The problem with Wakanda

In Black Panther, the nation's governance policy leaves much to be desired

The problem with Wakanda

As a disclaimer to the nitpicking that is to follow, I liked Black Panther. It was fun, progressive, and more thoughtful than the bulk of Marvel Studios’ past releases. But there are definitely some particulars about the movie’s depiction of Wakanda that do not add up.

First of all, why is the King of Wakanda the first field agent you send to deal with threats to national security? When Ulysses Klaue, the film’s first villain, resurfaces, T’Challa is the primary agent sent to capture or kill him, despite his other obligations.

In other words, let’s put the governance of the most technologically advanced nation on Earth on hold, because we can find no one else to capture this insane man with a vibranium hand blaster thing.

It’s not only a poor use of a head of state’s time, but it’s also an enormous risk to political stability — you’re risking the life of your leader. It was unfortunate when T’Challa’s father was killed in a United Nations bombing, but frankly, with espionage policy like this, I’m shocked that the turnover rate of Wakandan kings isn’t way higher.

You might say that I’m being unfair, because Wakanda’s king is the only one who drinks the Heart-Shaped Herb juice and is thus the most physically prepared to execute these missions. But then why haven’t the roles of Black Panther and King of Wakanda been separated, given that they clearly conflict with one another?

I can just imagine the Wakandan news headlines: “Third King this year KIA, time for military espionage reform?” And then people would be furious because the King being Black Panther is in their Second Amendment, or something.

Next, why does Wakanda select its leader by combat? How does physical strength and martial arts training represent an accurate assessment of political acumen or leadership skills?

Don’t get me wrong, I would be first in line to buy a ticket to a WWE Trump vs. Clinton Championship for the presidency, but personally, the novelty would not outweigh the obvious dangers of that selection process.

Watching M’Baku and T’Challa fight to submission for the throne made me feel like Chuck Woodchuck from Bojack Horseman when Mr. Peanutbutter challenges him to a ski race for the Governorship of California. Wakanda is meant to be technologically advanced and socially progressive. Why are they still using this archaic process to select their leaders?

Getting rid of this process would have solved a key conflict in the plot. Killmonger takes over Wakanda by doing nothing more than defeating T’Challa in a fight. At least Trump had some electoral support from the people he had to govern when he won, even as a political outsider. And Trump campaigned for months to make himself appear viable.

Killmonger shows up and takes the throne in one day, and the only person he had supporting him was the guy from Get Out. It’s as if the Wakandans constructed their political system with Death Star logic. “No, no, we have to set up the system such that the whole thing could blow up in our faces with one proton torpedo,” in this case the proton torpedo being a metaphor for a megalomaniac ex-military man who wants Wakanda to leave behind its isolationist ways.

Finally, why have the Wakandan elite become so lax on their isolationist mantra? This is arguably the most confusing point, because it’s an actual plot hole. Others we can suspend disbelief, attribute to culture, dumb luck, and a status quo of not challenging the throne.

But given the actions of Okoye and T’Challa, the world should long have been looking into Wakanda’s connection to vibranium. T’Challa fights in public, with his Black Panther suit on, to capture Klaue in South Korea, despite the presence of his CIA friend Everett Ross, who only knows him as the Wakandan leader.

Later in the film, T’Challa’s inner circle chastises him for bringing Ross to Wakanda to heal his injuries, for fear that he’ll report the truth about them back to America. But earlier scenes should have already raised huge suspicions for Ross about T’Challa and the gang.

Ross was purchasing a Wakandan artifact that Klaue claims to be made of vibranium. He should have already been putting two and two together about Wakanda’s ability to work with vibranium. And even though Ross was only present for the end of the chase with Klaue, he still sees T’Challa as Black Panther, the guy who stops bullets, blows up cars, and captures Klaue. T’Challa is even the one who turns Klaue over to Ross.

Why is the question “Hey man, where did you get that suit from?” never raised? T’Challa’s snap decision to reveal his identity to Ross sheds major doubt on the seriousness of how Wakandan leaders take their country’s secrecy.

It just doesn’t make sense to have physical competitions for leadership or send your king to perform assassinations. And it definitely doesn’t make sense to approve of that king and his entourage revealing their possession of a high-tech panther suit when your goal is to hide your technology from the rest of the world.

Albeit a great film, Black Panther is probably not a great guide on the basics of how to run a country.

Science on screen can be creative, but it should also be realistic

Why science in movies should be accurate

Science on screen can be creative, but it should also be realistic

Filmmakers often consult scientists while scriptwriting. A film too grounded in science can turn viewers away, while a film that does not abide by scientific principles and laws can compromise its legitimacy. Those making science-based films thus consult experts to make a creative yet plausible plot.

The 2014 film Interstellar, directed by Christopher Nolan, follows NASA pilot Joseph Cooper and his team as they leave Earth, which is becoming uninhabitable. Their journey to fictional black hole Gargantua takes them through a wormhole, where they explore new planets.

Because of the complicated nature of the physics in this film, like black holes and wormholes, Nolan consulted Kip Thorne, a theoretical physicist and now a Nobel Prize laureate for his work on gravitational waves. Thorne provided scientific basis. In fact, he partly inspired the film.

Generally, a consultant brought to a film project will provide factual or scientific basis for a director’s vision. While the process relies on scientific expertise, filmmakers typically have the final say in how they portray a scientific phenomenon. Because of this, scientists who consult on films can only offer a general understanding of scientific principles.

While writing the film, Nolan would propose a situation he would want to take place in the story, and Thorne would provide necessary equations and current theory that could make the situation a reality.

Interstellar was immensely successful at the box office and in demonstrating black holes and time dilation. Thanks to the collaborative effort between filmmakers and experts, it didn’t compromise the film’s scientific basis or Nolan’s creative vision.

In fact, Nolan said the film could serve as potential teaching material for students understanding that realm of physics. While Interstellar is not perfect, it still inspires many to look toward the stars in search of habitable planets and extraterrestrial lifeforms.

Looking further back in time, Stanley Kubrick, the director of 2001: A Space Odyssey, consulted astrophysicist Carl Sagan to create a story that speaks of the transformation of man and man’s destiny through artificial intelligence, space travel, and extraterrestrial lifeforms. Kubrick is a master in the world of filmmaking, but to truly understand space — something that had not been visually witnessed at the time — he needed expertise.

The 2016 film Arrival, directed by Denis Villeneuve, takes audiences on a journey through language and communication with extraterrestrial lifeforms who land on Earth. Villeneuve consulted linguistics professor Jessica Coon at McGill University on the deciphering and creation of languages.

Filmmakers want to send their messages to the world, and in order to effectively accomplish this, their projects must be as accurate as possible. The US National Academy of Sciences saw the need for legitimacy in science-based films and developed the Science and Entertainment Exchange to foster relationships between film directors and scientists.

Films like Arrival and Interstellar are grounded in science, but the guarantee of accuracy cannot come from filmmakers alone. Only through conscientious collaboration with scientists can movies truly become masterpieces on the big screens.

In conversation with the director of SponsorLand

Michèle Hozer's latest documentary examines the relationship between a Syrian refugee family and their Canadian sponsors 

In conversation with the director of <em>SponsorLand</em>

Michèle Hozer is an Emmy-nominated and Gemini-winning Canadian documentary filmmaker, known for films including Sugar Coated, Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould, and Shake Hands with the Devil: The Journey of Romeo Dallaire. Her newest documentary, SponsorLand, follows the relationship between a Syrian refugee family and their sponsor group in Picton, Ontario. The film explores themes of belonging, diversity, and community. 

The Varsity spoke to Hozer before the film’s premiere on November 8 to discuss the importance of gaining the family’s trust and authentically documenting their collective and individual stories while maintaining respect for their privacy. 

The Varsity (TV): What inspired you to create this documentary?

Michèle Hozer (MH): In 2015, at this time exactly, TVO threw a national callout to filmmakers across the country, looking for films for Canada’s 150th birthday. They were looking for films that explore the theme of Canadians having one foot in one culture and one foot in the other. And I totally responded to that. 

At the time of the TVO call, the Syrian refugee crisis was in full force. Canadians were responding. We were bringing in 25,000 refugees. I thought [it was] great to sort of see how refugees deal with coming into Canada. 

I wanted to move away from the 30-second, feel-good news items and TV items. What really goes on? What happens to the refugees? They are very grateful for being in Canada, but they really miss their home country. Is there a line between care and control when it comes to sponsors, even the well-intentioned?

That’s the basis of the documentary. How much, as refugees, do they have to sort of give up in order to fit in? I was trying to stay [out] of the politics of the war, and I wanted to go beyond ‘they left hell and came to heaven and we lived happily ever.’ No. There are issues. Do we have, as Canadians, ingrained biases in terms of refugees and in terms of ‘we’re the best country in the world?’

We don’t use [the family’s] last name because they asked us not to use it — they fear retribution back in Syria. In fact, we geo-blocked the film, and our Facebook page and everything else, so it doesn’t appear in either Syria, Lebanon, or Turkey. That’s why we don’t use their last name. But I thought, ‘What a great story.’ 

Picton, like my hometown of Laval, is kind of immune from diversity. Multiculturalism hasn’t come to Picton. We thought that was a great story to follow, but in order to do it properly, I had to be embedded in the community. My husband and my dog, we were there from January to July. I set up my edit room there. I needed to get the trust of the community. I needed to get the trust of the family. 

TV: While you were filming the documentary, what were some of the setbacks or obstacles you had to overcome to depict the right kind of story and tone?

MH: I couldn’t really bring my team in all the time. It was very invasive. So I got my DOP [director of photography], John Tran, one of the best in the country. I got a camera from him, got a mic, got Camera 101 course. I got two sessions from him — school of filmmaking. I started filming myself with my supervising producer. 

It was much easier to do it that way, much less intrusive. We had spent many hours around [family members] Abdel Malek and Sawsen’s kitchen. That way we were able to take out the camera when the time was right. It was always in my car, always in a bag in the corner of my house. At one point, we gained so much of their trust that Sawsen, one of the evenings, said, “Michèle, take out your camera.” 

The other challenge, too, is that I had to wait to see who wanted to share their story, and that took time. Sawsen was interested, [sons] Slieman and Ramez were interested. They were really interested in speaking English with me. Some of the interviews were in English. But to really get the nuance of what they were feeling, and the struggles that they had, we had to do the interviews in Arabic. I had two really good, trusted counsellors and translators with me, Rasha Elendari, who’s a PhD in Toronto at U of T. She runs the NMC-CESI Language and Cultural Exchange group — it’s very big in the Syrian community. She helped with those interviews, especially with Slieman, who really gets a lot in that interview. 

I think Slieman is really an interesting guy because he’s really quite charming and tons of fun, but he carries a lot from the war. And to show that duality was really, really important. It took a long time to get him to trust us, to get him to open up to us, and I think it was just spending time with him, just hanging out, listening to him, going out with him. So, that was the big challenge. 

Also, the nuances with the sponsors and the family. It’s very easy to sometimes want to sit back and have a critical eye, but it’s not easy to sponsor a family. It’s almost like an arranged marriage, right? They don’t know each other, and then they’re in this intense relationship that’s only supposed to be a year. 

The nuance was really important and a challenge in terms of getting it right with the camera and with the perspective. It’s not an easy relationship; there’s no road map. It just takes time and patience and effort to make that relationship work. 

TV: Are you still in contact with the family? 

MH: Oh yeah! I haven’t been there in a while because we’re just finishing the film. They keep saying, ‘Where are you?’ They kept calling me ‘okhti,’ which means sister. I became very close to them. I hope to go back. Actually, we loved it so much that we hope to get a place there — not leave Toronto completely. I mean, eventually. It’s a great community. It’s really, really great. 

TV: What are you hoping this documentary will achieve on a grander scale?

MH: There are two answers to that question. 

There is this fear of others. We did elect the Liberal government, and we got them in, but there are still a portion of Canadians who are worried and weary. The first thing we wanted to do is to really get people to understand who Abdel Malek and Sawsen are — they’re like you and me. They’re a normal family, a bit larger, bit more rambunctious, but they have the same kind of needs and concerns that we do. 

Now, they lived through a civil war and hardships that we didn’t live through, but I think our goal was to get a sense that they’re not a family we need to fear, especially the boys. Ramez and Slieman are of the age, those young men, who we’re the most fearful of. If they didn’t belong in the family, maybe they wouldn’t have been able to be accepted as refugees. Meanwhile, they are so loving. They’re like normal teenagers, and even that scene when, in January 2017 I guess it was, the killings in the mosque in Québec City, Ramez’s response: ‘I’m not going to judge all Canadians based on this one guy who killed in the mosque. Don’t judge all of us based on a few terrorists.’ He wants to stand like Canadians, he cares about his family. He wants their safety and he will stand with Canadians against global terrorism. I think that’s one answer. 

The second answer is, what does it mean to be a refugee? What is the relationship between the refugees and the sponsors? When we give help for free, is there this inherent sort of expectation in return? As a refugee, how do you be grateful but at the same time, give agency to your needs? How much do we have to give up as a refugee or immigrant to fit in? I think these are all important questions. We don’t pretend to answer all of them, but it’s something to explore, so that there’s a greater understanding of different culture and acceptance. 

 This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Dance film You&Us shifts perspectives on mental health

The film was presented by U of T’s new Institute for Dance Studies

Dance film <i>You&Us</i> shifts perspectives on mental health

“Being a student is difficult and being an artist is difficult,” said choreographer Cara Spooner. That’s why it’s important for members of the U of T community to come together and discuss the intersection of arts and mental health.

On October 26 at the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse, Spooner screened part of the dance film You&Us, which she worked on as the choreographer. She also discussed the creative process of making the film, whose cast includes both professional dancers and those who might never have dubbed themselves dancers at all. Spooner described her own take on what makes an artist in an interview leading up to the event: “People are artists if they say they are,” she said.

Spooner, a U of T alumna, is the Education and Training Manager at Workman Arts, a Toronto-based arts and mental health organization. Since its founding in 1987 by a former Centre for Addiction and Mental Health psychiatric nurse, Workman has grown from a theatre company of eight artists to an organization of over 280 member artists. Among Workman’s objectives are supporting artists with mental illness and addiction issues, as well as publicly exploring these issues through art.

“We also deal with artists’ identity first at Workman. Often the stigmatization around mental health and addiction is that in a lot of settings, that’s how you’re seen as. We don’t ask for diagnosis. It’s a come-as-you-are space for people who are dedicated to honing their craft and who are dedicated to working and to making art,” said Spooner.

You&Us also works to shift perspectives. Usually, an audience member is someone outside, looking in. In You&Us, filmmaker Aaron Rotenberg puts the audience at the centre of the action by filming in 360 degrees using virtual reality techniques. Shot in a series of courtyards around the Christie Pits area, it involves simple movements, like walking, that create a sense of unity among all the dancers. “With the film you don’t know who is who, and it doesn’t matter,” said Spooner. 

The movements featured in the film evolved through an improvisational process. For Spooner, “How things are made shapes what is made. You can feel in experiencing a product what the process is like.” She commented on the outcome of the collaborative process of creating You&Us — the sense of community that was created. “There’s a vulnerability in creating things together in a way that people listen to each other in physical and verbal ways… [There’s] an opening up of different ways of being in the world,” she said.

The screening of You&Us was presented by the University of Toronto’s newly formed Institute for Dance Studies, which is under the leadership of Dr. Seika Boye, a lecturer in the Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies. A research community hosted within the centre, the Institute for Dance Studies is dedicated to supporting dance-focused research across disciplines and to facilitating conversations through and about dance at U of T.

You&Us also kicked off the institute’s Dance With Me curatorial partnerships series, which focuses on partnership-based projects that work toward more equity and diversity in dance. The programming for this year includes the Focus on Dance Research Days from November 9–11 and an appearance by Jill Johnson of Harvard University early in 2018. 

Hollywood must make room for more women of colour on screen

Despite efforts to improve gender representation in sci-fi and fantasy, mainstream media remains overwhelmingly white

Hollywood must make room for more women of colour on screen

From superheroes to elves to dragons, there is ample imagination that goes into the creation of science fiction and fantasy stories. Yet when it comes to envisioning people of colour at the forefront of these stories, it seems that sense of imagination is lacking.

For the first time in its over-50-year history, the upcoming season of popular sci-fi series Doctor Who will feature a female Doctor, the lead character in the show. Nerd women everywhere celebrated the news as an important leap in representation within the sci-fi and fantasy genre — a genre that often excludes women from leading roles. In 2016, for instance, the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film found that only 29 per cent of the top 100 grossing science fiction films in Hollywood featured female protagonists.

It is therefore encouraging that franchises like Doctor Who — as well as films like Atomic Blonde, Mad Max: Fury Road, Wonder Woman, and Ghostbusters — have carved out more space for women to take on starring roles. What’s not so encouraging is the overwhelming proportion of white women featured in the mainstream film and television industry.

Representation of people of colour remains a significant issue for mainstream cinema. As of 2016, 76 per cent of female characters in the top 100 films were white, compared to 14 per cent Black, six per cent Asian, and three per cent Latina.

Representation of marginalized people in the media is important: it can reduce racial bias, and it increases confidence and self-esteem among racial minority audiences. Portraying women of colour in film and television helps to normalize their experiences — and when women and people of colour don’t see themselves on screen, it sends the unfortunate message that their experiences are invalid or not as important as those of white actors, both male and female.

The sidelining of women of colour in favour of white women is nothing new. Historically, feminism has excluded women of colour and prioritized the needs of cisgender, heterosexual white women above everyone else. White feminism — the insidious brand of feminism that favours the needs of white women over those of women of colour and thereby upholds white supremacy — contributes to the push for more inclusion in mainstream media.

To the extent that celebrations of gender diversity in Hollywood predominantly focus on white women, gains made in this area remain mostly superficial. Though Wonder Woman is widely publicized as a groundbreaking feminist movie, it still lacks substantial casting of women of colour. Conceptualizing feminism in such a unidimensional way is reminiscent of Lena Dunham’s Girls, which has received similar praise despite not including women of colour in lead roles.

The infamous controversy about the movie Ghost in the Shell also exemplifies how white feminism can be weaponized against women of colour. Given that the film is based on an original Japanese franchise, it would have made sense to cast a Japanese actress in the starring role. Instead, white actress Scarlett Johansson was hired to play the protagonist, which offended many in light of the general scarcity of Asian actors featured in Hollywood movies.

Fortunately, a number of upcoming sci-fi and fantasy releases seem to be more sensitive to the scarcity of roles for women of colour in Hollywood. In the upcoming Marvel film Black Panther, 90 per cent of the cast is Black, and Black women have been cast in leading roles, making it one of the most diverse movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Women of colour have also been cast in other upcoming movies: Zazie Beetz will play Domino in the Deadpool sequel, and the upcoming movie adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time will feature Mindy Kaling and Oprah Winfrey.

Although increased diversity appears to be on its way to the big screen, more work still needs to be done to ensure women of colour are granted the visibility they deserve. As strides are being made to include women in the sci-fi and fantasy genres, additional attention should be paid to inclusivity for racialized women; having truly diverse casts means being sensitive to racism as well as sexism.


Oreoluwa Adara is an incoming second-year student at Innis College studying Political Science and Equity Studies.


Breaking through barriers

The Breakthrough Film Festival showcases films made by women, for everyone

Breaking through barriers

Why do female filmmakers make up only nine per cent of directors in 2015’s 250 highest grossing films? Because the film world is “comprised of 91 per cent men,” quips Maya Annik from The Gaze podcast. Breakthroughs Film Festival, Canada’s only festival dedicated to showcasing short films by new-generation female filmmakers, seeks to address this disparity. Its fifth annual festival, which ran June 10–11 at the Royal Cinema on College Street, featured 17 films from nine countries, including Canada.

“We’re trying to get far more of a balance compared to what has already existed,” says Gabor Pertic, Breakthroughs’ executive director and longtime programmer for TIFF and Hot Docs. “And it’s not only about saying, ‘hey everyone, here are a bunch of young female filmmakers and here are their films,’ but, ‘here is the world, this is what the world’s stories are, this is what these young emerging talents are able to showcase, and we can all benefit from that.’”

The first night of the festival started with the premiere of Stalingrado, a drama set in the beautiful countryside of northwestern Spain. Director Anyora Sanchez brings together an unlikely cast of characters — a rugged Spanish shepherd, an elegant Russian woman with whom he is in love, and his mother — to explore, with tender humour and sincerity, the challenges of a relationship that threatens cultural norms.

Emilie Mannering’s Star takes an honest look at Canadian culture’s pervasive hypermasculinity through the eyes of teenage boys living in Montreal. The film opens with a selfie video using Snapchat or Vine, and its shakiness draws the audience right into the heart of their hectic world. Here, they watch street fights online, write rap music, and struggle to find ways to connect with their peers or stand up for their beliefs. It’s a captivating portrait, right up to its haunting end.  

Childhood visits to Pakistan inspired Canadian filmmaker and photographer Zinnia Naqvi to return to her family’s roots and make a film out of a pre-existing photography project. Seaview is a visually striking exploration of identity, cultural differences, and artistic integrity.  

2016 Breakthroughs Jury Prize winner Edmond ended the evening on a reflective note. The animated short, written and directed by Nina Gantz, follows a young man embarking on a retrospective journey at a critical point in his life. The childlike spirit evoked by puppetry contrasts the bizarre, often troubling behaviours Edmond relives as he ponders his current desires. Gantz’s creative scene transitions lend the work a surreal tone.

Saturday night featured two other award-winners: Sunday Lunch, by French filmmaker Céline Devaux, won the Audience Choice Award for its portrayal of “a lunchtime gathering with family, complete with generational dysfunction and plenty of wine,” while Ryerson film studies graduate Jasmin Mozaffari received Jury’s Honourable Mention for Wave, which follows a man who has experienced a great loss and finds himself “struggling with his personal demons and anguish while having to maintain responsibilities he may not be ready to take on.”

The quality of Breakthroughs’ films shows that the lack of female representation in the film industry is not due to a lack of talent. On having a film festival devoted to women filmmakers, Zinnia Naqvi says, “It’s nice to have this platform; to be together and have that community.”

Hot Docs in review: three documentaries worth your while

These films explore humanity from all angles

Hot Docs in review: three documentaries worth your while

As free daytime screenings were available to all students, catching a film at the Canadian International Documentary Festival — better known as Hot Docs — was a great way for many to start off the summer. Now that the festival has ended, some of the titles have had a lasting impact on viewers. Here are three films to look out for.

At Home in the World

Among the various subjects that Hot Docs films delve into, a popular theme this year was immigration and refugees which has been prominent  in the media over the past year. At Home in the World, which had its Canadian premiere at the festival, offered an intimate perspective into the everyday lives of refugee children at a Red Cross school in Denmark.

The hour-long film was a project by award-winning director Andreas Koefoed. Told primarily through interviews, it captured the personal struggles of several refugee children and their parents as they grappled with nightmares and mental illnesses, all while learning a new language, adjusting to a new culture, and fighting for residency at the risk of being separated from loved ones.

“In the public debate, people on the run are often reduced into numbers or stereotypes,” writes Koefoed in the director’s notes on the film’s website. “It is easy to forget that they are normal human beings, who happen to be in a very difficult situation. This is my reason for telling this story: I want to tell the story of the refugee children, who often face the same everyday struggles, thoughts and emotions as any other child, except for the fact that they have experienced a life with various atrocities very close to home.”

Audrie & Daisy/Courtesy of Audrie & Daisy

Audrie & Daisy/Courtesy of Audrie & Daisy

Audrie & Daisy

Another emotional film that spoke to a pervasive issue was Audrie & Daisy, directed Jon Shenk and Bonni Cohen. The film told the story of two teenage survivors of filmed sexual assaults, Audrie Pott and Daisy Coleman, their community’s reaction, and the legal ramifications that followed. The heart-wrenching interviews with the survivors and their families drew tears from the crowd, while the scathing and slut-shaming remarks of the police and the public incited exclamations of outrage. Audrie & Daisy is a must-watch for everyone, as it presented powerful insight into a relevant issue.

“Unfortunately, the story of drunken high school parties and sexual assault is not new,” say Shenk and Cohen in their statement on the film. “But today, the events of the night are recorded on smartphones and disseminated to an entire community and, sometimes, the nation… While the subject matter is dark, we are inspired by these stories to make a film that captures these truths but can also help audiences digest the complexities of the world teenagers live in today.”

Daisy Coleman, Daisy’s mother, and Delaney Henderson — another sexual assault survivor featured in the film — were present at the screenings to answer questions and to speak with the audience in the lobby. Audrie & Daisy had its international premiere at Hot Docs after screening at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it was nominated for the Grand Jury prize.

Life, Animated/Courtesy of Life, Animated

Life, Animated/Courtesy of Life, Animated

Life, Animated

On a more lighthearted, but no less moving, note was Life, Animated, directed by Roger Ross Williams. It tells the story of Owen Suskind, a 23-year-old autistic man, and his journey to understand the world through Disney animations.

Owen’s story bears all the hallmarks of a good Disney film itself: empowerment, joy, hilarity, heartbreak and struggle. Interviews were creatively presented alongside clips from Disney films, animations of Owen’s life, and animations of Owen’s imaginary world. As the film explains, Disney movies remain constant when everything else changes, a reason why many autistic people find comfort and meaning in them.

In addition to being a touching story about using our different passions to navigate reality, Life, Animated also offers a glimpse into the life of an autistic child growing up and the effects that it has had on his family. The film debunked several myths about the condition, such as how autistic people will never able to hold jobs, have good romantic relationships, or live independently.

Life, Animated also had its international premiere at Hot Docs after screening at the Sundance Film Festival, where Williams won the Sundance Directing Award: U.S. Documentary. The film was based on the bestselling book Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism, written by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Ron Suskind, Owen’s father. The film will be released in North American theatres later in 2016.

Hot Docs Review: Weiner sticks out

A look into one of Washington's stranger sex scandals, this doc makes for a weird yet wonderful watch

Hot Docs Review: <em>Weiner</em> sticks out

There wasn’t an empty seat in the Bloor Hot Docs cinema for the Friday evening screening of Weiner, directed by Elyse Steinberg and Josh Kriegman. It was a full house for good reason; this feature-length documentary is at once informative and hilarious, fascinating and cringe-worthy. It’s much like watching Icarus dare to touch the sun; you know exactly what the outcome will be, but you can’t look away.

Many will remember the scandals of former democratic house representative Anthony Weiner, who resigned from congress after photos of his genitals, which he had reportedly sent to several women, were leaked. The film catches up with Weiner a couple years later, in 2013, as he decides to run for mayor of New York City, and hopes voters will give him a second chance.

Perhaps surprisingly, they do. Weiner begins his campaign from a position of strength — people seem to love his ideas and fighting spirit and have forgiven his past errors. We all know what it’s like to have a slip-up on social media. Weiner and his wife, Huma Abedin, Hillary Clinton’s top aide, seem to have recovered from past tribulations. But then it happens again: more photos leak, more women come forward and this time, New Yorkers and the media aren’t so ready to forgive.

The characters of this drama provide ample entertainment, not only because of the problems they face, but also because of their reactions to them.

One of the most difficult aspects of documentary filmmaking is the problem of accessing the doc’s subjects. The incredible thing about Weiner is that, for some reason, Weiner agreed to let Steinberg and Kriegman behind the scenes of his mayoral race and into his personal life without censoring anything. The access given to the directors is so astounding that even Kriegman is driven to ask Weiner why they have been allowed into his life — a question which even Weiner doesn’t seem to know the answer to.  

Weiner is a fascinating case study of the media’s ability to shape public opinion and infiltrate the privacy of political figures. It touches on Weiner’s narcissistic nature — perhaps a commentary on political ambition generally — but the protagonist is never unnecessarily demonized nor celebrated.

Weiner offers a sober look at Weiner’s fall from grace, not once, but twice, and moves at a fast pace. The characters of this drama provide ample entertainment, not only because of the problems they face, but also because of their reactions to them, which are often equally as cringeworthy as the events that catalyzed the scandals.

Ultimately, the film is about Weiner and his wiener, but it’s also much more than that. Weiner is an intense, insightful, and incredibly entertaining look at one of the most talked-about political scandals of our time.