Let’s face it. We’ve had enough of winter and COVID. Hardly anyone is wearing a mask any more and more than a few hardy souls are trying to galivant around town in their latest spring wear. That’s a good thing for documentary lovers because one of Toronto’s major film festivals is making its triumphal return to our screens this week. While the weather could be better and not everyone is totally comfortable in theatres, a large number of Torontonians are clearly ready to greet one of this city’s most popular festivals, Hot Docs.
Judging from the number of people lining up for tickets yesterday afternoon at TIFF Bell Lightbox for the Joan Baez film I Am a Noise, Hot Docs is poised to recapture its popular status as one of our most beloved cultural events. Over 200 films will be screened until May 7 at TIFF Bell Lightbox, Scotiabank, the Hot Docs Cinema and the Isabel Bader Theatre, celebrating the 30th anniversary of Canada’s preeminent documentary festival. In addition to the premieres of films from here and abroad, Hot Docs will offer a focus on the country’s extraordinary film researcher Elizabeth Klink and a retrospective of the works of acclaimed Asian-American filmmaker Christine Choy. And, in collaboration with the CBC, Hot Docs will host a Podcast festival from May 4-7.
Okay–what about the films? Let’s start with Canada. Two of this nation’s greatest stars, Judge Rosalie Abella and the iconic Michael J. Fox, are given respectful, well researched treatments in highly anticipated films, which will be seen first at Hot Docs. Without Precedent: The Supreme Life of Rosalie Abella is a well-made doc on the first Jewish woman to be appointed to Canada’s Supreme Court. The prolific Barry Avrich, who has made bios of such diverse people as Oscar Peterson, Ben Ferencz and David Foster, captures Abella’s inspiring tale quite well. Rather more high profile—unsurprisingly, given its subject–is Academy Award Winner Davis Guggenheim’s captivating Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie, which looks into the life of a film star whose career was blighted by Parkinson’s disease. The star of the Back to the Future franchise and the TV series Family Ties, Fox is a courageous and optimistic presence in the film by Guggenheim, most noted for his profile of the Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai and directorial work on Al Gore starring and multi-award-winning An Inconvenient Truth.
Canadians form an essential part of Hot Docs with exciting new films from across the country being afforded star-status in every festival. Aitamaako’tamisskapi Natosi Before the Sun is an inspiring film about Logan Red Crow, a teenage girl of the Siksika people, who has a special gift for riding horses. Director Bianchi Hanuse’s doc follows her as she becomes the finest Canadian female relay racer in a hazardous sport which has only allowed women into competitions in recent years. Jean-Philippe Marquis’ Silvicola is an intense behind-the-scenes look at the devastation being wrought on Canada’s forests in recent years. What makes Marquis’ film different is his caring profiles of workers in the forestry industry, who have conflicting thoughts about what they’re doing to the planet even if they feel the necessity to continue doing their jobs.
The Lebanese Burger Mafia is a funny excursion into the joys of franchising and the random possibility of achieving success in something completely different as an immigrant in Canada. Director Omar Mouallem, whose father was an franchisee, cheerfully recounts the surprising story of Burger Baron, a dysfunctional fast food chain, which somehow became beloved in Alberta—and was owned and operated by newly settled Lebanese families. A gorgeous work of cinema, Feet in Water, Head on Fire is a full-on investigation of life in California’s Coachella Valley by the innovative Canadian director Terra Long. Located on the San Andreas Fault, which could erupt at any time, the environment has been perfect for growing dates and is well suited for retirees who enjoy golfing and basking in the sun. Long’s beautiful film evokes the three communities who live in Coachella: Hispanics who harvest the dates, Indigenous people who have a rich tradition there and rich, old golfers.
There is so much more to write about the docs at the festival. Every film has its story and they’re all true. La Singla recounts the tale of a deaf flamenco dancer who was the greatest performer of her generation, beloved by many including Picasso, until she suddenly disappeared without a trace. Allihopa: The Dalkurd Story is the ultimate underdog sports tale, with a team of Kurdish immigrants fighting to make it into the top division of Swedish football (soccer), against all odds. We Will Not Fade Away is a Ukrainian story with a true difference as five teens work to get the funds to achieve their impossible goal, to climb in the Himalayas. Being in a Place: A Portrait of Margaret Tait is a poetic rendering of the life and work of a Scottish avant-garde filmmaker, which somehow evokes her spirit through voice-overs and out-takes from her films.
And then there’s Soviet Barbara: The Story of Ragnar Kjartansson in Moscow, a cleverly well realized tale of a brilliant Icelandic artist, who takes over a completely renovated industrial building owned by one of Putin’s oligarchical friends and turns it into a subversive art site. Kjartansson decides to recreate Santa Barbara, a U.S. primetime soap opera which became an unexpected hit in Russia in the early years of Yeltsin’s regime after Gorbachev lost power. His deconstruction of the American soap could have been extraordinary but the Icelandic artist found himself confronted with the reality of Putin’s power when he brought in Masha from the revolutionary group Pussy Riot, who questioned whether his post-modernist approach was valid. Then Putin invaded Ukraine. Soviet Barbara is an extraordinary film, which combines art, politics and critical thinking in smart and incisive ways.
This is just a snapshot of Hot Docs. For a wider angle view, there’s only one thing to do: attend the festival.
Get more coverage from this year’s festival here.
Read more about Still, Silvicola, The Lebanese Burger Mafia, and Feet in Water, Head on Fire in the new issue of POV.