HOT DOCS 2013 REVIEW: Muscle Shoals, Bending Steel And Other Good Documentaries


This past week I had the pleasure of serving as the box office intern for the Hot Docs Film Festival, an annual celebration of the documentary films held in Toronto. Of course I was not able to watch every film I would have liked, I still managed to watch 9 good films, plus a special presentation of The War Room (1993).

I purposely tried to watch a variety of films. The nine films which I will review in this article range from emotional (Junior, Blood Brother, Elena) to informative (Occupy: The Movie, God Loves Uganda), to just entertaining (Muscle Shoals, Bending Steel, Fuck For Forest).

Here now is a review of the 9 films I was able to watch at the 2013 Hot Docs Film Festival.

Muscle Shoals By Greg “Freddy” Camalier

The best documentary I saw at Hot Docs this year. Muscle Shoals tells the amazing story of how small-town record producer Rick Hall helped launch the careers of many of music’s great artists including Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett and others. Other big artists like the Rolling Stones also recorded in Muscle Shoals, Alabama in their glory years.

Muscle Shoals is every bit the story of producer Rick Hall and his band The Swampers who have made an incredible contribution to music. The film won the audience award as the most popular film of the festival. It includes interviews with Keith Richards, Mick Jaggar, Bono, among others. 5 Stars

Bending Steel By Dave Carroll

Bending Steel is a poignant profile of Chris ‘Wonder’ Shoeck, a New York City personal trainer who dreams of becoming a performing strongman. Receiving no support from his family, and lacking in any real ability to connect with others, Shoeck relies on his close group of friends to reach the prestigious stage of the performing strongman circuit, Coney Island.

At first glance, Shoeck is not the most instantly likeable person. He even tells the audience that he does not like to get close to people. Shoeck made a surprise appearance at the screening I attended and impressed the audience by bending horseshoes into the shape of a heart, and looked to be thoroughly enjoying all the attention he was receiving. It looks like this film really helped him overcome many of his own issues. 5 Stars

God Loves Uganda By Roger Ross Williams

Roger Ross Williams constructs a documentary about how the promotion of the evangelical agenda by missionaries in Uganda has had a negative impact on the country, particularly when it comes to homosexuals. Williams argues that Christian fundamentalist values is just a continuation of the colonial past.

For example, the Christian right’s campaign against condom use has in some ways worsened the Aids epidemic in the country. It also looks into the 2011 murder of prominent gay rights activist David Kato in Uganda as an example of the homophobia prevalent in the country, which the Christian right has helped to cultivate. 4 Stars

Junior By Sien Versteyhe

A wonderful profile of Jean-Pierre Bauwens Junior, a youth boxing champion who is the eldest of seven kids. What makes his story special is that 4 of his siblings suffer from autism. Bauwens knows that every victory is a step closer to providing a better future for his family.

Junior is constructed in an almost cinematic structure, like with Bending Steel. Right after the half-way point, tragedy strikes the family, and young Jean-Pierre receives his biggest test yet. Sien Versteyhe’s film is an inspirational story of overcoming the odds. 4 Stars

Occupy: The Movie By Corey Ogilvie

The first thing that should be said about this film is that it is not the definitive work on the Occupy movement. With the many radio documentaries, articles, news stories done about Occupy, Corey Ogilvie’s film is not likely to tell you much of anything new. But it still is a very engaging, well constructed exploration of the event.

The first half of the film deals with the roots behind the movement itself. It includes interviews with Adbusters founder Kalle Lasn, journalist Chris Hedges and leading organizers behind Occupy. The second half, addresses why the movement has been allowed to wither way and what, if any legacy it will leave for us. 4 Stars

Elena By Petra Costa

Petra Costa’s labour of love is a beautifully constructed tribute to her older sister. Twenty years ago, Elena left Brazil and travelled to New York City to become an actress. Costa tells the story of Elena’s life through home videos, voice recordings and footage from her acting work.

Petra’s voiceovers create an almost dreamlike, poetic ambience to the film. Petra and her mother try to retrace Elena’s steps as a way of heal from their loss. This film is heartwrenching and emotional, but not overly scentimental. 4 Stars

Fuck For Forest By Michal Marczak

Polish filmmaker Michal Marczak’s look at the group Fuck For Forest, which is made up of eccentric environmentalists who raise money to preserve the planet by producing and selling pornography. Marczak film has little to do with the actual green movement or the environment in general, instead he constructs a film about the personalities behind Fuck For Forest.

The people behind Fuck For Forest are far less admirable than the cause they are fighting for. The documentary does not address any real world issues until the second half where they travel to a remote indigenous community in south America. 3 Stars

Blood Brother By Steve Hoover

Filmmaker Chris Hoover’s friend Rocky returns from India a completely different person than when he left. Once superficial and unambitious, we find out that Rocky’s experiences at an orphanage for Aids/HIV infected children has radically changed his perception on life. In the process, Rocky has fallen in love with the country and above all its people.

Hoover’s film is engaging, beautifully shot but does rely a little too much on scenes of children at the orphanage. The problem is that Hoover tries too hard to appeal to the audience’s sentiment for suffering third-world children. It did become a little too overwhelming at times. Personally, I would have liked them to develop the character of Rocky in America better. 3 Stars

Just The Right Amount of Violence By Jon Bang Carlsen

Danish filmmaker Jon Bang Carlsen traveled to Los Angeles to shoot a documentary about middle-class American parents who send their troubled teens to a reform school in Utah. Carlsen tells the story through the experience of two ‘interventionists’ whose job is to enter homes and physically transport these teens on the behest of their parents.

Carlsen uses a combination of real-world situations and reenactments. As a result the film lacks focus at times perhaps because Carlsen set out to make a different film. Although, he is able to rescue it with a very personal reflection on parenthood and family in the final third. 3 Stars


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