Wednesday, 15 April 2015


For the next fourteen days I will only review movies I liked, loved or that totally blew me away during the 2015 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto, Canada. Life is short. I won't bother reviewing movies that were godawful, mediocre or just plain okay. Note my picks, mark your calendars and save some precious hours, days and weeks of your life on planet Earth. Instead, spend it travelling the world via one of cinema's most vital genres.

Leaving Africa (2015)
Dir. Iiris Härmä

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Uganda is a beautiful country and so are its people, but it's been fraught with scourges like the butcher dictator Idi Amin Dada and in recent years, organized religion. The intolerance, repression and mass-manipulation continue to run rampant in the country, but there are many brave people who constantly struggle against it. Certainly, the 2013 Hot Docs presentation of Call Me Kuchu by Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall was a numbing, powerful and moving experience which detailed the country's hatred towards its LGBT community.

Leaving Africa is a new film which superbly presents its material and story with a combination of filmmaking excellence and compulsively fascinating subject matter. Friendship forged through a mutual appreciation for education is the heart that drives Iiris Härmä's truly great film. And yes, this is a film with heart.

And soul.

Finland's Riitta Kujala lived in Uganda for 27 years, bringing public health education to the country and nurturing new generations of those Ugandans who will continue this vital work. When the film begins, she is 67 years old, already past retirement and embarking upon what might be the crowning glory of her legacy and by extension, that of Finland and the Ugandans who carry-on and support her endeavours.

Riitta begins an important workshop devoted to gender equality and sexual health aimed squarely at Uganda's religious leaders. Given that so much of the country's difficulties have stemmed from the backwards idiocy perpetrated by many of God's cheerleaders in collaboration with a government too often exhaling a miasma of extreme conservatism, this is not only an action of utmost significance, but a brave one as well.

Riitta's best friend and housemate Kata Othieno devotes herself as a chief and equal partner in all of her educational initiatives. She's as big-hearted as they come and visually, her tall, robust, full-figured beauty is a striking contrast to that of Riitta's lean, slender, wiry and seemingly steely - dare I say, "buff" - physical countenance. At age 63, Kata could still have her pick of any litter of hunky suitors, but after an often tempestuous and outright abusive life with men, she's eschewed their place in her life - she's tired of lap-doggish gents hiding their inner-most pit bull nature.

Education is her constant bedfellow and driving force.

Luckily for Riitta, she not only has a dear friend and colleague in Kata, but a family. Kata's children and grand kids are the genuinely loving progeny Riitta avoided physically bearing herself, especially having remained single her entire life.

And then, there is the work - a life's work that these two dynamic women have shared. One of the more fascinating and delightful elements of this are the workshops for the Ugandan religious leaders. They've come from all over the country and represent a variety of faiths within the purviews of Christian and Muslim persuasions. Huge drawings of female genitalia with a pointer aimed at various parts of the equation meet the (often) open-mouths of the assembled pupils.

Role playing, discourse, questions and answers relating to sexuality and gender are engagingly presented by the filmmaker in a manner that documents the undertaking itself as well as delivering ideas and information that the participants are ultimately eager to learn about. These deftly-captured-and-cut sequences also contribute greatly to film's compelling narrative. I'd even argue that some of these sequences might well provide a much-needed education to "enlightened" Western gentlemen who see the film. (For me, though, as a descendant of sensitive, open-minded, Eastern-Rite-influenced Ukrainian Cossacks, the information dispensed served merely as that which has already been bred in the, uh, shall we say, bone.)

Though much of the film feels idyllic and good humoured, the crushing reality of repression, tribalism and corruption eventually rears its ugly head - threatening to scuttle Riitta and Kata's influential ongoing legacy. Riitta feels the pull of retirement and the inevitable return to her native Finland, but if an anonymous letter to the Ugandan government, a virtual poison pen blackmail tome fraught with horrendous allegations achieves its nefarious intent, everything could be swiftly destroyed.

Riitta and Kata are going to fight this to the end, though. It might be bitter, bittersweet or uplifting, but love, friendship and dedication will persevere through whatever tempests brew up in the grand, but oft-repressed nation of Uganda.

All of this works quite splendidly as the mise-en-scene and editing are so potent that director Iiris Härmä's extraordinary film feels like one of the best independent neo-realist dramas I've seen in years - worthy, certainly, of the same pantheon occupied by the likes of the Dardennes Brothers. The difference, of course, is that we're watching a documentary and it's undeniably matched by filmmaking of the highest order, which unflinchingly impels Leaving Africa into stratospheric heights.

The Film Corner Rating: ***** Five Stars

Leaving Africa is making its International Premiere at the 2015 edition of the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival. Visit the Hot Docs website for dates, showtimes and tickets by clicking HERE.

This is one of purportedly hundreds of children
viciously & mercilessly sexually assaulted by
former Anglican Minister & Boy Scout leader Ralph Rowe.
Survivors Rowe (2015)
Dir. Daniel Roher
Prd. Peter O'Brian

Review By Greg Klymkiw

I doubt you're going to see a better short film at Hot Docs 2015 than Survivors Rowe. In fact, I doubt you're going to see a better short film all year than Survivors Rowe. There's something heroic about this picture - it's terrific filmmaking to be sure, but its subjects, all grown men who share their most deeply personal reminiscences of childhood are to be exalted to the highest degree imaginable.

The other heroic element, which cannot be ignored, is the commitment of the short's Producer Peter O'Brian to have offered his expertise, passion and artistry to director Daniel Roher's fine work. O'Brian is a legend. He's a genuinely heroic figure for having produced so many of Canada's greatest motion pictures including, but not limited to The Grey Fox with the late-greats Richard Farnsworth and Jackie Burroughs in one of the great westerns of all time - period - and One Magic Christmas with the astonishing Harry Dean Stanton as one of the most evocative (and dark) guardian angels in film history in (yes) one of the great films about Christmas - period!

What is not heroic is Canada itself and the country's insidiously grotesque and hateful history with respect to our aboriginal nations, a horrifying element of which is so artfully and powerfully exposed in Roher's short film. It is one of a multitude of inhuman(e) assaults upon Canada's Native People, one that began with colonialism and frankly, continues to this very day, especially in light of the hatred and disregard expressed by Canada's Chancellor (or is it Prime Minister?) Steven Harper, the leader of our country's Nazi party (or is it, the Conservative party?).

This is Canada's Prime Minister.
He and his government of intolerance
refuse to acknowledge the ever-prolonged
exploitation of Canada's Native People and the
heinous crimes perpetrated against them!
Colonialism, Hatred, Violence, Theft,
Human Rights Violations and
will continue under this government's "leadership".
What's reflected in Survivors Rowe is at once, infuriating and on another level, infused with a sense of both healing and forgiveness - indicative of the fearlessness of its subjects and the skill with which Roher renders his film. Skillfully blending archival footage with knock-you-flat-on-your-back interviews, we're introduced to several young men - notably Joshua Frog, John Fox and Ralph Winter of Northern Ontario's Anishinaabe nation. They tell us their stories of living on isolated reservations, a strange combination of genuinely idyllic surroundings, but within the trappings of Canada's own system of apartheid. There are fond, memories, to be sure: living in the wilderness, a special bond with the natural world, skating on icy waterways, genuine play not rooted in the mind-destroying contemporary world of digital gaming and, at least initially, the dashingly dramatic arrival of Ralph Rowe, the rugged man's man who serves as a pilot, Boy Scout leader and Anglican Minister.

Rowe is not only a charismatic, almost mythic figure, but he's actually taken the time to learn Native languages and dialects to converse with elders, adults his own age and kids. What nobody knows, what nobody could ever imagine, is that Ralph Rowe is a pedophile. The on-camera testaments delivered by the film's key subjects reveal some of the most harrowing, horrific and just plain malevolent acts perpetrated by this man of the wilderness, this man of God, this monster.

One of the most extraordinary things director Daniel Roher achieves here as a filmmaker is how he fashions any great narrative's need for an antagonist. On the surface, this figure is clearly Ralph Rowe, but as the film progresses, Rowe's external position as a villain, or rather, as an antagonistic force flows into the pain, sorrow, self-loathing and self-harm faced by the victims of his crimes. Then, even more extraordinarily, the antagonistic force of Rowe, his victims' suffering and the metamorphosis of this into the aforementioned process of healing, gives way to an even greater antagonist - a seemingly perpetual cycle of abuse which, is ultimately societal and must be actively addressed far more vigorously and openly than it is.

Ralph Rowe most likely sexually assaulted over 500 Native children and was, no doubt, responsible for a huge swath of suicides amongst both children and adults (not to mention residual effects upon subsequent generations). Unfortunately, the Canadian judicial system has only tried and convicted him for what amounts to a mere handful of sex crimes. He served a meagre five years in jail, was essentially handed a deal by the Crown to leave him be no matter how many accusations continue to surface and he lives a quiet, peaceful life in Surrey, British Columbia. Neither the Anglican Church nor the Boy Scouts have ever officially apologized to the victims and yet, those victims who did not commit suicide have endured decades and, if truth be told, lifetimes of living Hell.

On a purely aesthetic level, what Roher achieves here is a film that serves as a document of the suffering, torment and misery Ralph Rowe caused, but there is a strangely magical and poetic structure to the work which takes us from idyll to horror and finally and astoundingly, but perhaps necessarily, to forgiveness.

It's impossible to shake the impact this short film has. In fact, it has the sickening shock of a merciless cold-cock, blended with an elegiac, profoundly moving sense of loss and leavened with a kind of grace that not only reflects the deep humanity of the film's subjects, but shines a light of clemency upon a monster.

What the film cannot forgive, nor can any of us (I hope and pray), is the deep-seeded hatred and racism of colonialism which continues in Canada to this very day. If an Anglican Minister and Boy Scout leader viciously sexually assaulted over 500 white children, would he still be living freely in society with the legal implication that he'll never serve more incarceration for his crimes, no matter how many continue to surface?

The answer is obvious.

This is Ralph RoweHe is a convicted pedophile living peacefully
and freely in Surrey, British Columbia. It might be helpful to have MORE recent photographs circulated.
One final note about the heroism of the film's producer Peter O'Brian: Read his moving article in the Toronto Globe and Mail about the sexual assaults he suffered as a child and eventually came to terms with as an adult. Read it HERE.

And whatever you do, don't miss Survivors Rowe.

The Film Corner Rating: ***** Five Stars

Survivors Rowe is making its World Premiere at the 2015 edition of the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival. Visit the Hot Docs website for dates, showtimes and tickets by clicking HERE.

How To Change The World (2015)
Dir. Jerry Rothwell

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Preamble: A few things about Robert (Bob) Hunter that contribute, for me personally, to his legendary perch in Canadian history.
"If we wait for the meek to inherit the earth, there won't be anything left to inherit" - Robert Hunter
Robert (Bob) Hunter was many things. Mostly, I just always thought he was cool. And well, you'd kind of have to be that to have accomplished so much in so short a time (he died of cancer at age 63).

As a dyed-in-the-wool Winnipegger, I especially thought it was cool, given Robert Hunter's deep concern for Canada's Aboriginal people, that he was born in the City of St. Boniface which eventually amalgamated with all the wonky neighbourhood city-states along the Red, Assiniboine and Seine Rivers of Manitoba to become - you guessed it, Winnipeg.

All this rich land, which not only became the city we all know and hate/love (plus all points north-south-east-and-west) historically belonged to the Metis Nation, but was torn from their possession by the Canadian Government's land transfer scrip system which was virtually useless except to rich white guys who knew how to push it through the complicated bureaucracy to actually cash it in. The vast majority of uprooted Metis were starving, so they sold their scrip to the rich white guys, for pennies on the dollar.

Even more interesting to me was that Hunter's birthplace in St. Boniface ended up being the one community which contributed the most to Manitoba becoming (even now) Canada's largest French-speaking region outside of Quebec. Why? Many of the displaced Metis were also targets for violence because of the 1870 Louis Riel wars against the corrupt rich white guys of Winnipeg and the eastern power-brokers who held a vicelike grip upon the government of Canada. This resulted in a huge number of Metis forcing their Native heritage underground and bringing their French heritage to the fore and living in - you guessed it, St. Boniface.

His tenure as a columnist at the Winnipeg Tribune and Vancouver Sun was before my time. I didn't even become aware of him as a journalist until I moved to Toronto in the early 90s and began watching CITY-TV (when it actually had a real personality thanks to its eventually-departed head Moses Znaimer). Here, I began to enjoy the amazingly cool, almost Hunter S. Thompson-like "environmental reporter and commentator. I was soon compelled to begin reading his books wherein I discovered that he was Bob Hunter, the heart, soul and public face of the environmental group Greenpeace.

This, for me, was virtually cooler-than-cool and when he passed away in 2005, I was genuinely saddened that we'd lost him. Thankfully, this film now exists. It's not a biographical documentary of Robert (Bob) Hunter, but in many ways, it might as well be.

And now, the Film Review proper:

There were many things about Hunter I didn't know after all these years and I'm grateful to director Jerry Rothwell for his almost-epic-like motion picture documentary How To Change The World which presents a side of this great Canadian that was not only fresh to my already-admiring eyes, but kind of jettisons Hunter into some supreme inter-stellar glowing orb of coolness.

Rothwell poured over hundreds of 16mm rolls of film that had been canned and unopened since the 1970s. Seeing, pretty much before his very eyes, the visual history of the Greenpeace organization, Rothwell consulted with Hunter's colleagues, foes, conducting fresh interviews with all of them, blending the result of Herculean research and expertly selected and edited footage from the Greenpeace Archives. (The fact that Hunter was so brilliantly media-savvy pretty much accounts for this wealth of material even existing.)

What we get is the story of a respected counter-culture columnist who aligns himself with a motley assortment of friends and colleagues (most of them of the 60s/70s "hippie" persuasion) to head out on a boat in an attempt to stop nuclear testing on a remote island in the Pacific Ocean and then, with the same bunch, to go tearing after Russian sailors butchering whales up and down the coast of the Pacific Northwest. The campaigns continued and somewhere along the way, the movement of Greenpeace was formed.

With both the existing archival footage and the new interviews, Rothwell has painted an indelible portrait - not only of the key events in the movement, but the individuals themselves - as disparate a cast of characters you could ever imagine. What makes them cool is how different they are as people, but as such, they each bring individual qualities to the movement that had a symbiotic relationship - for a time. As is the won't of anything or anyone growing beyond initial beginnings, egos as well as legitimate desires/directions begin to rear their ugly heads and minor cracks in the "vessel" become tectonic plates, yielding high-Richter-scale fractures.

In addition to the dazzling filmmaking, I was swept away onto the high seas and weed-clouded back rooms of Greenpeace thanks to the perfectly selected and abundant readings of Bob Hunter's exceptional reads. Embodying Hunter is the magnificent character actor Barry Pepper who delivers us the man's words with the kind of emotion which goes so far beyond "narration". Pepper captures the soul of Hunter impeccably. It's a brilliant performance. (If anyone does a biopic of Hunter, Pepper is the MAN!!!

The first two-thirds of the movie is compulsive viewing. The first third, focusing upon seafaring derring-do is nail-bitingly thrilling. With Bob Hunter at the helm of some totally crazy-ass dangerous antics - like some mad, dope-smoking, Sterling-Hayden lookalike - Rothwell creates a veritable action picture on the high seas with an obsessive Captain Ahab targeting not whales, but the hunters of whales. (So much of the film is charged with a great selection of period hit songs and a gorgeous original score by Lesley Barber also.)

Who'd have thought environmental activism could be as thrilling as Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin "Master and Commander" adventures? The middle section begins focusing on the leaks in the organizational battleship that became Greenpeace. Mixing in more derring-do with internal conflicts is easily as thrilling as the intrigue-elements of O'Brian's high-seas swashbucklers.

The final third of the film tends to fall by the wayside a touch. It's not Rothwell's doing, as that of - gasp - real life. There's a great deal of sadness and acrimony in this section of the film and part of me wishes that life didn't throw the kind of curve-balls that surprise your favourite batter at the plate into striking out. This is ultimately a minor quibble though, in light of the sheer force, power and entertainment value of the picture. What epics don't suffer from a sag or three? At least this one eventually builds to a note of well deserved and earned high notes and the movie finally packs a major one-two emotional punch. When this happens, tears might well be flowing amongst many and the lapses of real life will be fleeting, especially when you exit the cinema feeling, "Goddamn! That was one HELL of a good show!"

The Film Corner Rating: **** Four Stars

How To Change The World is making its Canadian Premiere at the 2015 edition of the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival. Visit the Hot Docs website for dates, showtimes and tickets by clicking HERE.

A Different Drummer: Celebrating Eccentrics (2014)
Dir. John Zaritzky

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Marching to the beat of one's own drum is not without merit and the title alone was enough to pique my curiosity, but then, my heart sank. During the first few minutes of A Different Drummer: Celebrating Eccentrics, I felt primed to hate it. Why wouldn't I? I detest both whimsy and standard TV-style docs - both of which seem overbearingly present within the picture's opening.

We get the digestible bite-sized thesis in which we learn how a ten-year study revealed that eccentrics are healthier, happier and indeed, manage to live longer than everybody else. We then get the de rigueur snippets of introductory interviews from what will be our wild, wooly and wacky subjects - a lot of which are all set to a frightfully jaunty musical score.

Ugh was dancing across my cerebellum and I almost flushed the sucker down the toilet bowl of unmentionables in order to slap on a different doc, but then, as if by magic, genuinely delightful movie magic began to snuggle up to me and the next ninety-or-so minutes yielded one of the happiest, funniest and moving little pictures I'd seen in awhile.

Zaritzky clearly loves his subjects, but not to the film's detriment. He settles in on each glorious nutcase (a man who lives in caves, a zany inventor, a duck lady, a "joke" politician, a man who celebrates a "useless" American president and one real lollapalooza I won't spoil for you here) with sensitivity and good humour. He's never laughing at them and neither will you. Some you'll laugh with and others you might even need to shed a few droplets of ocular moisture.

At the end of the day, it has been said that I'm eccentric. As such, I luxuriated in Zaritzky's sweet, lovely ode to madness of the most glorious kind and I'd be delighted to host any one of these people in my own home.

The thesis is proven, the whimsy in the opening a minor aberration and one of the more delightful feel-good documentaries made in recent years won me over completely.

Oh, and the best news: I look forward to a long, healthy and happy life.

The Film Corner Rating: ***½ Three-and-a-half Stars

A Different Drummer is making its Toronto Premiere at the 2015 edition of the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival. Visit the Hot Docs website for dates, showtimes and tickets by clicking HERE.