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A dozen best bets for the documentary bounty of Hot Docs 2022

Peter Howell

Movie Critic

The 2022 edition of the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival will be a hybrid affair, with 226 features and shorts from 63 countries screening in person at theatres and also online through a dedicated viewing platform.

Yet a singular goal remains: to show the best docs the world has to offer.

With topics covering a gamut of themes, from the comic to the tragic, here are my alphabetically arranged picks of a dozen good bets at Hot Docs 2022, which runs from April 28 to May 8:

Calendar Girls

Dance like nobody’s watching, even if the camera’s rolling. Swedish documentarians Maria Loohufvud and Love Martinsen find affirming dedication in the members of a Florida dance troupe for women over 60, although there are a few in their 50s. Dressed as showgirls, unicorns, reindeer and anything else that strikes their fancy, they dance to help raise money for service dogs for veterans, but mostly they dance for the sheer joy of it. They work hard at it, too, with 100 to 130 performances per year and many rehearsals in between, under the watchful eye of Katherine Shortlidge, their leader and fellow dancer. It’s not all fun and philanthropy: health issues, family concerns and at least one ornery husband conspire against joy, forcing some of the dancers to hang up their colourful headpieces. But most just dance through it. 🌓

Deconstructing Karen

Dinner, wine and a no-holds-barred lesson on racism are served in Patty Ivins’ provocative doc, along with enlightenment or indigestion depending on the recipient. Two women of colour, Regina Jackson and Saira Rao, host soirées called Race2Dinner where white women pay to be told hard truths about systemic racism, white supremacy and being an entitled “Karen” in America. Despite the elegant table setting, it’s not a comfortable experience for most of the guests and none of them get let off the hook for having good intentions. “You can’t change what you don’t acknowledge,” Saira says, but getting people to admit their racist tendencies is often easier said than done. 🌓

Fire of Love

Katia and Maurice Krafft, Alsatian French scientists and lovers, were as eccentric as characters in a Wes Anderson movie. They died in 1991 after getting too close, as usual, to a lava flow from a Japanese volcano, one of many they’d studied over the years. Their deaths were perhaps inevitable — Maurice, a fatalist, spoke of their “kamikaze existence in the beauty of volcanic things” — but their lives were not without purpose. Their research led to timely warnings about eruptions that helped save thousands of people. Sara Dosa’s unique documentary, a Sundance 2022 prize winner, refuses to wallow in tragedy. Instead, it commits to a mad embrace of destiny, with eye-searing archival footage and an appreciation of the ineffability of devotion. 🌓

Framing Agnes

A transcendent reflection of transgender truths and attitudes, calculated to keep you pondering the complicated reality of personal identity. This formally daring doc from Toronto’s Chase Joynt, winner of the Sundance ’22 NEXT Innovator and Audience Awards, employs a talk-show format and recreates personal histories to illuminate both past and present, via a discovered cache of 1950 case studies from the UCLA Gender Clinic. Trans actors play the real people from those studies, whose long-silenced voices are finally heard. Stellar performances all, especially from Zackary Drucker as the title Agnes, a rebellious and resourceful hero of the trans movement who rejects labels: “I think we’re only human if we’re allowed to be anti-heroes,” she says. 🌓

Into the Weeds

Jennifer Baichwal is best known for her big-picture documentaries, tackling such mega topics as impending global extinction in “Anthropocene” and water appreciation in “Watermark.” For this Hot Docs opening night film, she focuses on a single character, a former California groundskeeper named Dewayne “Lee” Johnson and his legal battle against chemical giant Monsanto over its popular herbicide Roundup. Evidence that Roundup caused Johnson’s serious illness and skin rashes is pursued with forensic detective work worthy of Sherlock Holmes or Erin Brockovich. Baichwal and her team — shout-outs to editors Roland Schlimme and David Wharnsby — take a fact-laden subject and make it easy to understand and terrifying to contemplate. It’s a textbook example of how to do investigative docs. This is a big-picture story after all, one that affects people around the world. 🌓

The Kids in the Hall: Comedy Punks

You wouldn’t expect or want a doc about the Kids in the Hall to be a straight shine job, not for a classic Canuck comedy troupe that would make merry with such censor-baiting topics as death, cancer, AIDS and Hitler. Reg Harkema duly delivers both the gain (hit CBC-TV series, sold-out tours, iconic absurd characters) and the pain (cancellation, bickering, depression) with a damn-the-torpedoes account of their 40 years and counting. As Dave Foley, Bruce McCulloch, Kevin McDonald, Mark McKinney and Scott Thompson reconvene for another series, this time on Prime Video, here’s a grand look back at where they’ve been, with testimonials from such gushing fans as Mike Myers, Jay Baruchel and Janeane Garofalo. If you don’t watch it, then I’m crushing your heads like Mr. Tyzik, flatheads! 🌓

Make People Better

Imagine if you could tinker with human embryos so that babies could be born with superstrong bones or muscles that needed less exercise to grow. Such speculative science came closer to reality in 2018, when Chinese biophysicist He Jiankui announced he’d created the world’s first gene-edited babies, twin girls known only as Lulu and Nana. But what is applauded as progress in science fiction was greeted in real life with considerable alarm expressed by medical ethicists, who fretted about “rogue” research, and by Chinese government officials, who wanted the story controlled and ultimately hushed. Cody Sheehy’s pulse-raising doc explores the many sides of this hot-button issue, with testimonials from medical experts and also the crusading journalist who broke the story. Sheehy also gains access to previously unseen interviews with Dr. He, a man who claims he only wanted to do what title says: make people better. 🌓


Toronto’s Daniel Roher (“Once Were Brothers”) brought this film — a triple prize winner at Sundance ’22 — straight out of the editing suite to the fest and it pulses with the energy of a great John le Carré novel. It’s a documentary thriller about Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader, anti-corruption activist and thorn in the side of Vladimir Putin. Cameras track Navalny as he nearly dies from a poison administered by suspected Kremlin agents but then recovers to unmask and punk his would-be killers. He returned to Russia a year ago, only to be jailed upon arrival and later accused of terrorism by Putin’s dictatorial regime. Navalny is fearless, charismatic and an agent of history. Roher’s doc puts us right in there with him, and his story has become all the more timely and urgent in light of Russia’s current invasion of Ukraine. 🌓

Nothing Compares

A compassionate and revealing doc on Sinéad O’Connor, an Irish singer beyond compare and pop’s angriest conscience. Kathryn Ferguson supplies context that was missing in the 1980s to ’90s, when O’Connor, always fighting the power that be, was reduced to headlines — especially after she tore up a photo of Pope John Paul II while singing Bob Marley’s “War” on “Saturday Night Live.” Yet she also possesses a passionate romantic side, best expressed by her Prince-written signature tune, “Nothing Compares 2 U.” New interviews and a brief performance supplement a wealth of archival material, including an off-camera confessional moment in which she describes the abuse rained upon her as a child by her “beast” of a mother. The pain never stops for O’Connor: shortly before the premiere of this doc at Sundance in January, her 17-year-old son, Shane, committed suicide. 🌓

Okay! (The ASD Band Film)

Music is the most powerful form of human communication, transcending language differences, and cultural and physical barriers to directly reach the soul. This sentiment is expressed beautifully in Mark Bone’s chronicle of Toronto’s ASD Band, a group of musicians with autistic spectrum disorder (hence the acronym) and ties to the Jake’s House charitable community. Rawan Tuffaha (vocals), Jackson Begley (guitar/vocals), Ron Adea (keyboards) and Spenser Murray (drums) find friendship and fulfilment as they labour to write and record “Fireflies,” their first EP of original songs. We also see them preparing for their first live gig, assisted by Maury LaFoy, their musical director and bassist. One of their tunes is “Masquerade,” a song about “ripping the mask off,” which is what the ASD Band members aim to do as they educate people through music’s shared humanity. It’s inspiration you can dance to. 🌓

Still Working 9 to 5

The recent #MeToo movement and other civil rights efforts have dramatically illustrated how far society still has to go to reform male-dominated structures and attitudes. Yet there was a time not so long ago when even kidding about such matters was considered a radical act. Case in point: the 1980 secretary empowerment comedy “9 to 5” that the New York Times described as “a militant cry for freedom.” Starring Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton, with a game Dabney Coleman as their very piggish boss, the film struck both a funny bone and a nerve upon its release, coming in just behind a “Star Wars” sequel for the year’s biggest box-office hit. Yet as Camille Hardman and Gary Lane reveal in this contextualizing look back, “9 to 5” was deemed anything but a sure thing, panned by some critics as “heavy-handed” upon its release. Principal cast members and current rights activist gather to talk about how wrong those critics were and how much work is still to be done. 🌓

We Feed People

“I cook and I feed,” says José Andrés, and the humility of that statement might seem suspect coming from anyone less obviously sincere. He’s a celebrity chef, a Spanish-American artisan of small-plate dining with multiple books and restaurants to his name. But he’s become best known in recent years as chef to the planet, whose World Central Kitchen global relief agency races to disaster scenes everywhere to provide free meals to thousands of people. Ron Howard follows Andrés and his WCK team as they travel to lands devastated by hurricanes, floods, volcano eruptions and the pandemic. More recently he’s been helping out in war-torn Ukraine. The doc risks turning into a PSA, but Andrés — who does have a temper — resists cynicism, sacrificing his family life and coming close to burnout as he barrels through danger, red tape and delays to feed hungry mouths. 🌓

And a bonus doc short: Crafted from raw NASA images and audio, Sebastian Ko’s “A Life on Mars” packs decades of research and nearly 10 years of exploration by intrepid Mars rover Curiosity into a six-minute adventure. Incredible photos make you want to look to the sky in wonder. (Screens with “Tolyatti Adrift.”)

(This column originally ran in the Toronto Star.)



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