Features

The Hottest of Hot Docs

Recalling some of the finest films—and moments—from the festival’s first 25 years

Clockwise from top: Grizzly Man, A Place Called Chiapas, Ravel’s Brain, Startup.com, The Apology, Hitman Hart
Courtesy Lionsgate Films / Canada Wild Productions / Bullfrog Films, PHI Films / NFB


In honour of Hot Docs’ 25th anniversary, the POV team picks some of the highlight films and events from the festival so far.

Allan King, Lifetime Achievement Award, 1998

During the 60s, when documentaries finally started to achieve international success as feature films, Allan King was the only Canadian to hit the new pantheon of filmmakers, which included Albert & David Maysles, Richard Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker and Frederick Wiseman. His actuality drama Warrendale (1967), about emotionally disturbed children confronting their fears in a North Toronto psychology centre, went from being banned by the CBC for offensive language to winning a major prize at Cannes and the praise of legendary director Jean Renoir, who called King “a great artist.” King went from moody adolescents to narcissistic but loving adults in the highly successful A Married Couple (1969). After years working in drama, King returned to docs in the late 90s, just in time for his retrospective. His late masterpieces Dying at Grace (2003) and Memory for Max, Claire, Ida and Company (2005) were to follow. —Marc Glassman (MG)

Albert and David Maysles, Lifetime Achievement Award, 1999

“Documentaries are the answer to the greatest need: for people to know who they are, where they are and, by knowing things as they are, to know what to keep and what to change.”
—Albert Maysles, 2001 (in an interview with Marc Glassman)

Avoiding interviews, dramatic reenactments and voiceover narration, Albert and David Maysles created sharp, distinctive films that showed the dramatic—and true— lives of their subjects. Grey Gardens (1974), Salesman (1968) and Gimme Shelter (1971) allow viewers to discover the veracity of characters and situations without any didactic instructions. A cameraman first and then a director, Albert Maysles always believed in “the gaze.” He said, “There’s a way of looking at people that conveys your trust in them. In return, you will get their trust.” That trust is the essence of cinema verité—and the heart of the Maysles’ work. —MG

Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows, 1999

In the late 90s, when the rivalry between World Wrestling Federation (WWF) and World Championship Wrestling (WCW) drew record-setting audiences on specialty channels, the Calgary wrestler Bret “Hitman” Hart inspired a bidding war between the two organizations. Paul Jay, the founder of Hot Docs and one of the liveliest documentarians of the period, filmed Hart at this critical juncture. Ted Turner’s WCW was baiting Hart by waving him a huge contract while the wrestler tried to stay loyal to Vince McMahon, the charismatic but duplicitous head of WWF. Jay captured the ferocity and comedy of wrestling as performed by Hart even during the infamous “Montreal screwjob” in which McMahon betrayed the “Hitman,” exposing the sport for what it is: venal, cheap and incredibly watchable. —MG

Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows, Paul Jay, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

A Place Called Chiapas,1999

Nettie Wild redefined “guerrilla filmmaking” while documenting land struggles between Mexican ranchers and Zapatistas. Members of her crew endured threats throughout the volatile shoot, and the urgency resonated in the film, particularly because Subcomandante Marcos, the Zapatista leader, was very likely going to appear before Wild’s cameras. Wild performed a firm handshake between art and politics, navigating a charged minefield of content to convey a remarkably lucid portrait of a complicated situation. Wild’s sympathetic yet objective film showed that conflict is not one-sided and found greater drama in the duelling perspectives. Chiapas shared the Hot Docs award for Best Feature Documentary and Wild scored Best Director before going on to win the Genie for Best Documentary Feature. —Pat Mullen (PM)

Ravel’s Brain, 2001

Ravel’s Brain revisits the last days of the Bolero composer as he consented to undergo a risky—and ultimately fatal—operation for a debilitating brain ailment that impeded his communication skills, including his ability to transcribe the music he still heard in his head. Enamored of Ravel since his teenage years, Larry Weinstein’s profound empathy pervades this startlingly stylized meditation upon the composer’s torturous plight. Weinstein mixes documentary, recreation, medical history, eccentric conceits (Ravel’s surgeon sings his diagnosis in the manner of grand opera) and poetic visual metaphors in a truly singular fashion to create a brilliant tribute to Ravel. —MG


Ravel's Brain Clip 1 from Larry Weinstein on Vimeo.

Startup.com, 2001

The internet, computer culture and what were then called dot-com companies captured the public’s attention in the early oughts. Chris Hegedus, D.A. Pennebaker’s partner, and then-newcomer Jehane Noujaim joined forces to create a verité look at a dot-com company, govWorks.com, from its inception to its bitter downturn. No great verité project works without intimate access and that was provided by Noujaim, who was a great friend of Kaliel Isaza Tuzman, one of the two principals—along with Tom Herman—in the organization. As so many companies did at that time, govWorks.com quickly went from a two-man operation to one employing 250. At that point, things began to crash and the company’s board started to pit the two partners, who had been best friends since childhood, against each other. Startup.com is dated, but it’s a clear-eyed look at what early digital companies had to face. It remains a marvelous mixture of economics and ethics. —MG

Grizzly Man, 2005

Werner Herzog found his spirit animal in American journeyman Timothy Treadwell. The subject of Herzog’s 2005 Hot Docs hit ventured to Alaska to live with the grizzly bears until one tragically ate him. Herzog explored the video diaries that Treadwell left behind and ruminated upon his subject’s troubled psyche in meditative voiceovers about a universe in which the common denominator is “chaos, hostility, and murder.” Grizzly Man achieved a haunting poetry for Herzog and solidified his eccentric genius for generations of Internet memes to come. —PM

The Cove and Waterlife, 2009

Toronto audiences proved their merits as awards prognosticators when The Cove won the Audience Award at Hot Docs before netting the Academy Award. Louie Psihoyos’s riveting eco-thriller about activist Ric O’Barry’s covert mission to document the dolphin slaughter in Taiji, Japan offered images too powerful to ignore. While The Cove topped Hot Docs and won the Oscar, there was a better eco-doc at the festival that year: Kevin McMahon’s Waterlife. This exquisitely shot film, narrated by Gord Downie, considered the effects of human activity on Canada’s Great Lakes. Summoning the life force of water and the currents that ripple around the country, McMahon’s film offered a call to action close to home. —PM

Waterlife, Kevin McMahon, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

The Apology and Angry Inuk, 2016

A change was in the air at Hot Docs 2016 with the introduction of several new voices. Tiffany Hsiung delivered one of the best films ever to come out of the NFB with The Apology, which moved audiences with its story of three Korean “grandmothers” seeking acknowledgement from the Japanese government for years of sexual abuse. Alethea Arnaquq-Baril’s passionate Angry Inuk, also from the NFB, won the Audience Award by stirring viewers with an Inuk’s perspective on seal hunting—which was to endorse it and defy Greenpeace’s attempts to stop it. Both films greatly helped Hot Docs up its street cred while proving that a major festival could achieve gender parity, showcase diverse voices and raise the bar for excellence. —PM

The Apology, Tiffany Hsiung, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

O.J.: Made in America, 2016

Ezra Edelman’s seven-and-a-half-hour marathon brought binge-watching to Hot Docs. This all-encompassing examination of the O.J. Simpson murder was true-crime in its finest form. Edelman made America stand trial alongside The Juice as he situated the case and Simpson’s persona within the nation’s violent history of racism. O.J. later divided cinephiles as it bamboozled awards season with an aggressively well-played campaign that argued a doc with clear chapters, ESPN credits and an episodic broadcast release still deserved the Oscar. Whether one considers O.J. great cinema or great television, the jury must agree: it’s one hell of a doc. —PM

Stay tuned to our POV Hot Docs hub for more coverage from this year’s festival!