From top: Manufacturing Constent (Zeitgeist Films), Grey Gardens (Janus Films), Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows (NFB), Project Nim (Photo by Harry Benson), The World Before Her (KinoSmith), Act of God (Alex Hermant), Won't You Be My Neighbor? (Focus Features)

30 for 30: A Brief History of Hot Docs Highlights

Some of the many names and titles that defined the first 30 years of Hot Docs

47 mins read

As we mark the 30th anniversary of Hot Docs’ founding, three members of the POV team look back on 30 highlights from previous festivals.


30 Years After: Ten Memories

By Marc Glassman


30 years ago, I was working part-time at the National Film Board (NFB) and full-time at my bookshop, Pages. During the summer, I was programming films at Harbourfront Centre’s musical festivals, which included Jazz, Blues, Indian and WOMAD (World of Music, Art and Dance), and in the spring, I was the chair of the board of the avant-garde Images Festival. And I was writing and broadcasting on film and literature. Which is why I was desperate to work at Hot Docs as soon as it began. No idle hands here.

I’ve been besotted by documentaries since my years at McGill, where I was taught by John Grierson, the inventor of the term “documentary” for non-fiction films back in the 1920s and the creator of the NFB. In the ‘80s, I worked as a programmer and organizer for the Grierson Seminar, which brought academics, critics and film librarians together with documentarians on a week-long journey filled with debates, disjuncture and discoveries. When it failed, the NFB and the CBC tried to fill the gap with a professional set of discussions and screenings called What’s Up Doc. Neither program addressed the elephant in the room: where is the public?

To be fair, the initial version of Hot Docs only partially took the audience into account. Paul Jay, then a major figure in Canadian documentary and one of the heads of the Canadian Independent Film Caucus (now DOC—Documentary Organization of Canada) and his essential administrator Debbie Nightingale, wanted to make a festival that would energize their own community and attract broadcasters and bureaucrats to fund more docs. Initially, all of the films were programmed by juries and the vast majority of screenings were held in hotels. But, festivals being festivals, the idea of bringing in a few international films for the public to see in theatres, began to take root.

That’s where I came in. With the organization’s blessing and accompanied by a duo of advisors, TVO’s then-head of programming Rudy Buttignol and international sales agent Jan Rofekamp of Films Transit, I began to select some extraordinary “foreign” docs every year. When Chris McDonald took over from Paul Jay, the organization became more professional but through 2005, I remained as a key programmer. It was an extraordinary experience, one which I greatly enjoyed. I got to travel to other festivals, most notably to IDFA (International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam) and met countless documentarians, programmers and writers. By the time I left Hot Docs, I was the editor of POV and especially in the years when I taught at TMU (then Ryerson), have been an advocate for the documentary form ever since.

Here’s my haphazard ten of Hot Docs experiences, which involve filmmakers more than films.

Al Maysles

The man whose hand-held traveling shot of Presidential hopeful John F. Kennedy energetically walking up a flight of stairs onto the stage to address a rapt public in the 1960 documentary Primary is legendary, Al Maysles was ever-present at Hot Docs in the early 2000s. I organized a retrospective of his works, which included the cult classic Grey Gardens starring the eccentric mother-daughter duo of Big and Little Edie, New England royalty related to Jackie Kennedy, whose once-glorious mansion had become invaded by raccoons by the time Al and his brother David came to make a film about them. Although always genial, Al was fierce when people criticized him for exploiting the Edies. “We loved them,” he said, with a firmness based on rock-solid belief. I will always recall Al dancing with a group of acolytes, mainly female, at a closing night Hot Docs party, one hand clutching a camera, the other high in the air.

Ricky Leacock

Few people keep the nickname Ricky into their dotage but the spirited filmmaker who started his career with Robert Flaherty, worked on projects with Marcel Duchamp, Norman Mailer and Jean-Luc Godard, taught at MIT and ended up creating a multi-media autobiography could certainly be called the Peter Pan of documentary. Another Peter Pan, Canada’s own Mr. Wintonick, was especially enamoured of Leacock’s camerawork on Jazz Dance, a frenetic almost punkish visualization of a swinging music party in the mid-50s. Hot Docs brought him in and I was lucky to be asked to entertain him and his partner Valerie Lalonde along with some youthful documentarians one afternoon. I brought him to the Spoke Club where we looked at DVDs of choice bits of his work accompanied by his rambling, hilarious commentaries. An occasion to be treasured.

Frederick Wiseman

You’re never too old to be schooled. By the time I met Fred Wiseman, I had interviewed hundreds of people for radio and print and live in cinemas and clubs. I thought I knew what to do but the aptly named director took me down a few pegs in front of a Hot Docs audience waiting for his screening. My questions were too obvious, too easy for such a brilliant filmmaker. He batted them back at me, making me work to properly interrogate him about his reasons for being such a strict researcher and verité cineaste. I’d forgotten that he was trained as a lawyer and knew how to prompt the right answers from people. Years later, I conducted a career-length interview with him for video. Before we started the interview, I began to introduce myself. He looked at me, smiled, and said, “I know you.”

D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus

When I was programming for Hot Docs, I went to Sundance at a time when the festival was struggling with its sudden fame but still had a beguiling innocence about it. Documentaries were a key element of the festival’s success and we even had our own building to meet and talk about films. The hit in 2001 was by Chris Hegedus (Pennebaker’s partner) and Jehane Noujaim, two strong-willed women, investigating what happened when the initial Internet boom went bust because of high expectations and—big surprise—silly capitalist excesses. I was able to meet Hegedus and Noujaim and their producer, D.A. Pennebaker, and convince them to come to Hot Docs, a coup at the time. As much as I admired Hegedus and the brilliant Noujaim, I must admit to a geeky admiration for Pennebaker, the maker of the great Bob Dylan bio film Dont Look Back. We met several times over the years but I could never get Pennebaker to genuinely talk to me except for a brief moment when he realized that I enjoyed his short debut doc Daybreak Express, which featured the music of Duke Ellington. “So you like jazz,” he said to me, more than slightly surprised. I do—and am sorry we never really talked about the Duke or Dylan.

Nettie Wild

When I first met Nettie Wild at Hot Docs through our mutual friend Peter Wintonick, I was struck by her extraordinary clarity and political resolve. Pete had edited Nettie’s first feature A Rustling of Leaves about the civil war in the Philippines and followed that with the B.C. based Blockade about a land dispute between the Indigenous Gitskan and the white-based settlers. When I met Nettie years later at another Hot Docs and talked with her in depth, I realized that she was far more than a brilliant ideologue. Nettie talked about opera—her mother was a singer—and British history (her father was an English journalist) and swimming, which she engages in passionately. She was committed politically, as am I, but could be very funny. When she returned to the issues surrounding Blockade with the Hot Docs winning KONELINE: Our Land Beautiful, Nettie’s perspective was deeper, more inclusive. Seeing Nettie’s Uninterrupted, a gorgeous installation beneath the Cambie bridge, showing the aquatic lives of salmon, was a game-changer: she came out as an artist, embracing the world with compassion and an unencumbered view. Nettie Wild is a deserving winner of the Governor-General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts–and it all started with documentaries.

Jennifer Baichwal

You don’t have to be an intellectual to be a great documentary filmmaker but it doesn’t hurt. After all, most documentaries engage in a debate with the world, asking why inequities exist and showing why things should change. Jennifer Baichwal’s films, which she has made with her partner Nicholas de Pencier, have become more and more about the problems of the world, particularly involving the environment, but she didn’t start off that way. Her first major film, Let It Come Down, was a fascinating profile of the extraordinary writer and composer Paul Bowles, whose rebellion was based on sexuality and aesthetics, not politics. She wrestled with issues of representation in one of the finest films ever made about photography, The True Meaning of Pictures, before finally deciding to take on the world with all of its injustices. Working with fellow artists Margaret Atwood and Edward Burtynsky, Baichwal accompanied by de Pencier, has made such transformative docs as Manufactured Landscapes, Act of God, Watermark, and Anthropocene. It was my most pleasant task as a programmer to work on the Baichwal-de Pencier retrospective at Hot Docs in 2008. And may I ask: when will Jennifer Baichwal win the G-G?

Lindalee Tracey

Lindalee’s partner, the producer Peter Raymont, has made an award for her at Hot Docs, so her name will always be associated with the festival. I was sitting next to Lindalee, when she had a meltdown during a festival forum, which featured her former producer Dorothy Henaut. The two had worked on Not a Love Story, the most financially successful film of the ‘80s for the NFB, which dealt with pornography and its pernicious effects on women. Lindalee felt that she had been exploited by two women she trusted, Henaut and the director Bonnie Sherr Klein. As her life developed, Lindalee moved from being an exotic dancer to a radio journalist, and, quite quickly and very successfully, a writer and doc director. She questioned how she was represented in Not a Love Story—as a victim, in her estimation—and that made her very emotional. Tragically, before the immense questions around Not a Love Story could be resolved between the three, Lindalee died way too young. She deserves an award and it’s wonderful that her name will continue to be celebrated. Not for one moment do I feel that Klein or Henaut should be condemned, nor should my opinion be acceptable beyond that of a friend.

Wintopia, Mira Burt-Wintonick, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

Peter Wintonick

It always gives me pleasure to recall Pete, who dedicated his life to the doc community. He was a great film editor, a skill which helped to make Dan Cross’ The Street a hit when it first came out. (And where would we be without Eye Steel Film?) Manufacturing Consent, the great profile of Noam Chomsky and first major Hot Docs winner, was a superb collaboration with Mark Achbar, which showcased Pete’s great editing prowess and Mark’s sober and incisive storytelling skills. Pete moved on to become a mentor to many including the visionary thinker and director Katerina Cizek while offering his abilities to such festival organizers as Australia’s Heather Croall and Amsterdam’s IDFA founder Ally Derks. Pete’s life and utopian ideals have been feelingly depicted by his daughter Mira in the terrific documentary Wintopia. For me, there are way too many nights I can recall, walking rain swept streets in Amsterdam and maybe a few in Toronto, talking about politics and film and life with Pete. I’ve insisted that on POV’s masthead Pete’s name be listed as “guiding light.” That he will remain throughout my life.

Forbidden Love: The Unashamed Stories of Lesbian Lives, Aerlyn Weissman & Lynne Fernie, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

Lynne Fernie

Lynne was the consummate programmer for Hot Docs’ Canadian Spectrum as it developed over its first decade and more. She’s one of the most caring and simultaneously tough individuals I’ve ever met. The most difficult role in choosing the films for the Spectrum is telling filmmakers that their work hasn’t cut it. She did that with honesty and precision matched with compassion for many years. Lynne’s film with Aerlyn Weismann Forbidden Love: the Unashamed stories of Lesbian Lives was a huge hit and ground-breaking documentary. Her career as an artist, writer, editor and filmmaker made her absolutely qualified to handle her role at Hot Docs. For a long time, Lynne and I had lunches in which we talked about art, life and, of course, what was happening at Hot Docs. It may have brought back our days on Queen Street to us, a time when life was changing, we thought, for the better.

The Forum

It’s not a person but the Hot Docs Forum is a cathedral of dreams for individuals of any and all genders. The session is set up like Rome in ancient times, although the consequences aren’t as dreadful as those encountered by gladiators back then. Teams of aspiring filmmakers, usually a director, producer and broadcaster, are given time to pitch their idea to a table of tough-minded doc ‘casters. Usually included is a vigorous argument for the film by the director accompanied by an attractive film clip and a brief financial overview from a producer. The “jury” of broadcasters then ask tough questions or offer support and perhaps money. My favourite pitch is Offspring, an IDFA audience winner eventually, which told the gripping story of filmmaker Barry Stevens trying to figure out his parentage, having “outed” himself as a test tube baby in his Forum presentation and the subsequent doc. The other, and more recent Forum success, is Fire of Love, which featured archival footage by volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft in director Sara Dosa’s pitch and was beautifully realized in the film.



By Barri Cohen


Just out of graduate school and working for other filmmakers as a writer/researcher, I hopped into the Canadian Independent Film Caucus (now DOC) group as a way to immerse myself in documentaries, to learn and network. I ended up taking over from filmmaker Geoff Bowie the editing and the publishing of POV magazine. As luck would have it, I also became part of the founding board of volunteers who put together the Hot Docs Festival in late 1993.  The actual first festival event was the winter of 1994. So for me, this Hot Docs is the 29th festival, though the festival itself as an entity is indeed, 30 years old this year. Here then are my picks of memorable films, some of which I encountered when I was on some of the juries Hot Docs used to have before going to a curatorial system.  This list is not a “best of” (I hate those anyway), but films that have stayed with me for one reason or another.

Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media (Mark Achbar and the late Peter Wintonick, 1992)

I sat on the jury for the first Hot Docs in 1994 that awarded this remarkable film the best political/social documentary award. Until The Corporation, MC went on to become the biggest box office success for a Canadian doc in history. At over two and half hours, the film brilliantly solves a creative problem: How to turn a book and a series of lectures and an intellectual biography into a visually impressionistic and illustrative whip smart indictment of our news media landscape.

Culture Unplugged

Dad (Chris Triffo, 1998)

The most talked about film that never got programmed at Hot Docs, but which was repeatedly lauded from the Awards podium, and was the subject of at least one ethics panel (which I put together with the late film professor, Peter Harcourt). Triffo’s film is a searing and intimate portrait of his father’s descent into mental illness. The film made the social issues jury clutch its pearls over suspected consent issues, but the truth is, Triffo was ahead of his time in crafting a courageous and intimate portrait of the ravages of mental illness.

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

Hit Man Hart: Wresting with Shadows (Paul Jay, 1998)

This film won Hot Doc’s 1999 Best Canadian Documentary Award and what a wild ride that was. A totally immersive experience that traces the journeys of Bret “The Hitman” Hart during his last year in the WWF. I could care less about wrestling, but Jay’s effortless weaving of a sympathetic character and family story produced something mythic. The big backdrop for it all is the war of federations between the WWF and the WCW, and how this twists Hart into a conflict of loyalties that’s nail biting.

Hidden (Hanna Heilborn and David Aronowitsch, designed by Mats Johansson; 2003)

My first film at Hot Docs, Dove Days premiered in 2003 so I was thus put on the Best International Documentary jury, where I saw Hidden, the first fully animated documentary Hot Docs had ever programmed.  The sound is an interview with Giancarlo, a hidden refugee child in Sweden, and the images are fully and heartbreakingly animated. The film mainly stays in one room where the interview takes place – boom mic and all. It was so novel to us, that we recommended it for a special mention.

Supersize Me (Morgan Spurlock, 2004)

An obvious choice perhaps but I nearly walked out after the first ten minutes. I thought I’d stepped into a screening of a CNN magazine piece.  Its set up is a long, rapid-fire onslaught of graphics, heavy narration, news clips facts, figures all telescoping to a single point:  America has an obesity problem. And then he pivots. Instead of a standard survey of the good and evil actors in the mess, he lays down an unforgettable gauntlet. And then we’re hooked. With rare humour and a gonzo participant-researcher stance, Spurlock’s 30 day McDonald’s diet had a profound impact on the menus of fast food chains throughout North America.  You can’t tell me that McDonald’s sudden arrival of “salads” in 2005 had nothing to do with this documentary.

General Idea: Art, AIDS, and the fin de siècle (Annette Mangaard, 2008)

It’s not easy to tell a story about the 40-year history of one of the world’s foremost art collective, General Idea (Jorge Zontal, AA Bronson, and Felix Partz).  I think about this film often not just for sentimental Toronto reasons,  but for the sheer beauty and commanding coherence Mangaard (with AA’s voice over) forges out of a complex history of sexual politics, art installations and images — from the Toronto “summer of love” of  the group’s inception in 1969 to their own embodiment as glamourous, gay, campy,  irreverent “Art Stars” who famously appropriated Robert Indiana’s famous LOVE painting into the AIDS logo.

Beauty Is Embarrassing (Neal Berkeley, 2012)

Probably the best doc title ever.  This debut feature (produced by the legendary Morgan Neville (director of 20 Feet From Stardom), chronicles the life and times of the inspiring artist Wayne White. Never heard of him? Neither had I, but I love films that precisely take you into an utterly unknown world and life, and BIE does that in ways altogether stunning, beguiling and utterly enchanting.  The multi-talented painter, puppeteer and art director White, we discover, is the Emmy winning visionary behind the production design of Pee-wee’s Playhouse, the ground-breaking videos of Peter Gabriel’s in the 1980s,  and so very much more. Just writing about it makes me want to see it again.

The World Before Her (Nisha Pahuja, 2012)

In the interest of full disclosure, I admit Pahuja is a dear colleague of mine, but I rarely see her because she’s usually making films that take years to complete (like the recent seven-years-in-the-making, To Kill a Tiger).  With The World, Pahuja’s embedded style results in the kinds of connections to her storytellers that allow her to deeply explore with empathy the contradictory worlds young girls in India are forced to reside in. In The World, two young women participate in two very different kinds of indoctrination: one who aspires to become “Miss India”, and the other, who strives to become a girl warrior who nonetheless knows her place in the patriarchy for Hindu nationalism.

The Queen of Silence (Agneszka Swiefka, 2015)

I stumbled on this film from Poland, and forever after was reminded how protean the documentary form can be. It’s the story of Denisa, a 10-year-old Roma child who lives with her family in an illegal makeshift shelter camp on the outskirts of town. She has significant hearing loss and is non-verbal. She lives in her own world shaped by a love of the glamourous dances she finds in discarded Bollywood DVD’s.  The realities of the Roma in Poland are harsh, and the film doesn’t shirk from them.  At one moment Swiefka chronicles the efforts to get Denisa fitted with hearing aids, and the next, the gang of her friends break out into a Bollywood dance number.  It shouldn’t work, but it does – gloriously.

There’s No Place Like This Place, Anyplace (Lulu Wei, 2020)

A film about housing, shelter, poverty, and capitalism all in one very local yet universal personal and political story.  Cinematographer and debut director, Wei looks at the redevelopment of a much loved Toronto landmark (the “Honest Ed’s” block), and chronicles what happens to the community members (including themself and their partner),  who are displaced at a time of an historic housing crisis for Canada.   It’s beautifully shot, intimately observed and paced for reflection, fear and frankly, mourning – for what we lose and for an uncertain future. It was my favourite film of the first Hot Docs “at home” festivals during that first frightening COVID year of 2020. The tone of the moment and of the film perfectly comingled.


The 10 Ten Docs that Hooked Me Over the Years

By Pat Mullen


Sorry, Barri, but I love lists! My picks for Hot Docs highlights inevitably skew contemporary. Living in boring old Ottawa didn’t connect me with the festival until 2010, but each trip quickly exposed me to more stories and perspectives than any other festival. Like Marc and Barri, I’m looking back at Hot Docs’ 30th and/or 29th anniversary with some picks that might not be the “best” films that ever played Hot Docs, although most of these generally were the standout docs of their respective years. Rather, I’m looking back at the 10 films that  defined the festival experience for me. They had the strongest impact on me as a viewer, a writer, and a doc fan. Here’s to 30 or 29 more years! (Hopefully 30.)

Project Nim (James Marsh, 2011)

James Marsh had huge expectations to meet following his 2008 Oscar winner Man on Wire, and he delivered with Project Nim. Marsh’s film studies the story of Nim Chimpsky, who was the subject of an experiment in animal language acquisition at Columbia University. The archival material is obviously great, but Marsh’s hand with the interviews, shot with the same sense of motion that brought Man on Wire to life, is even better as participants from the study unpack the breakthroughs of their time with Nim. However, the conversation favours the philosophical as the interviewees confront their perceived right to test the line between humans and animals. Hot Docs consistently delivers with the chimp docs, but Project Nim is the top banana.

We Are Wisconsin (Amie Williams, 2012)

Everyone raves about The Square, but the best film to capture the Occupy movement in my books is We Are Wisconsin. Amie Williams’ doc electrified the crowd when I saw it at the Isabel Bader over a decade ago. It’s a film of the moment, for the moment, and it has a very rare electricity that sparks when a film truly captures the political winds of its time. The film observes a group of passionate individuals protesting Governor Scott Walker’s Wisconsin Reform Bill and the occupation of the Capitol. In this footage shot from the thick of the action, it observes a hunger for change and one story among a greater appetite rumbling across the globe. We Are Wisconsin is activist documentary at its best.

The Imposter (Bart Layton, 2012)

I think my jaw is still sore after hitting the floor so hard during The Imposter. Bart Layton’s true crime story is a doozy. The film tells the wild tale of an American family that healed the pain of a lost son by welcoming a stranger into their home. Neighbours recall raising their eyebrows when the Barclays told everyone that the man—a French/Algerian migrant in search of a better life—was their son even though he was visibly not. The film turns talking heads convention on its head as the stories told in the concentric rings of the affair ask the deeper questions, like why this family accepts such an obvious lie. The kindness of strangers has never been such an outrageous farce as it is in this masterfully entertaining whodunit.

15 Reasons to Live (Alan Zweig, 2013)

Who knew Toronto’s resident curmudgeon had such a big heart? Alan Zweig delivered what is, in my opinion, the standout work of his career with this deeply moving anthology film. Zweig drew inspiration from Ray Robertson’s essay Why Not? 15 Reasons to Live and offered vignettes of Toronto stories that explored life, love, heartache, and humanity. The film shows the very best in a documentary filmmaker who knows how to relate to people, how to talk to them, how to read them, and then share that experience so that viewers feel as if them know characters intimately in just a few moments. Few films have bowled me over with such emotion at Hot Docs.

Actress (Robert Greene, 2014)

One could take pretty much any film that Robert Greene screens at Hot Docs and give it a worthy place on this list. For me, Greene’s 2014 feature Actress remains maybe not the best of his films, but arguably the most interesting. On the heels of Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing and Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell, Actress was part of a new wave of hybrid cinema pushing documentary into new terrain. In this case, the film found truth in performance, offering a twist on the role that staged material plays in documentary. The film “stars” The Wire actor Brandy Burre as she tries to return to acting after pausing her career to start a family. Greene observes Burre with a mix of verité and staged interludes as the film gives Burre the meatiest part of her career: herself. She has yet to top it.

What Happened, Miss Simone? (Liz Garbus, 2015)

There’s a great moment in the Oscar-nominated What Happened, Miss Simone? in which the music icon pauses mid-performance and rips into a member of the audience. It encapsulates how the talented and turbulent Simone gets the multifaceted portrait she deserves thanks to the one and only Liz Garbus. The film builds on the titular question ‘What happened, Miss Simone?,’ which was first posed by Maya Angelou and appears as the film’s opening title card, by charting the performer’s quick rise to fame and subsequent fall from the top. The doc offers all the hits, particularly as it explores Simone’s outspoken and fearless role in the civil rights movement, and Garbus underscores the price that artists like Simone paid for speaking up. The film hits all the right notes and is an easy standout among the dozens, or seemingly hundreds, of music docs that have screened at Hot Docs in its 30 years.

The Apology (Tiffany Hsiung, 2016)

Perhaps one of the most impressive feature debuts I’ve seen at the festival, Tiffany Hsiung’s The Apology moved audiences to tears with its portrait of Korean “comfort women” seeking acknowledgement from the Japanese government for the harm committed against them during wartime. It’s amazing to think how much The Apology anticipated the conversation that would arrive a year-and-a-half later with #MeToo, and yet didn’t quite get the renewed appreciation it deserved. Hsiung’s film is an act of true empathy as it lets three “grandmothers”— Grandma Gil, Grandma Adela, and Grandma Ca—to share their stories about being forced into sexual slavery. There’s a great sense of catharsis as the women relieve themselves of their burdens, finding in Hsiung what they’ve long been seeking: someone willing to listen.

Step (Amanda Lipitz, 2017)

Amanda Lipitz’s Step is the definitive dance doc of the Black Lives Matter era. Step, a kind of stomp dancing infused with a rich history brought from Africa, provides an outlet for the girls at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women as they strive for their best as the first graduating class from their school. They infuse their dances with urgent messages drawing upon the Black Lives Matter movement and shootings of unarmed Black men in their neighbourhood, which gives Step an unexpected emotional wallop as one watches the girls succeed on the dancefloor and in the classroom. A dramatic remake is supposedly in the works, and a Broadway version would probably be grand.

Susanne Bartsch: On Top (Anthony & Alex, 2017)

As streamers became all the rage for documentaries, Hot Docs’ recent programming reflects a trend in documentary production and distribution. Recent years have brought a wave of “character” pieces, often favouring celebrity stories. While this trend obviously isn’t new—documentaries have always considered characters—it makes a critic’s job easy: Amid a sea of sameness, few docs stand out. One of the best character pieces I’ve seen at Hot Docs is the portrait of fashion icon and nightlife queen Susanne Bartsch: On Top. Directed by former partners Anthony & Alex, the doc harnesses the chicness and flamboyancy of its subject. Bartsch knows how to throw a ball, and the film is a riot. However, it’s also a shrewd snapshot of queer life across decades seen through the eyes of an ally who has seen it all as the centre of every party. It’s appropriately fabulous.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (Morgan Neville, 2018)

For all the talk about the social impact of documentaries, Won’t You Be My Neighbour? truly is the one film that can change the world. Too few documentaries present a problem to which audiences can easily take a first step towards enacting the solution. Neville’s doc asks us to take a lesson from TV’s favourite square, children’s entertainer/educator Fred Rogers, and simply treat our neighbours with the same respect we expect from them in return. Coming out early in Trump’s first and hopefully only Presidential term, the film is a quietly political study of TV icon. The footage is carefully selected to reflect a contrast with the leaders of today, most notably a droll snippet where the tyrannical puppet King Friday XIII builds a border wall around his kingdom. Neville’s deceptively simple analysis of Rogers’ career asks viewers what kind of world they want to create for others.

Honourable mentions: Fire of Love (2022), Any Given Day (2021), American Factory (2019), One Child Nation (2019), Koneline (2016), Navalny (2022), I Am Big Bird (2014), The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne (2013), Aim for the Roses (2016).


Get more coverage from this year’s festival here.

Marc Glassman is the editor of POV Magazine and contributes film reviews to Classical FM. He is an adjunct professor at Toronto Metropolitan University and is the treasurer of the Toronto Film Critics Association.

Barri Cohen is an award-winning producer, writer, and director. She co-produced Phyllis Ellis’ Toxic Beauty (2019) and is currently completing a feature documentary for the Documentary Channel.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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