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Can It Get Any Hotter? Hot Docs Celebrates Another Banner Year

By Marc Glassman

The global economy may have been in tatters this spring, and swine flu cases in Canada were certainly creating alarm at the World Health Organization, but nothing could stop Toronto's Hot Docs festival from garnering headlines, crowds and influential premieres.  The Canadian documentary juggernaut steamrollered along, heedless of any global concerns except those involved with the making, screening and marketing of excellent nonfiction films worldwide.

The numbers tell the tale. The festival, which ran from April 30 through May 10 in seven downtown Toronto venues, increased its attendance by 42 percent, to an estimated 122,000 film viewers. Of the 266 public screenings, a record 107 went rush as the pass sales increased by 25 percent. Only the Toronto International Film Festival tops Hot Docs in terms of popularity among the more than 75 cinema festivals in Canada's biggest English-language market.

Not that documentary professionals were ignored. Just like its sister festival IDFA (International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam), Hot Docs, thanks especially to executive and managing directors Chris McDonald and Brett Hendrie, has built its success through a canny intermingling of  the private--particularly the Toronto Documentary Forum--and the public, which includes an impressive youth-oriented educational series called Docs for Schools as well as the highly popular adult screening program overseen by Festival Director Sean Farnel.

The Forum regularly attracts the most international attention from doc insiders, and this year was no different. The format, like IDFA's, changes a bit each year, but the premise remains the same: Doc-makers are given less than ten minutes to pitch a project (accompanied by a video trailer), and then commissioning editors are granted a similar amount of time to support, query or indicate thumbs down to the proposed film. 

Commissioning editors from England's BBC Storyville, NHK, Discovery Channel, ARTE, CBC and CBC Newsworld, ZDF, PBS, PBS International, ITVS, PBS' Independent Lens, the Netherlands' NPO, Italy's RAI and HBO took leading roles at the table over the Forum's two days, which took place May 6 and 7. Also represented were such distributors as the Women Make Movies, Films Transit International and Israel's Ruth Diskin Films. Prominent voices in the discussions included Claire Aguilar from ITVS, Nick Fraser from the BBC, Hans Robert Eisenhauer from ZDF, Jan Rofekamp from Films Transit and moderators Rudy Buttignol and Karolina Lidin.

Acclaimed curmudgeon Christopher Hitchens was the most prominent guest at the Forum, stylishly and emphatically representing the proposed doc God Is Not So Great, based on his recent anti-religious screed. Perhaps because he's so contentious, Hitchens' pitch, which supported Emmy and Peabody Award-winning director Jeff Scheftel's project, wasn't overwhelmingly supported by the commissioning editors. Other projects did better, with two winners being a three-part series on young people in China's biggest metropolis called Shanghai Tales and an incisive British doc on the media frenzy surrounding the notorious Meredith Kercher murder case entitled Making a Killing.

The Forum's new director, Elizabeth Radshaw, successfully replaced its founder, Michaelle McLean, who departed after nine years to pursue other projects, including the administration of the CanWest-Hot Docs $4 million completion fund for documentaries. Radshaw, who had previously worked at UK-based factual distributor TVF International Television Distribution, handled the challenge of leading the highly regarded Forum during an economic downturn with confidence and evident good spirits. The number of submissions to the Forum decreased from 225 in 2008 to 160, for instance, but Radshaw felt that the final 30 selections were still of sufficiently high quality to attract interest from broadcasters across the globe--and she was right.

The major innovation at the Forum was the first North American Good Pitch session. It's a joint project of the Channel 4 BRITDOC Foundation and the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program, and the idea is extraordinary: to fund docs that can "help to change the world."

The main figures animating the initiative are Jess Search, the chief executive of BRITDOC, which recently funded the Sundance double award-winner Afghan Star and the Berlin Audience Award recipient The Yes Men Change the World, and Cara Mertes, the director of the Sundance Institute and the former executive producer of the PBS prize-winning series, P.O.V. Mertes challenged the room "to learn a new language...[because] we are [already] in the future."

The duo assembled a wide range of human rights groups and foundations never previously seen at a Forum, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the NAACP, the MacArthur Foundation, the Fledgling Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union. Neither broadcasters nor distributors, these distinguished groups formed a "third sector" of funders and outreach organizations that could enable a "transformative" doc to be made.

The Forum concluded on a high note when CanWest's director of factual content, Sarah Jane Flynn, announced that the recipient of the $40,000 prize for Best Canadian Pitch had been given to White Pines Pictures for The Team. Set in Kenya, the film will follow the country's reaction to a TV soap opera about a fictional soccer team made up of players from all sides of the conflicted country's ethnic divide. "The $40,000 will fund our next shoot in Kenya," commented the film's director, Patrick Reed, "which is absolutely essential to the film."

White Pines' CEO, Peter Raymont, returned the favor the next day, conferring the Lindalee Tracey Award, named after his talented and sorely missed late partner and worth $9,000 in cash and services, to two young filmmakers, Laura Bari and Will Inrig. While Inrig's work wasn't featured in this year's Hot Docs, Bari's Antoine had a major impact on audiences. The film depicts the inner life of a young Asian boy, who is blind but has a stunningly creative appreciation of the outside world.


From Laura Bari's Antione. Bari shared the Lindalee Tracey Award at Hot Docs with Will Inrig.


Many other awards were conferred on Friday, May 7. Hubert Davis' incisive and tough NFB production Invisible City received $15,000 for the Best Canadian Feature, and Kevin McMahon's eco-film essay Waterlife garnered a Special Jury Prize and $10,000 for his Canadian doc feature. On the international level, director/producer Simon El Habre's beautifully shot The One Man Village, about his Lebanese uncle, won the Best International Doc prize; Peter Kerekes got $5,000, a Jury Prize and Special Beer Cases for the sardonic and funny Cooking History; Bartek Konopka received $3,000 for his Best Mid-Length film Rabbit a la Berlin; and Kara Blake won $3,000 also for the Best Short doc The Delian Mode


From Hubert Davis' Invisible City, which won the Best Canadian Feature award at Hot Docs.



In addition, computer nerd and social activist Brett Gaylor and Native writer/filmmaker Tracey Deer shared the $20,000 Don Haig Award; Chung-ryoul Lee won the Best Emerging Artist Award; and Hot Docs conferred its Outstanding Achievement prize on the exceptionally talented singer-storyteller-activist doc-maker Alanis Obomsawin.

Marc Glassman is the editor of POV, Canada's leading documentary magazine, and Montage, the publication of the Directors Guild of Canada. He is one of the founders of the Toronto new media festival images and a former programmer at Canada's Hot Docs festival.