the remarkable age of 15, he was working on the RSS standard, to enable users to receive information from frequently updated web sites. He was a founder of Infogami and later Reddit. When Aaron was still a teenager, his accomplishments came to the attention of Harvard lawyer Lawrence Lessig who invited him to build the technical infrastructure and web site for the Creative Commons copyright system. As Aaron became a social activist, he built an astonishing number of web sites to support the causes he endorsed.

So why did his life end so tragically?Aaron questioned everything, and considered all learning to be temporary and subject to query. You can imagine he was not a great fit for traditional high schools, nor Stanford when he went there. His disenchantment with the education system sparked his questioning of all society. But he was essentially an optimist and believed the world could be fixed if he could just explain the issue and its solution clearly.

He passionately believed that information should be free. He downloaded and released many records from the PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) system, which were restricted behind a highly profitable pay wall (although by law charges should only just cover the cost of operation). This brought him to the attention of the FBI, although after investigation, no charges were laid.

He was instrumental in building powerful opposition to the SOPA law (Stop Online Piracy Act), and ultimately, somewhat to his own amazement, the bill was stopped.

However his treatment was not so benign after he downloaded thousands of documents from the JSTOR repository of academic papers when he was a fellow at MIT. He had not done anything with the documents - like sell them or publish them. It puzzled me why he would be charged with 13 indictments. TV shows train you to believe there has to be a smoking gun - like the drug dealer consummating the sale - in order for charges to be laid.  In the Q&A, the director explained that the charges revolved solely around access.  When JSTOR saw how many documents were being downloaded, they blocked Aaron's access. When he hacked around that, they blocked all of MIT, and Aaron hacked around that again.

There's no firm indication of what Aaron wanted to do with the documents, and JSTOR declined to press charges, but the prosecutor pursued Aaron with a vengeance, with the goal of making an example of him. The initial 4 indictments (which already could lead to 35 years in prison) were later increased to 13. Although his lawyer felt they had a strong case, apparently they were bracing for a sentence of around six years. Being a felon would have dashed Aaron's germinating political ambitions, and six years without a computer was unthinkable.

After suffering two years of intense pressure, and over a million dollars in expenses, Aaron took his own life. And one of the great minds of a generation were lost.

My first film at Hot Docs this year was great. But how could you fail to make a great movie with such a compelling subject?