Monday 30 April 2018

WOMEN OF THE VENEZUALEN CHAOS - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Hot Docs 2018 Hot Pick

Through the eyes of its women, a country crumbles.

Women of the Venezuelan Chaos (2017/2018)
Dir. Margarita Cadenas

Review By Greg Klymkiw

To see a formerly progressive democratic nation crumbling under the weight of corruption, incompetence and dictatorship of Nicholas Maduro's foul reign is one thing, but to view it through the eyes of five brave women from very different walks of life is something else altogether. This not only provides a personal, human (and humane) perspective, but does so by creating a fascinating glimpse into the realities of a gender that is clearly on the frontline of a country's war upon its own people.

Women of the Venezuelan Chaos proves that a clear, simple approach to a complex issue is often the best way to explore it. Director Margarita Cadenas delivers a clutch of macrocosmic views that allow for a much larger bird's eye view of the current tragedy facing Venezuela, a beautiful country, rich in oil, other abundant natural resources and industry. With its 30,000,000+ population, situated at the northernmost reaches of South America, this is a country that should be thriving. These days, the only people who are flourishing seem to be the deeply corrupt totalitarian government that brutalizes the majority of its citizens, the corporate hogs who rape the country of its riches and an ever-exploding criminal element.

Survival is what appears to drive those who must do the real living and dying of Venezuela. For them, quality of life is existence fuelled by sheer endurance. The government spouts positive propaganda to its citizens and the rest of the world. The reality is in direct opposition to what its dictatorship wants everyone to believe.

Bookended by the simple facts of this current existence, Cadenas provides us with five stories. The first is that of Kim, a nurse who must provide for her family by working 12 back-breaking hours in a hospital everyday. Though she appears to be better off than most, she must seriously consider fleeing Venezuela in search of a better life. The threat of violence surrounds her, anything of value in her home must be hidden from thieves and worst of all, her primary job in a hospital is fraught with frustration since anyone admitted there must actually bring their own supplies with them to be treated.

María José is a community worker living in a relatively secure Caracas neighbourhood, but with one child and another on the way, she is forced to stockpile basic goods like diapers and non-perishable foods in anticipation of the new mouth to feed since basic items are scarce and can only be purchased on the black market for many times more than their actual worth.

Eva is in her early twenties and lives with her son, mother and extended family in South America's largest, most dangerous slum. The only thing that drives her is waiting in lines, often for days, to secure a number to wait in line for basic foods to live on.

Luisa is in her late 70s and lives with her husband. Both are retired police officers. Their grandson, who used to live with them, was an actual member of parliament in the opposition party who was illegally arrested and incarcerated without formal charges or a trial - for years.

Finally, we get the most harrowing story of all, that of Olga, a forty-something mother of three children whose home was illegally raided by police searching for a crime lord. She watched, with a gun shoved in her mouth, as her 16-year-old boy was shot. He slowly died before her very eyes until the cops came to the conclusion that they were in the wrong place. That the boy, a suspected "criminal", was shot, unarmed, in cold blood, is shocking and appalling. That he, and by extension the whole family, were not in any way, shape or form connected to a criminal element, is not only the height of Totalitarian stupidity, but even by Venezuela's lame standards of jurisprudence, illegal. Justice and yes, even revenge, keep her going.

Though in each story, Cadenas allows each subject to simply recount their respective stories, this is no mere "talking heads" experience. Even if it was, these are pretty compelling and forceful stories. But no, cinematographer César Briceño shoots these sequences with exquisite compositions, capturing the indelible qualities of the subjects' faces, allowing us to dive into their eyes in order to experience the pain of their existence and to get beautifully, naturally lit shots of their homes and beyond, on the highways and byways of world outside these fragile sanctuaries, the physical environments with which they live and work. This is dazzlingly-directed work by a clearly gifted filmmaker. Her subjects express deep emotion, Cadenas captures said emotion unflinchingly and we experience it. Also driving the film is a powerful and alternately passionate and dissonant score by Rémi Boubal. The editing and structure, is so simple and effective, and the film offers plenty of evocative and poetic interludes during the stories themselves and in between.

There is bravery here on two levels. Firstly, is the bravery of the filmmaking itself. Choosing this seemingly simple approach is what allows for political, social and emotional complexity. Secondly, there is the sheer bravery of the subjects - not just for their suffering, strength and ingenuity, but that they have exposed their lives and stories in a country which goes out of its way to silence those who would dare criticize it. And sometimes, the silence is permanent.

The bravery of the filmmaking and these women feels representative of the courage and fortitude of the vast majority of Venezuela's population. Even more, it is a perfect representation of the evil and cowardice of Venezuela's ruling powers. One can only hope that this is a film that will open the eyes of the world to this government's actions. That over one million people have had to flee the country is a disgrace. Yes, one hopes the rest of the world will open their collective arms to those who leave, but it would ultimately be far more advantageous for the rest of the world to pressure the country's totalitarian rulers to genuinely restore the nation to its former glory - to allow those who do most of the living and dying in Venezuela, to do so in peace and with dignity.


Women of the Venezuelan Chaos enjoys its Canadian Premiere in the Oxfam Canada-sponsored "Silence Breakers" program at Hot Docs 2018.

BACHMAN - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Hot Docs 2018 Hot Pick: Solid BTO frontman BioDoc

Guess Who/BTO guitarist is always takin' care of business.

Bachman (2018)
Dir. John Barnard

Review By Greg Klymkiw

"Randy Bachman was The Guess Who... he had an expanded mind from the beginning." - Neil Young on Randy Bachman's removal from The Guess Who and the guitarist's avoidance of all the usual trappings of rock and roll - namely booze and drugs - and the man's inherent greatness without anything more mind altering than making music.

Much as I loved and will always love The Guess Who (who couldn't love songs like American Woman, These Eyes and Laughing?), my generational and personal rock and roll touchstones will always be BTO, Bachman Turner Overdrive. Takin' Care of Business, Let It Ride, You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet, Roll on Down the Highway and so many more are a veritable litany of hard driving Canadian prairie rock and roll that took the world by storm and blasted on millions of automobile tape decks.

Bachman is a solid biographical documentary of Randy Bachman, one of the greatest guitarists of all time, and of course, the writer (or co-writer) of hit after hit after hit. Skilfully blending a cornucopia of rich archival footage and all-new interviews with the likes of musicians Neil Young, Alex Lifeson, Chad Allan, Paul Shaffer, Fred Turner, actor Bruce Greenwood, music historian John Einarson and many family and friends, director John Barnard serves up a detailed portrait of this seminal Canadian rocker.

Hitting all the salient points of Bachman's life, we get glimpses into his earlier childhood as the surviving twin of a German Dad and Ukrainian Mom in the legendary North End of Winnipeg where he lived at the corner of Seven Oaks and Powers. He was showered with plenty of nurturing and love and his work ethic was clearly instilled within him by his Dad, an optometrist who would often ask his kids, "Do you like to work at nothin' all day?" (Sound like a familiar lyric?)

Bachman went to music school, of course. It was clear he had gifts, but he had little interest in his first instrument, the violin and very quickly he discovered and fell in love with the guitar. As a teenager, he was mentored by the great Lenny Breau and he soon hooked up with songwriter-singer Chad Allan (at the urging of bassist Jon Kale) and the trio added drummer Gary Peterson to the mix and Bachman was playing with Chad Allan and the Expressions. The group had an early hit with a rousing, seminal 1965 cover of "Shakin' All Over" by Johnny Kidd and the Pirates. Their twangy, reverb-heavy and zippily discordant rendition hit the top of the Canadian charts and even penetrated the American charts quite substantially. The group eventually became The Guess Who.

Bachman, while he always flirted with a "lighter" sound, was ultimately more at home with an edgier, more hard driving beat and when the group came across North End Winnipeg bad boy Burton Cummings, Allan stepped down from the band he founded and The Guess Who began their meteoric rise.

Barnard's film certainly doesn't skimp on the magnificent creative energy twixt Bachman and Cummings, but nor does it shy away from detailing the clear differences between the two men in temperament. Bachman was a big brother, almost father figure to the entire band. We learn that he rooted the wild boys in reality, but eventually Bachman's no-booze-no-drugs-no-womanizing began to wreak havoc with the group's mojo. Bachman was a straight arrow family man (who converted to Mormonism in order to woo his first wife). We learn that Cummings especially began to resent Bachman's authoritarian air and in a shocker, Bachman was forced out of the band.

In the film, utter incredulity is expressed by Neil Young (who claims that as a kid, it was Bachman who influenced him). "Randy was The Guess Who," says the rocker, who also lived in Bachman's hometown of Winnipeg before leaving for Thunder Bay and other points east.

Eventually, we are treated to Bachman reuniting with Chad Allan for the band Brave Belt, but this was a short-lived partnership. Bachman, we learn, was convinced to hear one burly Fred Turner belt out his live cover of "House of the Rising Sun" at the legendary Marion Hotel. Bachman, a devout Christian and non-drinker, didn't even want to enter the bar and heard the first few minutes of Turner from an open exit door.

The rest, is indeed, history - rock and roll history. Bachman Turner Overdrive (BTO) left everything behind like so much dust in the wind.

The film also charts, Bachman's "third act". At one point Bachman admits that when you hit the top, there's only one way to go, and yes, we get a glimpse into some very lean years. However, the film also charts Bachman's various reinventions musically and yes, his long, distinguished career as a radio host of CBC's "Vinyl Tap".

Now, does the film dig deeper beyond what one might expect from a solid, traditional musical biography? Not often, but the movie still makes for compelling viewing. What one takes away is a portrait of a driven, musically gifted workaholic who never seems to ever be on camera without a guitar in his hands. One of the more entertaining aspects of the film is Bachman's relationships with his managers - first his savvy, congenial brother Gary and in direct contrast, Vancouver's Bruce Allen, a perfect partner for the driven Bachman. Amusingly, the film reveals Bachman's "Papa Bear" qualities, but in terms of Bruce Allen, he's reduced to a baby pitbull to Allen's mega-pitbull vice-like jaws on all things.

While it's easy to live without interviews with Burton Cummings in the movie (he's nicely represented by all the archival material and the various interviewees' recollections), my only real quarrel with the film is the short shrift it gives to what I believe is arguably the best work Bachman ever did - his astonishing Any Road album and its classic ode to the wild rock and roll days of Winnipeg, Prairie Town (featuring Neil Young and Margo Timmins on not just one, version of the song, but two). This was as perfect an album as one could imagine from someone who'd already delivered so much great stuff that one couldn't imagine him ever outdoing any of it. But with 1993's release of Any Road, Bachman hit some kind of stratospheric creative nirvana. Its absence, beyond a couple of token nods, at least to any die-hard Bachman aficionado, seems borderline heretical.

But, this is a nitpick. Bachman delivers the goods. It takes care of business, and then some.


Bachman enjoys its World Premiere at Hot Docs 2018.

Sunday 29 April 2018

SHIRKERS - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Hot Docs 2018 Hot Pick: ***** The Joy of Cinema

A movie about the movie we deserve to see.

Shirkers (2018)
Dir. Sandi Tan

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Movies are my life - my whole life - and as such, the idea of someone with filmmaking hardwired into their DNA making a movie that completely vanishes without a trace, never to be seen by anyone, not even the filmmaker, is so tragic and downright appalling to me, that the very idea is enough to send shivers down my spine and even inspire emotions of deep sadness. Seriously, just thinking about it, causes my eyes to well up with tears. Sure, any artist that loses their work, especially work that's unfinished, seems utterly unthinkable, beyond the realm of possibility, so preposterous, that the very thought is one that shouldn't even be fathomed.

And yet, this is what happened to filmmaker Sandi Tan.

However, one quarter decade later, she returned to filmmaking and created Shirkers, a personal documentary of her inspiring and yet, horror-filled journey. All the excitement and artistry of her youth explodes with this first-rate picture that feels like it was directed with that rare within-an-inch-of-her-life fervour - a compulsive, thrilling movie alternately infused with the passion of youth and alternately, the benefit of life experience.

The story she tells here is at once a time capsule of a specific place and period as well as being a deeply moving and inspirational exploration of the creative spirit.

As a counter-culture-punk-rock-movie-loving teenager growing up in Singapore during the 1980s, Sandi made a feature film in the early 1990s with the help of her best friends Jasmine Ng and Sophie Siddique - a road movie about a female serial killer that was definitely in the zeitgeist of such counter-culture film heroes as David Lynch and Jim Jarmusch, the cooler-than-cool Heathers and even pre-dating the likes of Terry Zwigoff's adaptation of the Daniel Clowes graphic novel Ghost World. Given that Singapore had virtually nothing resembling a film industry, this was a Herculean feat. Also given the political and cultural repression, it's astounding that Tan and her friends not only secured bootleg videos and cassette tapes of forbidden movies and music, but also published a raft of cutting edge fanzines. These brilliant, vibrant young women not only rode the waves of alternative visions, they were the waves.

There was, in all this, a dark horse - a forty-ish mentor with a mysterious past, one Georges Cardona. The married-with-children American expatriate not only ran a ramshackle little film school, surrounding himself with (mostly) teenage girls, but he was a genuine lover of cinema who imparted his knowledge and excitement upon Tan and her friends. He'd spend endless nights with the young ladies, driving the streets of Singapore, regaling them with cinema lore.

There's no two ways about it. He knew a few things and was really good at imparting his knowledge. He was super-charismatic, but he was also clearly a creep. In this current environment of the #metoo movement, one can't get away from the fact that his methods and motives were not only suspect, but downright innapropriate. But as Tan's extraordinary personal journey unfolds, the steely blue shark eyes of Cardona masked something even more insidious and, if possible, more cruel.

Utilizing archives and videotape from the period, footage from the unfinished movie itself, a glorious new sound design and beautifully shot all-new footage, Tan renders a movie that more than fulfills the promise of her early and, tragically (through no fault of her own) unfinished work. In some ways, this is a movie that most filmmakers dream of making. Tan goes the distance here, and then some. Shirkers not only delights and tantalizes us, but provides a compelling mystery story that is punctuated with a beautifully edited and structured series of shocking revelations.

As a sidenote, there's a reason why the unfinished film is currently unfinished, but frankly, I was, and continue to be inspired by the notion that it could definitely be finished. Yes, with a complete rethink and utilizing some utterly insane, inspired post-modern techniques. Then again, maybe it's a case of that was then, this is now. I don't think so, but the most important thing is what appears before us now, a brand new movie of mad genius and imbued with the qualities of the kind of work that genuine movie-lovers thrive on. Shirkers, as it stands, is a film of deep, lasting value.

And yes, it's a profoundly moving experience. The final third plunges one into an explosion of emotion. By the end, we get a series of events and a gorgeously edited montage that had me squirting Old Faithful-like geysers of tears. One leaves the movie theatre elated - yes, there's melancholy to be sure, but what ultimately consumes us is the promise of even greater work to come from this natural filmmaker and most of all, a picture that reminds us of the joy and beauty of cinema itself.

It doesn't get better than that.


Shirkers enjoys its Canadian premiere at Hot Docs 2018.

Saturday 28 April 2018

WON'T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Hot Docs 2018 Hot Pick *****

Everything You Always Wanted to Know
about Mr. Rogers, but Didn't Think to Ask

Won't You Be My Neighbor? (2018)
Dir. Morgan Neville

Review By Greg Klymkiw

I always assumed Mr. Rogers was a sicko. My bad. You see, I never actually watched his insanely long-running television program for kids and based all my assumptions of the seemingly square, sweater-adorned, gentle-voiced host upon the very few clips that I'd seen and mostly, the ridiculous number of parodies that filled the airwaves of TV sketch comedy (and notably, Eddie Murphy's legendary rendering that even now reduces me to convulsive fits of laughter).

Not only does Morgan Neville's beautifully crafted biographical documentary portrait dispel all myths anyone could have about Fred Rogers, but presents a figure who towers above most TV personalities as a genuine visionary and to boot, seems like the kind of human being most of us can only dream of being.

On the surface, Won't You Be My Neighbor? might be mistaken for a skilful, highly competent movie about a beloved American pop-culture icon and while it is those things, it's so much more. Blending oodles of footage from the series, a whack of behind-the-scenes archival items, gorgeously rendered contemporary interviews and a cornucopia of rich material spanning over five decades, Neville takes it all to the next level, delivering first-rate filmmaking - artistry of a very high level. Then again, this makes some sense - he is, after all, the director of the incisive documentary about backup singers 20 Feet From Stardom and the truly penetrating, groundbreaking look at the William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal debates Best of Enemies (which managed to transcend its compelling subject matter to deliver a staggering portrait of the historical period it represented and give us a genuine glimpse into the humanity of its extremely polar-opposite subjects).

What we learn from Neville's great film is that Rogers was committed to creating a safe space for all children to be entertained and to learn - to embrace them with love and respect. Even more importantly, Rogers tackled issues of death, divorce, illness, race relations and a plethora of other concerns facing children. His program not only featured an African-American playing a neighbourhood cop, but in a very racist America, Rogers tackled integration by sharing a wading pool with him. Hard to believe that a White Man and a Black Man cooling their bare feet together was considered groundbreaking and even controversial when it first happened, but let's not forget this was in America and that sadly, even now, it would be viewed as heresy by many of our nutjob neighbours south of the 49th parallel (including, no doubt, Donald Trump).

One of the interesting aspects the film reveals is that Rogers was indeed a devout Christian and ordained minister, but never did he publicly proselytize this faith. Yes, he might well have borrowed liberally from the teachings and legacy of Christ, most notably in terms of love, acceptance and forgiveness, but he was also inclusive and accepting of all faiths, colours and cultures.

Structurally, the film draws us in from the get-go, but as it proceeds, it creates a number of emotional layers that sneak up on us. This is genuine filmmaking. We're not only dazzled and moved by the artistry of the work, but I have to admit, that at a certain point, Neville caught me off guard with a couple of lollapalooza sequences that had me in tears. By the end of the film, I felt like I hadn't stopped weeping (both sad and happy globs of salty fluids from my ocular orbs) for what seemed like over half the film's running time.

The elation continued long after I left the cinema. It's with me still. This is what great cinema can and should do. Its effects should transcend the ephemeral and be with us forever. Won't You Be My Neighbor? is just such a film. It brands itself, albeit joyfully, upon everyone.


Won't You Be My Neighbor enjoys its International Premiere at Hot Docs 2018 and opens across North America in June via Focus Features.

Friday 27 April 2018

DEATH BY POPCORN: THE TRAGEDY OF THE WINNIPEG JETS - Review By Greg Klymkiw: Hot Docs 2018 Hot Pick - REDUX series

Little did Burton Cummings know that the WHA Jets
would be gone with the wind, forever.

Death By Popcorn: The Tragedy of the Winnipeg Jets (2006)
Dir. Matthew Rankin, Mike Maryniuk, Walter Forsberg

Review (sort of) By Greg Klymkiw

In honour of the Hot Docs 2018 25th Anniversary, ace programmer/critic Kiva Reardon put together a selection of Canadian documentaries in a series entitled "Redux". When she asked me to recommend Canadian documentaries from the city of Winnipeg, I put together a long and detailed list of films I loved from my beloved Winter City where I'm currently residing and helming the legendary Winnipeg Film Group as its Executive Director.

From that list, which I might publish sometime since it contains fairly extensive assessments of said films, Kiva chose Matthew Rankin, Mike Maryniuk and Walter Forsberg's classic piece of prairie post-modernism, Death By Popcorn: The Tragedy of the Winnipeg Jets. The film, of course, targets that horrible time when Winnipeg lost its beloved team. However, the team is back and actually in the midst of playoff fever.

For me, the real tragedy of the Winnipeg Jets was not losing the team, but rather, that the Winnipeg Jets joined the NHL and that furthermore, the beloved WHA disbanded. (The other tragedy was the decimation of the historic Winnipeg Arena in favour of a cold, corporate, ugly new arena in downtown Winnipeg which was built on the spot which once housed the beloved, historic Eaton's department store at Portage and Donald. But, I digress).

In any event, I'll just reprint Kiva's capsule note in the Hot Docs 2018 program book which quotes me extensively. I do this because I am, like most Winnipeggers, in need of a nap.

Here it is:

SUGGESTED for Redux by Greg Klymkiw, executive director of the Winnipeg Film Group, Death by Popcorn is an unsung Canadian tragicomedy. "A collaboration," writes Klymkiw, "twixt the inimitable Matthew Rankin (heir apparent to John Paizs and Guy Maddin), Mike Maryniuk (who just had a world premiere at Rotterdam) and Walter Forsberg (a film archivist with uber-artistic flair)," the found-footage documentary explores the star-crossed romance between Winnipeggers and their ill-fated Jets. Containing footage from the local news and Jets games, and including familiar faces like Wayne Gretzky and Gary Bettman, Death by Popcorn is a postmodern portrait of corporate greed and Winnipeg itself. Though a sell-out at the Winnipeg Cinematheque upon its release, Death by Popcorn seemed destined to suffer the same fate as the NHL team it followed, as copyright issues plagued subsequent screenings. Now, come relish the highs and lows of the film billed as "sadness on ice."


Death By Popcorn: The Tragedy of the Winnipeg Jets, plays at Hot Docs 2018 in the Redux series.

Thursday 26 April 2018

THE OSLO DIARIES - Review By Greg Klymkiw - 2018 Hot Docs Hot Pick: ***** Five-Stars

Arab-Israeli peace talks at centre of dazzling doc.

The Oslo Diaries (2018)
Dir. Mor Loushy, Daniel Sivan

Review By Greg Klymkiw

There are documentaries that get by on compelling subject matter alone. There are others that apply the standards, such as they are these days, of journalism and render work that makes for compelling television. Then there are documentaries that are pure, dazzling cinema with all the scope, poetry and virtuosity that place them upon the pedestal of art. When such films are also infused with journalistic principles that don't get in the way of great filmmaking and have vital, coercive and downright imperative subject matter, then what you get is something like Mor Loushy and Daniel Sivan's The Oslo Diaries.

Loushy and Sivan have delivered the goods before with 2015's Censored Voices, one of the most profound anti-war films made in our new millennium, a staggeringly original and deeply poetic exploration of the 1967 Arab–Israeli Six Day War. Like that great film, The Oslo Diaries does not rest on the run-of-the-mill laurels so many documentaries are content to perch themselves upon.

Focusing on the secret 1992 peace talks in Oslo between participants on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides of the equation, this is a film that is at once hopeful, but also feels as dangerous and tense as a great espionage thriller - keep in mind that these talks were so secret that the participants were actually breaking the law by holding them. Imagine peace talks that could have resulted in substantial prison time.

As well, the visual juxtaposition between sunny Israel and frigid, wintry Norway, creates the kind of cinematic shorthand that only great filmmakers truly understand in terms of rendering work of lasting value. There's nothing ephemeral about the filmmaking, nor the subject matter. Then again, the notion of peace being ephemeral is not only scary, but is one of the things that forcefully drives the movie.

Another great juxtaposition is the judicious use of archival footage from the period (including the Camp David accord with Bill Clinton, Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat) with contemporary interviews (including the last interview ever given by Shimon Peres before his 2016 death).

Finally, the pièce de résistance are readings from the actual diaries kept by the secret peace talk participants and dramatized recreations of the talks themselves (chilly Kyiv, Ukraine standing in very nicely for chilly Oslo) and skilfully blended interviews conducted very recently.

This is a film that breaks rule after rule, but does so with such aplomb and intelligence and grace, that we are left with a picture that not only confounds expectations, but breaks rules for two of the best reasons I can think of: to create great cinema and to further peace. These are fine considerations. One wishes more pictures had such lofty goals and were able to pull them off as astoundingly as The Oslo Diaries.


The Oslo Diaries enjoys its Canadian Premiere at Hot Docs 2018.

Wednesday 25 April 2018

THE ACCOUNTANT OF AUSCHWITZ - Review By Greg Klymkiw - 2018 Hot Docs Hot Pick: ***½

Nonagenarian Nazi Oskar Groning

The Accountant of Auschwitz (2018)
Dir. Matthew Shoychet

Review By Greg Klymkiww

I have to admit that before seeing this movie, the story of Oskar Groning had somehow escaped me. I still don't know why. After all, it's not everyday a nonagenarian stands trial for being an accessory to the murder of over 300,000 people, but so be it, the story escaped my purview. Then again, in recent years, I've tended to avoid reading conventional news sources and since I try not to watch television, I guess anything's possible. Well, thank stars for the movies. I'm still obsessed with watching at least one movie a day and I'm especially grateful for film festivals like Hot Docs which allow me to binge on documentaries.

I suspect I won't be the only one to learn this, but what I learned from Matthew Shoychet's slick, informative and extremely proficient documentary, is that in 2015, Oskar Groning faced prosecution in Lüneburg, Germany for his part as a junior SS officer at the Auschwitz extermination camp during World War II. His time there was to function as a low-level bureaucrat, but frankly, this is the sort of bureaucracy that sends chills down the spine. Groning's job was to take charge of all the prisoners' personal possessions - most notably, their money and valuables.

Yes, as the title of the film declares, Groning was indeed The Accountant of Auschwitz.

Interestingly, the film seems less interested in detailing Groning's activities in the camp, nor is it, in any way, shape or form a biographical documentary, but rather, Groning's trial is used by the film to provide a far more important context for larger issues.

First and foremost, what one takes away from the film, is Germany's utterly horrendous historical record for prosecuting war criminals. The movie takes great pains to deliver the facts on this truly shameful atrocity. That Germany let thousands upon thousands of war criminals go untried and unpunished is an abomination, but even more telling is how the country is scrambling to make up for these sins by dragging nonagenarians onto the stand - now!!!

It's been well over six decades since World War II ended. Germany had plenty of time to mete justice, but not only dragged its jackbooted heels (so to speak), but how, other than a few token death sentences, most of those prosecuted and found guilty, served terms that were hardly commensurate with their foul crimes. If anything, this is the biggest shocker of Shoychet's film.

The other shocker, of course, is Groning himself. His prosecution was actually possible due to the fact that he was so disgusted by Holocaust-deniers, that he denounced these idiots by publicly discussing his role at Auschwitz and describing the atrocities he witnessed.

The Accountant of Auschwitz is full of shockers! This is the sort of compulsive television documentary that keeps you glued to your seat as it delivers one jaw-dropping revelation after another. It also asks many important questions. They're so important, I'm not going to reveal them here, because it's part of the film's aesthetic to not only pose them, but wend these questions skilfully within the narrative fabric of the film. They're shockers, too. One shocker after another.

THE FILM CORNER RATING: ***½ Three-and-a-half Stars

The Accountant of Auschwitz enjoys its World Premiere at Hot Docs 2018.

Tuesday 24 April 2018

THE CLEANERS - Review By Greg Klymkiw - 2018 Hot Docs Hot Pick: ***** 5-Stars

The gatekeepers of online morality are censors.

The Cleaners (2018)
Dir. Hans Block, Moritz Riesewieck

Review By Greg Klymkiw

The scariest word I've heard in quite some time is:


and it's a word we hear, almost mantra-like in the chilling documentary The Cleaners, a scary portrait of content moderators in the world of social media.

So what, precisely, does a content moderator do? Well, as we discover, they are employees of entities like Facebook, Google, Instagram, Twitter and other social media platforms that have become an almost inextricable part of all our lives. Their job is to scour the internet looking for anything that contravenes company policy, community standards and yes, in many cases, illegal acts (images of child pornography). The offensive material is deleted, and as we experience in the film, it's with a simple keystroke and the utterance of that dreaded word:


Filmmakers Block and Riesewieck focus primarily on a handful of content moderators working in Manila and what we learn early on is that they are not directly employed by any of the aforementioned social media giants, but rather, companies that have been outsourced to provide these services. We're given scant information about how these moderators are actually trained, but what we see and learn is mighty scary.

The moderators are there, in effect, to provide censorship. This would be fine if we were dealing strictly with cut-and-dried materials like child pornography and hate crime/racism, but it goes far beyond this. Nudity, sexuality, acts of violence in war, political satire and/or any personal expression outside of the norm is fair game.

Though the moderators have specific guidelines, this requires them to constantly make judgement calls about what gets deleted and what doesn't. For example, we follow one of the moderators and discover that she is a devout Catholic. Her rabid Christianity is clearly at play in her decisions to "delete".

What's especially impressive about the film is that it employs a fair bit of journalistic balance, but not at the expense of the film's artistry and certainly not at the expense of presenting a point of view that's as progressive as it is scary. What these moderators do is clearly not a good thing. The social media giants are succumbing to all sorts of pressures to restrict/control content - worst of all, from governments that would block the platforms without censorship.

Structurally, the film is cleverly designed to present a myriad of characters and viewpoints. For the most part, the moderators seem like reasonable and intelligent young people, but they are bound both by policy and the fact that they have no choice but to make personal decisions based on their interpretation of said policy. The film also presents the viewpoints of several artists and activists - we see their work, the very valid reasons for its creation and dissemination and then, shockingly, we see moderators discovering the material, applying "policy" to it and then issuing the decree:


We hear about and occasionally see the sort of disturbing and even horrific material these moderators are constantly subjected to and sadly, we learn about how some content moderators are driven to taking their own lives. In countries like the Philippines, we learn that finding a life beyond poverty drives a lot of intelligent young people into the business of content moderation - but for them, the effects can be devastating.

We see American politicians within the context of public hearings as they grill representatives of social media giants about content policies as they relate to child pornography, political interference and terrorism, but clearly the politicians, no matter how well meaning, are completely clueless about social media and the internet in general and the various Google/Twitter/Facebook reps are little more than slick flacks.

What haunts you, long after the film is over are the evocative shots of the moderators themselves as they work. The cameras are trained upon their eyes as they consume endless images on computers screens. If we are looking into the windows of their collective souls, we're looking into hearts and minds of a world mediated by corporate greed, corruption and dedicated to suppression to maintain the highest profit margins possible.

Ultimately, nobody profits - least of all, humanity.


The Cleaners enjoys it Canadian Premiere at Hot Docs 2018 in Toronto.

Coincidentally, Michael Walker, a brilliant young Canadian artist who posts his beautiful work to hundreds of thousands of followers on Instagram had his account removed by the social media giant the very week I saw The Cleaners.

Yes, someone uttered the words DELETE and with a keystroke, this artist's work was removed.

Feel free to protest this affront to free speech. In the case of Mr. Walker's work, this is a clear act of Homophobia, no doubt perpetrated by a "content moderator" applying flawed, personal standards based on corporate policies that are skewed to protecting only profit margins.

Here is Michael's Story: