Hot Docs 2012: Reviews

The biggest documentary festival in the world is in full swing in Toronto. Here’s a look at what we’ve been watching.


Shadows of Liberty is an exhaustive look at the problem that exists in what we call the “free press.” The problem being that it’s not quite so free anymore, when corporations with advertiser interests are the ones pulling the strings at the top, deciding what is and isn’t news.

The film goes into great detail explaining the purpose of a neutral news outlet that was made to keep a country democratic — to let the people know what is really happening in their country so they can make informed decisions — and how over time, particularly during Reaganism in the 1980s, regulations changed to allow corporations to buy out news media outlets, putting the power in their hands.

One particular story details how in the 90s, a CBS news reporter researched and broke the story of the slave labour and abuse happening in the making of Nike garments. Because Nike was the main sponsor of the 1998 Olympics (which aired on CBS) the network never aired the story — and when the reporter tried to ask CBS about this, she was fired.

Interviews with media personalities such as Dan Rather, Amy Goodman, Julian Assange and Danny Glover make for a captivating and informative documentary on just how the American free press morphed into censorship and entertainment news.


This must see documentary is about the shameful but well hidden secret of the rape epidemic in the US military. The groundbreaking investigation presents astounding statistics, such as how female soldiers today have a greater chance of being raped by fellow soldiers than by being killed by enemy fire in high combat areas like Iraq and Afghanistan. The film follows the stories of five incredible women, who after reporting their rape were kicked out of the military. Some were even charged with adultery (if their rapist was married) while the rapist moved up the ranks.

The insular way the military deals with crimes often leads to massive coverups of these crimes. Sometimes, the person they are required to report the rape to is the very same person who raped them in the first place — which likely explains why 80 per cent of rapes go unreported. (This along with the fact that if they do report it, they could very likely be kicked out of the military and blamed for the rape.)

Although the subject matter is depressing, the film also addresses a possible solution to the problem: to allow women serving in the military to report a rape to authorities outside of the military (a law the Canadian military put into effect years ago) so that it is dealt with in a legal way. See the film, and get everyone you know to see it, to help make this necessary change a priority.



Beware of Mr. Baker focuses on one of the best jazz drummers of all time — Ginger Baker. Regarded as the man who invented rock drumming with his work in the legendary and short lived 1960s band Cream (which made Eric Clapton famous), he is an outrageous personality known for his heavy drug use, insane outbursts, and a reclusive lifestyle.

The film’s director, who had read about him in his youth, was shocked to learn that Baker was still alive and decided then and there that he would make a documentary about the madman. He managed to locate Baker on a compound in South Africa, living with his 29-year-old wife (his fourth) and 39 polo ponies.

Interviews with some of rock’s greatest such as Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Charlie Watts, Mickey Hart, Carlos Santana, Femi Kuti, Neil Peart and Marky Ramone, along with his ex-wives and children, shape a portrait of a man whose early loss of his father sparked in him a fighter attitude that made for a genius drummer, but a difficult personality to get along with.


The Job is a low budget film that documents a two day recruiting process that job seekers had to endure on the hunt for gainful employment.

It may be because I have never had to sit through a group interview process as brutal as this, but I had a hard time believing it was a real recruitment session because of how unethical it seemed. Ten job seekers were asked to come to the session, and told only that they were interviewing for a sales position at an insurance company. They were not told the name of the company, the position, the salary or any real details about the job.

Upon arriving they are still not told about the job, and the company spokesman conducting the session tells them their CV will not even be looked at until the end of this process, once they’ve made it to the final interview. The day begins with the candidates being asked to sell the person in the chair next to them as the man or woman for the job. The entire process seems embarrassing, and two of the older and wiser job seekers leave after this test, realizing their self-respect is not worth a shot at a job for which they don’t even know what the salary is.

One poignant moment comes when the only female job seeker in attendance talks about the interview process, and how you must make yourself seem confident and secure, and if recruiters get any sense about the truth of your life — that you are three months behind on the rent and are having a hard time affording to feed your child — you won’t get the job.

The film’s success lies in the fact that it shows the painful lengths that many job seekers are forced to go to in order to find a way to pay their bills.



The Imposter tells an incredibly unbelievable story that happened in Texas in the 1990s. In 1994, a 13 year old boy went missing from his home in San Antonio, and remained missing for over three years. That is, until he turns up in Spain, claiming to have been kidnapped and tortured.

The family is seemingly delighted to have him back, and his sister jumps on a plane to scoop him up and bring him home. They don’t question the fact that he speaks with a French (not even Spanish) accent, or that he is clearly able to grow a full dark beard at the supposed age of 16, despite being a blue-eyed blonde at the time of his disappearance. They welcome him with open arms, and when the authorities grow suspicious of his story, the family refuses to allow him to go for blood tests to prove he really is their missing child.

The story seems unbelievable until an investigator gets involved and we learn that the family may be so willing to take in a stranger because they have something to hide. The film is well worth checking out; it’s a true story you must see to believe.


Jason Becker is a guitar prodigy you probably haven’t heard of because he was diagnosed with ALS at just 19-years-old. At the time, he was about to be the next lead guitarist in David Lee Roth’s band — which previously made Eddie Van Halen famous. He managed to record one album with the band before the crippling disease stripped him of use of his hands (and eventually, his entire body). Unable to go on tour with the band, he never became the rock star he was born to be, but that didn’t stop him from making music to this day.

The inspiring story is told predominantly through the eyes of his family and friends, explaining how he more than mastered the guitar at a very young age and had label interest while he was still in high school. (He finished early so he could go on tour.) When he nabbed the coveted role in Roth’s band at such a young age, every guitarist in the world was jealous, but he most definitely deserved it.

The beautiful thing about this film is that it never lingers on the sadness of his story for too long, and Jason himself is clear he doesn’t want any pity. He is happy to be alive despite having to communicate with his eyes. In his 40s now, his parents and friends take great care of him and he is set up with a computer that allows him to create incredible music to this day. Most people see ALS as a death sentence, but the optimism and joy he had as a child have carried on throughout his diagnosis, and he is surrounded by people who give him plenty of reasons to stick around.


Off Label documents the unsettling use of psychotropic drugs on diseases they are not designed for, and the horrors of medical testing on human guinea pigs.

The story is presented through the eyes of five different Americans who have all been affected by the use of these drugs in one way or another. Most powerful is the story of a woman whose son committed horrific suicide after his doctor entered him into a medical study he was conducting — a practice that is now illegal thanks to her fight after her son’s tragic death. She had begged the doctor to remove him from the study when she saw his mental capacity and will to live deteriorating, but the doctor would not comply as her son was legally an adult.

Another moving story focuses on a war veteran who became a firm believer of George W. Bush’s pro war mentality as a kid in high school. He signed up as soon as he could and ended up in Abu Ghraib at 18 years old, forced to torture Iraq citizens with the medical treatment he was supposed to be giving them. After going home, he began to suffer from extreme PTSD and was given on a cocktail of pills that do not address the root of the problem. His insight into how the authorities continue to throw more pills at patients instead of providing adequate therapy and support show the heart of the problem in the pharmaceutical industry.

There is a pill for everything, but it often just covers up the problem while leaving terrible side effects — and it fixes nothing.

Read more reviews for Hot Docs 2012.