It was a strong year for North America’s biggest documentary festival, in Toronto. Unlike most documentary festivals, this one offers free daytime screenings for students and senior citizens, engaging the public and paving the way for lively post-film conversations. The main buzz was created by , a film about congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, which launched on Netflix during the festival; and , about generations of injustice against the First Nations people in Canada.
But for me, two self-shot stories about heartbreak and losing everything stood out. rightly won the festival’s special jury prize for international feature documentary. It was made from video diaries shot in Aleppo by the young journalist Waad al-Kateab, whose harrowing hospital videos of the aftermath of bombings were previously broadcast to much acclaim on . Co-directed with Edward Watts, follows Kateab’s story from the early days of the uprising to the fall of her city. What comes in between is hard but important to watch, with her doctor husband and his colleagues attending to the dusty, traumatised bodies of babies and children. There’s a near-constant soundtrack of the wailing of parents whose worlds have collapsed.
This superb film is addressed lovingly to Sama, the daughter of Kateab, born during the assault on the city. It shows the triumph of love over war and reminds us that civilians in were killed by their own government, and when journalists like Kateab released footage of this to the western media, the international community did little about it.
Another essential condemnation of our complacency of the vulnerable comes in , in which film-maker Hassan Fazili chronicles the flight of his family from political persecution in Afghanistan and their passage to Europe. While many documentaries have shown this journey, Fazili excels at capturing the experience of families waiting in refugee camps for months on end.
Fazili and his wife, Fatima, also a film-maker, are forced to leave their homeland when the Taliban puts a bounty on Fazili’s head. Along with their children, they have a real eye for documenting the beautiful. Their daughter Nargis is a particularly soulful observer; she notices “the painting-like quality” of mountains and is taken with the sight and sound of splashing water on the coast. She warns us of dark times to come after a period of relative calm in a Bulgarian camp. Along with fellow residents, the family are attacked by Bulgarian racists in a horrifying escalation of prejudice witnessed by the police, who don’t intervene. We’ve grown attached to this family; their squalid conditions – which they never complain about – challenge us to reconsider our demands as Europeans. The film’s conclusion is a powerful sleight of hand from Fazili, undercutting the typical happy ending of the refugee documentary.
I was also entranced by the acclaimed Dutch film-maker Heddy Honigmann’s , following the lives of guide dogs and their human companions. The loyalty of these canines is a joy to behold; one highlight is an elderly blind woman’s race through a forest with her bounding dog.
Pia Hellenthal’s was a surprise delight. A character portrait of a 25-year-old Berlin sex worker/poet hipster, it always feels consensual, never exploitative, despite its explicit content.
In the shorts programme, Garrett Bradley’s features clips from (1913) – the earliest-known surviving US feature film to showcase a black cast and crew. The result combines a re-creation of the original film with voiceover comment on how Hollywood has depicted the black experience. An exciting piece, it sits between nonlinear art and narrative.
While refined and experimental films such as and are a long way from the DIY observations of and , they’re similar in that they depict the worlds of those less seen in mainstream media. This is something that, once again, HotDocs proves the documentary form can do so well.