The 21st annual Hot Docs festival came to a close on Sunday, posting record-breaking audience numbers from its 11-day run which are estimated at 192,000 across 452 public screenings of the 197 official film selections. This year’s Audience Award was won by the Canadian film The Backward Class, which tells the story of Dalit students from the Shanti Bhavan school in India who made history when they defied the odds of their community and completed their high-school graduation exams. A second award called the Filmmaker-to-Filmmaker Award – tallied from the votes of all attending filmmakers who had films in the festival – was awarded to the Belgian film Ne Me Quitte Pas, an unforgettable and darkly comic portrait of two lifelong alcoholic friends.
Another film which I personally enjoyed quite a bit, and which also finished in the top-10 among audience votes, was An Honest Liar – a portrait of a world-famous escape artist and magician who has devoted the latter portion of his life to debunking alleged psychics and exposing them as frauds. A second film which also left an impression on me was the UK selection The Writer with No Hands, which centres on a propaganda expert’s obsession with solving the nearly two-decades-old case of a Hollywood screenwriter who died under suspicious circumstances.
An Honest Liar (USA, Dir: Dyler Meason & Justin Weinstein)
This documentary examines the storied life of James “The Amazing” Randi, a man who became obsessed at an early age with following in the footsteps of Harry Houdini, and went on to become a world-renowned magician and escape artist in his own right. Randi’s philosophy regarding illusions and trickery is that it’s fine to lie to people when it is for the sake of entertainment, however he takes issue with those that use their skills to sell people false truths on a deeper, more personal level. This includes alleged psychics claiming to speak to dead loved ones, religious showmen who claim to heal through the light of God, or anyone else who attempts to make a legitimate claim to be anything more than just an illusionist. His skepticism resulted not only in the systematic debunking of several public figures – most notably the young sensation Uri Geller, his “rival” of sorts – but it also motivated him to enlist the help of some talented young magicians in order to create fake psychics in the public eye, before revealing that it was all a trick meant to send a very specific message: don’t believe everything you see. Now at 85 years old, Randi’s personal life remains every bit as full of surprise and mystery as his professional career, all of which is explored in great detail in this fantastic feature.
The Writer with No Hands (UK, Dir: William Westaway)
Westaway’s intriguing doc begins with a very simple premise: to follow conspiracy theorist and propaganda expert Matthew Alford as he attempts to solve the mysterious death of Hollywood screenwriter Gary DeVore. DeVore went missing in 1997 and wasn’t found until 1998, where his body was discovered inside his submerged car within an aqueduct, with his hands allegedly missing. Alford feels there is more to the story than just a car accident, especially considering the fact that DeVore had just finished working on a new script about rogue CIA agents going AWOL – something for which Gary may have been receiving quite a bit of attention by government officials prior to his disappearance. As the plot thickens, this film begins to explore the surprising role that the American Military has had in directly manipulating or influencing its own image within the films of Hollywood, dating back to Top Gun in the 80’s and continuing into the present day. As Alford falls deeper down the rabbit hole with a handful of plausible theories – all of which are supported in some way by conflicting statements from those close to Gary at the time of his disappearance – Westaway takes a step back and looks at Alford himself, whose obsession with this unsolvable mystery has become detrimental to his own personal life in more ways than one.