North America’s biggest documentary film festival Hot Docs opened with Alison Klayman’s Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, about world renowned Chinese artist provocateur Ai Weiwei. The festival’s new director of programming, Charlotte Cook, said that the moment she saw the film, she knew that it would be perfect for Opening Night. For Cook, the film was an appropriate choice for inviting the documentary community to discuss not only the ways in which documentaries can bespeak activism but also exist as a form of resistance.
This year’s Hot Docs lineup, with a compelling selection of 189 titles from 51 countries, has only reinforced this theme, giving added relevance to the argument that documentaries have a greater role to play as a social force.

Ai Weiwei

What can documentaries do to make a difference? How can social and political change become reality through documentary films? How effective are documentaries in raising awareness and rousing the masses? A starting point here could be to change the definition of the term documentary itself, to which Cook refers in her first person interview on Indiewire: “Whether I’m down the rabbit hole with my unabated love for this art form, I cannot comprehend the notion that documentary could ever be thought of as niche or a genre. Documentary is everything.”
At a time when the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction continue to blur and documentary filmmakers are constantly searching for new and innovative ways to tell their stories, the assertion that the documentary film is more than just a genre elevates non-fiction films to a level in which they become effective generators of real impact in society.
A manifestation of this vision at the festival was the “Rise Against” section, which was dedicated to films on social change and the people behind various movements that impact society. The Rise Against stories featured a range of subjects from daily life in Egypt after President Hosni Mubarak’s fall, as showcased in Petr Lom’s Back to the Square, to AIDS activism, as in Jim Hubbard’s United in Anger: A History of ACT UP. Also included in the section were Brian Knappenberger’s We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists, which delves into the world of Anonymous, an internet-based civil disobedience collective, and Stephen Maing’s High Tech, Low Life, which follows two fearless citizen journalists from China, underscoring the pivotal role played by online activism in promoting and sustaining the right to freedom of expression.

Awareness is a catalyst for rebellion and resistance

Dissident voices were well represented throughout the festival program, with the Israel-Palestine conflict garnering a major focus. The manifold layers of this complicated reality were deftly depicted in an eye-opening collection of Palestinian and Israeli documentaries by courageous filmmakers who defy the political divisiveness and discursive clichés that have become endemic characteristics of the conflict:
The Law in These Parts by Ra’anan Alexandrowicz, a Special Jury Prize winner at Hot Docs, offers a revealing look at the double standards that Israel imposes on the Occupied Territories, and an examination of the thought processes of the country’s military legal corps, the architects of the system. Silvina Landsmann’s Soldier/Citizen, meanwhile, follows a group of conflicted young Israeli soldiers, whose beliefs are repeatedly challenged by a civic studies teacher in a military-sponsored high school classroom. The film offers viewers a rare chance to observe the fascinating process of the de-familiarization of memorized discourses upon which a political reality is built. In One Day After Peace by Miri & Erez Laufer, one bears witness to the story of Robi Damelin, an Israeli mother who lost her son to a Palestinian sniper; the film delves into the themes of forgiveness, reconciliation and closure. 5 Broken Cameras, co-directed by Palestinian Emad Burnat and Israeli Guy Davidi, sheds light on the suffering on the other side of the border, offering a close-up of non-violent resistance in the West Bank.

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