Hot Docs before the Popcorn

Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival opened on Thursday, April 28, in Toronto.  The largest documentary festival in North America, Hot Docs is as an opportunity for a sort of reverse escapism—relief from the fictions-sold-as-truths and unpleasant fantasies that we are constantly bombarded with, now more than ever, as we face a federal election here in Canada and yet another summer movie season crammed with superhero flicks and sequels.  Don’t get me wrong, I am still excited to see Thor next weekend, but it is good for the mind and soul to see films that seek to enlighten rather than distract and sedate us. The festival runs until May 8.  For more information or to buy tickets, visit the official website:

Friday, April 29

For my first documentary, I saw The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 at Bloor Cinema.  Even though I had purchased tickets for my wife and I and our friend in advance, we still had to wait for nearly an hour in a ticket-holders line that ran down the block.  The general feeling was more one of excitement than annoyance though.  When we finally got to our seats it was clear that the showing was sold out, and the introducer smartly observed how nice it was to see people spending their Friday night seeing a documentary.

As for the film itself, director Göran Hugo Olsson has assembled old footage shot by Swedish journalists during the late 1960s and early 1970s into a narrative that charts the American Black Power movement, from its origins as a conscious move away from the pacifism of Martin Luther King to more active (but not necessarily violent) opposition, to its stagnation in the mid-70s as drugs flooded the streets of Harlem.  But the film is not merely a record of the past, for Olsson overlays the old images and interviews with new commentary by current African-American activists and artists, such as rapper Talib Kweli.  The result is a film that offers layers of documentation, providing the viewer with plenty of information but also opinions about and interpretations of the events recorded.

I was not very knowledgeable about the Black Power movement before seeing this film.  I was therefore startled to see that the movement was less about protest and political activism and more about real revolution.  The movement addressed more than just racism; it sought to overthrow the entire capitalist system that causes such evils.  Even though it contains a lot of charged commentary and intense interviews, the film itself is fairly objective, perhaps because it offers an outsider’s (Swedish) view of American history.

The skillful assembly of archival footage, thoughtful commentary, and pumping music makes The Black Power Mixtape a rousing, challenging, and very watchable documentary work.

8 out of 10

The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 (Sweden, 2011)

Written and directed by Göran Hugo Olsson; featuring Erykah Badu, Harry Belafonte, Stokely Carmichael, Kathleen Cleaver, Angela Davis, and Talib Kweli.

Tuesday, May 3

My day job has been consuming most of my time, but I was finally able to catch another doc on Tuesday evening.  Hot Coffee was playing at the Royal in Little Italy.  I hadn’t chosen the movie; my wife had received free tickets for it from a generous colleague at work.  As we waited in line in the rain, having just devoured some cheap slices of pizza across the street, I assumed that we were seeing a documentary about coffee growing in some Third World country.

Then the movie started.  It opens with a familiar clip from an episode of Seinfeld, the one where Kramer scalds himself while trying to smuggle a coffee hidden in his pants into a movie theatre.  Okay, I thought, this movie is about frivolous lawsuits over spilt coffee and the like.  But in the next minute or so before the title, the movie turned my preconceptions upside down.  Hot Coffee isn’t about sensational trials or jackpot compensations.  It’s about how big business in the United States has tried to limit people’s access to the civil courts, through public relations campaigns, legislation, electing judges, and hidden clauses in contracts.

Everyone remembers that lady who sued McDonald’s because she spilt hot coffee on her lap.  Most everyone, myself included, tended to assume that when she sued she was just taking advantage of the legal system and trying to get rich.  We were wrong.  She was very old and, yes, she did spill hot coffee on her lap.  But the coffee was outrageously hot!  It’s no joking matter.  She was horribly burnt (you see the photos in the movie).  And in compensation and damages she only received what was less than fair.  But then McDonald’s spun the story the other way, in their favour.

Hot Coffee is not an expertly woven documentary.  Indeed, I wasn’t surprised to hear that the director, Susan Saladoff, was a trial lawyer before, not a filmmaker.  For this film, she doesn’t track down the most distinguished experts, and she doesn’t conduct the most probing interviews.  As well, Saladoff too often and too easily lays the blame, through the use of clips and photographs, on big bad villains, like President Bush or Karl Rove.  What the film undeniably has though is a powerful sense of urgency and righteous outrage.  What’s more, the argument is convincing.  I left the theatre with a completely different understanding of tort reform and so-called “frivolous law suits” than when I had gone in.  Saladoff reveals people, like the McDonald’s lady, who have been treated so unfairly, and who are still so misunderstood in the public mind.

I have thought wrongly.  The real problem is not that citizens are taking advantage of the legal system, it’s that businesses are.  They want to limit people’s access to the civil courts, which are essentially the only fair ground for disputes, where a citizen and a big corporation are treated pretty much equally.  Big business has altered our understanding of the problem through an effective media campaign over the years.  They have gotten legislation passed that limits the compensation and damages they have to pay if they loose in court.  They also have control of many state supreme courts.  In addition, so many contracts—for jobs, cell phones, you name it—make you sign away your right to bring them to court if they do something wrong.  It is nothing less than a complex and well-organized takeover of the American legal system, and, what is worse, most of us don’t even know about it.

For more information, see the film’s website:

What say you?  Do Canada’s courts seem any better?

7 out of 10

Hot Coffee (USA, 2011)

Directed by Susan Saladoff.