Hot Docs at The Isabel Bader Theatre (2019)

Reflecting on Hot Docs 2019

Our Consumption of Documentary Cinema

by Marisa Sittheeamorn, Kaveh Daneshmand

The Documentary Genre

Regarded as North America’s largest and most prestigious documentary film festival, Hot Docs attracts over 200,000 audience members from around the world to Toronto every spring. This year’s edition brought us over 200 documentary films from the far-reaching corners of each continent, sharing new and untold stories, and providing a platform for marginalized voices to be amplified.

While documentary is a powerful tool for story-telling, education, instilling positive change, and shifting public opinion, the genre is often perceived by many cinephiles to lack technical quality and reinforce problematic stereotypes. This is not to say the documentary genre is lesser than others, but instead raises the question of approaching stories with an ethical and moral lens.

For geographic regions or cultures that are constantly painted as conflict zones plagued by war and violence to the west, seeing stories that perpetuate the negative can be tiring. “My country and its people have experienced conflict, but have also spent a majority of their lives trying to rebuild itself,” noted one of my colleagues in explaining his distaste for documentary. “These “sad” stories are the ones that audiences like to see because they are “different”, and take the place of films that humanize the everyday lives of normal people living in these regions. We are like everyone else; we drive cars, we live in cities, we have homes, and we have everyday stories to tell,” he adds.

Despite being a fan of documentary myself, these words left me hyper critical in advance of the screenings I was scheduled to attend. While I’m not in full agreement with my colleague’s argument, and still appreciate the artistic and social value of sharing politically-charged stories, some of his points were undeniably valid. Are festivals programming films that perpetuate propagandized ideals of the east? Are audiences romanticizing narratives of trauma, violence, and poverty? How is our attendance at these films, influencing filmmaking decisions? How can we, as moviegoers, be better consumers in this industry?

Still from Bahman Kiarostami’s Exodus (2019), Source: Hot Docs

Farsi Selections at Hot Docs 2019

Planning to attend the five Farsi titles at Hot Docs, I grew anxious to analyze the overall narrative, approaches to story-telling, and general rhetoric that each film would advance. Although Farsi cinema is highly celebrated on the festival circuit, praise is often placed on fictional titles that embody poetic and illusionary techniques. As a newcomer to Farsi documentaries, I was curious to see the stories each filmmaker would chose to tell.

The five films I secured tickets for this year were Exodus by Bahman Kiarostami, Born In Evin by Maryam Zaree, Beloved by Yasir Talebi, Midnight Traveller by Hassan Fazili and A Kandahar Away by Aisha Jamal. Some of the directors live in Iran, while others are Iranian or Afghans who have spent the majority of their lives in a different country. While a majority of the films on this list center around socially-relevant themes, such as migration, only one portrayed a character-driven story irrelevant to reputation of the associated country in the west.

Still from Midnight Traveller (2019) by Hassan Fazili, Source: The Hollywood Reporter

The Political

Keeping my colleagues perspective in mind, I cautiously viewed the films erring on the political. The first of these was Exodus, in which Kiarostami sets up his camera in a border facility that processes thousands of illegal migrants wanting to return home to Afghanistan. In this film, Kiarostami has minimal interaction with his subjects, allowing the questioning from government employees to advance the story. The non-direct interviews enable Kiarostami to document the complexities of a layered issue, without manipulating his subjects. His choice to capture the interactions between Iranian nationals and Afghans ensure that the messaging of the film is authentic to the region, and does not perpetuate mischaracterizing sentiments spread through mainstream media in the west. It was reassuring to realize the programming choice to include this film was not a misappropriation or glorification of migration, but instead, a technically sound and powerful showcase of the relationship between two bordering countries in the midst of economic depression. In many ways, Exodus is also an ode to the classical non-manipulative approach to filming that documentaries traditionally followed.

Another socially charged title relating to themes of immigration is Midnight Traveller by Hassan Fazili. After directing a documentary for local television in Afghanistan about a Taliban leader who chose peace, the Taliban murders the film’s subject and issues an order for Fazili’s killing. The film is shot on three smartphones, and documents the journey of Fazili and his family – including his wife and two young daughters – as they try to find safety in Europe. The film starts as they are denied asylum in Tajikistan and forced back into Afghanistan and beyond. In addition to providing a visual to the harsh realities of illegal border crossings, statelessness, homelessness, refugee camps, escalating tensions against migrants, and uncontrollable fear, Fazili weaves in humorous exchanges with his wife, shots of his daughters dancing, playing, and laughing to demonstrate the strength of his family’s love and connection. Having personally directed the film in the thick of their statelessness, the intentions of the filmmaker to share his story are clear. It is through film festivals and private screenings that films like these have the potential to shift public and political policies and sentiments surrounding immigration. In this case, the conscious decision of all family members to create the film from their experience produces an intimate portrayal that humanizes and personalizes the global refugee crisis.

Director Aisha Jamal and her father in A Kandahar Away (2019), Source: Now Toronto

While both of these films were directed by Farsi speakers living in the region, I notice the approach to sharing politically-tinged issues shift in the titles from first and second generation filmmakers living abroad. In a film review covering Born in Evin, I mention how director Zaree’s quest for the truth about her birth and mother’s treatment in the infamous Iranian torture prison of Evin, ends up representing the experience of an entire generation. The development of Zaree’s journey reveals the entanglement of her Iranian roots with her German upbringing, as she invites audiences in on this internal conflict. While the film is much more manipulated than those of Kiarostami and Fazili, Zaree is able to bridge the distance between her and the past from Evin, through the candid portrayals of the intricacies that complicate the relationship she has with herself and her mother.

The multiplicity of the director’s identity holds the story together in a way that is also identifiable throughout Aisha Jamal’s A Kandahar Away. Jamal arrived in Canada as a refugee from Kandahar Afghanistan with her parents and four siblings in 1991, and is the only canadian-Farsi film in the festival. The film documents her family trip to Kandahar, Saskatchewan, after learning that her father has felt an immediate connection to the name of the town and purchased eight plots of land in the Canadian prairies for his children. While the film is light-hearted and provides audiences with a snapshot of family life among the Jamal’s, exchanges between the siblings and interviews with her parents establish the generational and cultural differences that simultaneously create tension and bridge understanding. Through this duality and difference, the film explores the morals associated with an Afghan creating a war memorial for Canadians that lost their lives in Afghanistan.

The Everyday

Straying from the expectation to capture the current political state of the region, Yaser Talebi shares the story of Firouzeh, an eighty two year old cow herder living alone in the mountains of Northern Iran. A widow and mother to eleven children, Firouzeh wishes to be with her cows until she dies, and refuses to stop working until her time comes. The film follows Firouzeh as she works throughout the four seasons, complains about how her kids never visit, and stands her ground when forestry officers try to kick her off her land. Adhering to the poetic and illusionary style that Iranian filmmakers are most celebrated for, Talebi demonstrates the fearless, passionate, and independent woman that Firouzeh is. In discussing the motivating forces behind this film, Talebi tells audiences about the special bond he shared with grandmother – who passed away several years ago. Firouzeh reminded Talebi of his grandmother, and after visiting her several times, questioned why he hadn’t started the filming process already. While this film differs from the others in sharing someone else’s story, it is clear through her openness and relationship with Talebi, that her story was one to be shared on screen. It is stories like these, the stories that represent the normalcy of the everyday, that audiences need to see more of.

In addition to drawing big crowds at Hot Docs this year, the film also won the audience award in the mid length documentary category at FCC’s partner festival, ÍRÁN:CI, in the Czech Republic, this year. 

Firouzeh in Yaser Talebli’s Beloved (2019), Source: Hot Docs

Final Thoughts

Reviewing these titles and reflecting back on the debate I engaged in with my colleague, I understood his point. There is a very fine line that dictates the stories that are yours to tell, and the stories that you should tell. Fortunately, the programming committee approaches these blurred lines with grace, choosing films that uphold standards of dignity in documentary filmmaking. It is, however, worth noting that of the five films involving Farsi filmmakers, only one of them represented an everyday story that was not politically charged. This is not to say that one type of story is more valuable or warranted over the other, but should make us all question the implications associated with consuming film.

There is no right or wrong answer when it comes to cinema, but I hope this reflection will encourage us all to bring a critical lens to the films we watch – both at home and in theatres.

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