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Left: Barbara Bell and Anna Lorentzon, Graphic Sexual Horror, 2009, still from a color film, 84 minutes. Right: Peter Greenaway, Rembrandt's J'Accuse, 2008, color film in HD, 86 minutes. Production still. Photo: Victor Arnolds.

THE STARTLING AND OFTEN HARROWING STORIES of writer Paul Auster, ex-CIA assassin Dannion Brinkley, and others whose lives have been radically altered by close encounters with lightning strikes make for a suitably charged opening for the largest nonfiction-film festival in North America.

Act of God (2009), Jennifer Baichwal’s follow-up to Manufactured Landscapes (2006)—her meditative portrait of photographer Edward Burtynsky—is the first Canadian film ever to open Hot Docs, the seventeen-year-old documentary festival. A thematically ambitious and visually arresting rumination on the vagaries of fate, the possibility of divine intervention, and the electric systems that exist all around (and inside) us, Baichwal’s latest launches the festival on an adventurous note that the other notable selections have no trouble sustaining.

In fact, provocative new works are not hard to find in this year’s program. Among the films making their North American premieres is Episode 3: Enjoy Poverty (2008), actually the second in a planned trilogy of films by Dutch artist Renzo Martens and a blunt and often gallingly insensitive critique of attitudes surrounding African aid. As he travels through the most desperate parts of the Congo with a neon sign bearing the titular phrase, Martens presents himself as the ugliest of ugly Europeans. But through his outrageous actions—which included instructing Congolese photographers how to take their own pictures of starving children, thereby preventing Western photojournalists from getting all the business—he scores some damning points about the commodification of Africa’s woes.

A companion piece to the 2007 feature Nightwatching, Peter Greenaway’s Rembrandt’s J’Accuse (2008) courts a more genteel variety of controversy. At the invitation of the Rijksmuseum, the British director and Amsterdam resident delves deep inside the frame of Rembrandt’s most famous painting and believes he has discovered murder most foul. The director argues that the subversive old master used The Night Watch as an opportunity to publicize the nefarious doings of the seemingly respectable Dutch burghers who commissioned the militia painting. Viewers are invited to weigh the evidence in this highly stimulating and formally playful blend of art history and conspiracy theory.

Even so, no centuries-old cover-up could ever have the shock value of the endeavors of the photographer and filmmaker known as PD. Anna Lorentzon and Barbara Bell’s all too aptly named Graphic Sexual Horror (2009) examines the history and wares of insex.com, a website that PD created to cater to those who shared his extreme tastes in bondage and sadomasochism. His former models recount their experiences on camera, expressing varying degrees of awareness and discomfort about the power dynamics that inevitably complicated the supposedly “safe” context of the sex play.

With its explicit depictions of caning, hanging, and even drowning, Lorentzon and Bell’s film far exceeds the usual limits of cinematic representations of sex. But with its frank, savvy, and intelligent approach, Graphic Sexual Horror also avoids the sensationalistic tendencies of so many lesser provocations.

The Hot Docs festival runs April 30 to May 10 in Toronto. For more details, click here.

Jason Anderson