HotDocs Film Festival – Day 3: City of Ghosts, Shiners

City of Ghosts (USA, 2016): Documentaries don’t get any timelier and pressing than director Matthew Heineman’s follow-up to Cartel Land. The filmmaker chronicles the struggle of a group of Syrians who, as a response to ISIS taking over their city, started the site called “Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently”, which would go on to win the Freedom of the Press Award.

Unless, let’s say, America’s citizen journalism (often an angry white guy with a blog and a lot of venom to spew), the RBSS journos risk their lives even outside Syria. The Islamic State has put a price to their heads and there is no shortage of fanatics willing to go hunting.

The footage is brutal and often hard to watch (the executions are horrifying and the indoctrination of children is plain sinister). The film excels at portraying the danger the reporters face and the value of the information they get out of the country. Anyone who wants to find out what’s at stake in Syria should look out for this doc.

4/5 prairie dogs. Odds are good for wide distribution.

Shiners (Canada, 2016): This terrific doc takes on a trade that exists around the globe -shoe shinning- and uses it to shed light on different cultures and the way this activity is perceived. The formula is simple: Five different cities, one or two shiners per town.

In New York and Toronto, shoe-shinning is a hipster trend, a craft practiced by people who find the occupation soothing. In Tokio, it’s a science: The main practitioner has learned everything there is to know about leather and delivers footgear that looks better than new. In Sarajevo, it’s a matter of pride: A shoe shiner’s father never stopped working, even in the midst of war, and the son wants to honor him by continuing the tradition. In La Paz, there is shame involved, to the point shiners must wear masks to avoid recognition and possible discrimination.

The film is both illuminating and touching. Every subject has a compelling story to tell, even the clients. One only wishes a sixth city could have been included so the film could beat the ninety-minute mark. 3.5/5 prairie dogs. 

Author: Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Journalist, film critic, documentary filmmaker, and sometimes nice guy. Member of the Vancouver Film Critics Circle. Like horror flicks, long walks on the beach and candlelight dinners. Allergic to cats.