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Review: Hot Docs looks at the truth behind the legends of men Special

Posted Apr 27, 2014 by Sarah Gopaul
One of the criteria for inclusion in the Hot Docs Film Festival “Special Presentations” programme is high-profile subjects. We look at ‘Nelson Mandela: The Myth and Me’; ‘The Notorious Mr. Bout’; and ‘Whitey: United States of America v. Jame
Mugshot of James  Whitey  Bulger in  Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger
Mugshot of James "Whitey" Bulger in 'Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger'
Hot Docs
Well-known people make great subjects for documentaries because there's generally a pre-existing pool of people that can speak about them. This year's Hot Docs Film FestivalSpecial Presentations” programme features films about three men who became famous for different deeds they committed on separate continents. One is about a human rights advocate possibly given more credit than he earned; another is about a man who claims to have built his fortune on turning a blind eye; and the last focuses on a confessed criminal who can't stand to have a certain transgression on his record.
A scene from  Nelson Mandela: The Myth and Me
A scene from 'Nelson Mandela: The Myth and Me'
Hot Docs
Nelson Mandela: The Myth and Me
Director: Khalo Matabane
After Nelson Mandela's passing in 2013, he was lauded a saint, a symbol of peace and a triumphant freedom fighter around the world. But his long illness prompted many of those nearer his struggle to examine his victories and measure the true extent of their success. Nelson Mandela: The Myth and Me discusses the numerous events that would shape his legend through the eyes of a man who grew up during Mandela's quest for equality in South Africa.
One of the first observations people tend to make after meeting Mandela is about his charisma. They talk about his flirtatious personality and his ability to make them feel important. But interview subjects in this documentary offer an additional perspective. They comment on the underlying coldness one could see in his eyes and a terrible temper that erupted when he was opposed. It is this less popular commentary that makes the film interesting. Though the people speaking clearly respect him, they are not under his spell and have seen behind the curtain.
In addition to speaking to journalists, politicians and activists, filmmakers also discuss the real world results of Mandela’s victories with local, black citizens. These young adults plainly speak about the opportunities available to them and their inability to take advantage of them because even though the doors were opened, they do not have the means to go through them. Director Khalo Matabane shapes the film via letters addressed to Mandela, asking questions that he attempts to answer with the documentary.
Viktor Bout in  The Notorious Mr. Bout
Viktor Bout in 'The Notorious Mr. Bout'
Hot Docs
The Notorious Mr. Bout
Directors: Tony Gerber and Maxim Pozdorovkin
Drug and arms dealers have always garnered attention. Their lives are sensationalized for the screen and best-selling non-fiction books. They are celebrated as wealthy globetrotters, hobnobbing with the world’s elite while instantaneously breaking multiple, international laws. Viktor Bout was such a criminal and is the subject of The Notorious Mr. Bout (as well as the 2005 picture, Lord of War, starring Nicolas Cage).
Composed of interviews with Viktor, his wife, associates and the agents that orchestrated his capture, this documentary attempts to show the many angles from which his position could be viewed. For the DEA, there is no doubt that Viktor is guilty and properly labelled, “the merchant of death.” His associates were in awe of the ease in which business would flow, expand and profit. Viktor insists he was a legitimate businessman who built his empire on shipping – what was transported was not his concern – even though he connected many buyers with gun distributors.
The most appealing and unexpected aspect of this film is the unprecedented access to Viktor’s extensive home movie collection. An avid, amateur filmmaker, he appears to have recorded most of his adult life. Family gatherings, professional milestones, business meetings that varied in legality and everything in between can be seen on video. This vilified arms dealer is also shown to be a fun-loving, family man glued to a camcorder. The two personas are difficult to reconcile, but serve for an enjoyable exploration of entrepreneurship.
Assistant United States Attorneys and Bugler Prosecutors Zachary R. Hafer (left)  Brian T. Kelly (ce...
Assistant United States Attorneys and Bugler Prosecutors Zachary R. Hafer (left), Brian T. Kelly (center), and Fred M. Wyshak, Jr. (right) in 'Whitey: United States v. James J. Bulger.'
Hot Docs
Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger
Director: Joe Berlinger
The mobster is such a romanticized character that everyone wants to be a wise guy. James Whitey Bulger was known as the “Robin Hood of South Boston” as he ruled the area with an iron fist and became the city's most notorious gangster – and supposedly its most helpful FBI informant. Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger, which appears to have been spurred by 2013's explosive trial that is skillfully used as a backdrop, attempts to go beyond the myth to find the truth.
Though certain authorities refused to be interviewed, director Joe Berlinger has the opportunity to speak with almost everyone involved in the case, including state police, admitted gangsters turned witnesses, family of murder victims, prosecuting lawyers and journalists that have followed the case for decades. In spite of not having a camera in the courtroom, filmmakers combine their statements to create somewhat of a trial on film. At the core of their case is the question of whether Bulger actually was an informant. While watching, the viewer must decide if they can believe this claim – beyond a reasonable doubt – as persuasive arguments are made for both sides.
The interviews are compelling as murders are described in detail, as well as incidents of extortion. Though he went off the grid for close to 15 years, those entangled by his criminal dealings remember their involvement as if it was yesterday. The real-life verdict is known, but there are still many unanswered questions and this film may just raise a few more.
Showtimes and ticket information can be found on the festival website.