I’ll be reviewing several films for the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, taking place here in Toronto from April 25th to May 5th, 2019 at various locations in the city. See below for some great films you shouldn’t miss.

When We Walk

Some films are heart-wrenching in their raw, naked vulnerability – When We Walk, and its predecessor, When I Walk are two such films. Alas, at this point, we do not have the entire trilogy that DaSilva is working on, but if the third is like the first two, it will be a fascinating look into the life of one man.

Jason DaSilva, as apparent above, is an accomplished filmmaker. In 2005, as depicted memorably in the first film of this series, DaSilva was on a family vacation, enjoying being “buzzed” by passing aircraft, when he discovered that, after a fall, he couldn’t get back up. He was diagnosed with primary progressive muscular sclerosis, which as explained in this film, means that your “own body thinks that nerves are the enemy.” Symptoms include the loss of muscle control, vision, balance and sensation. As the symptoms are announced on the screen, an animated clip of a person being dismembered plays, which represents the loss of each of these abilities. It is obvious that DaSilva is not a fan of his MS.

He agrees with a friend that if he could run away from himself, he could. The lack of a positive disability identity makes this film a harrowing one to watch, but it is no less valid as this film stands in for his experience. When We Walk is dedicated to his newborn son, Jase, and the title more or less indicates DaSilva’s inability to accept that he cannot walk anymore.

As Jason mentioned in When I Walk, watching footage of himself trying to walk allowed him to accept that no matter how hard he tried, he would not walk the same way again (or ever, since the condition has worsened now). Also as evidenced in that film, his relationship with Jase’s mother, Alice, has deteriorated. Even the director admits that When We Walk needs to be seen in conjunction with When I Walk, and despite the emotional rollercoaster that awaits viewers, I agree.

Both films are thematically different, but address the same man, the same life upheaval, the same life aspirations, and the same uncertainty about what life has in store. In When I Walk, DaSilva meets his partner, Alice, a woman with a mischievous grin and who accepts him for who he is (even if he can’t). She admits, willingly, that she wishes he wasn’t disabled, and also worries about the future – how will they take care of themselves in various small apartments through New York City?

They have a son together, Jase. Through the end of the last film, and into When We Walk, she ages dramatically. The stress, frustration, and feelings of entrapment set in and fester. Alice decides to move to Texas in search of a better life for her and their son. When Jason wishes to join them, he discovers that Texas Medicaid does not cover 24/7 home care, which he requires at this point, and the only way he can live in Texas is if he lives in a nursing home. Texas is extremely poor when it comes to providing services for people with disabilities, since they do not have income tax, which would allow for state-run services to be implemented.

DaSilva shares the statistic that 50 to 60% of people die in a nursing home within their first year. He also has a seizure when visiting his son.

It is easy to be mad at Alice for seemingly causing this upheaval in Jason’s life. Jason is mad at Alice too, even going so far as to file papers at family court to have her and Jase sent back to New York City. However, Alice is still executive produce of both films, and I’m sure she has justifiable reasons for living in Texas, even if we are not privy to them (I hope).

These two films – which, I would recommend seeing both of – provide a honest, no-holds barred look into a life of someone acquiring a life-altering disability and having to make do with the circumstances before him. While I worry about DaSilva’s insistence on wanting to escape himself, I understand, and I hope that he continues seeking positive changes for people with disabilities across the world.

Monday, April 29 at 6:30 pm at Isabel Bader Theatre

Director Jason DaSilva in-person for Q&A (will be live captioned)

Tuesday, April 30 at 12:45 pm at Isabel Bader Theatre

Director Jason DaSilva in-person for Q&A

Friday, May 3 at 12:45 pm at Isabel Bader Theatre

Director Jason DaSilva in-person for Q&A

[Either playing with closed captioning on private devices or open captioning on the screen]

OFFICIAL FILM WEBSITE

Tickets and information

ABOUT THE DIRECTOR

Jason DaSilva has been a prolific filmmaker for the past 15 years. He has directed four short films (Olivia’s Puzzle, A Song For Daniel, Twins of Mankala, First Steps) and two feature length-documentary films (LestWeForget and WhenIWalk). Olivia’s Puzzle premiered at the 2003 Sundance Festival. Three of his films have had national broadcasts on PBS, HBO, and CBC. DaSilva’s latest feature film, WhenIWalk, won a 2015 Emmy Award for Outstanding Informational Programming, was an Official Selection of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and won Best Canadian Feature at Hot Docs 2013. In 2014, Jason also won three awards: AAPD Mobility Magazine’s Person of the Year, the Paul E. Hearn Leadership Award, and the Christopher Award for Excellence in Film. Currently he is working on a new feature film When They Walk and on AXS Map, a website and accessibility database to find disability friendly places around the world.

Buddy

Buddy excels at showing you the small moments that make dogs and humans lifelong friends. Heddy Honigmann knows where to put the camera, and how long to let it linger just so that you can see for yourself what genuine companionship looks like.

Trevor, pictured above, is a veteran dealing with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. He was in Afghanistan when an explosive changed his life forever. On strolls in the park with his family, he is unable to step on grass for fear that the blades are hiding another explosive. He sees his children playing, of course, but he can’t move his feet forward to play with them. Observing this and the fear crossing Trevor’s face is one of the best representations of PTSD I have seen.

Enter Mister, that shaggy guy to the right. Mister will flank him at an instant’s notice, protecting him from any visible or invisible foe. When Trevor spends time with his human partner, Mister, the expert bodyguard he is, will walk away a little bit, but will watch Trevor’s back. Another powerful scene occurs when the director, Trevor, and his partner discuss how Mister always is on guard.

That is just one of many stories featured in this wonderful documentary, which depicts the lifelong relationships six humans have with their furry companions. Each human has a different disability, ranging from autism to blindness. As one subject states early on in the film, helping others make these dogs happy and excited, and it is like a game for them. She then states, “May it always be that way.” This, to me, is an implicit acknowledgment of the mutual exchange of respect and affection that occurs between canine and human throughout past, present and future.

This film resonates due to a beating heart at its centre, and due to an acknowledgment that we all need a helping paw every now and then.

Sat, Apr 27 at 3:00 pm at Isabel Bader Theatre

Tue, Apr 30 at 10:30 am at TIFF Lightbox, Cinema 3

[Dutch with subtitles]

OFFICIAL FILM WEBSITE

Tickets and information

Wikipedia page about director, Heddy Honigmann

Well Groomed

Rebecca Stern turns her camera onto the creative dog-grooming circuit in the US. Comprised of many dedicated artists that can spend up to two weeks (if not more) grooming a single dog, all the women featured in this documentary are truly passionate about what they do. As you can see above, some creative groomers use the dog’s fur as a canvas for which to etch scenes from popular culture, such as Alice in WonderlandJurassic Park, and Scooby Doo (with a monster plant, if you thought Scooby Doo was too easy).

These dogs, too, are service-oriented, but in a different kind of way. They want to make their masters happy. Footage in the film shows that the dogs are not abused or neglected, and rather enjoy the attention. Grooming products meet safety standards, which are diligently researched by the creative-grooming industry.

While I enjoyed learning about this community and seeing the passion of the artists, I felt the film was a bit too long and unstructured. However, if you are interested in the topic, this is a good opportunity to pick up some ideas.

Sat, May 4 at 10:15 am atHot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema

[Playing with descriptive Sound on private devices and open captioning on the screen]

OFFICIAL FILM WEBSITE

Tickets and information

SXSW Women Directors’ profile on director Rebecca Stern

ASSHOLES: A THEORY

John Walker’s ambitious expose on the meaning of the word “asshole” (as a descriptor of a person) is based on a book by philosophy professor Aaron James. While I would say there is nothing revolutionary here, it does provide conversation fodder and food for thought. We know there are bullies out there. We know the difference between Donald Trump and Oprah Winfrey.

I appreciated the analysis of bullying within the RCMP by Sherry Lee Benson-Podolchuk, a former officer who refused to cover up for another officer’s ineptitude. The conversation with an ex-marine student facing down would-be frat rapists was also riveting, especially his observations about the similarities between the navy and frats. Finally, this publication should get an interview with Italian LGBTQ activist Vladimir Luxuria, who famously stood up to Silvio Berlusconi (with a soft glove, no less). Berlusconi is Trump’s predecessor in so many ways. I would have appreciated a deep dive into all three of these topics; perhaps, what I’m really asking for are three different documentaries. Aside from a few quick comments about Trump, he is not featured in the documentary, which shows that the film is not going for the low-hanging fruit.

And not that the documentaries wouldn’t be about assholes. I think I’m tired of assholes. Let’s focus on the people who stand up to them.

As the film reminds us, all it takes is one person to NOT be a bystander and to question “the way things are.”

Wed, May 1 at 3:45 PM at TIFF BELL Lightbox 1CC

RUSH TICKETS

Sat, May 4 at 12:45 PM at Isabel Bader Theatre at Isabel Bader Theatre

 OC, Live captioned Q&A

Tickets and Information

THE PICKUP GAME

I was tired of assholes before I saw this film. I walked out of this film empty inside. As a film critic, I am obligated to tell you if the film is good, and this is certainly well-done. The subject matter, however, is seedy and misogynistic as all hell. Pickup “artists” are men who manipulate women into sleeping with them by use of psychological and coercive tactics. As the film started describing the number of ways one can seduce women (there’s a three-stage method, apparently) – I observed someone in front of me walk out. Before that segment, I was willing to give kudos to the director for not going into that specific detail, but then I realized that it is better for the audience to know the strategies these duplicitous individuals will use.

The film moves quickly, however, so the methods may not stick unless you are taking notes. You can always dust off your version ofMagnolia, whereTom Cruise famously plays a pickup instructor. All the “coaches” and experts run the multi-million dollar business well, exploiting young men with social anxiety by teaching them that women can be played with like putty, and if you push a button here, you will get a result there. These young men are incapable of having a conversation unless it is scripted to a T – comment on her shoes, say that you’ve seen better, act like you have somewhere else to be, come back, get her drunk, get her alone, take her to a supposed afterparty but there’s no one else there, tell her you know what she wants and she doesn’t, ignore her when she tries to express herself —–

The fact that this industry exists is appalling but not difficult to understand. I would have liked to see proactive solutions to avoid these kinds of predatory behaviours. For example, I like the stories about restaurants or pubs that have secret codes which women can use if they feel uncomfortable, and the staff will help deal with these unwanted people. Yes, this is a problem, but how do we deal with it now that we know it exists? Hell, even giving us a hotline to donate money to would be better than this empty feeling. Perhaps my desperation to do something about this social issue is similar to the frustration the young men felt (and continue to feel) when their unwanted advances are repelled time and time again? Perhaps we are both desperate for a quick answer.

However, I’m fortunate enough not to be the target of these pickup artists, so I should count my blessings. I just wonder if this film gives women enough agency or if it depicts women as naive, unsuspecting prey.

Please note the wishy-washy apology by Ross Jeffries, the father of this whole seduction field at the end of the film, and please note – just so I’m not alone – how he now is a supposedly reformed “cat person” who has named his cats women names, and who currently enjoys their adoration of him. In other words, he traded women for cats, who he can, under the law, possess. I think there’s something horribly wrong with that.

Sat, May 4 at 3:15 PM at Isabel Bader Theatre

 OC, Live captioned Q&A

CONVICTION

This Canadian documentary directed by Ariella Pahlke, Nance Ackerman, and Teresa MacInnes is one that should not be missed, especially if you have an interest in prison reform and human rights. The focus of their lens is a group of women from Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility and Nova Institution for Women, and their art therapy/advocacy sessions they have together, where they are able to fully express their hopes and desires.
These prisons are hardly places that one wants to spend a lot of time in; however, for some of these women, life within the prison walls provides structure and security, a chance for many of them to detox as it is harder to appease their temptations. For many of these women, who disproportionately come from racialized backgrounds and from pasts of abuse and trauma, finding a consistent place to sleep is a Herculean struggle – and in prison, there’s a bed there for you.
These women, along with advocates from the Elizabeth Fry Society and an architectural firm, collaborate to envision what a true rehabilitative facility would look like, that could provide a feasible alternative to the typical corrections paradigm. For many of the women in the support group, life outside is chaotic, unpredictable, and scary. In order to cope, many find themselves falling back into old habits, including associating with abusive partners, and/or abusing alcohol and drugs in order to try and cope. You will cheer for the women as they gain their freedom, and yet, within five minutes of the documentary, they are back in again – showing first hand the hopelessness and despair that many of them struggle with on a daily basis.
Their proposal, “From the Ground Up,” is like many other proposals before it, from the 90s, 80s, and 70s. The prison industrial complex is a thing, and each inmate costs approximately $100,000 to keep in jail. The question the filmmakers, the women, and the charities ask is how could that money be put to better use?
Film Website
Screenings are finished for Hot Docs. The filmmakers plan to host more throughout the country, and theBuzz will republish this review as well as provide details when we know more.

About the Author

Michael McNeely is a 2nd year law student; entertainment and accessibility critic; filmmaker; and aspiring actor. He enjoys meaningful representations of LGBT folks and those with disabilities in the popular media, and is waiting for the day where nuance, instead of stereotype and prejudice, is the norm. Michael is deaf-blind, meaning that he enjoys the presence of subtitles and other accessibility features.