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Review: Hot Docs’ ‘Nightvision’ pushes film subjects to the outer limits (Includes first-hand account)

The Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival shares a variety of pictures rooted in real-life. From biopics to in-depth investigations, the featured films shock, reveal and entertain audiences. But what of the less traditional subjects that don’t easily fit into a specific category? For the adventurous moviegoer seeking films with a more unique appeal, Hot Docs created the “Nightvision” program. Offering documentaries for genre fans, this category is the go-to for the strange and unusual. Two films included in this year’s program couldn’t be more different from one another, yet still fit perfectly in the offbeat group.

A scene from  The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young

A scene from ‘The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young’
Hot Docs

The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young isn’t about just another American race. The gruelling 60-hour marathon founded by Gary Cantrell has occurred annually in eastern Tennessee since 1986. Each race is said to be approximately 100 miles (160 km), but is often closer to 130 miles (209 km). The course is designed as a loop so it begins and ends at the same spot, where supporters and quitters can cheer on the dogged. Participants are required to complete five loops, alternating clockwise and counter-clockwise for each leg. One circuit includes nearly 12,000 feet of climb, which is the most of any race of comparable size. The once-secret competition now attracts entrants from around the world, though each contestant is still personally selected from hundreds of applicants by Cantrell based on their potential for success. In its first 25 years, only 10 people crossed the finish line.

The film chronicles the 2012 edition of the Barkley Marathon, which proceeded under favourable conditions — but that just meant the course wouldn’t be more difficult than its characteristic design. In addition to recording Cantrell’s perspective on this punishing passion project, filmmakers spoke to and briefly followed racers as well as regular volunteers who come each year to transport water to the two designated hydration stations or in the case of one man, play “Taps” on his trumpet each time someone leaves the competition. The most astounding aspect of this film is its ability to increase the intensity and viewer’s anticipation without accompanying any racer for the majority of their trek. Each time someone quits and the writing on the screen updates the percentage of entrants still in the race, the audience becomes more invested in the outcome. It’s quite a clever and effective technique.

A scene from  The Visit

A scene from ‘The Visit’
Hot Docs

In The Visit, acclaimed director Michael Madsen returns to the festival to explore the world’s sanctioned response to the arrival of alien life on Earth. Unsurprisingly there is an official protocol in place should such a day come, which was established by a team of scientists, philosophers, lawyers and security advisors. This group is a part of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA — it’s a real thing). With the viewer in the position of the visitor, selected representatives enact the script for the initial interaction, beginning a dialogue and attempting to interview the guest. In addition, a man simulates the first assessment of the inside of a spacecraft, verbally reporting his observations to the command centre.

It’s interesting to note that none of the presented situations presuppose the aliens are hostile. Rather than rehearse doomsday scenarios, the authorised welcoming committee presents olive branches to the strangers. However there are many other assumptions on which the UNOOSA’s strategy is based, the chief two being the visitor’s ability to understand English, and their knowledge of human processes and structures. For example, at one point an agent is requesting the alien cooperate because of the implications of negative media, impetuous rogue states and the need for assurances. Regrettably, the performances are incredibly dry and being in the outsider’s seat only emphasizes some of the plan’s cited flaws. On the other hand, it may be comforting to know Independence Day isn’t Plan A should the day arrive.

Ticket and screening information are available on the Hot Docs website.

Written By

Sarah Gopaul is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for film news, a member of the Online Film Critics Society and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer-approved critic.

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