Friday, April 26, 2013

Hot Docs Review: Chi

Canadian actress Babz Chula has faced many challenges in her life, but none as difficult as her six year battle with cancer. After being inspired by a cancer survivor, who had been cancer free for three years, Chula travels to Kerala, India to undergo a renowned ayurvedic treatment. Inviting long time friend and filmmaker, Anne Wheeler, to accompany her on the trip, Chula is convinced that she will return completely cancer free. Her confidence is quickly tested when she realizes that the Indian clinic is not the sophisticated facility she was anticipating.

Still feeling ill from her chemotherapy treatments, Chula finds it difficult to adapt to both Kerala and the ayurvedic treatment at first. She begins to wonder if her decision to embark on this journey was a mistake. This causes Chula to take an introspective look at not only her life, but also the increasing possibility of death. Over the course of six weeks, she and Wheeler learn a lot about themselves, Indian medicine, and the power of the human spirit. By the end of the trip Anne sees significant improvements in Chula’s health and overall demeanor. However, when the pair return home Chula learns that the cancer has spread and she only has weeks to live.

Proving that she knows how to convey authentic human emotion in dramas such as Better Than Chocolate and Suddenly Naked, Anne Wheeler returns to her documentary roots with Chi. At the beginning of the film Wheeler states that she wanted to create an old school documentary where she would follow the story down whatever path it took. In this regards, Wheeler more than achieves her goal. What starts off as a quest for a cure ultimately evolves into a tale about mortality and family. Chula’s story will surely hit home with many people who have had to witness a loved one battle cancer. Chula’s family and her relationships with them remain at the forefront of her thoughts, especially her own missteps as a mother.


Though Chula’s confrontation and acceptance of her mortality is a key part of Chi, it must be noted that Wheeler does a good job of providing context to several aspects of the ayurvedic treatment. The film not only touches on how medical cures have been passed down through generations, but also shows footage of the ayurvedic treatment in practice. The spiritual side to the mind and body balance, that the ayurvedic treatment strives for, offers a nice juxtaposition with the “godless hippies” that Chula and Wheeler consider themselves to be.

While an effective film, Chi is not without its flaws. The most noticeable being the fact that Wheeler’s constant narration becomes a bit of a distraction. She rarely allows for the images and quiet moments on screen to truly resonate with the audience. Some of the film’s most honest and vulnerable moments come from Chula’s video diary segments and not Wheeler’s narration. Another issue is that in an era where documentary storytelling has grown leaps and bounds, Chi feels a tad too conventional in its execution.

Despite the lack of overall flare, it is Chula’s spirit through the process that will stick with viewers. Chi is a film that is not so much about a cure, but the journey. It is a reminder of how limited our time on Earth really is, and how important it is to have those we care about around us when the end is near.

Screenings (with Mary & Myself):

Saturday, April 27 8:00 PM
TIFF Bell Lightbox 3

Monday, April 29 11:00 AM
Isabel Bader Theatre

Saturday, May 4 1:00 PM
TIFF Bell Lightbox 3

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