Hot Docs 2016: It’s Awesome

Christina Clark and Émilie Gelinas in conversation in a scene from John Walker’s Quebec My Country Mon Pays
Courtesy of Hot Docs

By Marc Glassman

It’s awesome. Who doesn’t hate the word now that teenagers everywhere have mangled its meaning into nothingness? Being awesome meant that you inspired “fear and wonder,” according to Webster’s dictionary. But why rely on an American when we have the Brits to help us? According to the Oxford, awesome is “daunting; inspiring great admiration, apprehension and fear.”

OK—what’s awesome, in the old-fashioned sense, when you think of Toronto film festivals? TIFF, to be sure, but what about Hot Docs? And, indeed, what about great docs? Can they inspire “fear and admiration”? I’d say so. It’s probably too late to revive the word “awesome” in our lifetimes, but let’s try to restore its power for a few moments while contemplating this year’s Hot Docs festival.

The most impressive thing about Hot Docs is that the festival’s organisers, Chris McDonald and Brett Hendrie along with such creative programmers as Shane Smith, Sarafina DiFelice and Lynne Fernie (among many others), have succeeded in turning an oxymoron into reality. A couple of decades ago, the majority of people “knew” that documentaries were boring, although they might convey relevant information. Now, the apparent contradiction has been turned upside down and miraculously come into rude health: documentaries, repurposed as “docs,” have indeed become “hot.”

Look at the lineups over the next ten days at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, the Isabel Bader Theatre, TIFF Bell Lightbox and the other 10 venues that host the festival. Last year, the attendance at Hot Docs was over 200,000 and it’s more than likely that more people will come to this year’s screenings. These aren’t idle filmgoers: many are enthusiasts who believe that docs are lively, innovative and formally brilliant while—yes—conveying information that is even more important today, when newspapers, magazines and TV journalism are in decline.

This year’s festival offers a “Big Ideas” series, which not only shows important films but also brings on stage people who contextualise the issues presented in the docs. Afghani educator Razia Jan, featured in What Tomorrow Brings, has founded the first school for girls in a village in Afghanistan; after the screening, she’ll be on hand to discuss her work with the film’s director Beth Murphy. In a more pop-cultural vein, TV motivational speaker Tony Robbins will discuss his self-help philosophy with director Joe Berlinger after Tony Robbins: I am not your Guru is shown. Perhaps the best film in the series is The Apology, a mesmerizing film about Korean “comfort women” who were enslaved sexually by the Japanese military during World War Two. A representative from the Korean council advocating for an apology that still hasn’t happened after 70 years will talk with the film’s director about this extraordinary search for justice, which has been denied for so many decades.

Excitement in a far different way is provided through the new series DOCX. It’s a special programme that takes film out of its box and places it in different contexts: as interactive installations, virtual reality experiences and 360 degree videos and as screenings that also encompass live performances. Heady stuff—but genuinely interesting. Two of the pieces in this series, The World in Ten Blocks and Brothers in the Kitchen were first proposed and developed at Ryerson University’s Documentary Media programme, where I have taught for a number of years. I can recommend them unreservedly.

Cyrus Sundar-Singh’s Brothers in the Kitchen is a media piece, which incorporates a theatrical performance set in a fictitious restaurant, animated by chefs who talk about their lives in Canada after arriving here as Tamil refugees. Archival footage of the dramatic arrival of the “boat people” off the coast of Newfoundland in the late ‘80s offers a context for this important exploration of immigrant culture.

A similar theme animates The World in Ten Blocks, an interactive piece by Robinder Uppal and Marc Serpa Francoeur. This media arts duo spent many months getting to know shop and restaurant owners in the Bloorcourt Village of Toronto’s Bloor Street West. In classic doc style, they won the trust of the people and then shot revealing footage about what it’s like to adjust to Toronto after coming here from a wide variety of backgrounds. Set up as a new media piece, this installation allows viewers a chance to “walk” through an area of Bloor Street and get to know some of its most colourful inhabitants.

This is a great year for the Canadian Spectrum, Hot Docs signal series featuring films from here. There is a plethora worthy of viewing: Min Sook Lee’s wonderfully humanist Migrant Dreams, Brett Story’s incisive The Prison in Twelve Landscapes, Ali Kazimi’s archival Random Acts of Legacy, Alethea Arnaquq-Baril’s sure to be controversial Angry Inuk —-and so many more.

I’ll concentrate on three: Kevin McMahon’s Spaceship Earth (technically in the Special Presentations programme), Nettie Wild’s Koneline: our land beautiful and John Walker’s Quebec My Country Mon Pays. McMahon, Wild and Walker are three of our finest veteran filmmakers, who should be better recognised for their on-going contributions to this country’s cultural life. They’re fearless artists, who aren’t afraid to take on political and social issues but in their new works, all are offering a somewhat softer, arguably humanist approach to their subjects.

McMahon, a tough, well-spoken “green” advocate has adopted a philosophical attitude towards his favourite topic: survival in this deteriorating environment. Taking off from Buckminister Fuller’s old adage that we’re all members of “spaceship earth,” McMahon digs deep, exposing the continuing exploitation of our resources, but he also offers more hope than in the past—giving examples of people and communities who are starting to create sustainable local cultures, which could benefit our children in many ways.

Wild, too, has moved away from the confrontational style that made her films like Blockade and A Rustling of Leaves so successful. With Koneline: our land beautiful, she adopts an attitude that is reminiscent of Jean Renoir’s saying, that “everyone has their reasons.” She spends time with the exciting characters of Northern British Columbia, both new settlers and the Tahltan people, whose land it always has been. Issues of the exploitation of the land for mining purposes are raised but Wild allows members of both sides to express themselves. The film, gorgeously shot by Van Royko, is a poetic exploration of one of the most beautiful areas in the world. And that, she seems to be saying, is enough.

Finally, John Walker’s film is a cri de coeur by an Anglo, who left but has never stopped loving Quebec. In this, his most personal film, Walker returns to his “pays,” his country, and spends time talking to filmmakers Denys Arcand and Jacques Godbout, young women—both French and English—who are trying to negotiate life in Quebec and members of his own family, who chose to stay in Montreal. The film is wonderfully passionate about Walker’s desire to return mixed with his understanding that he’ll never fit into the new Quebecois reality. What’s best about this moving film is Walker’s philosophic acceptance: he isn’t angry, just sorry that he can no longer live where he was born.

There are many other films at Hot Docs that will inspire fear and wonder in audiences over the next 10 days. And that’s awesome.

Please visit the POV Hot Docs hub for more coverage on this year’s festival.

Hot Docs runs April 28 – May 8. Visit for more information.