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Euro Division: Hot Docs 2024

Limits of Europe

This year’s 31st edition of Hot Docs (April 25-May 5) was chockfull of drama, both onscreen and off. And while there were no protests (such as at IDFA) nor riot police dispatched (see Thessaloniki) there was quite an upheaval in the run up to the event itself. Which then led to much speculation as to the health and future of North America’s largest nonfiction fest.

Indeed, before the event even began 10 programmers abruptly resigned and the artistic director stepped down. (Not exactly the type of news you want upstaging your press conference to unveil Dawn Porter’s Vandross biopic Luther: Never Too Much for opening night.) Then there was the rather unnerving mass email from Hot Docs president Marie Nelson sent out a few days prior to the opener. Arriving with the innocuous subject line “A message from Marie,” it was actually a fundraising plea, containing the blunt admission, “I’ll be completely honest with you: we’re struggling. So much so that there’s a possibility this festival will be our last.” Though Nelson also assured, “I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure that’s not the case,” such Canadian candidness just felt much more ominous than inspiring.

Fortunately, the overall vibe at this latest (but hopefully not last) edition of Hot Docs was likewise “keep calm and carry on” optimistic – which did inspire confidence, along with the carefully curated official selections (not to mention the terrific choice of Raoul Peck as the 2024 Outstanding Achievement Award honoree). In fact, despite the sturm und drang, this year’s programming was topnotch as ever, and featured an impressively eclectic number of gems from around the world. Most of which could be viewed at one of my favorite cinemas in the world, the TIFF Bell Lightbox, its atmosphere more chic museum than movie house (right down to café-bar Varda and the cinephile-niche TIFF shop. Not that I need a Big Lebowski talking bowling pin, but good to know someone out there does). Which in turn brought in crowds filled to the brim with enthusiasm — and of course, their much-needed dollars to match.

Interestingly, our bondage to unbridled capitalism also seems to be a hot doc topic these days. (It’s notable that “Astra Taylor in Conversation with Brett Story” was the Special Event talk this year.) As the Czech journalist Saša Uhlová notes in Apolena Rychlíková ’s rivetingly disturbing Limits of Europe, which aptly screened in The Changing Face of Europe program (and last played CPH:DOX), Europe is still divided by the Iron Curtain — it’s just now the “Wage Curtain.” Indeed, much like with our own reliance-hate relationship with our neighbors south of the border, EU nations (and the UK) are heavily dependent on easily exploited, undocumented workers from the economically struggling East. Which may not be all that shocking in itself. Though the conditions these “essential” toilers are forced to endure to keep neoliberal Western Europe’s free market system churning would have given even the late Barbara Ehrenreich pause.

That said, Uhlová is certainly no Ehrenreich. Though she does go undercover in the shadow economy fueled by cheap labor to expose the stark social inequities between East and West, she’s also firmly outside of elite academia or any storied institution. In fact, she’s just another struggling member of the East’s desperate working class who’s devoted two years of her life to a grueling gig that has taken her from a German farm, to an Irish hotel, to a French retirement home; one that likewise has whisked her away from family in the Czech Republic with no possibility of visits home. In other words, the family and financial crises facing those on the frontlines of the capitalist divide is the unrelenting, blue collar journo’s as well.

A much more dangerous, as well as existential, frontline was the setting for another European film. Though technically a Ukraine/US/Australia production, Brendan Bellomo and Slava Leontyev’s Porcelain War follows three Ukrainian artists, including co-director Leontyev and the film’s DP Andrey Stefanov, as they practice their delicate art in a war zone. Having lost the passion to paint — not to mention the physical touch of family since evacuating his wife and twin daughters to Poland — DP Stefanov has now turned to filming the destruction wrought by Russian troops but also the defiant beauty crafted by the hands of his dear friends Leontyev and Leontyev’s partner Anya Stasenko.

Playing in the International Competition (after having picked up the US Grand Jury Prize: Documentary at Sundance in January), the poetic doc takes its title from the couple’s medium of choice, which Leontyev compares to his homeland as well: “Ukraine is like porcelain, easy to break, but impossible to destroy.” A pithy phrase that’s elevated to something much deeper by the artistry behind the scenes — including Ukrainian folk group DakhaBrakh’s memorably intoxicating soundtrack — and the film’s adamant connection to the natural world, a fourth character in itself.

In fact, there’s a radical magic (made visible via some canny animation) in the porcelain figurines the duo create: tiny, intricately painted (by Stasenko) renderings of unsung creatures such as snails and dragonflies, the latter of which also take the form of bomb-dropping mechanical drones. (Leontyev likewise notes that snails carry their homes on their backs, and “a refugee is a snail without a shell.”) And though it’s posited in voiceover that Russian conscripts aren’t “ready to stand up to Putin and die. We are,” the most remarkable aspect of Porcelain War is that it isn’t about death at all, nor even the fight against. It’s about the beauty of life — i.e., what (Ukrainian identity, the culture and land) they’re fighting for.

Thus, even as missiles rain down on Kharkiv, Stasenko turns her attention to her whimsical treasure-making as “it’s critically important to smile once in awhile.” And even as Leontyev turns “former civilians” into lethal snipers, he reminds that, “It’s not that difficult to scare people, but it’s hard to forbid them to live.” Indeed, in their increasingly spare downtime, the artists steal away to the healing forest, where Stasenko keeps an eye on Frodo the dog while Leontyev looks out for hidden mines so he can then place warning signs for his fellow countrymen, likely there to engage in the Ukrainian pastime of mushroom picking. As Stasenko brightly puts it, “The enemy is not as creative at being bad as good people are at being good.” And while Ukraine may be “a story we are creating now by the actions we take,” as a protagonist says in VO at the end, Stasenko also assures that “the carpet of the future is being woven.” The work of thousands of broken but resilient, invisible hands.

Invisible hands of a far more insidious sort also play a starring role in Son of the Mullah, which screened the Frontlight section of IDFA 2023 and aptly appeared in this year’s Festival Favourites program at Hot Docs. It’s the latest from veteran Swedish-Iranian filmmaker and journalist Nahid Persson Sarvestani (2004’s Emmy-nominated Prostitution: Behind the Veil). A real-life, life-and-death mind-bender with all the twists and turns of a le Carré novel, the film follows Ruhollah Zam, a fellow Iranian journalist forced to report from abroad. But unlike Sarvestani, Zam, along with his wife and young kids, is under 24/7 protection in France due to his Navalny-esque determination to expose the rampant corruption and worldwide money-laundering schemes that keep the Islamic regime and its mafioso mullahs in control.

And he should know. As the title of the doc implies, Zam is the offspring of one of the elite,  which means he’s a “traitor” with connections. Indeed, Zam’s tips come from anonymous sources within the government, desperate to take down the hypocritical Republic leadership once and for all. But also, unfortunately, from that wily government itself, eager to lure an unwitting journo hungry for scoops back into its deadly web.

While the end of the Islamic Republic likewise would come as welcome news to Lars Thorsen, star of Fabien Greenberg and Bård Kjøge Rønning’s Norwegian Democrazy (another The Changing Face of Europe selection), so would the end of all Muslim migration to the continent. Or at the very least to Norway where Thorsen heads up the provocatively if not cleverly titled Stop the Islamization of Norway (SIAN), which seems to consist of the middle-aged xenophobe, his strong-willed girlfriend and a handful of other white racists. In other words, Proud Boys this is not.

That said, Thorsen does punch above his weight, staging stunts like burning the Qu’ran while wearing a T-shirt depicting the Prophet Muhammad (appropriately blurred by the filmmakers), constantly testing the limits of Norwegian free speech. And also the patience of most of Norway it seems, especially the police tasked with protecting Thorsen’s right to self-expression however offensive his antics might be. But as SIAN travels from cosmopolitan Oslo to rural villages to preach its message of hate in public squares, one thing remains constant — not a lot of folks show up. And when they do, hecklers and counter-protestors seem to far outnumber any avid supporters.

Which perhaps isn’t all that surprising since this former accountant makes for a rather uncharismatic leader. (Though he does cite his familiarity with numbers as qualification for doing his own statistical “research” into the supposed inherent criminality at the heart of the world’s second largest religion. That and he reads a lot of Islam-related books.) Neither Richard Spencer dandy nor Steve Bannon schlubby, Thorsen’s remarkably forgettable in an aging military dude kind of way. In fact, far more fascinating are the laidback and reasonable Norwegian citizens, many young and Muslim, who calmly attempt to engage him in good faith logical debates. And while trying to have a rational conversation with an extremist might be an exercise in futility, it’s also a smart deescalation tactic. One that simultaneously dismantles the “Islam equals violence” hypothesis behind Thorsen’s very unChristian crusade.

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