Hot Docs 2013: Censorship and Dissent

By | May 9, 2013 at 11:14 am | No comments | Blog | Tags: , , ,

This year marked the 20th anniversary of the internationally renowned Hot Docs documentary festival in Toronto, and PEN Canada was on hand to take in a few of the 400+ screenings that were held across the city over the past two weeks. With over 200 films presented covering a wide variety of subjects and themes, PEN zeroed in on a handful of films dealing with censorship and dissent. Having considered “art’s capacity to deliver social change” through the lens of Kim Longinotto’s Salma and Damon Vignale’s The Exhibition, below are recaps for four additional Hot Docs films that took up issues of free expression.

Art as a “hammer with which to change the world”

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer

Hot Docs

The Canadian premiere of Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer coincided with news that one of the feminist-punk group’s imprisoned members, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, had been denied early release by a Russian court. That solemn update – delivered to the audience by directors Maxim Pozdorovkin and Mike Lerner – could not dull the filmmakers’ fiery account of what they called the “most provocative piece of performance art in history.”

That now infamous “punk prayer” highlighting the fusion of church and state in Russia under Putin – a frantic and colourful performance by several mask-clad members of Pussy Riot in Moscow’s Christ the Cathedral Church on February 12, 2012 – resulted in grossly disproportionate two-year jail sentences for Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Ekaterina Samutsevich (for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”) and sparked a worldwide campaign in support of the group.

At the heart of Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer rages a battle between freedom of expression and deeply entrenched religious beliefs and nationalistic ideals. Eschewing a strong editorial tone, Pozdorovkin and Lerner allow Pussy Riot, their feverish supporters, and even their ardent critics, to carry the narrative as the “culture of protest” in Russia gets put to the test. The film captures moving defences from the three accused (positioning themselves as the “voice of the voiceless”) as they attempt to overturn what seems like a sad but inevitable outcome.

As the three young women receive their sentencing near the end of the film, a pro-Pussy Riot protester outside the courtroom is chased up a steel fence by a police officer. The end result of the encounter is not shown in the film. It makes for a fitting allegory about the future of free expression in Russia.

Samutsevich, 30, was granted early release in October 2012 based on having not actively participated in the Cathedral performance. Tolokonnikova, 23, and Alekhina, 24, continue to serve two-year sentences in separate Russian prisons. Pussy Riot are honorary members of PEN Canada.

Terms and Conditions May Apply

Hot Docs - censorship

Have you ever bothered to read the wall of text that precedes the option “I Agree” on web-based terms of agreements? If like for most people, your answer is no, it may actually be for the best, at least as far as your peace of mind is concerned. In Terms and Conditions May Apply, director Cullen Hoback approximates that it would take 180 hours a year to comb through the avalanche of privacy agreements inherent to using popular internet sites like Google, Facebook, and YouTube. That turns out to be one of the least chilling discoveries in the film

Despite the inclusion of interspersed animated shorts and humorous pop culture references, Terms and Conditions is a downright scary look into the death of personal privacy as we know it, an illustration of a post-9/11 climate rife with secret surveillance. Hoback sheds light on how many major corporations continue to shell out users’ personal information to advertisers – for big dollars – and perhaps more dangerously, to governments and government agents (in one memorable scene, a satirical CIA director calls Facebook a “dream come true”).

Addressing the issue of why people should care that information is being gathered on them based on their Google searches, e-mails, and social media activity, Terms and Conditions highlights the ability of governments to use this information to prevent public protest, stifle whistleblowing and dissent, and create an environment of self-censorship. Or as one of the experts interviewed in the film puts it: “You don’t have anything to hide until you do.”

The Convict Patient

Hot Docs - censorship

Described by director Alejandro Solar Luna as an illustration of journalism’s capacity to change history, The Convict Patient tracks the horrifying story of “Don” Carlos Castañeda de la Fuente, one of the few “disappeared” political prisoners in Mexico to have their cases declassified.

Inspired by a piece on Don Carlos published in a Mexican newspaper, and with the help of human rights lawyer Norma Ibanez, Solar digs deep into the secret torture and wrongful 23-year psychiatric imprisonment of Castañeda from 1970-83 – the result of his failed assassination attempt on then-Mexican President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz in 1968.

Literature and religion get mixed in with Castañeda’s motive – a wish to avenge the victims of the Tlatelolco Massacre (October 1968) – while issues of impunity and access to information come to the forefront as Don Carlos’ detainment record is initially nowhere to be found. As well as being a damning account of the disproportionate punishment suffered by Castañeda, The Convict Patient illuminates the extent to which oppressive governments can push its citizens to the edge.

The Great North Korean Picture Show

Hot Docs - censorship

Shining a light on a much-discussed, highly secretive part of the world, The Great North Korean Picture Show takes us behind the walls of the country’s only film school to document a fascinating overlapping of arts and politics. As might be expected, the late Kim Jong-il (a notorious film buff) casts an inescapable and omnipresent figure, his presence permeating every corner of arts and culture in the country (even the student production at the core of the film is a thinly-veiled bit of propaganda exalting the virtues of the North Korean socialist health care system).

Though the film’s subjects express an unyielding devotion to the “eternal general secretary” that can be described as nothing less than cult-like – history is re-written, dissent seemingly unthinkable – a human rights documentary confirming Western preconceptions this is not. They risk lingering on the mundane, but in following the lives of two North Korean film school students, directors James Leong and Lynn Lee offer up heartening stories that provide a semblance of familiarity to a country that through the mainstream media has only ever seemed distant and cold.

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