In this dispatch of Hot Docs 2022 reviews, we’re tackling three films about loss. And whether it’s loss of innocence, family, or freedom, they all share a desire to dive into the past to understand it and try to build a better future. Furthermore, all three use the documentary form in bold and creative ways. Let’s talk about Jason Loftus’ Rogers Audience Award winner Eternal Spring, Reed Harkness’ Sam Now, and Jasmin Mara López’s Silent Beauty.
Despite emphasizing meditation and moral virtues, the Falun Gong religious movement was banned in China in 1999, after which thousands of followers were prosecuted, incarcerated, or killed. Rebelling against this prohibition and trying to counter the government’s use of the media to demonize Falun Gong, a brave group of practitioners hijacked a TV station in Changchun city in 2002 to try to spread the truth about their beliefs.
Twenty years later after the incident, director Jason Loftus uses the animation medium to try to tell the story of the hijack with the help of comic book artist and Falun Gong practitioner Daxiong (Star Wars Adventures, Justice League of America), who fled from China before the prosecution worsened.
The gorgeous comic book-style animation used in Eternal Spring is based on the art of Daxiong himself, who talks with survivors of the daring mission to reconstruct the events using his astonishing artistry. It’s quite impressive seeing Daxiong smoothly drawing people while witnesses describe them. But unlike recent animated docs like Flee and More Than I Remember, Eternal Spring mixes its many animation segments with real-life interviews and footage, which gives an interesting level of emotion to the story.
Although the amount of information and subjects can be slightly overwhelming, and the uneven editing doesn’t allow the non-linear structure to fully work in its first half, Eternal Spring splendidly communicates the incredible bravery of the people involved in the hijacking as well as the pain of oppression and exile. This is a powerful documentary that reconstructs and brings to light harrowing and little-known memories of trauma, imprisonment, torture, and murder to highlight the importance of freedom and empower those that fight to obtain it.
Sam Now is a beautiful and brilliant use of non-fiction where director Reed Harkness tells the story of his beloved half-brother Sam as he deals with the disappearance of his mother Joyce during his teenage years.
For years, Harkness had been using his Super-8 camera to create amusing little films where Sam would take the role of masked hero Blue Panther (using the mask of the real-life legendary Mexican luchador) to save the world. After Joyce leaves without leaving a hint behind, this luchador alter-ego is then transformed into a conduit to portray Sam’s search for his estranged mother. Thus, using a life’s worth of home footage, great creativity, and smart editing, Harkness presents how Blue Panther set out to answer questions such as: Where is Joyce? Why did she go without saying a word? How are Sam and his brothers dealing with her sudden absence?
The film shines because of its light, thoughtful and compassionate approach to its subjects. There’s some intrigue behind the disappearance of Joyce, but rather than making a sensationalist film out of it, Harkness focuses on exploring the feelings of his half-brother and how the event shook his entire life. The mystery is solved quite quickly, but its effects linger long after the fact and the director keeps on shooting. The documentary doesn’t just show Sam’s teenage life, but his adulthood too. This is a decades-long study.
Sam Now is a road movie, a coming-of-age, a healing journey, and a complex portrait of abandonment. It’s also a moving ode to the power of brotherhood and, in many ways, an exhibition of how a filmmaker evolves through the years.
Jasmin Mara López’s feature film debut is one of immense beauty, pain, and bravery. It’s her journey as a sexual abuse survivor told through home footage, poetic imagery, and a powerful voiceover by the director herself.
It’s a photo of her grandfather carrying her niece that urges López to speak out about her abuse at the hands of the family’s patriarch. Thus, the film explores the psychological response of her family, the ways in which the abuser (who is also a Baptist minister) uses power dynamics to control the victims, and how damaging the trauma is to them. Her experiences are accompanied by those of fellow family members and victims of the grandfather.
López superbly balances the tone of the film. Despite the harrowing theme and the upsetting revelations awaiting you at every corner, its execution is calm and poetic. Every conversation with a family member is brimming with understanding and, due to remarkable editing and use of music, the film is never overwhelming. For instance, Gil Talmi’s score is deeply melancholic but also subtle and relaxing, which adds to the empathy that López is trying to communicate.
While tackling sexual abuse within a family, Silent Beauty studies how the community and the state react to the problem. As we hear Jasmin’s mother talking about her fear of the neighborhood finding out, how a cousin dealt with trauma, and a story related to deportation, the film makes clear how difficult it is for the family to understand and support an occurrence such as this, and how the state prefers to get rid of the problem, instead of finding a true solution to it.
Silent Beauty is a cathartic film that reaches out to survivors to comfort and empathize with them. It’s courageous filmmaking used to understand how trauma destroys a person to try to heal and cut the circle of generational trauma.
Eternal Spring, Sam Now, and Silent Beauty screened at Hot Docs 2022.