Hot Docs: Truth and Beauty in Actuality

16 mins read


When I heard that my film Actuality: The Art and Life of Allan King was an official selection of the 2006 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, I was thrilled. But I was also unnerved by the anonymous e-mails that began arriving while I was waiting for the festival to begin. Someone had a grudge against me. How could that be? Sweet, lovable me?

Who could it be?

Could it be one of the millions of newspaper readers and TV viewers who had read or seen me in my previous incarnation as a Globe and Mail critic of all that was mediocre, corrupt and vile in the world of television? “Find out” what? After all, who hasn’t behaved badly and long forgotten having done so? Who really cares that I slept with a number of talented and well known (and yes, attractive) women in the TV industry? How could I possibly have any enemies after working as a journalist for more than 30 years and collaborating on a dozen documentaries about such earnest subjects as pimps, prostitutes, drug mules, illegal aliens, missing people, North Korea, marriage, divorce and adultery?

Perhaps the internet invader was one of the thousands of embittered CBC employees who have been humiliated and discarded since the Mulroney government began the painfully slow process of destroying public broadcasting in Canada. Or perhaps I was simply the target of another failed filmmaker losing touch with reality after being lost for years in the labyrinth of the CTF-Telefilm-Tax Credit-Licence Fee-Producer Investment-CRTCCBCTVO-lawyer-bookeeper-Accountant-Production Manager-Documentary Filmmaking World…

When opening day of Hot Docs rolled around, I made the short, lovely walk from my home near the Frank Gehry-inspired mayhem of the Art Gallery of Ontario (it’s undergoing re-construction until 2008) with feelings of pleasure and dread. I loved the location of Hot Docs 2006. With most of the cinemas and parties concentrated at the axis of the Royal Ontario Museum and University of Toronto, delegates could stroll amidst an abundance of trees and grass, spring sun and the Gothic shadows of the older university buildings.

The setting also imbued the festival with a seriousness—dare I say an earnestness—that marked many of the attendees and their films.

Hot Docs 2006 was better attended than any previous festival thanks to the organization’s (led by the convivial Chris McDonald) promotional efforts (the stellar VK and Associates) and ability to present a provocative selection of documentaries within a framework of professional forums and countless networking opportunities for established and aspiring documentary filmmakers. But Hot Docs’ success also reflects the global growth and new public prominence of documentaries thanks to the multi-million dollar grosses and budgets of such docs as The Corporation, Shake Hands With The Devil, March of the Penguins, and all of Michael Moore’s recent films.

For those of us who see the documentary form as the most creative and socially useful form of filmmaking—as essential to every culture and society as public broadcasting itself—the recent explosion of interest in documentaries is heartening. In combination with the proliferation of inexpensive and highly proficient video cameras, it also means that anyone can and will call themselves a documentary filmmaker.

Of course this democratization of technology and exponentially increasing access to media does produce an occasional film that is competent, compelling and original. But it also produces the kind of amateurish, naïve, self-indulgent and incompetent documentaries that are showcased at festivals every day, all over the world.

Aspiring filmmakers who come to Hot Docs and other film festivals all believe that they can make a million bucks on a theatrical release of their documentary. The result too often is badly constructed, overlong films that would be very lucky to get a TV broadcast for which there are potentially more viewers than any limited theatrical release could hope to reap.

Festivals such as Hot Docs help to foster these delusions. At the press conference, for instance, my very modest, never fully financed film was mentioned along with the introduction of a first- time Canadian filmmaker. The first-time filmmaker made a beautiful feature-length documentary. But it took almost ten years, more than a million bucks and the production resources available in New York. The film was made primarily to promote a new business venture and was heavily backed with private resources.

Anyone who goes into documentary filmmaking thinking they are going to get rich and win an Oscar is as deluded as those who think a suicide bombing mission will take them to a heavenly paradise of virgins.

The 99 films chosen for Hot Docs 2006 reflected both the richness and diversity of the current state of documentary film but a dogged viewer might still have to sit through films that were inept and tedious while looking for the real gems. Out of the dozen or so films I saw I was most struck by the Canadian entries including Nick Bicanic and Jason Bourque’s Shadow Company and Greg Hamilton’s Mystic Ball. The two films were, stylistically and thematically, extreme opposites in every way yet expressed the full range of the power and beauty of documentary film. Shadow Company was a slickly made, informative look at the business of mercenaries and Mystic Ball was a virtually egoless point of view look at the national sport of Myanmar, where the game is about absolute harmony and love, not winning.

The dominant tone of the Hot Docs 2006 film program was inclusive and welcoming to all manner of first-time filmmakers. There seemed an abundance of deathly serious and awkwardly adolescent approaches to social issues. The naïveté can be expressed in a forgivably charming way  (Walking to Werner)  or in an ill-informed and irritating way such as Dear Pyongyang.

But overall, Hot Docs 2006 conveyed a sense of respect for the most edifying and socially conscious manifestations of the documentary tradition. After all, festivals are the last places on earth (outside of school or TVO) where there is any acknowledgment of the importance of documentaries and any recognition of the artistic merit of the form.

This gives the festival a schizophrenic feel, because like any broadcaster, the festival has to attract the public and try to showcase films that have the sensationalism/celebrity elements/topicality/animals/children and promotional possibilities that are the keys to commercial and theatrical success.

The very elasticity of the documentary form embodies its best and worst features. The films that excite and touch us aesthetically are rarely the same ones that gross a million plus and most of the public (and broadcasters) are more impressed by box-office grosses than the search for “truth and beauty” talked about by Hot Docs’ lifetime achievement honoree, Werner Herzog.

For me, learning the art and business of documentary filmmaking after working as journalist for 35 years is not a huge leap in terms of developing a film’s narrative, interviewing subjects and reporting information. The most difficult aspect of the change is psychological, especially when it comes to pitching projects and attending film events such as Hot Docs. As a journalist I was beholden to no one and free to go where I wished and approach anyone I chose to. But as a guest filmmaker, I was vulnerable in a million ways. At Hot Docs there is a pecking order in which 99 per cent of filmmakers are at the bottom looking for crumbs of encouragement or interest from broadcasters, commissioning editors, distributors or journalists.

Anyone who had their next film fully financed was doing better than most filmmakers at Hot Docs. Those who had come to pitch their films at the Toronto Documentary Forum were at least a step higher than the poor souls who had spent their hard earned cash and come from far across the land hoping to get meetings with broadcasters.

As a journalist, a filmmaker and a tax-payer who in one way or another finances all 300 domestic networks, I was alarmed by the preoccupation with “big names” and “big budgets” that dominate current (public and private) network thinking. Philosophically and artistically this is offensive because it denies the fundamental validity of the “truth and beauty” that the best of both big ($500,000 plus) and small budget documentaries possess.

Practically speaking it shuts out almost all independent filmmakers and leaves the work for much bigger, long-established companies that manufacture documentaries expensively tailored to network requirements.

Obviously there should be room for all kinds of documentaries in the 500- channel universe now that there is supposedly more interest in documentary films than ever before. It should also be cost-effective given how many plays for so little money most networks are able to stipulate. These are the hard facts of life these hordes of eager, idealistic young filmmakers need to know. Sure you can get a camera and computer and shoot and edit the film all by yourself and then stick it on the internet…Just don’t give up your day job.

I did. When I quit a cushy gig at the Globe and Mail we had three films in different stages of development and production. All serious, socially useful and modestly budgeted projects which in total barely reached the $500,000 mark. Those days are gone and after a dozen films, it’s harder than ever to carry on the search for “truth and beauty and justice.” But that’s what the best part of Hot Docs is all about, a week-long celebration of the most enduring of the film arts and the idealism and artistry that still finds a voice in the form.

The rest is just business and it is as malodorous and morally queasy as any other racket.

The premiere of my film was to take place on a Tuesday night, so I thought that the most likely time to expect my public humiliation, one way or the other.


That was the final e-mail and when the big night finally arrived, I was a mess of nerves, for all the obvious reasons. Would anyone show up to see my picture or would they choose another premiere to see?

Would someone stand up at the Q & A following the film and say or ask something to really embarrass me? In the small, incestuous community of filmmakers, talentless pretenders and network functionaries who comprise too large a part of any television industry, there are numberless malcontents, emotionally dysfunctional substance abusers, sex addicts and bottom feeders. Any one of them was as capable of conjuring a vendetta as they were of deluding themselves that they were filmmakers.

The premiere of Actuality: The Art and Life of Allan King was very well attended but not sold out. When the 
Q & A came I was just relieved that the screening had gone smoothly. There were some questions but none of them were hand grenades. I never got another e-mail and I was home free to completely relax and enjoy the rest of the festival.

Well ‘enjoy’ is not quite the word. In spite of great press and good screenings the birth of every film is followed by post-partum depression and until I had another deal, another film that a broadcaster wanted, I was just another filmmaker looking to pitch a project.

All that remained of Hot Docs was the closing night party and awards ceremony, by which time all the international broadcasters were long gone. The awards were tedious and predictably self-serving and were only improved by the presence of the irascible-looking Werner Herzog.

Herzog, a filmmaker who has received death threats and been assaulted because his films so offended some people, eloquently told us why we made documentaries—and if we needed reminding—just how goddamn hard it is to seek “truth and beauty and justice” in an environment where they are chiefly considered luxuries and liabilities.

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