Skip to main content

Festival Focus: Hot Docs 2007

By Agnes Varnum

From João Moreira Salles' Santiago

The 14th annual Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, held in Toronto from April 19 to 29, boasted a 33 percent audience increase over the 2006 edition. Over 68,000 people attended 129 documentaries representing 25 countries. The number of industry guests also rose, from 1,800 to close to 2,000. Docs in Schools, a program that brings filmmakers and their work to grade schoolers, doubled in size, reaching 15,000 students. The growth since last year is astonishing enough, but the festival still feels entirely organized and accessible.

In addition to a strong film program, the Industry Conference, geared toward providing fertile ground for new production, boasted some interesting additions this year--namely, a co-production market that included hosted delegations of producers from Brazil, Germany and Italy. In organized face-to-face meetings, producers met with producers, hopefully fostering some connections to appear at next year's Hot Docs.

These meetings were in addition to Micro-Meetings, held by organizations like CBC, Telefilm Canada and The Documentary Channel (Canada), where acquisitions and development executives shed light on opportunities for eager producers. Also continuing this year was the Rendezvous program, where producers request meetings with buyers through the Sales Office. If you have a film in production, Hot Docs is truly the only spot in North America to find such expansive, formal opportunities to meet decision-makers and network with other producers.

Other industry-oriented opportunities include the Doc Shop, the festival's screening library packed with 1,700 films for buyers and programmers looking to swim in deep waters to find new material. Running concurrently with the festival is the two-day Toronto Documentary Forum, a pitching forum for 31 pre-selected projects to garner support from 143 commissioning editors, sales agents and distributors, including luminaries like Nick Fraser of BBC's Storyville, Hans Robert Eisenhauer of ZDF-Arte and Catherine Olsen of CBC. The physical space at Hart House of the University of Toronto campus, along with the hope of keeping TDF intimate to facilitate deal-making, limits the growth of this event, and snagging one of the few observer seats is a major feat.

But at the heart of the festival are the films. Hot Docs sits on the calendar between Sundance and Toronto, which are obviously big launching pads for docs, but also after SXSW and Full Frame, which premiere many North American documentaries, and before Los Angeles Film Festival and Tribeca, which have been elbowing for premieres, particularly for their competition slates. With the proliferation of festivals comes competition for new films, so it was heartening to read in an article in indieWIRE that Hot Docs' director of programming, Sean Farnel, wants to support films in their roll-out, which means inviting films that have screened elsewhere. Strong films from this year's line-up that had launched elsewhere included International Documentary Festival Amsterdam's Joris Ivens Award-winning The Monastery by Pernille Rose Grønkjaer and the Silver Wolf Award-winning Enemies of Happiness by Eva Mulvad.

Also on the slate was Ido Haar's stunning 9 Star Hotel, which follows a small group of Palestinian men, both young and old, as they construct new Jewish settlements as undocumented day laborers to make ends meet. Because of border issues, they are unable to travel home at night and are forced to live in the foothills surrounding the settlement in which they work. Their meager existence is in stark contrast to the homes they are building and the dangers they encounter earning money for the mere survival of their families, often as the sole breadwinners.

Canadian films were out in force with a record 22 entries in the program, and many were among the best of the fest. John Zaritsky's The Suicide Tourist might be expected to be heart-wrenching, but this doc goes beyond simple sentimentality to reveal layers of complicated issues surrounding one's right to die. Craig is terminally ill with Lou Gehrig's Disease and soon will not be physically capable of assisting in his own death, so he must hasten the process to ensure that his wishes are fulfilled. George has a heart condition that could kill him (or not), but because he and his wife Betty fear being separated by death, they prefer to choose their time and leave this world together. They are guided by attorney Ludwig Minelli at the Swiss nonprofit Dignitas in their journeys. The film ranked on the festival's top ten audience favorites.

Another Canadian film that world-premiered at the festival, Joe Moulins' Citizen Sam, takes a look into the world of living with disability through the life of Sam Sullivan, a quadriplegic candidate for mayor of Vancouver. It may take Sam hours to get ready for work, but he is a shrewd man and cunning politician who manages to overcome any stigma of inability to become a serious contender for the post. In the vein of Street Fight and Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?, Citizen Sam gives us a valuable behind-the-scenes look at the electoral politics and our relationship to political process.

Hot Docs hosted delegations of producers from Germany, Italy and Brazil to encourage co-productions with North American producers. Helping to highlight the quality of production coming out of Brazil was the "Made in Brazil" programming strand that included Santiago by João Salles. As a young filmmaker, Salles had the instinct that his family's butler, Santiago, was a character waiting for a movie. But being young and thinking only in terms of creating compelling images, during interviews he spent more time directing Santiago than connecting with him. Putting the film on hold for years, Salles returned to it as an older, wiser filmmaker, reflecting on a man, now deceased, who lived wholly and loved completely.

Hot Docs bestows over $50,000 in cash prizes. The Best International Feature prize went to Ulrike Franke and Michael Loeken's Losers and Winners, while Bryan Friedman's The Bodybuilder and I won the Best Canadian Feature prize. Best Mid-Length Documentary honors went to Johanna Lunn's Forgiveness: Stories for Our Time; and Arturo Cabanas' Man Up took the Best Short award. Serge Giguère's Driven by Dreams and Michael Skolnik's Without the King earned Special Jury Prizes, and Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine's War/Dance, the moving story of a group of Ugandan children who defy the expectations of their refugee camp to win awards in a national dance competition, added the Audience Award to its crowded shelf of 2007 honors.

If you haven't been to Hot Docs, put it on your calendar for next year. It is a gem for folks who love documentary and enjoy the kind of special moments a small, regional festival often provides, but combined with the business opportunities of a major international documentary marketplace.


Agnes Varnum blogs from