Hot Docs 2018: The Blue Wall


A case of straightforward reportage that benefits from its direct approach, Richard Rowley’s The Blue Wall presents a familiar, tragic story of racism and institutional corruption in modern-day America. In 2014, 17-year-old Laquan McDonald was shot and killed by police officer Jason Van Dyke in what the Chicago Police Department described as an open and shut case of a justified killing. But as one journalist investigated the incident, they discovered several pieces of disturbing information. Security footage from a building near the shooting mysteriously vanished, witnesses were intimidated by police into questioning their original statements, and an autopsy revealed that McDonald was shot sixteen times. When a source reveals that police and the city government are trying to suppress dash cam footage of McDonald’s murder, a long, arduous battle starts to get the video released to the public.

Rowley knows his film can’t work on telling McDonald’s story alone, as the depressing normalization of these police killings make this subject matter too common. Instead, Rowley expands his film to focus on the systems in place that have created and continue to uphold the status quo of giving police too much authority and too little accountability. In this case, the reelection campaign of mayor Rahm Emanuel played a role in the cover-up, as the footage would have hindered Emanuel’s chances of keeping his seat. At the same time, the police department was too afraid of the blowback the tape would bring, especially after the murders of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and Freddie Gray (among many others) became national news stories. Everyone within the system act in fear of the masses at its mercy, and once the tape comes out, most of them realize how expendable they become once things turn against them.

Granted, none of what The Blue Wall covers or explains on a macro level is anything surprising, but it’s effectively pulled off. Rowley and co-cinematographer Karim Hajj use drone shots to convey the imposing scope of the city and its institutions (and kudos to them for giving some purpose to using drones, which are becoming a very frequent and annoying presence in documentaries), while Brian McOmber’s score sets an ominous tone throughout. It’s efficient filmmaking in service of the material, and as the film winds down Rowley makes it apparent that, more than anything, The Blue Wall is about how corrupt institutions succeed by seizing and controlling the narrative around whatever events might not work in their favour. Currently, officer Van Dyke is awaiting trial after being charged with six counts of first-degree murder. The Blue Wall’s story remains unfinished, and if the film’s conclusion feels abrupt, it’s because Rowley is more interested in trying to help influence the current narrative than he is in talking about it after the fact.

Hot Docs 2018: Won't You Be My Neighbor?


It comes as no surprise that Fred Rogers—known to almost everyone as Mister Rogers—would get the biodoc treatment. A Presbyterian minister who was fascinated by television’s potential, he worked on different programs until creating Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood in 1968. The show was a children’s television staple for over three decades, partly because of Rogers’ philosophy and approach: deliberate pacing, clear lineations between reality and fiction, the ability to deal with deep, complex ideas, and an emphasis on self-worth, just to name a few of the qualities that made Rogers stand out. The most impressive and radical part about him was how he acknowledged children’s emotions as real, complicated, and worth listening to, never pandering and always trying to give kids the tools to deal with universal aspects of childhood that were rarely acknowledged.

It’s a shame, then, that the person tasked with documenting Rogers’ own life story is Morgan Neville, the Oscar-winning director of Twenty Feet From Stardom. Unlike Rogers, Neville panders to audiences, peddling in mediocrity and documentary tropes simply because they work on the middlebrow audience he caters to. Rather than find ways to explore Rogers’ issues with depression, insecurity, and isolation growing up as a child, he utilizes animated sequences that show a young Rogers played by his puppet Daniel Tiger (some of his friends and relatives believe the puppet represents Rogers’ vulnerable and “real” self). Tactics like this are familiar, lazy, and simplistic, with Neville’s most offensive act involving his withholding the fate of an ill child who went on Mister Rogers’’ Neighborhood before undergoing major surgery. This is the kind of ill-intentioned manipulation Rogers couldn’t stand, but it’s Neville’s bread and butter.

At least Neville’s documentary isn’t too egregious, as his usual trademarks take a backseat to Rogers himself. Neville doesn’t shy away from his subject’s traditionalism, and he puts an emphasis on Rogers’ own ordinariness that prevents the film from glorifying things too much. But it’s worth remembering Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as a show that railed against the lowbrow, familiar standards of childrens’ entertainment at the time, pulling off something unique and intellectual that went a long way to helping kids develop emotionally. To see Rogers’ story expressed through the usual tricks of the documentary format’s trade—especially with a tone that feels more serviceable than sincere—is further proof of how rare a presence like Rogers was in the entertainment industry.

Hot Docs 2018: People's Republic of Desire


From a consumer standpoint, there’s been much to enjoy about the internet’s unregulated, wild west status since its invention, but director Hao Wu’s People’s Republic of Desire shows a surreal, disturbing flipside to all the good the world wide web has brought. Wu follows the growing phenomenon of live streaming in China, where people host shows on a webcam and receive gifts from fans who watch and interact with them via a live chat room. Some hosts can earn over one hundred thousand dollars per month from live streaming, but Wu presents this new, growing part of the internet as something more sinister than exciting; it’s an ungodly mix of an unregulated communication platform with a largely unregulated capitalist economy, using narcissism and empty entertainment to prey on the hopes and dreams of people in the lower rungs of society.

Wu tries to pare down the complexities of the live streaming platform as much as possible in order to explain how the streaming platform works. The majority of viewers are called diaosi, a slang term used for people from lower class backgrounds with no prospect for a successful future (one of these viewers describes working a job that pays $400 and gives 2 days off per month). The diaosi watch and donate small amounts to hosts they like, and a higher class called tuhao—described as rich but lacking any real cultural value—makes big donations to hosts in order to receive adulation from the poor masses of viewers. Wu presents all of this information, along with portraying the streaming service itself, through computer generated imagery that makes the internet look like some kind of void where avatars hurl gifts at the screen. It looks cheap and bizarre at first, but as the film continues it becomes a fitting visualization for a part of our world that feels completely disconnected from reality.

Taking place over two years, Wu profiles two hosts trying to win the streaming service’s annual competition where viewers vote for the best host and hostess. Shen Man, a young nurse who quit nursing to pursue success through streaming, finds herself resenting the fact that her family relies on her income for support, and comedian Big Li becomes so consumed with winning best host that it threatens to destroy his marriage. Wu edits their stories into clean, rags-to-riches-to-rags narratives, and doesn’t have to do much when it comes to highlighting how strange the whole situation is (both Shen Man and Big Li find themselves dependent on a system that has no tangible value and can turn on them just as fast as it embraced them). Things only get darker as Wu dives further into the live streaming business, learning about predatory agencies and talent managers who try to pocket as much money for themselves as possible, all of it shown with a frankness that generates an uncomfortable disconnect with the material. Dystopias usually take place in the near or far away future, but People’s Republic of Desire makes an unsettling case that we might already be living in one.