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Hot Docs 2012: Soaring Attendance in Toronto, Plummeting Support from Ottawa

By Marc Glassman

The 19th edition of Toronto's Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival wrapped on Sunday, May 6, to unprecedented audience attendees estimated at 165,000--but those numbers couldn't dissipate an atmosphere of discontent in the Canadian documentary production community. The festival is hardly to blame for the problems that beset the Canadian industry and led to approximately 75 documentarians and friends staging an energetic rally on May 4 against the federal government's 10 percent cuts to the National Film Board (NFB) and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) and a 50 percent cut to Telefilm Canada's Rogers Theatrical program. The protest did, however, point out the underlying irony of point-of-view documentaries in Canada: They've never been more popular, and yet they're increasingly difficult to finance and produce.

Hot Docs continues to go from strength to strength. During the past year, a Toronto film company, The Blue Ice Group, purchased The Bloor Cinema, a major local repertory film house and partnered with Hot Docs to renovate it, adding state-of-the-art projection and sound and a larger screen. Reopened as The Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, with a year-round screening mandate of showing mainly documentaries, the theater is the largest of the ten venues used during the 11-day festival.


A line around the block for a Hot Docs screening at The Bloor Hot Docs Cinema. Photo: Jeb Short


The numbers for the festival are, as always, impressive. Hot Docs had 395 screenings of the 189 selected shorts and features with 143 going rush. Last year's public attendance of 151,000 was bettered by over 9 percent. Guests flew in from around the world, including nearly 200 filmmakers, as well as commissioning editors, distributors, producers and funders. Among them were director Alison Klayman, whose film Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry opened the festival; Entourage star Adrian Grenier, who was the executive producer of My Name Is Faith; first-time British director Jacqui Morris and her biographical subject, the great war photographer Don McCullin; Neil Berkeley (Beauty Is Embarrassing) and his biographical subject, pop-artist Wayne Wright; Quebec filmmaking icon Michel Brault; and veteran award-winning director Kirby Dick (The Invisible War).

Another award-winner, Davis Guggenheim, served double duty as a host and interviewer, engaging Diane Weyermann, this year's Doc Mogul recipient and Participant Media's executive director for documentaries, in a public on-stage conversation and legendary Indie producer Ted Hope in a keynote chat for the festival's private industry conference. Both discussions centered on feature docs and how to attract audiences to both enjoy and be engaged in their often very pointed subjects.

The 13th Hot Docs Forum, in which filmmakers pitch projects to a table of commissioning editors and other funders, may have been an unlucky anniversary despite Forum and Marketing Director Elizabeth Radshaw's attempt to rename the occasion "auspicious." After half a day of watching pitches being parried and tossed back with editorial suggestions by a series of distinguished panelists, Nick Fraser, the tough-talking BBC commissioning editor for the acclaimed Storyville strand, revealed this year's inconvenient truth.

Responding to a pitch for a $1.5 million dollar film on the use of sound in cinema, Fraser said, "All the people around the table are broke." While clearly an overstatement, the lukewarm responses to most of the pitches helped to underscore Fraser's comment, as did the suggestion by Mette Hoffmann Meyer (DR Danish Broadcasting Corporation's head of documentaries) that letters of support could be written for the pitching partners of the proposed doc on film sound artists. Commissioning editors used to provide financing, not letters of support.

The level of pitches was still excellent, illustrating that Radshaw and her team is providing superb service to the doc industry. One of the most moving was delivered by Maria Teresa Larrain, a blind Chilean-Canadian filmmaker whose proposed project Shadow Girl recounts how she has dealt with her gradual loss of sight. It deservedly won the $40,000 Shaw Media-Hot Docs Forum Pitch Prize, presented for the best Canadian theatrical doc proposal, covering a significant amount of the $141,000 still needed to fund the $342,000 project.

The Cuban Hat Prize, made up of donations from Forum observers and participants amounting to approximately $1,690 in many currencies plus a Hot Docs gift of two free tickets to next year's Forum, went to a project by Hanna Polak, the director of the Oscar-nominated Children of Leningradsky. The proposed doc, Svalka: Yula's Journey, is over a decade in the making, as Polak has been recording the life of Yula, a child of Moscow's slums, since she was 11 years old.


The Hot Docs Forum. Photo: Jospeh Michael


Radshaw and Hot Docs teamed up with Brett Gaylor and some of his team at Mozilla to create a two-day workshop called Hot Hacks. Part of the Living Docs project, intended to promote openness in documentary culture, filmmakers were paired with Web designers to create and augment existing projects. In Las Sures, for example, the titular 1980s documentary will provide a context for a series of new online docs set in the same South Williamsburg neighborhood 30 years later. Another participating team includes acclaimed No Logo author Naomi Klein, her filmmaking partner Avi Lewis and webmaker Katie McKenna, who are developing a multi-platform book/ documentary/website/series of events about climate change, entitled The Message.

Also weighing in with a project is Eye Steel Film founding filmmaker Daniel Cross with a doc on Turcot, Montreal's decaying highway interchange; according to Cross' proposal, the project will use "geo-tagging, narrative slide shows, onionskin maps (before and after) and a chronological historical timeline; the intention is to better identify the geographical areas that will be impacted."

Eye Steel Film was involved in another innovation, Hot Docs Live!, a simultaneous screening across Canada of two feature documentaries. Set up like the Met's Live in HD opera film series, Hot Docs partnered with Canada's Cineplex Entertainment to show Eye Steel's China Heavyweight and Indie Game: The Movie in 35 movie theatres nation-wide. The response was quite positive, offering the possibility of more collaborations in the future.

Hot Docs presented its ten awards with $71,000 in cash prizes, on Friday, May 4. The Canadian Feature award-winner was Nisha Pahuja's The World Before Her, which also won the Best Documentary award at Tribeca a week earlier. The festival jury hailed the film as a "brave and provocative exploration of the role of women at its two extremes in contemporary Indian society." It garnered a $10,000 prize.

The Special Jury Prize of $5,000 went to the environmental doc Peace Out, by Charles Wilkinson, while the Inspirit Foundation Pluralism Award worth $10,000 went to Ariel J. Nasr's The Boxing Girls of Kabul.

Call Me Kuchu, Malika Zouhali-Worrall and Katherine Fairfax Wright's film about gay rights in Uganda, followed up its prize at the Berlin Film Festival with the Best International Feature Award, worth $10,000. Two awards supporting young directors and in honor of departed Canadian film stalwarts, producer Don Haig and writer-director Lindalee Tracey, were also announced. The Haig Prize worth $20,000 went to Mia Donovan, director of the controversial Inside Lara Roxx, while the Tracey Award worth $10,000 was awarded to Halifax filmmaker Jasmine Oore.


From Malika Zouhali-Worrall and Katherine Fairfax-Wright's Call Me Kuchu, which won the Best International Feature Award. 


Based in Toronto, Marc Glassman is editor of Point of View magazine and Montage magazine.