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article imageReview: Hot Docs makes the world smaller one film at a time Special

By Sarah Gopaul     May 1, 2014 in Entertainment
Hot Docs Film Festival showcases some of the best documentaries from around the world. We look at ‘Beijing Ants’; ‘The Condemned’; ‘The Engineer’; and ‘No Lullaby.’
The Hot Docs Film Festival features two global programmes: the competitive “International Spectrum” and “World Showcase” of popular choices. Both are packed with quality documentaries covering a wide range of topics. Here is a selection of two films from each category. One is a first-hand look at the housing market in China; another is an unprecedented visit to one of Russia’s harshest prisons; another is a few days in the life of the world’s murder capital’s only criminologist; and the final film chronicles the painful consequences of child abuse.
A scene from  Beijing Ants
A scene from 'Beijing Ants'
Hot Docs
Beijing Ants
Director: Ryuji Otsuka
Population density is making buying or renting a home in many city centre’s increasingly difficult. Prices are rising as living spaces shrink. People are gradually forced to sacrifice value or compromise other features in order to stay within desirable neighbourhoods. Beijing Ants chronicles the struggles of one family’s search for a new home in China, which consists of a lot of yelling, bargaining and several calls to the police.
The family is comprised of a mother, father, teenage son and toddler. The opening chapter is a hidden camera segment, which captures a verbal argument that escalates to a physical altercation between the parents and their landlords who have given one month’s notice for a rent increase of 600 RMB (approximately $40 CAD). The son or father usually double as cameraman for the following seven sections, resulting in long, uncut shots that are simply spliced together to create the whole. They take the camera apartment hunting, when they confront a club owner breaking the noise curfew in their neighbourhood and while moving. It seems that no matter which stage of the process they are in, they create or encounter discord.
Though the footage is the equivalent of an amateur home movie, it crudely captures some of the issues currently facing Chinese renters and homeowners. Much of it revolves around capitalism and the desire to exploit the supply and demand structure of the system. In addition, any meetings business owners seems to automatically put them at the disadvantage in the eyes of the authorities, questioning aspects of the value of customer service in the country.
A scene from  The Condemned
A scene from 'The Condemned'
Hot Docs
The Condemned
Director: Nick Read
Russia is generally viewed as a country with a strict policy against violent crime. This film sheds some light on how firm they actually are against those who commit the ultimate felony: murder. Having rejected the death penalty, the maximum punishment for killers is life imprisonment — so they devised the most unpleasant mode of incarceration that have many wishing execution was still an option. After six months of hard negotiating with the Russian Prison Service, The Condemned goes inside Russia’s prison for murderers, which is located seven hours from the nearest town and surrounded by a dense forest.
Interviews with the inmates reveal different levels of acceptance, repentance, despair and prosperity. Rare visits from family members are the only sign of hope they have, to which they cling tightly. They speak about the psychology of isolation and the chances of surviving a full sentence to see the outside again. The warden informs filmmakers no one has ever left the penitentiary alive. The two classes of convicts are provided different privileges: one- to two-person cells vs. dormitories; 60 to 90 minutes solitary outside vs. working and socializing daily; four-hour visits with family twice a year vs. three-day conjugals every three months.
The discussions of codes and hierarchies, as well as varying perspectives of their situations is enthralling. These men’s crimes are horrifying and they speak very matter-of-factly about the people they’ve killed. Yet they have such eloquent thoughts on their crimes and circumstances, as well as their punishments that one gains an interesting perspective on the Russian penal system and its effects on the inmates.
A scene from  The Engineer
A scene from 'The Engineer'
Hot Docs
The Engineer
Directors: Mathew Charles and Juan Luis Passarelli
El Salvador has one of the world’s highest murder rates, but only one criminologist to handle the endless workload. Israel Ticas is called almost daily to excavate the mangled bodies of gangland victims from abandoned wells, mass graves and shallow burial grounds. The grieving relatives of the “disappeared” affectionately refer to him as The Engineer, though gang members are less kind in their references. Ticas regularly fears retaliation, but will not be deterred from doing what he determines is his life work and fulfilling the promises he’s made to hundreds of family members to recover their loved ones.
It’s not often a single character is able to carry a full-length documentary, but Ticas is an intriguing man with a fascinating yet macabre occupation. In spite of a so-called truce between the MS-13 and 18th Street gangs, there are dozens of disappearances still occurring — just fewer bodies being found. He soothes crying wives, mothers and grandmothers who pray for closure, while still holding out hope that their missing person will be found alive. Ticas talks about modernizing the techniques used to excavate and examine bodies, and the inability to identify so many of them.
While most of the film focuses on Ticas’ job and the numerous roadblocks he encounters, there is a gruesome element as well. He describes some of the ghastly discoveries he’s made while exhuming bodies and the horrendous ways some of them have died. Yet, he still has an amusing sense of humour and an agreeable personality that draws the audience into his story while keeping some of the gloom at bay.
A scene from  No Lullaby
A scene from 'No Lullaby'
Hot Docs
No Lullaby
Director: Helen Simon
Documentaries about abuse can be incredibly difficult to watch as the victims relive the pain of their experiences on camera. In No Lullaby, the appalling tale of sexual abuse at the hands of a father and grandfather is delivered in a manner that shields the victims from the anguish of recounting the details, while ensuring audience gains a comprehensive understanding of the circumstances under which the situation was allowed to persist.
Tina, now in her late 50s, had blocked out the horror that comprised much of her childhood. It was only decades later that she would recover the terrible memories through therapy. Unfortunately for her daughter, Floh, this defence strategy allowed the cycle to continue to a second generation. When the virtue of a third child was threatened, Tina and Floh resolved to finally tell the authorities. Filmmakers relay the details of their mistreatment via court transcripts, thus saving them from having to recount them again. It’s impossible to think that anything could be more shocking after these descriptions, but the case judge manages to be more outrageous.
Contemporary images of Tina’s life are interspersed throughout the film, illustrating her “normality” and driving home the devastating consequences of her story. The talking head approach is truly the most effective in this case, while the transcripts are read against a monochromatic illustration of a courtroom. Tina is exceptionally honest about the emotions she experienced over the years and Floh’s side of the story is effectively told in her absence.
Showtimes and ticket information can be found on the festival website.
More about Hot docs, Review, Beijing Ants, The Condemned, The Engineer
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