Hot Docs ends with a bang and a laugh in “Khrushchev Does America,” a straightforward historical doc about a very odd event that has been all-but-forgotten. Before the future of the world rested on a razor blade, before Kennedy, and before the Cold War started as we understand it today, Nikita Khrushchev took a two-week vacation … in the United States. This visit took place just a few short years after the reign of Stalin, and a few short years before the Cuban Missile Crisis. Narrated and chock-full of incredible news footage, this is a documentary that’s easy to follow, and a fascinating memoir.
If you’re like me, just hearing the name “Khrushchev” evokes images of a madman, anxiously yelling into a phone with a finger above a big red button that could end the world. Famously misquoted as saying “We will bury you” in the general direction of the west in the mid 1950s, there is no doubt that the Soviet Premier was despised, feared, and mythologized by the average American and the propagandists who wished him ill. He was Communism personified, and he was the enemy. So what the heck was Nikita thinking when he arrived on U.S. soil looking for good food, good company, and an all expenses paid trip to Disneyland? With that spirit in mind, “Khrushchev Does America” goes beyond history and humour and enters a realm of wonderment.
To start with, there’s the man himself. The Premier is contrary to how many might perceive him to be, and the exceptional collection of American and Russian footage used in this film illustrates it clearly. Instead of the stern and stoic villain of Eastern Europe, Khrushchev is a jolly, plump man who likes show tunes and engaging in rollicking rounds of wit with his hosts. He was hot-tempered at times, and you risked his wrath if you condescended to him, but generally he was a good-spirited fellow, even in the chilliest of receptions.
And chilly is exactly how the beginning of his 1959 tour started out. With the official welcome going smoothly, the scenes of his cavalcade driving through New York City with thousands of silent onlookers in the wings is both haunting and bafflingly funny. Later moments chronicle an onstage war of words with the Mayor of Los Angeles, a media circus following him into the cornfields of Iowa, and an irate Khrushchev learning of his cancelled trip to the Magic Kingdom.
The real dramatic arc in this doc is how America falls in love with the tubby Russian the longer he stays and with each city he tours. The visit is credited as the first real wall-to-wall media story in the States, and for a population newly subjected to the world of television, not only does Khrushchev become a news story, he becomes a celebrity.
Years later, Kennedy and Khrushchev would face the possibility of World War III, but during the waning days of Eisenhower, for 14 days, Nikita Khrushchev was a beloved fascination in America, and it is a story well worth telling. For Russian/Canadian Director Tim Toidze, “Khrushchev Does America” is a triumph because it shines light on a forgotten chapter of history.
TIFF Bell Lightbox 4, Sun. May 4, 9:45 p.m.
Gallery | Hot Docs 2014: 10 Picks You’ll Enjoy
- ‘Love Hotel’
In Japan, small living spaces, long work hours and the need for privacy drive 2.8 million citizens to visit so-called “love hotels.” But the vice police are on them, and despite high demand, they’re being shut down because of certain unsavoury activities. This doc is a trip through this taboo subculture.
- ‘Advanced Style’
Just look at the picture. Who wouldn’t enjoy watching these women? “Advanced Style” follows seven unique, eclectic New Yorkers who defy the process of aging by thinking — and dressing — young.
Barely any of us give it a second thought, but how many times in the recent past have you called a hotline for advice, hook-ups, therapy, or anything else? This fascinating doc looks at the evolving world of hotlines, and how humans will seek out real-life contact — via phone — if all else fails in their lives.
- ‘Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story’
That is a lot of hummus. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Watch as a married couple tries to go for months only eating food discarded in waste bins. You’ll be absolutely shocked by what happens.
- ‘The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest’
Imagine being kept in prison not for any specific crime, but only because you keep trying to escape (and keep on succeeding)? Meet Mark DeFriest, who interprets his attempts to escape as comedy. If only the prison officials saw it the same way, instead of as an affront. This story is one-of-a-kind, and will make you question your thoughts on prison.
- ‘The Case Against 8’
I’m not ashamed to say I was teary-eyed by the end of this doc about Proposition 8, the attempt by a group in California to nullify gay marriages. The main message of this doc is love is love, even if it’s between two members of the same sex. Really moving stuff.
- ‘Love & Engineering’
The brilliant engineers in this documentary are eager to find love, and many of them have never had a girlfriend. They go on a journey filled with algorithms and formulas to capture the perfect woman’s heart, but it turns out love is far more than just numbers and probabilities.
- ‘Meet The Patels’
There are literally millions of Patels in the world. You probably know a couple if you live in a metropolitan area. This documentary about the worldwide Patel family is eye-opening, and the lengths Patels will go to to keep their last name alive is definitely a sight to behold.
- ‘Out of Mind, Out of Sight’
While definitely unsettling, this look at mentally ill criminal offenders is a must-see for those interested in the endless debate of prison vs. rehabilitation. We follow different “criminals” as they navigate their way through the system, but some have been stuck in a sort of limbo for years.
- ‘The Immortalists’
These two men are on the hunt for immortality, and believe they’re well on their way to getting there. But as this doc goes on, the questions become: should we even bother trying to live forever? Do we want to?
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