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Hot Docs 2018, Reviews Part 1

April 23rd, 2018     by Michelle Schwartz     Comments

Featuring documentaries from across the world, the Hot Docs festival in Toronto runs from April 26 to May 6, 2018. Check out part one of our reviews series featuring the films People’s Republic of Desire, Queercore: How to Punk a Revolution, and Netizens. Hot Docs offers free same-day tickets for all screenings before 5:00 p.m. to students with valid photo I.D. at the venue box offices (subject to availability).

Still from People’s Republic of Desire, courtesy of Hot Docs

2018, USA, 94 MINUTES

People’s Republic of Desire explores the complex subculture of YY, a popular Chinese live-streaming platform, focusing on two twenty-something YY stars, Shen Mao and Big Li, who are determined to win YY’s annual popularity contest. YY hosts perform for their fans, who can buy them virtual gifts and cast votes for the contest with real money – or live vicariously through the rich “VIP” patrons who spend hundreds, thousands, and even millions on their favourite hosts.

Through flashy, informative animations that put us in the virtual “showrooms” of these stars, the film examines how YY has created community and a vehicle for self-expression and fantasy. However, we quickly learn that it is not all fun and games for hosts – it is all about money. Being a host is also a huge financial and mental burden, and can be isolating. Wu shows us darker sides to YY, such as hosts live-streaming dangerous and/or illegal acts to gain more viewers.

While the film explores YY’s class relations and isolation in the digital age, I was surprised and disappointed with how it glosses over inevitable and vital topics relating to sex, sexuality and gender in online subcultures – particularly in regards to online harassment, and agency through online sex work. While we spend so much time with the YY stars in both their online and offline spaces, I was left still asking what I find to be obvious yet important questions: How do they feel about being a YY star? What do they think of the YY “system”?

Nevertheless, the film is a fascinating peek into an intricate virtual subculture; one that both provides community and isolates, and one that both brings together various classes as well as further reinforces their hierarchies. For screening times and more info. — SENNAH YEE


While “be the change you want to see in the world” may be something of a bumper sticker cliché, the subjects of Queercore: How to Punk a Revolution embodied it completely. The thesis of the documentary seems to be that if there is a particular reality you want to bring forth, just act as if it already exists, and eventually it will.

The film opens on the 1980s punk scene in Toronto, artist and musician G.B. Jones and underground filmmaker Bruce LaBruce hatch the idea of “homocore” (later called “queercore”). Both loved the punk scene, but found it an unwelcoming space for women or queers. Their punk aesthetic was equally unwelcome in gay spaces at the time. In response, they “created” a new scene for queer punks (who they joke only numbered in the dozens), putting out a ‘zine called J.D.s, for “juvenile delinquents,” that pretended to be reporting on a reality that wasn’t quite real. The ‘zine quickly spread, along with the idea of “queercore,” and soon there were more queercore bands, queercore shows, and an actual queercore movement.

The movie connects the beginning of queercore with the rise of radical activist groups like Queer Nation, as well as riot grrrl. Kathleen Hanna of the band Bikini Kill describes following a similar strategy as Jones and LaBruce, giving press interviews while the riot grrrl scene was still in its infancy, claiming that riot grrrl meetings were happening all over North America. Young women went looking for the non-existent events and ended up forming their own, turning Hanna’s claims into reality.

Though the film strives to be accessible to younger audiences, it fails to provide sufficient background and context for the movement, making it hard to follow at times. Nonetheless, Queercore is a great opportunity to see vintage footage of wildly fun queercore shows from bands like Tribe 8, Team Dresch, and Pansy Division, and to hear from the Toronto artists who helped make it happen. For screening times and more info. — MICHELLE SCHWARTZ

Still from Netizens, courtesy of Hot Docs

2018, USA, 97 MINUTES

Cynthia Lowen’s documentary tackles how violence and harassment against women manifest online, and the very real offline effects on the targets’ lives. We follow the experiences of three women and their journeys to reclaim power over their own narratives. First is Anita Sarkeesian, creator of the popular webseries “Feminist Frequency,” which elicited an ongoing slew of threats to her safety – there’s a chilling scene in which she shares screencaps from her “Death Threats - 2014” folder. Next is Carrie Goldberg, who, after failing to get the help she needed with her own cyber-stalking case, opened her own law firm that specializes in fighting for targets of online harassment. Last is Tina, whose business career was threatened by her ex-boyfriend spreading false rumours about her online. The film also features quick clips from interviews with scholars, attorneys and activists.

The film ultimately champions the courage and humanity of these women, despite the terrifying and inhumane acts of violence they have endured, and continue to endure. Online harassment is often underplayed, with the targets dismissed as being overly sensitive, and this attitude is maintained by the male-dominant structures of Silicon Valley – the same structures that exist in other systems such as Hollywood, finance, and law.

I was disappointed that the intersections of gender-based violence and racial violence were only briefly touched upon in the last 15 minutes – the film would have benefitted from exploring this in more depth. And while the film’s subjects urge for stronger laws to hold perpetrators accountable, it would have been helpful if the filmmakers had guided us towards strategies for enacting this change (e.g. how we can put pressure on those in power), as well as tools/resources to fight online harassers – especially since those who most need to see and learn from this film are the ones who will be actively avoiding it. For screening times and more info. — SENNAH YEE

Tags: film, media savvy

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