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5 Hot Docs films to whet your appetite

Categories: Movies

In a city where film festivals seem to be opening every other week, the scope of Hot Docs -- the premiere North American documentary film festival -- can be daunting for even the most rabid fans of reality-based filmmaking.

But even as the industry faces new challenges, the audience for docs seems to be growing. Looking for proof? Look no further than Toronto's shiny new Bloor Hot Docs cinema, recently redesigned in glorious art deco style.

Now, what to see? Here are five great films to start with.

The Queen of Versailles

Simultaneously comic and tragic, The Queen of Versailles feels like one of those ensemble films Christopher Guest specializes in, except that this collection of clueless, endearing and self-absorbed characters is entirely real. Q.o.V. offers a rare look at the economic collapse from the top. Our guide is Jackie Siegel, a former beauty queen and now wife to timeshare titan David Siegel. The ultimate buxom blonde, Jackie seems like a Jennifer Coolidge character (from a Christopher Guest movie, of course) sprung to life. The mother of eight takes care of the domestic details of the Siegel family's fiefdom, which includes managing the nannies and a menagerie of pets, not to mention plans for the ultimate dream home: a mega mansion monstrosity modeled after Versailles.

It would be easy to smirk at Jackie, but director Lauren Greenfield shows us a person who is comical, yet captivating. That said, as the economic ruin deepens, there is a moment in the film when our amusement acquires a bitter tang -- perhaps Greenfield's intention. The Queen of Versailles offers a fascinating and revealing look at the life of the elite.

Ping Pong

Ping Pong documentaryPensioners from across the world meet in Inner Mongolia to compete in the over-80s table tennis championships in the documentary Ping Pong. (Hot Docs)

The international over-80 table tennis championship might seem like a subject lacking in drama, but Ping Pong is a doc that is never quite what you'd expect. Director Hugh Hartford introduces us to a wide variety of competitors: eight different players, from weightlifters to cancer patients to an Australian woman over 100 years old! From the profiles, Hartford flashes ahead to the massive matches held at a stadium in China. Though there's plenty of traditional tension as the rivals meet, the age (and wisdom) of the competitors put a mature topspin on the traditional athletic adventure.

Beauty Is Embarrassing

Wayne White is the Zack Galifinakis of the pop art world -- not just because of his lumberjack-worthy beard, but for his fearless devotion to his muse. A painter, puppeteer, cartoonist and sculptor, his approach to art could be summed up by his favourite motto: "F--k it." White swears like a sailor, though his proclivity with vulgarity is an indicator of his approach. Art is not something precious. It's something to provoke or, even better, to make people laugh. Art can be fun! Isn't that a revolutionary concept? Director Neil Berkely catalogs White's story, from his rough-and-tumble beginnings to his breakthrough moment designing for Pee-wee's Playhouse. This doc is chock full of artistic soul food.

Big Boys Gone Bananas

Though not for everyone, Big Boys Gone Bananas is essentially a monument to the perseverance of director Fredrik Gertten. Much of the drama takes place around the premiere of Gertten's previous doc, Bananas! It was scheduled to open at the Los Angeles Film Festival, but the Dole company fought back. As a result, the festival goes into damage control even before the film opens, relocating the Bananas! screening to an isolated campus cinema. Meanwhile, Dole begins seeding the media with articles calling Gertten's integrity into question. Step by painful step, the filmmaker turns the lens onto himself, documenting the smear campaign and his legal response. While not exactly a thrill-a-minute movie, it's an eye-opening exposé for other filmmakers and all advocates of free speech.

Herman's House

Herman's House follows a young artist as she uproots her life in order to build a dream home for a Black Panthers member who has spent 40 years in solitary confinement. An unlikely pairing, the two make for fascinating subjects. Herman Wallace is serving time in Louisiana's state penitentiary for the stabbing of a prison guard in 1972, though many consider the evidence that convicted him circumstantial at best. It was violence that led to Wallace being locked up, but in prison he's become a sage, calming presence. In the film, we only hear Wallace's voice as he chats with his artist friend. The phone line crackles, but his patience and good humour come through.

The woman on the outside is Jackie Sumell, a New York artist who heard about Wallace's case and began writing to him. Eventually, she decides the best way for him to "escape" is to build his dream house. Watching her dedicate her life to this unlikely goal is a heartbreaking affair. Toronto filmmaker (and friend of Sumell) Angad Singh Bhalla follows her to New Orleans and captures the strain on these unlikely partners. While Bhalla doesn't dive too deeply into the details of Wallace's incarceration, his artful touches -- like the vision of Sumell pedalling her way through the wide streets of New Orleans, as Wallace's voice rumbles in the background -- make Herman's House an arresting experience.

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