Each year, the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival looms larger and larger in this city’s cultural calendar. Hot Docs is a prominent player in the development of the Bloor Street Cultural Corridor, which extends from The Royal Ontario Museum, where the festival holds screenings and it opening night party to the now iconic Bloor Hot Docs cinema, its permanent home. Of course, Hot Docs is much bigger than that; screenings take place until May 3 at the four main cinemas at TIFF Bell Lightbox, in three of the Scotiabank theatres; and around University of Toronto at the Isabel Bader Theatre, Hart House and Innis College.
Those of us born in the analog age must be shaking their heads, remembering when documentaries were associated with slow days at school when films like the NFB’s How to Build an Igloo were shown on 16mm Bell & Howell projectors. Now, docs couldn’t be more fashionable: fodder for clever talk at parties and the smartest and most reliable part of the indie cinema scene. After all, with docs you’ll at least learn something while too many low-budget fiction films are just moronic exercises in style, with no substance at all.
There’s no particular theme at Hot Docs this year so I’m unofficially offering one: Laughter, tears, music and the future.
There’s a lot of laughter in a special programme, “Show Me the Funny,” which features films that document three very different ‘70s comedy sensations: Saturday Night Live (Live from New York!), National Lampoon magazine (Drunk, Stoned, Brilliant, Dead: the Story of the National Lampoon) and the titular Monty Python: The Meaning of Live. While those films recapitulate past successes and some still-very-funny comedy routines, Tig pushes for more with a portrayal of a contemporary and very edgy comic who has coped with cancer, her mother’s death and difficult love relationships.
Tears? Most docs have them. Let’s concentrate on the oeuvre of this year’s Outstanding Achievement Award Retrospective, Patricio Guzman. The South American filmmaker made his international reputation in the 1970s with The Battle of Chile, his epic trilogy about the fall of the socialist regime of Salvador Allende and the rise of the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Though Guzman escaped death, which claimed tens of thousands of his comrades, he experienced decades of exile. His films remain fixated on the dark days preceding the first 9/11, in 1973, when Allende and his dream of a socialist democracy died.
It is to the credit of Guzman that his most recent documentary Nostalgia for the Light mixes the realization that thousands of the filmmaker’s deceased friends are buried under the sands of Chile’s Atacama Desert with the knowledge that great observatories are located there, where the sky is clear and the stars brighter than nearly anywhere else in the world. The Desert, where many previous civilizations are also buried is the perfect metaphor for a contemplation of the meaning of life in our part of the cosmos.
Music? There are three docs that are easily recommendable: Mavis, a portrait of the great soul and gospel vocalist, Mavis Staples; What Happened, Miss Simone?, Liz Garbus’s poetic look at the great singer, pianist, feminist and black activist Nina Simone, and Dutch auteur Heddy Honigmann’s Around the World in 50 Concerts, which covers the global tour of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in celebration of its 125 year anniversary.
And what about the future? Canadian artist Katerina Cizek’s performance and launch of HIGHRISE: Universe Within Live will mix talk, images and images to look at the lives of highrise dwellers around the world. Is it a doc? Sure—and lots more.