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Docs Are Still a Hot Commodity in Toronto: North America's Largest Nonfiction Film Festival

By Michelle Mason

Left: from Sarah Goodman's 'Army of One.' From the late James Miller's 'Death in Gaza.' From 'Arna's Children'

For anyone who grew up in Canada in the 1960s and '70s, watching documentaries used to mean sitting in a darkened social studies class, while some National Film Board reel spooled you into deep slumber with the regular rhythm of the projector and the drone of a wheezy narrator.

Thirty years on, however, I found myself lining up around the block on a spectacular Vancouver summer night for opening weekend of Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11. Coming in at the number one spot for North America's opening weekend grosses, Moore's latest film has helped create another watershed moment in the history of documentaries.

In the past two years, however, there seem to have been many such moments. In fact, seven of the ten top-grossing documentaries of all time were released in 2003, and the numbers just keep growing. To what do we attribute this phenomenon? 

While Moore's supporters and detractors alike attribute this success to powerhouse films like Bowling for Columbine, and others begrudgingly nod to the popularity of "reality TV," still others say it is organization on the part of the documentary community itself that has helped build an audience for its films.

The latter theory certainly holds up at the Hot Docs International Documentary Festival that has been taking place in Toronto for over a decade. With a dearth of Canadian-owned theaters in which to screen indigenous talent, a group of filmmakers from the Canadian Independent Film Caucus (a national association of independent documentary filmmakers recently renamed DOC, the Documentary Organization of Canada) created the festival to showcase their work and support Canadian and international documentary filmmakers. Hot Docs has since grown to become, screening a selection of more than 100 documentaries from Canada and around the globe.

With this year's line-up of politically charged and point-of-view documentaries, die-hard doc fans were not disappointed. While the program didn't venture far into the realm of experimental docs, it did serve up a rich banquet of provocative films that reflected our preoccupation with today's uncertain times and the need to find alternative solutions to contemporary problems. Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein's The Take, for example, tells the story of Argentine workers who take over control of their factory.

With the event taking place during the Fallujah uprising in Iraq, Sarah Goodman's Army of One (produced by Arlene Ami and Eric Paulsson), which tells the story of three US Army recruits after September 11, 2001, captured the festival zeitgeist along with the top Canadian Documentary prize for best feature.

The top International Documentary prize went to Checkpoint, by Yoav Shamir, a remarkable study of the complex relationship between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian civilians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which chronicles three years of daily border crossings.

Death in Gaza garnered the Audience Award, telling the story of Palestinian youngsters maturing in a world where the greatest glory is to die a martyr—a story filmmaker James Miller gave his life to tell when he was shot dead by an Israeli soldier.

Other winners in the audience favorite category were Ali Kazimi's Continuous Journey—also the recipient of a Special Jury Prize in the Best Direction in the Canadian Spectrum Programme—and Arna's Children by Juliano Mer Khamis and Danniel Danniel, which also earned the FIPRESCI Jury Prize for Best First Documentary Feature.

Other main attractions included the focus on Canadian filmmaker Nettie Wild (A Place Called Chiapas; Fix: The Story of an Addicted City), and the Outstanding Achievement Award and retrospective for the work of foreign correspondent and pioneer broadcast documentarian, Michael MacLear. His latest film, Vietnam: Ghosts of War, documents the "arrogance and ignorance" of great power wars, from Vietnam to Iraq, through a poetic, reflective point-of-view on the misunderstandings—the perceptual ghosts—that breed perpetual war.

In an effort to breed new films, filmmakers from around the world participated in the Toronto Documentary Forum. Modeled after the Amsterdam FORUM, Toronto's Doc Forum is a two-day pitching event designed to assist independent producers from Canada and around the world raise co-financing from the international marketplace.

Topping the list of participants this year was Albert Maysles, whose pitch on Belgian artist Christo's latest project, a series of gates in Central Park, had broadcasters climbing over one another to get on board. Nevertheless, one filmmaker likened the experience to "Michelangelo having to prostrate himself before the funding gods."

If Maysles' performance in the Forum was a sign of the times, the veteran filmmaker had only age-old wisdom for new filmmakers, telling them during a panel to "always work from the heart."

With Canadian license fees among the lowest in the industrialized world, new filmmakers may not have much of a choice to do otherwise. But amidst all the wheeling and dealing, it was a nice reminder all the same, especially as that belief was reflected in the numerous labors of love lighting up screens nearby.


Michelle Mason is an independent filmmaker from Vancouver, British Columbia. Her award-winning debut film, The Friendship Village, tells the story of a Vietnam veteran's journey to establish a reconciliation project in Vietnam. She also serves as a co-chair of the Documentary Organization of Canada's BC chapter.