Egypt-?born Canadian Tahani Rached really knows how to choose her subjects.[rssbreak]
Her themes are fascinating, too, but it's the people in her documentaries that are so appealing - charismatic, funny, infinitely watchable, whether they're living on the streets in an Egyptian city, running a restaurant for cash-?strapped marginals in Montreal or just watching their neighbourhood change drastically.
Rached's early work has spectacular energy. Typical of her strategy is the opening shot of These Girls (May 7, 3:45 pm, Cumberland 3. Rating: NNNN. See review, Hot Docs supplement, page 6), about young homeless women surviving in Cairo. One of them is joyously riding a horse down the main drag. Right from the start, you know you want to spend more time with her and her gang of friends.
Au Chic Resto Pop (May 6, 4:30 pm, Cumberland 2. Rating: NNNN) has the same exhilarating drive, this time tracking a team of intrepid activists running an eatery for poverty-?stricken Montrealers. The menu is concocted from food store seconds and unused items from restaurants.
Resto Pop is the name of the eatery, but "Pop" also refers to the songs written by team members and clients, mostly rap - impressive, given that the movie was made in 1983 - expertly arranged by Resto Pop's three skilled musicians. Yes, this is a musical, and a superb one.
Rached's 2009 film Neighbors (May 7, 9:30 pm, Isabel Bader; May 8 4:45 pm, ROM. Rating: NNN) has a different, more contemplative vibe. It sets out to convey the vast changes in Cairo's grand sector known as Garden City.
Here, the city's most spectacular dwellings used to be the homes of Cairo's intellectual and ruling-?class elites. But after changes like Gamal Nasser's socialism and, later, the construction of the new American Embassy, many of the opulent houses have crumbled, and the area's turned into what looks like a militarized zone.
Rached talks to the old guard, many of whom speak English and French instead of Arabic and complain about so many women wearing veils. Shop owners weigh in on how their stores are no longer accessible due to the intense security presence, and the working poor describe the challenges of just making a living.
Neighbors is super-?savvy in its subtleties. It's not necessarily nostalgic for Cairo's obviously elitist past - though fab excerpts from Egyptian feature films show the homes in their prime - but it's wary of the strictures of current Egyptian society.
This is a definite must-?see for fans of architecture, who'll love the way the cameras roam the properties as if they were ancient ruins.
I wish Rached had identified her interview subjects before the end credits. It would have helped us place them. Regardless, Neighbors is a great entry from a filmmaker fully deserving of Hot Docs' special focus.