Clockwise from top: Nocturnes, Luther: Never Too Much, Daughters, Never Look Away, The Battle for Laikipia, Porcelain War| All photos courtesy of Hot Docs

Hot Docs Highlights: The Sundance Docs Coming to Toronto

15 films continuing their run on the circuit

22 mins read

Hot Docs 2024 is just 10 days away, which could mean that Toronto is the next stop on the tour for some of the year’s most acclaimed documentaries. The festival kicks off on April 25 with Dawn Porter’s Luther Vandross doc Never Too Much. The film is one of 15 Sundance docs that the POV team reviewed virtually from the Park City festival. (Hot Docs selection Eno wasn’t available on the online platform at Sundance, so our team is playing catch-up with that one.) Most of Sundance’s big winners appear in the Hot Docs line-up, including both Grand Jury Prize champs and the festival’s overall audience favourite.

These are films to watch: In the past five years, four of the eventual Oscar winners for Best Documentary Feature (American Factory, Summer of Soul, Navalny, and 20 Days in Mariupol) did the festival circuit double tap with Sundance and Hot Docs. The fifth doc, My Octopus Teacher, was slated for Hot Docs in 2020 but opted out when COVID forced a virtual shift. Early favourites this year include Hot Docs-bound Daughters, which Netflix picked up out of Sundance where it won the Audience Award.

Some of our team’s top picks from Sundance, like Skywalkers: A Love Story, Ibelin, and Gaucho Gaucho aren’t at the festival, so Hot Docs doesn’t offer a full rinse-and-repeat. There are still some Sundance docs to look forward to on the circuit, while Skywalkers and Ibelin will for sure hit Netflix over the next year. Alternatively, with Gaucho Gaucho directors Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw having the rare honour in 2020 of being accepted to Sundance, Cannes, and TIFF with The Truffle Hunters, it might be more logical that doc fans in Canada will have to wait until fall for their new film. Meanwhile, POV touched base with the producers of the Berlin documentary winner No Other Land, who said their portrait of life in Palestine will have its North American debut on the fall festival circuit. (So too could Golden Bear winner Dahomey, also a doc, which we’re really hoping to see.)

POV contributor Jason Gorber just got off the phone with Porter, so we’ll have more on the Hot Docs opener ahead of the big night. In the meantime, though, here are all the Sundance films coming to Hot Docs this year with links to reviews:


Luther: Never Too Much

Screens in: Pop/Life (Opening night)

There was nothing but endless love out of Park City for the Luther Vandross biography. While it’s not a world premiere for opening night, Never Too Much promises to get the festival off to a celebratory note that Hot Docs probably needs. The acclaimed film is the latest doc from the prolific Dawn Porter (John Lewis: Good Trouble, The Way I See It) and it has critics calling it a definitive portrait of Vandross’s life and music, with POV’s own Jason Gorber joining the chorus: “Never Too Much proves it’s never too soon to celebrate this phenomenal talent,” he wrote at Sundance. “While much of it plays as a relatively conventional talking head music doc, the subject is so fascinating, the filmmaking craft so assured, and the deeper elements surrounding his life, career, and beliefs so profound. Like the seductive pop he produced, Never Too Much holds a story that transcends the usual into something quite sensational.”


Agent of Happiness

Screens in: World Showcase

Audiences looking for a Zen consideration of fulfilment may want to catch this portrait of Amber Gurung. The 40-year-old “happiness agent” surveys the people of Bhutan. He rates their contentment for the Gross National Happiness Index with an extensive list of questions. He asks fellow citizens how many cows or chickens they have, and gets them to rate their feelings on a scale of zero to ten. At the same time, the film sees the agent in his own search for happiness as the survey leaves him wondering what it means to truly be satisfied with life.

“As the title cards come and go, noting how many goats or televisions these people have, the Happiness Index seems to be on the rise,” I wrote during Sundance. “Agent of Happiness shows that the manner in which Bhutan measures contentment is unique, but life’s always better with a smile on one’s face. It’s a universal truth.”


The Battle for Laikipia

Screens in: Land| Sky| Sea

One title screening in Hot Docs’ new competition spotlight for environmental films is this gripping study of a conflict in rural Kenya that’s been brewing for generations. Winner of the Sundance Institute | Amazon MGM Studios Producers Award for Nonfiction, The Battle for Laikipia observes Samburu pastoralists who fight for their tribe’s longstanding practice of letting goats and cows roam the plains, much to the chagrin of British settlers. Directors Daphne Matziaraki and Peter Murimi capture the conflict from both sides as tension mounts and erupts with violent consequences.

“The film captures the fundamental ideological divides in communities that feel the ongoing effects of colonialism. For the pastoralists, they’re fighting for far more than the needs of their thirsty animals,” I wrote during Sundance. “The whites, meanwhile, don’t really grasp that people inherit the burden of colonialism. Just because they’ve been there for years doesn’t mean that the Samburu should accept their practices. The Battle for Laikipia isn’t a litmus test for Africa, but rather one for a de-colonial future.”


Black Box Diaries

Screens in: Special Presentations

The story of a true persister comes in Black Box Diaries. Journalist Shiori Ito directs this self-portrait of her quest for justice after she bravely speaks out against a powerful journalist who raped her. The case sparks a cultural reckoning, but Ito refuses to buckle to pressure and stands her ground while pursuing leads that others won’t investigate. It’s tough viewing, but extremely compelling as Ito holds strong in a case that proved Japan’s starting point in the #MeToo movement.

“Ito sets up the almost impossible task of objectively investigating her own sexual assault while rousing herself to confront her own trauma,” wrote Barbara Goslawski in her review at Sundance. “She is aware of her audience, and she invites others into the process, conscious of the complex reactions that her work may engender. The film is heartbreaking–and triggering–but it’s also a rewarding journey.”



Screens in: Festival Favourites

Hot Docs’ new sidebar Festival Favourites could hold the audience award winner if Toronto moviegoers respond to Daughters as strongly as Sundance kids did. The film won the Audience Award for U.S. Documentary and the overall vote for Festival Favourite. Don’t expect to see a dry eye in the house as Angela Patton and Vancouver’s Natalie Rae direct this genuinely touching cinéma vérité portrait of a program that creates a special daddy-daughter dance to connect incarcerated men with their children.

“Simply put, this is a stunning work of subtlety and power, one that manages to examine massive issues of race, culture, crime and relationships while remaining laser focussed on this unique, intimate setting,” said Jason Gorber in his review. “It’s an immensely impressive balancing act, using the singular nature of these individual stories to provide deeper, more universal insight. With a mix of journalistic sophistication and cinematically rich emotions, you’re treated to a truly exceptional work of non-fiction.”


Eternal You, Love Machina, Seeking Mavis Beacon

Screen in: Emergence

In an odd coincidence, the three films that flopped with POV’s critics during Sundance all appear in Hot Docs’ new Emergence programme. The sidebar is one of the festival’s thematic strains this year. (Love Machina also plays as one of the Scotiabank Big Ideas films.) While the topics of artificial intelligence and humans’ relationship to technology are noteworthy, it seems that the films themselves still have a ways to go. For our critics, Eternal You is “rather alarmist,” Love Machina “ultimately evades a question that should be at the heart of its inquiry,” and Seeking Mavis Beacon is “indulgent and self-serving.” They’ll nevertheless provide some decent post-screening discussions.


Every Little Thing

Screens in: Festival Favourites

Although the film flew under the radar at Sundance, Hot Docs has it in the Festival Favourites sidebar. It’s sure to please everyone in the audience who loves birds, great characters, and truly awesome cinematography. Bird nerds should flock to Every Little Thing, which offers an eclectic portrait of Terry Masear and the Los Angeles Hummingbird Rescue, an ambitious one-woman operation dedicated to saving and rehabilitating broken wings.

“While Masear is a great character, the stars of the film are the birds themselves. Masear and Aitken know it. Every Little Thing uses top-of-the-line technology to observe the hummingbirds in exquisite detail,” I noted during Sundance. “Wildlife cinematographer Ann Johnson Prum captures the rapid-fire fluttering of the birds’ wings that afford their distinct hum. Macro lenses afford glimpses of the birds’ feathers and markers that one rarely sees with a naked eye. Since hummingbirds fly so swiftly, and can move vertically and horizontally, they simply aren’t easy to take in even if their slaking their thirst with sugar water from a feeder mere feet away. The film manages to harness the birds in slo-mo detail without slowing them down.”


Never Look Away

Screens in: Special Presentations

Is Lucy Lawless the breakout doc director of 2024? She could be, as her feature directorial debut Never Look Away proves that Xena: Warrior Princess has some serious muscle behind the camera. So too does her subject, cameraperson Margaret Moth, who fearlessly captured images from the front lines of war for CNN. Moth’s footage receives an exhilarating assembly here as Lawless creates a profile of a maverick journalist that feels appropriately punk.

“The immediacy of her images remains striking. There’s a sense of truly being in the thick of the action. The tanks are so close one almost ducks while watching them pass by. Ditto the bullets the whiz past and the rockets that explode too close for comfort,” I wrote during Sundance. “Moth’s work is the product of a perfect balance of fearlessness, recklessness, and artfulness. Despite all the elements, Lawless shows how she mastered the get-in, get-the-shot, and get-out gauntlet. But the doc also illustrates how Moth did so without being extractive. Rather, her images reflect a humanist lens.”


A New Kind of Wilderness

Screens in: Persister

Putting this Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner for World Cinema Documentary in the Persister section, a programming stream devoted to stories of “women speaking up and being heard,” feels a bit weird. It’s a portrait of a family at a crossroads following the death of its matriarch, Maria. Her husband Nik finds himself wondering about the practicality of realizing her dream: to raise the kids on a self-sustaining farm. It’s nevertheless a touching story, especially with its consideration of how contemporary families find balance in a world that can’t be tamed, particularly as the two daughters on the farm come into their own as young women throughout the journey. Read more about A New Kind of Wilderness in our interview with director Silje Evensmo Jacobsen.



Screens in: Land| Sky| Sea

Perhaps the most aesthetically pleasing documentary at Sundance this year features a subject that could make one’s skin crawl: bugs. Directors Anirban Dutta and Anupama Srinivasan whisk audiences to the Himalayas with this portrait of researchers who study moths by night. Researchers Mansi Mungee and Bicki Marphew track the details of the moths, like their sizes and the altitude at which different varieties of the insect appear. It’s all part of an extensive research project to study the impact of climate change on species, using the moths as a barometer for fluctuating ecosystems.

Nocturnes poetically captures the rigorous nature of research as Mungee and Marphew study their screens nightly,” I wrote during Sundance. “So too does the doc evoke the thrill of discovery as one joins them in gazing upon the extensive range of moths. The vivid cinematography affords a view the naked eye could never enjoy. These moths, rarely considered anything but pests, at least in Western society, are actually quite remarkable.”


Porcelain War

Screens in: International Competition

In a rare case, a Sundance winner could triumph in Hot Docs’ competitive stream as Porcelain War continues its run with an international premiere at the festival. This unique perspective on the war in Ukraine comes from three artists who join the citizen’s army. Featuring gripping footage from the frontlines as the Ukrainians defend their land against Russia’s invasion, and a scene-stealing dog, the film punctuates the quest for peace with artistic renderings of the artists’ beautiful ceramics that evoke the culture and heritage for which they fight.

“A visually vibrant work, one that strategically incorporates animations to convey the horrors of the past, [Brendan] Bellomo and [Slava] Leontyev capture both the horrors of war and the beauty of nature with equal measure,” Courtney Small said during Sundance. “Similar to the material itself, Porcelain War shows the fragility and strength of the human spirit.”



Screens in: Special Presentations

Yance Ford had high expectations going into Sundance with Power and he delivered. The film builds upon the promise of Ford’s 2017 breakthrough Strong Island and offers something of a thematic continuation as the director considers the perverse systems that breed inequality in the USA. Power tackles the rise of the police state in America and the long history that invests so much might in a system that is said to protect, but really oppresses.

“The film offers provocative material that can’t help but rile a viewer up against a sense of powerlessness,” I wrote during Sundance. “Particularly when the archives punctuate images of the past with familiar shots from the present, the film underscores the systemic apathy that allows the abuse of power to continue. Power inevitably builds to the 2020 murder of George Floyd and the social reckoning it sparked. In cases like this one, Ford obscures the violence from sight.”



Screens in: Special Presentations

It’s a Hot Docs homecoming for Union. Directors Stephen Maing and Brett Story won the CMF-Hot Docs Forum Canadian Pitch Prize at the 2022 Forum and they’re back with the final product. This masterful vérité documentary observes the fight for labour rights in America as the directors follow several players in the Amazon Labor Union as they rally their colleagues to organize. Rather than simplify the story as a tale of corporate greed, Union captures the challenges of unifying a workforce that’s defined by huge turnover rates, precarious work situations, and small pay in the face of the high cost of living. These aren’t easy conversations that the film captures, particularly as the robots that scurry through the Amazon warehouse demonstrate how easily one can be replaced.

“At its heart this is a tale that reaches deeply into many facets of our current culture, from ideas about grassroots organization, the vagaries of late-capitalistic corporations, the political systems that both foster innovation and create struggles for frontline workers, and the consumers who choose to purchase products from marketplaces of scale that the likes of Amazon can provide,” Jason Gorber noted in his review at Sundance. Subscribe today to read more about Union in the upcoming issue of POV.

Hot Docs runs April 25 to May 5.

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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