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The 12th Annual Hot Docs Film Festival

Directed by Dana Adam Shapiro and Henry Alex Rubin

Murderball is a fascinating, thoroughly engaging doc revolving around a group of handicapped athletes and their participation in "murderball" - a sport that's essentially football on wheels (tackling is encouraged, as players ram their chairs into each other). But more than that, the film provides a surprisingly intimate look at the day-to-day life of a quadriplegic (which includes everything from mobility issues to problems dealing with the opposite sex). Filmmakers Dana Adam Shapiro and Henry Alex Rubin introduce us to several of these people - including Mark Zupan (a fierce member of team USA) and Joe Soares (a former team USA player who defected to Canada after being cut) - and as a result, it's impossible not to get wrapped up in their individual stories (which are fascinating, in a fly-on-the-wall sort of way). Add to that the newfound rivalry between USA and Canada (culminating in a showdown at last year's Paralympic Games), and you've got a film that's as gripping as some of the best sports-themed movies (if not more so).

out of

Abel Raises Cain
Directed by Jenny Abel and Jeff Hockett

Abel Raises Cain documents the life and career of Alan Abel, a professional "hoaxster" whose penchant for pulling silly (yet believable) pranks has gained him a certain amount of notoriety over the years. Abel's objective is to expose the media's willingness to air pretty much anything as long as it's salacious enough, something he accomplishes by concocting pranks that are exceedingly ridiculous (ie the formation of the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals, an organization whose sole purpose is to clothe animals). Abel Raises Cain has been co-directed by Abel's daughter, Jenny, and while it's clear she has an obvious affection for her father, the filmmaker doesn't shy away from exposing some of the less flattering aspects of his life (ie the loss of his home). Abel Raises Cain is a fun, easy-going documentary that doesn't offer any earth-shattering revelations, focusing instead on the various hoaxes perpetrated by Abel throughout his career (and as a result, the movie would be perfect as a double-feature with The Yes Men).

out of

The Education of Shelby Knox
Directed by Rose Rosenblatt and Marion Lipschutz

The Education of Shelby Knox is an eye-opening, occasionally infuriating documentary revolving around 15-year-old Shelby Knox, a Texas-based teenager who embarks on a mission to bring sex education to area high schools after learning that pregnancy and STD rates among her peers is at an all-time high (the school board's policy is to promote abstinence as the only form of safe sex). The Education of Shelby Knox follows the young woman through three years of her high school life, slowly revealing her to be one of the few rational people in this small town (even her parents are somewhat opposed to her mission). It's hard to know just how unbiased the film is, as it presents Lubbock as an extremely backward, small-minded community - a place where citizen's lives are completely dominated by religion. At any rate, The Education of Shelby Knox is engaging and intriguing, and Knox herself makes for a compelling heroine (she even manages to sum up the entire movie with an apt piece of voice-over towards the end; "some of these people never get their head out of the bible to see the real world.")

out of

Beneath the Stars
Directed by Titti Johnson and Helgi Felixson

Beneath the Stars is a pointless, irritating documentary detailing the rise and fall of South Africa's Popstars (an international variation on American Idol) winner, Frieda Darvel. We watch as Darvel - a young woman who has spent most of her life homeless and addicted to drugs - slips back into her less-than-savory routines, a process that's accelerated by a visit to her old haunts. Filmmakers Titti Johnson and Helgi Felixson imbue Beneath the Stars with a pretentious, overly showy sense of style, refusing to just step back and allow Darvel's story to unfold. This is exacerbated by the fact that Darvel just isn't interesting; it's hard to muster up a whole lot of sympathy for someone who receives the kind of opportunities that Darvel does and summarily allows them to fade away.

out of

Grizzly Man
Directed by Werner Herzog

Grizzly Man is an insightful, often fascinating look at the life of Timothy Treadwell, an animal-rights activist and environmentalist who - along with his girlfriend - was mauled to death by a grizzly bear in 2001. Grizzly Man's been directed by Werner Herzog, and it's clear almost immediately that the filmmaker isn't looking to craft a traditional documentary. Though the film features interviews with Treadwell's family and friends, the bulk of Grizzly Man's screentime is devoted to footage shot by Treadwell himself (he left behind over 100 hours for Herzog to sift through) - resulting in a film that works as both an examination of Treadwell's zealousness and a surprisingly intimate nature documentary.

out of

© David Nusair