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Why this year's virtual edition of Hot Docs makes us miss lineups.

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One of the best things about going to film festivals, besides the films, is lining up for them.

Maybe that sounds odd, but these are no ordinary movie lineups. There’s something about the festival experience — everyone a bit sloppily dressed, a bit bleary-eyed, carrying identical tote bags, anxiously leafing through dog-eared programs — that changes people, breaks down the walls around them, makes them (and me!) unusually friendly.

It’s in conversations with cinephile strangers in the rush lines at TIFF, for instance — waiting 90 minutes or more for a movie you might not even get tickets to! — that you get the best tips on what to line up for next.

So yeah, I’m at the “I miss lineups” point in the pandemic.

I could really use one right now, to help navigate the “219 documentaries from 66 countries” in this year’s edition of Hot Docs, which kicked off Thursday and runs to May 9.

The good news this year, since the festival is fully virtual, is that there’s no strict schedule; you can watch any of the films at any time within the festival window, and it’s open to viewers across Canada.

So where to begin? Scan the program, find a subject that interests you, and take your chances. The worst that can happen is 90 minutes with a great story poorly told.

And if you’ve seen anything at Hot Docs, good or bad, please tell us about it in the comments — it’s the closest we’ll get to a lineup this year.

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Hot Docs diary

Keep checking this space for mini-reviews as I update it throughout the week with more new documentaries from Toronto’s Hot Docs festival.

Wuhan Wuhan After 16 months, you might think you’ve seen and heard quite enough about the pandemic, but never quite like this. Chinese-Canadian director Yung Chang gives us a stunningly intimate peek inside the epicentre of Covid-19 during the strict lockdown in the early months of 2020. There’s no politics here, no inflammatory rhetoric; just ordinary people facing head-on a still mysterious terror. A beautifully quiet film, Wuhan Wuhan begins with a bird’s-eye view of the usually bustling Chinese metropolis, its streets and waterways mostly bare, before the camera hones in on a modest apartment occupied by a very pregnant Xu and her husband Yin, who volunteers as a driver for frontline medical workers. Chang takes us into a hospital where an exhausted doctor is struggling with a shipment of faulty PPE, and to a massive quarantine facility — set up in the city’s convention centre — filled with mild to moderate cases, where volunteer psychologists try to calm the afflicted. Considerable time is spent inside the hospital ward, with frightened patients struggling for breath, but the goal here is not to traumatize the viewer. We are left instead with a sense of everyday bravery and humanity in the face of unrelenting calamity.

Set! I’m a huge sucker for documentaries that dive into esoteric subcultures peopled with endearing obsessives. (Think Spellbound.) Scott Gawlik’s Set! is this year’s entry in that category, and it does not disappoint as it lifts the cloth on the weirdly cutthroat world of competitive table setting. Excuse me, tablescaping. It’s not just about putting the dessert spoon in the right spot or providing a soup bowl when a consomme bowl is required — though that’s part of it. It’s also about the “wow factor” that will turn the heads of those fickle judges at the Orange County Fair. So competitors spend — no joke — months treating their tables as dish-laden dioramas, incorporating things like Dr. Seuss-inspired balloons, a swinging chandelier, an LED-lit windmill, fake insects and real taxidermied animals. It’s so much work, and all in the hopes of winning Best in Show, a prize that consists of nothing more than a single ribbon. Most competitors seem self-aware of the ridiculousness of it all, but that won’t stop them from trying even harder for the prize again next year.

WeWork: The Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn. Even though you know where this story is headed, it’s hard not to find yourself sucked back into the WeWork dream of Instagram-perfect shared office spaces that offered free-flowing beer taps and an instant social life (plus infamous annual “summer camp” parties for employees). But as fomo-fearing investors wanted in, the dream rapidly expanded, along with the already inflated ego of its charismatic cofounder, Adam Neumann, driven by his vision of a “capitalist kibbutz,” until it reached that questionable valuation of $47 billion in 2019. Of course, that number and the dream it promised was too good to be true, as the company plummeted back down to earth before a planned IPO. Jed Rothstein’s visually inventive doc keeps a caffeinated pace, telling the tale chronologically, with a powerful coda that acknowledges the company’s present-day incongruity. If hubris (and outrageous overspending) didn’t break WeWork, the pandemic probably would have done the trick. Imagine: paying to share an office? The horror.

(Director Rothstein, Wall Street Journal reporter Maureen Farrell and former WeWork employee Megan Mallow take part in a live Q&A on May 4.)

Dead Man’s Switch: A Crypto Mystery Where WeWork’s Adam Neumann was in his element in front of a flock of hundreds explaining how they’re going to change the world, fellow bushy-haired visionary Gerald Cotten was more comfortable with a small crowd, turning up his boyish charm when he wasn’t quite the centre of attention. The ever-smiling founder of QuadrigaCX, supposedly Canada’s largest cryptocurrency exchange, had a knack for getting Bitcoin enthusiasts and other investors to trust him with their money, but when he disappeared, so did more than $200 million that should have been spent on the blockchain but is now all but unrecoverable. Cotten died suddenly of complications from Crohn’s disease while on honeymoon in India in December 2018. Or did he? No one seems entirely convinced — some are still demanding his body be exhumed for a proper autopsy — and it’s hard to blame them. Faking his own death, it turns out, would only be the latest in a long line of deceptions. Writer/director Sheona McDonald follows the money, ultimately tracing his presumed final footsteps in Jaipur, in search of answers. Since this is a movie about cryptocurrency, there’s a lot of complicated stuff that needs explaining, often with overwrought animations, which tends to gum up the story gears. But it remains a compelling real-life thriller, full of jaw-dropping twists, and maddeningly unsolved mysteries. I defy you to watch Dead Man’s Switch and not start Googling for more answers immediately after. Where’s the money, Gerry?

International Dawn Chorus Day On May 3, 2020, songbirds from around the world — including London, Melbourne, Cape Town, Tokyo, Cairo, Montreal and Toronto’s Trinity Bellwoods Park — join a lively Zoom call to mark the annual International Dawn Chorus Day. We get to listen in to their morning conversation thanks to Google’s new “avian translation app.” That’s the whimsical conceit for John Greyson’s 15-minute experimental film, but don’t be lulled by the birdsong. It packs a serious gut punch. One day earlier, dissident filmmaker Shady Habash died in Cairo’s notorious Tora prison, so that’s what the birds are chirping about. A month later, Egyptian queer activist Sarah Hegazi, imprisoned and tortured before coming to Canada as a refugee, would take her own life in Toronto. Greyson — who was infamously arrested and imprisoned at Tora in 2013 — uses the enduring visual of the pandemic, the Zoom call, to draw attention to the continued struggle of Egyptian artists and activists. The bird chorus, captured by 40 filmmakers around the globe, pays poignant tribute while drawing attention to a human rights crisis in which “lockdown” takes on a whole new meaning.

Saw something you liked (or didn’t like) at Hot Docs? Leave a comment.

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