Torn from the headlines! Docs reviewed: Active Measures, The Cleaners, The Blue Wall, Blowin’ Up at #HotDocs

Posted in Clash of Cultures, Conspiracy Theory, Corruption, documentary, Donald Trump, Politics, Racism, Sex Trade, Women by on April 27, 2018

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Hot Docs is one of the worlds biggest international documentary film festivals, and this year is its 25th anniversary. Over 200 movies are playing this week– this year featuring docs made in Mexico, along with new movies and festival favourites from the past 25 years.

I love all movies but documentaries have a special appeal: their immediacy, with the newness of the nightly news or online investigative journalism, combined with the grandeur of the camerawork you see on the big screen. And their independence – they’re usually made not by studios or huge media conglomerates but by indie directors – allow it to go places where mainstream movies don’t dare to tread.

This week I’m looking at Hot Docs documentaries torn from the headlines. There’s malfeasance in Moscow, chicanery in Chicago, questioning in Queens, and manipulation in Manila.

Active Measures

Dir: Jack Bryan

Since the wave of Russian immigration to the US in the late 70s, organized crime and soviet spies have had a strong but hidden presence in US finance, real estate and politics. At the head of it all is Vladimir Putin, and the puppet kept under his control through blackmail is Donald Trump. …or so says a new documentary that traces connections dating back 40 years among the various power brokers. This includes money laundering, insider trading, computer hacking and cyber attacks. All of which culminated in Trumps election.

While the film provides lots of historical evidence, it’s told in a style reminiscent of Cold War propaganda, suggesting there’s a Russian hiding behind every potted palm. Parts of it – like banking and real estate schemes, and Russian interference in Estonia and Georgia — seem totally believable; while others — like blaming Russia for Cambridge Analytica — are wild jumps worthy of the worst Glenn Beck conspiracy theory. The talking heads used in the film are, with few exceptions, “experts” who once worked for the CIA or FBI, pundits from conservative think tanks, and centre-right politicians. It is also monolithic in its beliefs, not even entertaining any alternate arguments. You’ll find no dissenting voices here.

Active Measures gives you a lot to think about, but most of its conclusions are still unproven.

  • To read director Jack Bryan’s response to this review, see comments, below.

The Cleaners

Dir: Hans Block, Moritz Riesewieck

After the recent revelations about Facebook, with fake news and targeted ads aimed at user profiles, many people are wondering who decides what goes up there and what gets takes down? And are these famous algorithtms doing their jobs? But what people don’t know is there are already people, actual humans, not machines who review what gets censored on the web, on search engines and on social networking sites. It takes us to an office highrise in Manila in the Philippines, where subcontractors review and decide on tens of thousands of images each day. For example, why did Facebook take down a nude painting of Donald Trump with a small penis that artist Illma Gore posted? It was taken down by this office.

The film exposes how these judges judge what they see, and the highly subjective reasoning behind their choices. It also shows how the constant viewing of degrading and disgusting images effects these men and women. The Cleaners is a real eye opener.

The Blue Wall

Dir: Richard Rowley

In 2014, Jason van Dyke shot and killed an unarmed seventeen year old, Laquan Mcdonald, in front of witnesses on a Chicago street. 16 times in the back of a man walking away from him. The killing was captured on numerous CCTV sources, in police cars and at a nearby fast food restaurant. You might assume the killer was immediately arrested and put on trial… but you’d be wrong. McDonald was African American, and van Dyke is a white police officer. This meant that shortly after the killing, police spokesmen swooped in to frame the narrative the way they wanted the media to cover it. It worked.

This film follows the cover up, the investigative journalist who tried to change the narrative, and the various parties involved in the case… a trail which reached the very top of Chicago’s city hall, and the municipal elections in progress when the story broke. This is a thrilling documentary that examines in depth the legendary “thin blue line” (here called a blue wall) of police brotherhood and the coverups and corruption it spawns. Great documentary.

Blowin’ Up

Dir: Stephahie Wang-Breal

Queens is a magnet for migrants from all around the world, many of whom turn to sex work to make a living. But when the police raid a massage parlour they arrest way more prostitutes than johns or pimps. And for immigrants, especially undocumented ones, an arrest means jail which means police record wand eventual deportation. But an unusual courtroom in Queens — run by women — is trying to disrupt that pattern. Judge Toko Serita, and lawyers on both the prosecution and defence side, along with translators, NGOs, social workers and the centre for court innovation are working together for once.

Their goal? To let sex workers leave the courtroom with their records swept clean if they stay out of trouble. Blowin’ Up (a slang term meaning leaving your pimp) is a verité, in-person look at how that courtroom works, as well as the private lives of a few of the subjects.

Blowin’ Up is fascinating and informative.

Active Measures, The Cleaners, The Blue Wall, and Blowin’ up are all playing at Hot Docs on from now until Sunday May 6, with daytime screenings free for students and seniors.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website,

One Response

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  1. Jack Bryan said, on June 22, 2018 at 4:26 pm

    to the author by the director of Active Measures. While I appreciate the generally positive review I believe you also wrote some assertions that are demonstrably false. I would like it very much if upon hearing my reasoning that you would retract those items from the piece on grounds they are inacurate. I think your readers and those of us who made this film deserve an reliable account of the movie you saw. You say the film is “told in a style reminiscent of cold war propaganda” This is false. Flatly. Cold war propaganda’s “style” is to have a narrator reading from a script. Any jerk can read from a script or write one. We use zero voice over. Every piece of information is spoken by an expert in their field being interviewed. This is intentionally the opposite of “propaganda style”. I would be surprised if you could point at any one of the interview subjects as not credible. If you think this is just a technicality try writing an article using only quotes from experts you interviewed without any description or commentary and see if it’s even possible for you to turn that into propaganda style. Propagandists use a “voice of god” technique also used by reviewers and news casters. We made sure to stay away from that for the very reason that we didn’t want to inject our own positions or ask the audience to just believe us without using supporting evidence. Second because we are independent and selling the film to a big distributor we had to go through an intensive legal review where every statement in the film had to be supported for us to get defamation insurance. I personally had to assemble about 40 pages of addition research to defend each and every point we made in the film and in the end every statement was deemed insurable against a defamation claim, because they were all true. There are in fact more inaccuracies in your short review of the film than in the film itself. You claim the films suggests “there’s a russian behind every plotted plant”. which is untrue even as metaphor. The former director of Central Intelligence does point out in an interview that there are thousands of Russian spies in America now, and we have a former FBI agent talking about how there are so many that they can’t track them all, but that is hardly controversial. While I think it’s inaccurate your statement could be, in all fairness, chocked up to an opinion regarding the tone of the film, but your next statement could not. You say we are “blaming Russia for Cambridge Analytica.” That is false. What we do is point out that if you trace the ownership of Cambridge Analytica’s parent company SCL Group you can find ties to Dimtro Firtash, the pro putin oligarch/criminal who was Paul Manafort’s patron in Ukraine. That is simply true. Much of this story has been widely reported. This article gets to the heart of the matter pretty quick: While you use this as an example of us engaging in wild conspiracy theory in truth if you had done any research you would have found there’s abundant evidence to suggest a greater connection than we present in the film. Frequently we found when there were three or four connections between Putanist Russians and the campaign, but we only have time to present one or two. We don’t even get into the fact that there were several layers of communication between Cambridge Analytica and Wikileaks, which was acting as a Russian cut out. Some of that has since been reported. furthermore. In fact when asked about connections between Cambridge Analytica and Russian trolls in congressional testimony Mark Zuckerber said, “We’re investigating that now. We believe that it is entirely possible that there will be a connection there,” In addition Robert Mueller’s team is now investigating Cambridge Analytica in their investigation of Russian interference. The sad thing is you could have cleared this up with a google search. A small amount of research would have prevented your untrue and damaging assertions. We were incredibly careful with our research as we feel a responsibility behind making accusations. You seem not to feel such a responsibility. You accuse me of “wild jumps worthy of the worst Glenn Beck conspiracy theory” and to support it you misrepresent our position and did nothing to research your claim. This misrepresentation is unfair to your readers as well as those of us who worked so hard to make this film accurate. If reviewers like yourself cannot tell the difference between Glenn Beck garbage and an intensely researched film there will be fewer incentives for filmmakers to do the level of research we committed ourselves to. I’m happy other outlets such The Hollywood Reporter and The Toronto Star have noted how extensive our research really was. I hope upon reflection you will understand that your comments are damaging and false and will retract them from the article. Thank you for your time and for the positive comments. As a journalist who seems to put a strong emphasis on truth telling, as is commendable, I hope you will do the right and truthful thing here. – Jack Bryan


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