Tag Archives: Hot Docs

Killing Patient Zero

Patient Zero: the man who brought AIDS to North America, sparking the gay plague epidemic, killing several hundred thousand gay men. His name was Gaetan Dugas – a French Canadian flight attendant for Air Canada. His name was published, his lifestyle vilified, his family shamed.

Except it turns out Patient Zero didn’t really exist, and even if he did, he wasn’t Gaetan Dugas.

When the CDC was frantically trying to crack this strange and terrifying disease, they interviewed a bright young flight attendant who was quite forthcoming. They greedily drank up every piece of information he offered. Ultimately, Gaetan’s extensive recollections helped them piece together a cluster chart that helped them identify the sexually transmitted nature of the disease. He was labelled patient O – O as in Out of California (which is where the first 56 men they interviewed had lived; Gaetan was the 57th, and he did not). But that O would later be mistaken for a 0 and that erroneous 0 would be interpreted as meaning the beginning, the originator, the first case of AIDS in North America. Obviously that was 100% factually incorrect, but a reporter who seethed at the government’s lack of response decided to galvanize the world with a book. In it, he constructed the Patient Zero narrative, which guaranteed that the book would be published, read, talked about, regardless of whether it was completely or even remotely true.

Killing Patient Zero is about correcting this notion and rescuing Gaetan’s name, a man who history has wrongfully accused. Director Laurie Lynd interviews many: friends and coworkers, leaders at the forefront of gay civil rights and AIDS advocacy, doctors and researchers and sociologists. Together they weave a portrait of a man joyfully enjoying his life. One man among many who are enjoying newfound freedoms, exploring possibilities, exploiting opportunities, embracing life. AIDS happened just as the world was opening up to gay men. Some called it the ultimate punishment for a sinful life. Gay men lived in terror, but terror of the unknown, because AIDS proved elusive, hard to define, impossible to treat, easy to contract, but by what means? No one could say.

Gaetan too would have lived with that fear. And when the telltale purple splotched appeared, he knew he would soon die. Still, he took the time to talk to the authorities and tell them what he knew. He did more than most.

Killing Patient Zero is as enlightening as it is profound. It’s an important historical record, one that honours not just Gaetan’s memory, but all of those who witnessed a vital community’s near-extinction and did something about it.

A Kandahar Away

Kandahar, Saskatchewan.  Population: 15.  A world away from Kandahar, Afghanistan both in size (the original Kandahar had 557,000 residents in 2015) and circumstance (as the larger Kandahar is under constant threat from the Taliban).  

Kandahar_Away_1But a name is a powerful thing, and Kandahar, Saskatchewan (named in honour of the 1880 battle of Kandahar, Afghanistan) is about the only link to his home that Abdul Bari Jamal can find.  Jamal came to Canada in 1991 with his wife and five children, refugees all, fleeing their conflicted homeland as the Taliban were taking control.  On an impulse, and without telling any of his family, Jamal bought eight plots of land in Kandahar, Saskatchewan, for himself, his wife, and his kids.  Ten years after that impulse purchase, Jamal takes his family on a trip to Canada’s Kandahar to let them in on the secret.

Their trip is chronicled by director Aisha Jamal, who not coincidentally is one of Jamal’s five children.  The whole family, including their parents, are urbanites to their core, so coming face to face with a dwindling prairie town approaching “ghost town” status is a huge adjustment.  But a far more problematic matter soon arises when Mr. Jamal comes up with the idea to use their land to memorialize the 158 Canadians who lost their lives in Afghanistan.  Judging from Mrs. Jamal’s shoulder-shrugging reaction, this is not the first such idea that Mr. Jamal has come up with, but his children are greatly shaken by the idea that their father wants to commemorate a force that invaded his homeland rather than the thousands and thousands of Afghans who’ve been killed in the conflict. 

It is fascinating to get an inside look at these discussions and disagreements between  a family that is clearly close-knit.  They have a lot of commonalities to larger issues in our society.  In particular, they give great insight into the refugee experience and the differences in attitude between an Afghan-Canadian and his Canadian children.  The elder Jamal seems afraid to voice any concern or raise any controversy over Canada’s military involvement in Afghanistan, while his children have no such qualms.  There’s something significant there about the importance and value of freedom of expression, as well as Canadian identity. 

Director Jamal handles these discussions brilliantly, letting both sides exist and allowing viewers to draw their own conclusions while the family drama, which would be sufficiently entertaining on its own, plays on.  It is a delicate balance to strike but Jamal successfully melds both aspects together to create a memorable and effective exploration of a very sensitive subject.

Inga Can Hear

Inga is the most complex of characters. Rife with contradictions and bursting with life, she is the teenage subject of a documentary.

A Latvian teenager, Inga has the distinction of being the only hearing member of an otherwise deaf family. Since she was a little girl, she has acted as interpreter between her mother, father, brother, and the world. This is not a job she asked for, and not one she particularly enjoys. But as she leaves childhood behind, she contemplates leaving her family in order to pursue her own dreams. The family won’t manage without her, but Inga won’t manage to flourish without leaving. In so many ways, she’s like any other teenager. She’s seeking an identity, a path all of her own. But unlike others her age, she’s got an enormous responsibility on her shoulders and she feels it keenly – a responsibility not just to her family, but to the deaf community in general.

Director Kaspars Goba has a compelling and unique story to tell with Inga Can Hear. Inga is gloriously real and unfiltered. She is stubborn, conflicted, dreamy, thoughtful, frustrated. Her complete lack of pretense guarantees the audience forms an almost immediate emotional bond with her. You’ll root for her, and you’ll be fascinated to find that a young woman so used to speaking for other actually has quite a lot to say for herself.

I love a documentary that can just drop me right into someone else’s life so completely. And Inga’s life is quite different from my own – superficially, at least. But teenage dreams are universal, and it’s easy to recognize that striving for independence while not quite being ready for it, the testing of the yoke to one’s parents, the micro (and macro) rebellions, the fluidity of identity and goals. It’s so great to be along for the ride, such a privilege when someone allows you so fully into their life. Her story breathes new life into your own.

Three Identical Strangers

This might be the only time I steer you away from the page, but if you haven’t seen Three Identical Strangers, it’s best to go in cold. May I suggest you read instead about Damien Chazelle’s Oscar-front-runner First Man or Lynne Ramsay’s disturbing 2011 movie, We Need To Talk About Kevin?

If you have seen the movie, however, I’m sure you’re half-mad with wanting to talk MV5BMTc0NWM3ZGItMzlmZC00NDRmLWJlZmUtMjkzZjNlYmNhYTc1XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzgxMzYzNjA@._V1_SY1000_SX675_AL_about it. It’s a documentary about two guys who discover, quite by accident, that they are twins, separated at birth. They were both adopted and had no idea they had a look-alike brother until mutual friends confused them when they both wound up at the same college, which is amazing enough. Their story goes national: it’s the feel-good story of the year, two 19 year old boys jubilantly reunited. And of the millions who catch sight of their front-page story is a third identical stranger. They are not twins, but triplets.

That feels like more than enough to have an engaging story, but in fact their story is only getting started, and it isn’t all as happy as their initial heady days together suggest.

This documentary is so well put-together that the intrigue stays with the film way beyond its first reveal. But this is not a piece of fiction. They’re real people who not only have their lives disrupted but find out they’ve been living with a painful absence. And then they find out worse things still. It drove me so crazy I was literally yelling at my TV (Three Identical Strangers has recently become available for rent).

I wrote recently about the above-mentioned We Need To Talk About Kevin, in which Lynne Ramsay gives us an awful lot to think about nature and nurture. Three Identical Strangers does it too in a way that’s utterly heart breaking. There are so many questions raised and injustices singled out and ethics breached that it’s aching, hard to catch your breath. But it’s must-watch material.



Eric is a Katrina survivor who has built a new life for himself and his son Tre in Oakland, California. From his own childhood, he knows all too well the importance of fathers and father figures, particularly in the lives of young African Americans. That’s not the only reason he’s a restorative justice warrior in a really rough high school, but it just might be the reason he’s so good at it. Restorative justice tries to understand the circumstances which contribute to crime. Its emphasis is on the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation. In terms of Eric’s work, his bottom line is to keep kids in school, to keep them from getting expelled, and maybe circles_2even graduate. He sees a lot of himself in his students, and even though the staff and school board often feel at odds with his work, he perseveres and fights hard for them.

But during the making of this documentary, Eric’s own son is arrested for a crime he didn’t commit. So you can imagine that Eric’s ethics and beliefs (not to mention patience) are tested, and his son is about to be his toughest case. That’s what so great about documentary film – sometimes the movie you set out to make ends up morphing into something else entirely. You couldn’t really have planned this if you tried, but over the course of two years, director Cassidy Friedman has incredible access to this collision between Eric’s personal and professional lives.

Eric’s work is in impoverished neighbourhoods. His students are largely people of colour, vulnerable, with unstable family situations. He’s fighting racial discrimination, the insidious, every day kind, even if that’s not explicitly stated. He connects to the kids because the tragedies of his own life are so similar, and he’s not shy to relate them. But when things disintegrate for his son, he starts to really question himself, his efficacy as a teacher and as a father.

What Circles becomes is a sad, honest, difficult portrait of a man who is desperate to be the father his own could never be.




Slut or Nut: The Diary of a Rape Trial

Mandi Gray was raped. She is one of the very rare few to speak up, to pursue criminal charges, to undergo a brutalizing justice system process that seems built for the benefit of perpetrators, not victims. I want to call Ms. Gray strong and courageous for doing so, but I don’t want to imply that women who do not are not. I think Ms. Gray knows better than anyone why women choose to stay silent, or are silenced, and this documentary puts us squarely in her shoes, so we can understand it too.

Only 3 of 1000 sex assaults result in conviction. Most go unreported because even in the era of #metoo, women are categorically not believed. But for the small percentage who do bring an accusation to the police, one fifth will be dismissed as MV5BNzJiY2ZmMWItOGI4My00ZGVlLTljOWMtZGZjNjZhZjBiNjUyXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzQ3MjI5NzM@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,658,1000_AL_“unfounded” which seems to be a fancy word for the police not believing her, which is hard not to take personally when ‘unfounded’ is used exponentially more often in sex assault cases than for any other crime. If you’re a woman of colour, disabled, or a sex worker, your word is all but meaningless. But if you’re one of the small sliver of people not dissuaded yet, you may find, as Gray did, that your body is now a crime scene. A rape kit is a must for conviction, yet there aren’t enough rape kit nurses to go around. You’ll have to offer yourself, body and soul, as evidence, because for some reason it’s your responsibility to help catch the rapist. But the fun doesn’t stop there: next you’ll be revictimized in court in a discouraging, dehumanizing procedure that never grants any real justice because it’s the victim who seems to be on trial.

This is the reality in which we live, and there’s no dearth of documentaries, well-made, well-researched, passionate, rally-cry, stoke-the-fire documentaries, that point out the inadequacies of this oppressive system. And yet we need another. And another. Because as often as women have said it before, it’s clearly still not sunk in. The system is broken.

Kelly Showker puts together a documentary that doesn’t just plead for social change and justice, it shows us quite plainly just how badly it’s needed. Ms. Gray could be your roommate or your sister or your friend. Stand beside her as she relives the worst night of her life, followed by the worst year. This documentary doesn’t preach, because it doesn’t need to. It shows you the callous reality of a rape trial, and watching it, there’s really only one conclusion you can draw. Seek out this documentary. Watch it, share it, talk about it. Change only happens when we unite, and a documentary such as this has the power to make advocates of us all.




This documentary screens as part of the Hot Docs film festival; this review was first published at Cinema Axis.





Cornered in Molenbeek

Few things are more ubiquitous than a group of old men chatting about life in a local barbershop.  Cornered in Molenbeek starts innocently enough as it drops us, seemingly randomly, into one of those barbershops.  Sure, the customers are speaking Arabic, but they are also speaking about things that I might talk about with my barber (sorry, stylist).

The shop closes for the day and then, in an instant, everything changes.  News breaks of a terrorist attack on Paris.  It’s November 13, 2015 and when the cornered_in_molenbeek_1dust settles, 130 people are dead and 413 more are injured in a series of coordinated attacks at a number of locations throughout the city.  The investigation quickly determines that the attackers are from Molenbeek, Brussels, the very neighbourhood where this barbershop is located.  Of course, the attack becomes the main topic of conversation here, just like it was everywhere else.

Not surprisingly, this barbershop collective has no real answers as to what made the attackers do what they did.  Because guess what?  I have no real answers either.  The lack of answers here is revealing, though, particularly as the collective’s attempt to find an explanation weaves through a wide variety of possible causes, often looking for someone or something to blame, such as government, poverty, and the attackers themselves, with one notable exception: these people do not try to place blame Muslims as a group for these attacks, because they are Muslims themselves.  Contrary to the torrent of right-wing nationalist propaganda that is so often shouted at me online by a host of faceless idiots (oh, and also by the President of the United States), this group of Muslim acquaintances in this barbershop are just as innocent, just as angry and just as confused about the attacks as the rest of the world, and maybe more so because their religious and geographical association with the attackers draws them personally into the aftermath, exposing them to significant consequences that most people don’t have to worry about.

The phenomenon of terrorism is worthy of examination, and it was a refreshing approach to do so through the familiar lens of this barbershop, which otherwise would be functionally closed to me as a uni-lingual white Canadian (Arabic and French are the only two languages being used in these conversations).  The film’s structure serves to enhance the fly-on-the-wall feeling by letting us experience the barbershop’s normal environment before the attack happens.  The stark contrast in what is being discussed before the attack as opposed to afterward clearly shows that these types of attacks affect everyone regardless of their religion or native language, and really, we all need to be involved in this discussion on terrorism in order to stop it.  Cornered in Molenbeek does its part to start the conversation, and it’s up to us to keep it going.