The world’s grandest documentary festival returns with a wallop, bringing with it a rich bevy of stories both universally prescient and deeply intimate. It’s a heavenly buffet for the non-fiction connoisseur, and the three, wholly diverse films covered here will have them utterly licking their chops and then some. From a sports documentary about mob mentality to a treatise on the importance of film preservation to an exposé of vile Russian mercenaries, these documentaries tap into the heart of what truly makes Hot Docs such a storied, vital tradition—which now hits its celebrated 30th edition.
I’m Just Here for the Riot
June 15th, 2011 is a glorious date that will never leave the hearts, minds, and spirits of the Boston Bruins faithful. The team came into a do-or-die game 7 at Vancouver’s Rogers Arena as true underdogs. The Canucks had taken the first two games of the series at that very stadium, in fact, the home team had won every game coming into that final match, making the odds and the electric, buzzing atmosphere of the Vancouverites’ turf that much more against them. Yet, amidst the deafening air, The Bruins’ Patrice Bergeron would quickly pot in the game’s first goal to stun the crowd. The pin-drop silence would take on a more ethereal timbre when Bergeron would score his second goal and the Bruin’s third of the game. The visitors had done it, they had slain the dragon and raised Lord Stanley above their heads in enemy territory— they were champions. Yet, in downing that monster, they unknowingly created another one. A destructive force that took on a human face but acted like anything but, forever altering the history of Vancouver and the lives of the “friendly” Canadians that took part in it.
Kat Jayme and Asia Youngman’s I’m Just Here for the Riot, the newest entry in ESPN’s “30 for 30” series, is a detailed look into the “2011 Stanley Cup Riot” and the primal, almost medieval mob mentality its smartphone lens created and then fed off. The film sources impeccable primary footage to create a vivid sense of time and place, making this chapter of recent history feel just like it happened yesterday, as it precisely tracks the moments the fanbase went from elation to deflation to visceral eruption.
It does a great job of connecting various stories and accounts of the “seemingly” normal people who lost themselves to such unadulterated energy, impelled into posing in front of burning cars and mass-looting department stores— who then become accosted by an unforgiving internet hunt that robs them of a normal life. Riot effectively captures the true cost of a fleeting decision, with its tragic accounts of aspiring athletes, students, and professionals, who were publicly shamed by the court of the internet, often cutting deep and shedding light on how easy it can be to lose oneself in the moment and then be forced to live with the regret of it every day.
Though Jayme and Youngman’s lens thankfully doesn’t limit itself to sympathy, it also sheds light on the people who weren’t taken over by the passion of the riot, who instead fought against the mob and were heralded as heroes. In objectively exploring the victims and heroes of the riot, Jayme and Youngman deftly touch on the duality of the “shame and name game”. Exploring whether such vicious treatment of rioters was indeed warranted or, if instead, was an excuse for demonization, sexism, and racism.
Riot also doesn’t let the city of Vancouver, and its police force off the hook. Tracking the timeline of negligence that enabled the fiery enterprise to unfold and forever besmirch the city. Moreover, the film also places an emphasis on community and healing, embracing the lessons of this heartbreaking event to meaningfully touch on the brittle line society operates within, and how good intentions can be wholly subsumed by drastic measures.
Though the film is slightly over-polished for the subject it is covering, it never fails to be a poignant, insightful look at the fragility of human morality, and our deep-seated love to be part of a destructive mob—either in search of anarchy or justice.
The Cemetery of Cinema
A lost film, a lost cinema, a lost history. This crescendo of loss is at the heart of Thierno Souleymane Diallo’s wistful, elegiac The Cemetery of Cinema, as it reckons with the question: What happens when a nation’s cinema is not maintained? With a tender, intimate lens it confronts Guinea’s non-existent film preservation practices, in a search for a lost film— African cinema pioneer, Mamadou Touré’s seminal Mouramani (a film that no one even knows what it’s about). In taking on a quixotic “road-movie” structure where Diallo travels across the former French colony, the film gracefully explores how the country’s tumultuous history has destroyed its tradition and culture of cinema, making the landscape unhospitable for budding filmmakers— including Diallo himself.
The past is both an enemy and a friend, as Diallo’s quest is both fascinated by the fleeting traces that remain and tormented by the detritus it is surrounded by. Yet, Diallo affords such frayed remnants a rare grace and beauty. The empty, decrepit archives and buildings are imbued with a picturesque melancholy, slowly cascading across the alcoves of a once-thriving industry. This rubble is juxtaposed with a verdant countryside that is bustling with a life that has no means of being captured and recorded.
Forgoing traditional interviews and infographics, Diallo traverses the history of Guinea by not only interacting with the few remaining people left to discuss and ponder the nation’s lost auteurs but by taking them to the places where they once thrived and flourished. This immediate, almost natural reflection is noticeably stripped down, relying solely on the ephemeral, mournful reminisces of various figures to obtain a bracing sense of profundity. Which peaks in moments where they answer questions like “When film burns, what does it smell like?” or painfully admit that Guinea has “no culture of archives.”
Moreover, Diallo also taps into the transformative power of cinema, finding compelling ways to depict how culture and community are intrinsically tied to the filmmaking process. It’s truly uplifting to see him bring cinema to a generation of children that have grown up without it, using them to re-enact the conflicts of the past or having them use a wooden camera to simply observe life—thereby confronting cinema’s ability to both rouse a meaningful examination of a brutal past and inflict a necessary social change. When he takes his journey to France’s national archives, its treatise on a lost history reaches a heartbreaking apex.
While The Cemetery of Cinema can feel a bit too scripted, its pensive look at the tradition of cinema and from where it derives its power is equal parts haunting and heartfelt. Though Diallo’s search for Mouramani might be in vain, in simply taking part in that journey, he will have done his part in ensuring that future films like it will never be lost to time.
The Rise of Wagner
Like its subject matter, Benoir Bringer’s The Rise of Wagner is noticeably shrouded in darkness, gleaning disturbing revelations from informants who cloak themselves in it for protection. It’s a necessary exposé on the human rights-violating and officially non-existent Wagner group. A paramilitary organization that’s essentially a private army for Vladimir Putin’s regime, deploying mercenaries anywhere Russian interests are seeded. From the mineral-rich African Central Republic to war-torn Syria.
Bringer’s documentary meticulously navigates its spiderweb structure— full of overlapping hierarchies and twisting networks— with skill. Not only searing the Russian government with each piece of vital information and haunting second of real footage but indicting how our colonial systems have allowed such a monstrous entity to be created. The Rise of Wagner frames its documentary around one case, the horrific torture and beheading of a Syrian detainee by Wagner mercenaries, to both uncover the identity of the perpetrators and blow open the inner, global machinations of this army-for-hire.
Bringer does a stellar job in sourcing his informants, from enigmatic hackers to daring journalists to ex-mercenaries, each diverse perspective lights an all-important flame around the Wagner Group’s murky domain. It’s clearly a film given fire by Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine but maintains its incendiary edge even when it explores the Wagner Group’s endeavours in countries that often don’t receive the coverage they desperately deserve. By the time the film concludes, it’s not surprising that almost all the voices it championed have had to flee the homes they have greatly strived to better and save.
Yet, for all its blazing revelations, Bringer’s cinematic touch can be too formulaic at times. It settles into a style that blunts the power of its investigative blows, accenting them with rote musical stings in the fear they won’t be able to stand on their own— when they absolutely do. Moreover, the film also tacks on juvenile shots of faceless hackers and journalists clicking away on their keyboards, miring the experience in unnecessary dramatizations when it should be focusing on the wealth of real footage at its disposal.
Though it’s confused filmmaking isn’t enough to quell the film’s prescient vision. It powerfully Traces the sheer geopolitical influence of the Wagner Group, and its uncanny ability to covertly re-colonize many territories, filling in the voids left behind by Western nations. It’s a strong indictment of not only The Wagner Group but of the world that has enabled them, using its investigative lens to shed an all-important light on the brave voices mightily struggling to bring them to justice. While it may not be a stellar cinematic experience, it’s an admirable account of an evil that has been ignored for far too long.
– Prabhjot Bains