Hello, anyone there? I’m Michael McNeely, a 1L at Osgoode waiting to be Remediated, and trying to stave off boredom and other ills by acting as Obiter Dicta’s resident film critic. To this end, I am covering Toronto’s premiere documentary film festival, Hot Docs, which started today (April 26th) and concludes on May 6th. Please read on to see if any of the films I have watched pique your interest (I tried to see many with legal themes). I will also write about my experience being a deaf-blind film critic who has worked with Hot Docs to make the festival more accessible for those with disabilities.
Carlotta’s Face (dirs. Valentin Riedl, Frédéric Schuld)
Germany [5 min]
Carlotta has prosopagnosia, otherwise known as face blindness. This means she is unable to recognize faces. Features such as beards, clothes, and manners of speech make identification possible, but still challenging. The animation style is reflective of the condition and very well-done. Carlotta’s story of frequent bullying in school reminds us that we must be mindful of others that experience the world differently than we do. Carlotta has found success in art, and so have the directors Riedl and Schuld.
Mommy Goes Race (dir. Charlene McConini)
Canada [6 min]
This short features the director, a mother of two, and the only woman car racer in Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation, as she readies both her car and herself for a race. McConini wishes to be a role model for her children as well as others that may wish to try new things in life. While an interesting hook, I wish we had more time to spend with McConini.
The Prince and the Dybbuk (dirs. Elwira Niewiera and Piotr Rosolowski)
Poland, Germany [82 min]
Directors Niewiera and Rosolowski examine the fragmented life of Michal Waszynski, an acclaimed director who died in 1965 after making over 50 films. Waszynski was known for his masterpiece, The Dybbuk, which was cited by Joseph Goebbels as a reason for the Nazi atrocities he helped orchestrate. Waszynski was a man of mystery and had a multitude of identities, and unfortunately, I found the film’s mystical, obtuse narrative style (reflective of the subject, I suppose) to be ultimately alienating. It did not help that there were some portions spoken in English that were not subtitled (which I knew to expect in advance, but, oh well). The Prince and the Dybbuk has a fascinating subject – too bad there is more style than substance at this point.
Transformer (dir. Michael Del Monte)
Canada [78 min]
Truly one of the standouts of Hot Docs.
This film showcases first-hand some of the numerous difficulties one faces when transitioning from male to female. Janae was formerly known as Matt “Kroc” Kroczaleski and is a champion bodybuilder and ex-Marine. Surviving testicular cancer, serving in the Marines, and recovering injuries from bodybuilding is nothing like Janae’s latest challenge: learning about and accepting Janae, while letting go of Matt completely.
In some ways, the identity of Matt is like a crutch for Janae – it is an identity her parents accept, and an identity that one does not have to think about at the latest bodybuilding convention. However, Janae’s three sons tell her they want her to be who she really is, and their love for Janae is unconditional. I enjoyed watching Janae discuss makeup techniques with her sons – this is not a common situation one faces in the heteronormative world, which is why we should demolish that world. Janae hopes her journey will inspire at least one child not to commit suicide and at least one family not to disown their child.
When watching this documentary, viewers are in for an unrestricted look into a strong woman’s vulnerabilities and fears. Every major change comes with a sense of loss, but Janae comes to realize that the loss of Matt does not mean a loss of her passions, such as bodybuilding and mentoring others.
United Skates (dirs. Dyana Winkler and Tina Brown)
USA [86 min]
This documentary about the importance of roller skating and roller rinks to the Black community in the US is not to be missed. It will evoke a variety of emotions – from happiness and exhilaration to frustration and even dread. Don’t worry though, it ends on a positive note – a note of resilience.
Firstly, the sense of movement and skill in many of the skaters featured in the film is nothing short of brilliant. The camera is constantly moving, just like the skaters. When the skaters spin, do splits, form trains, and other impressive feats, the camera doesn’t miss a beat. Winkler and Brown have worked on this documentary for five years, and frankly, I can see their passion on screen. “United Skates” is the title for a reason since the duo showcase skating in North Carolina and in Los Angeles, and seemingly everywhere in between.
Winkler, Brown, and their subjects paint a despairing picture of the state of roller rinks in the US today. In addition to being an important symbol of Black culture, roller rinks also represent safe havens for those who would otherwise be involved in gang violence. Roller rinks are a place where musicians can find success that would have been denied them elsewhere, and roller rinks are a place where one can let out steam after a stressful day – even if the cops are in front running security. However, roller rinks are a diminishing breed due to increasing demand for big-box stores and increasing property taxes.
When a rink closes for the last time, Winkler and Brown have no qualms showing you the mournful expressions of its faithful skaters – even ones that travelled a long distance to be there. However, with innovative thinking (such as renting out/sharing space from another venue for Black events), solutions can be found to keep this cultural tradition afloat.
Taking an American pastime with deep historical roots to the Black community, the directors show that there is more to roller skating than a few laps around the tracks. They help us to understand how small actions (such as not allowing certain kinds of skates in the rink) can carry significant weight in an already divided America.