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June 18, 2015
Amy Schumer, and a long winter nap.
October 30, 2014
Vice and Rogers are partnering to bring a Vice TV network to Canada
John Tory gets a parody Twitter account
Film Thursday: Final Hot Docs Recommendations
Four highly worthy docs to see this weekend

Let the Fire Burn

Of all the excellent films I’ve seen at Hot Docs this year, Jason Osder’s Let the Fire Burn is the one I prize most. Above all else, it’s just great documentary storytelling, achieved with a minimum of means. Relying solely on archival footage–news reports, depositions, a taped commission–Osder tells the largely forgotten story of MOVE: a radical collective that followed the cult-like teachings of a man calling himself John Africa. The members, most of whom were black, holed up in a Philadelphia house in the mid-’80s and essentially just irritated the hell out of their (also mostly black) neighbours. More troublingly, they raised their children in borderline neglectful, abusive conditions. Throughout, the movie asks us to decide where dissent ends and criminality begins, and you couldn’t ask for a more complex, challenging test case. The focus of the film is the siege of the house by police, which culminated in a massive fire and the deaths of eleven MOVE members, some of them children. By any reckoning, the siege was a terrible overreaction, and far more destructive to the city than anything MOVE had ever done. Osder, a professor of media studies at George Washington University, assembles the material flawlessly, alternating between the panic and confusion of the siege and the  deeper ethical confusion of its aftermath. Completely riveting. ★★★★
 

Fatal Assistance

Haitian-born filmmaker Raoul Peck (best known in North America for the biopic Lumumba) takes on the hugely complicated, fraught subject of international aid in this look at the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake. According to Peck, the country is worse off now than it was in the immediate wake of the disaster, due largely to the lack of coordination between the hundreds of NGOs sent there to help. No matter how well-intentioned, every group has its own priorities, and too often those priorities have more to do with what looks good on a prospectus (building new schools for cute, photogenic children) than with what’s immediately needed (unglamorous debris removal). Peck isn’t solely interested in the fate of Haiti: he wants to show how all international aid is at best compromised, and at worst farcical (at least as it’s currently practiced). He builds a solid case, but a convoluted, truncated one: at 100 minutes, the film feels about half as long as it needed to be. Also, the unusual epistolary narration tells us what to think too much of the time. Still, the movie is a valuable conversation starter, one with a particularly troubling message for the type of person who attends Hot Docs. ★★★
 

Bending Steel

I don’t care much about feats of physical strength, but by the end of Bending Steel I cared quite a bit about strongman Chris “Wonder” Schoeck. He’s a fascinating, oddly touching figure–a stoic loner who long ago replaced human relationships with a bizarre, all-consuming pastime: mangling hunks of steel with his bare hands. Schoeck works as a personal trainer, but when the film begins he’s desperate to join a crew of professional strongmen debuting a new act on Coney Island. Feats of strength aren’t enough to join their ranks, though–he needs to be a performer, too, which means learning to connect with his fellow human beings, even if only briefly. The movie isn’t just about a man fumbling towards engagement with the world, it’s a lovely demonstration of how actions gain meaning by being witnessed and shared. In the early scenes, when Schoeck practices secretly in his basement, his hobby seems kind of stupid; by the end, when he’s doing it for his supportive teammates and for the eager crowd, there’s something strangely beautiful about it. His big finale–an attempt to bend a bar he’s never been able to bend before–makes for one of the most perfect, moving documentary endings you’ll ever see. ★★★★
 

Valentine Road

Five years ago, a California middle-school student named Larry King was shot and killed by a fellow student, Brandon McInerney. The murder took place right in the middle of computer class. The “provocation”: earlier that week, Larry approached Brandon in the schoolyard and asked him to be his valentine. As this first feature from director Marta Cunningham reveals, the two boys had more in common than either probably knew: years of poverty, parental abuse, loneliness, etc. But whereas Larry was just beginning to discover his true self–he’d started experimenting with heels and makeup in the weeks before his murder–Brandon was losing himself to the lure of Neo-Nazism. Cunningham teases out the parallels expertly, and she rounds out the story by examining the community’s divided response. The final third of the film, which focuses on Brandon’s legal defense, reveals just how awful supposedly average folks can be: a veteran teacher at Larry’s school says, in essence, that he brought it on himself, and a group of women jurors sip wine and prattle about the “witch-hunt” and how badly they feel for Brandon. Listening to these people, you realize just how not far we’ve come. ★★★

On a personal note: this is my last column for TS, and I’d like to thank all of the site’s editors (Christopher Frey, Toban Dyck, Sarah Nicole Prickett, and Sabrina Maddeaux) for giving me the opportunity to write for them, and for letting me cover pretty much whatever I wanted. (That’s a rare situation these days.) And thanks, too, to the readers who followed me these past few years. I hope I didn’t dump on too many of your favourites.

____

Scott MacDonald wrote about cinema for Toronto Standard. You can follow him on Twitter at @scottpmac. He may be tweeting a lot less in the future.

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