25th anniversaries are ripe occasions for nostalgia and good feelings. It’s a long enough time for people to reminisce happily about past triumphs and the odd failure. And it isn’t so far in the past that most of main characters aren’t still alive and prospering.
So it is with Hot Docs, Canada’s largest and most influential documentary festival. Its founders, Paul Jay and Debbie Nightingale aren’t part of Toronto’s doc scene but both are doing well, Jay as the CEO of a progressive journalistic website in the US called The Real News and Nightingale as a farmer and raiser of barnyard animals. In their place came Chris McDonald, who greatly increased the public perception of the festival and organized a team, which expanded the international scope of the programming and created a trade forum that made Hot Docs a global funding event.
The key member of McDonald’s team proved to be Brett Hendrie, now the executive director of Hot Docs. (McDonald is currently the president). Hendrie has organized a superb team, who are growing the festival while the whole staff of Hot Docs is rising to the challenge of owning the Hot Docs Ted Rogers (formerly Bloor) Cinema. (As TIFF has learned with Bell Lightbox, operating theatres on a daily basis can prove to be a difficult experience requiring different expertise than running a festival.) Some of that team—and you always miss wonderful people when citing individuals—are: Shane Smith, an intelligent and affable director of programming; Alex Rogalski, a well informed and judicious senior Canadian programmer (and his own team); Alan Black, a funny, innovative director of operations; and Elizabeth Radshaw, a highly respected Industry Programs Director.
The stats demonstrating Hot Docs’ growth are imposing. Audiences at Hot Docs have grown from 7,000 to 215,000 in 25 years. Always ambitious, Hot Docs’s team has come up with innovations over the decades. Doc Soup, their monthly screening series, which began with approximately 50 subscribers, has increased in membership to over 1,000. The Docs in Schools program, an idea long considered by the organization, has grown from simply having some high schoolers attend free screenings at the festival to hosting over 100,000 students in screenings across Ontario in 2017. The festival has given back to the documentary community, first through the Trade Forum, which has always featured proposals for new doc projects from Canada as well as the rest of the world, and in recent years has worked with broadcasters and investors to help raise millions of dollars to fund nearly 200 Canadian docs.
As for the prestige of the festival, it now attracts approximately 3000 feature length doc submissions in a year. When I was Hot Docs’ first international programmer, I remember to my astonishment when we reached 500 submissions; it was 2003. Things have grown since then.
So what has Hot Docs in store for the public in its anniversary year?
Let’s start with an appropriately titled film to start the festival: Heat. What could be a hotter doc? Maya Gallus, the sophisticated stylish director of Heat has created a feminist film that couldn’t be friendlier to all viewers. It’s all about female celebrity chefs and the wonderful recipes they create. If the fact that these acclaimed kitchens aren’t running at a manic speed with lots of swearing and shouting leads you to a conclusion that perhaps female chefs aren’t as crazy as the males, that’s a decision which is up to you.
Gallus was the subject of last year’s “Focus,” Hot Docs’ polite way of titling its Canadian retrospective. Some of her diverse women-empowered films were shown and her reputation received a rightly earned boost. For 2018, John Walker has followed her; like Gallus, he is more than deserving of the “Focus.” Walker, who started his career as a teenaged photographer, has always made superbly visual films. Like doc legend Allan King, Walker is an auteur who makes films about important subjects that are not so coincidently quite personal. A high school musician, Walker’s A Drummer’s Dream shows how people from all cultures can relate far better with each other when they play music. Strand: Under a Dark Cloth is the best bio-pic of the legendary documentary photographer Paul Stand, who was Walker’s inspiration as a young photo artist. Passage, in my opinion his best film, takes on the tragedy and folly of the famous Franklin Expedition—the last attempt to find the Northwest Passage to Asia—in a wonderfully complex narrative arc that encompasses documentary and drama.
Barbara Kopple, the twice Oscar-winner for Harlan County, USA and American Dream is the recipient of Hot Docs’ mid-career “Outstanding Achievement Award.” Like Walker, Kopple will be on hand to introduce and talk about her Academy Award winners and other remarkable docs by a filmmaker who has supported humanist concerns for more than 40 years.
Kopple and Gallus aren’t the only women highlighted at this year’s Hot Docs. Fully half of the films at the festival are directed by women. A series, Silence Breakers, features female directors making films about women dealing with sexual abuse (Slut or Nut; Roll, Red, Roll; Primas), the continuing AIDS crisis (Nothing Without Us), harassment on the Internet (Netizens) and the effect of Ms. Magazine on women now—and back in the ‘70s (Yours in Sisterhood).
A new crop of Canadian docs is being shown front and centre, as always. Besides Heat, films having their premieres include Samara Chadwick’s personal tale of suicide among teenagers in small town New Brunswick 1999, Jean-Francois Caissy’s beautifully shot study of young Canadian military recruits First Stripes, the gorgeous wilderness film This Mountain Life, a truly spiritual look at Buddhists A Little Wisdom and a compassionate set of profiles of people who have changed genders — Transformer.
There’s so much more in the various international sections of Hot Docs’ program. Bisbee ’17 recreates a traumatic moment in US history, when striking workers in a small Wild West town were forcibly placed on a train by the local powers-that-be and literally driven out of town. The Distant Barking of Dogs is a modern verité classic, which depicts a grandmother and two grandchildren struggling to survive in the current Ukrainian civil war. Laila at the Bridge (a Canadian-Afghani co-production) profiles a courageous, tough-minded woman who is fighting to save some of the shockingly vast numbers of Afghanis who are addicted to heroin.
Hot Docs, like TIFF and every other major festival, is filled with too many films for anyone to see over 10 days. Not every film is a masterpiece but it’s a documentary festival, which means that you’ll learn something from every film you see.
There’s no point in urging people to attend Hot Docs. Torontonians and many international guests flock to it every year. I know that I’ll be there to watch extraordinary (and merely good) documentaries show on silver screens. Happy Silver Anniversary, Hot Docs!
Hot Docs runs April 26 to May 6. Please visit hotdocs.ca for more info.