Events / HOT DOCS

Hot Docs: Reza's Top 5

28 April 2017 / by Reza Hassanirad (author)
The Departure (photo: The Departure directed by Lana Wilson)
The Departure / (photo: The Departure directed by Lana Wilson)

The Departure

Ittetsu Nemoto is a devout Zen priest who spends an awful amount of time on his cell phone.

He must.

He’s committed himself to offering compassion and counselling to anyone who suffers from depression and suicidal urges, a common issue in his native Japan.

On the phone and in person he provides a sympathetic ear and shares sage advice with the struggling souls that seek him out. But his vow to help the suffering is diverting time and energy from his family and his own declining health, forcing him to confront his own challenges and reassess his priorities.  

The Departure is a compelling look at a wounded healer. It deftly explores the relationship between mental health, spirituality, family and the lamentable gap between heroic aspirations and human frailty.

The documentary beautifully conveys the troubled interior of the otherwise placid monk; and the portrayal of his young son’s lively energy, playfulness and curiosity is a revelatory contrast to the world’s troubles.

The Departure is in turns insightful, difficult, arresting, grave and humourous. A must see.

 

You're Soaking in It

You’re Soaking in It

Many of us are well aware of the ubiquity of advertising in our lives. But this fact mostly elicits a resigned shrug. 

You’re Soaking in It attempts to drive home the point that technology and big data have transmogrified an irksome fact of modern life into a shadowy omnipresence that burrows deep into our very essences.

With engaging visuals and interesting interviews, the documentary backgrounds the genesis of modern advertising and its relationship with experimental psychology, and then illustrates the emergence of a new and worrying reality.

There’s a poignant point when the inventor of the pop-up window box (to his credit, he apologies for this vexation) observes that the best mathematical and engineering minds of our generation are being hired to figure out how to make us click on banners that we don’t want to click on. The waste of such intellectual capital is stunning. 

You’re Soaking in It does a fine job of showing where advertising was, where it is now, and most importantly where it will likely go, and whether such a trajectory is desirable.


Photon

Photon

If God had to give a presentation on the creation, unfoldment, and climax of the cosmos, Photon embodies how I’d want him to do it: intense imagery, atmospheric sound, and charming matter-of-fact voiceover delivery that compares wrinkles in space-time to a scrotum in winter.

The black-and-white visuals that illustrate the earliest epoch of quantum creation are themselves worth the price of admission. The omniscient narrator tracks the development of matter into increasingly complex forms, including life and eventually humans and culture.

CGI subtly and deftly supplements natural footage to create scenes depicting the past and a fairly dystopian trans-human future defined by digital incorporeality. In one of many well-crafted scenes, we see from a great distance dozens of proto-humans  walking across an ancient valley.

One glaring flaw is a series of excursuses that involve a reporter interviewing a scientist, digressions that add neither insight nor levity. But a forgivable blemish. 

From the micro to the macro, Photon covers the biggest sweep of them all in sweeping style.

 

Gilbert Gottfried in the 1990s in New York. Picture taken by his sister, photographer Arlene Gottfried.

Gilbert

When it comes to distinctiveness, comedian Gilbert Gottfried is in a league of his own.

His signature voice and squinting visage - a mix of constipation and astonishment - coupled with his brand of blue comedy have carved a noteworthy space for him in the comedy world. Gilbert gives a rather intimate profile of the diminutive man, showing us a personality that is far more reserved and taciturn than his garrulous stage persona.

An impressive line-up of comedians share their take on Gottfried. In the beginning many of them express shock and envy that he’s now a father of two and married to a beautiful woman.

The contrast between Gottfried’s vulgar style and his embrace of domestic life with his charming children and dedicated wife doesn’t fail to fascinate.

Without pretension, Gilbert explores the relationship between humour and tragedy when it focuses on Gottfried’s controversial 9/11 joke and his dismissal as spokesperson for Aflac insurance in the wake of his risqué tweets about the 2011 Japanese tsunami.

Given that so many recognize Gottfried as the voice of the beloved parrot Iago from Aladdin, more material about his experience with that role would have been welcome.

Gottfried’s style isn’t for everyone, but it’s a worthwhile profile for those who have even just a passing interest in stand-up comedy.

 

... when you look away

…when you look away

What is consciousness and can it exist outside of the body? No doubt a profound and interesting question that’s relevant to any conscious being. 

...when you look away’s director Phie Ambo wants to shed some light on the question. She believes that clues to the answer lie in the odd nature of quantum reality as attested by the famous double-slit experiment in physics, which shows light and matter exhibiting properties of both particles and waves.

(Now, any time a layperson employs quantum theory to explore or prove something, be very, very wary. Simplistic understandings and misunderstandings of quantum physics often go hand in hand with pseudo-scientific gobbledygook.)

Ambo wants to approach her project in an unplanned way that allows for coincidence to determine who will people her documentary. She begins with an eccentric Danish physicist and pioneering string theorist and then follows all the leads and contacts that emerge from there - none of which seem particularly preternatural. 

Once a clairvoyant enters the picture and an inchoate hypothesis about water being the key to consciousness is introduced, along with uncontrolled experiments involving grease traps, the more skeptically-inclined will be ready to look away. 

While it’s absolutely essential to be open-minded and avoid succumbing to the siren song of scientism, rigorous critical thought can’t be jettisoned in the process. 

I accept that there are many things that we just don’t understand, and that institutional science needs to be more open to phenomena that stand outside its paradigm. Unfortunately, ...when you look away won’t be moving the conversation forward on that front.

 

Hot Docs runs now until May 7. Catch more coverage on Movie Mixtape - Fridays at 10AM. 

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The author

Reza Hassanirad

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