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Hot Docs at 26: Brilliant Business, As Usual

By Marc Glassman

Friom Tasha Hubbard's "nîpawistamâsowin: We Will Stand Up," which won the Best Canadian Documentary Award at Hot Docs. Courtesy of Hot Docs

Everybody loves an anniversary. Hot Docs had its celebrations last year when Canada’s biggest documentary festival turned silver to massive industry and popular acclaim. Soldiering on after the accolades, Toronto’s major doc organization resumed its lofty trajectory this year, including the nearly inevitable breaking of the seasonal audience count, which went up to 228,000. Hot Docs’ public performance figures are impressive: there were 451 public screenings of 234 films on 14 screens across Toronto; over 300 filmmakers and subjects participated in public presentations; and—pity the programmers—2,951 films were submitted to Hot Docs #26.

The industry side continued to increase its productivity, too. Watch for it—there are many more figures to impart: the festival hosted 2,626 industry members, with many attending from delegations ranging from Chile to Japan, Europe to the Yukon and Bermuda to the Nordic countries. They were invited to attend six workshops, four Kickstarter panels for emerging filmmakers, 17 conference sessions, 15+ networking events and parties, six micro-meetings, the Doc Summit, and the Hot Docs Awards Presentation.

Hot Docs’ professional highlights include Deal Maker, which coordinates one-on-one sessions with funders and filmmakers; Close-up sessions, where funders reveal what they’re looking for; the self-explanatory Distribution Rendezvous; and the long-running Forum, featuring 21 doc projects pitched to over 300 commissioning editors, drawing full-capacity audiences for its two-day run. Here are more industry figures—then I swear I’ll stop: 56 projects were pitched at approximately 800+ pre-arranged meetings during Hot Docs Deal Maker, while their Distribution Rendezvous facilitated approximately 635 meetings for 119 projects.

Like many forward-thinking festivals, Hot Docs offers events that go beyond screenings with short Q&As. The long-running Big Ideas program, by contrast, foregrounds discussions and gives them the length they deserve. This year’s series opened with the globally acclaimed activist Ai Weiwei, whose film The Rest had its North American premiere at the festival, talking about the deeply unsettled lives of refugees currently living in Europe, where their stay is under attack by “populist” nationalists in too many countries.

Another feature at Hot Docs was DocX, which offers the public the opportunity to experience interdisciplinary pieces, many in VR. Three works expanded the acclaimed Jennifer Baichwal/Ed Burtynsky/Nick de Pencier ecological documentary and gallery installation AnthropoceneCarrara, Dandora and the devastating Ivory Burn—in visual and audio ways. Peabody Award-winning artist and futurist thinker Katerina Cizek (the director of the Web doc A Short History of the High Rise) presented a live and digital event on Canada’s Constitution entitled Supreme Law.

OK—what about the films? The Best Canadian Documentary Award went to director Tasha Hubbard, whose film was the first feature directed by an Indigenous woman to open a major Canadian festival. nîpawistamâsowin: We Will Stand Up is her sobering account of the shooting of a young Cree man, Colten Boushie, because he and his friends had trespassed on a white farmer’s land. Despite the incontestable fact that Boushie was shot “accidentally” in the back of the head, Mafia-style, the farmer was not even convicted of manslaughter, receiving an acquittal from an all-white Saskatchewan jury. In Canada, the Boushie case is the equivalent of the Trayvon Martin shooting: a racially motivated murder with no consequences. Hubbard’s film, which has since gone on to win the Colin Low Award for Canadian documentary at the Vancouver festival DOXA, is unlikely to have the same impact in the United States as it has already had in Canada. This country is far more focused on Indigenous issues than the US, which foregrounds its concerns on African-American vs White relations rather than on those of First Nations people. Take it from this Canadian correspondent: nîpawistamâsowin: We Will Stand Up is a powerful film, appropriately produced by the National Film Board of Canada.
The Special Jury Prize for a Canadian feature doc went to veteran director Matt Gallagher for Prey, a compassionate look at a sexual abuse survivor and his day in court against the Catholic Church. The Hot Docs jury praised the film for its “extraordinary access and masterful edit,” by co-producer/editor Nick Hector.

The Best International Documentary Award was given to Thai director Pailin Wedel for Hope Frozen, which recounts the attempts by a Buddhist scientist and his family to preserve their deceased baby daughter through cryogenics. Issues of religion, grief and mortality are strewn throughout this very human tale. The Special Jury Prize in the Feature International category went to For Sama, the personal story of Waad al-Kateab, a Syrian woman who marries and has a child despite the horrifying war that is taking place around her. Her video diary records her thoughts and emotions as she has to decide whether baby Sama and her husband should move with her from the devastations in Aleppo. Co-directed by Edward Watts, al-Kateab’s film offers insights into the human consequences of an interminable war in the Middle East.

The Emerging International Award went to Nuno Escudeiro for his beautifully made film The Valley, which, like Ai Weiwei’s doc, deals with the refugee crisis in Europe. The difference between the startling terrain on the French-Italian border, where illegal migrants attempt to cross, and their dire situation is played out quite well. The attempts by denizens of the area to help these people is moving and occasionally effective, adding to the overwhelming humanitarian notion behind the film. The Best International Mid-length Documentary went to my personal favorite at this year’s Hot Docs, The Symphony of the Ursus Factory. This Polish film by Jaśmina Wójcik is a truly imaginative recreation of what it was like to work in a factory during the Cold War. Voiceovers of their lives contextualize the histories of these older citizens who spent significant time in what is now an abandoned factory. Playing out their past roles, the former workers emulate the sounds and movements of the industrial age in what becomes a choreographed evocation of a time now long gone.

From Jaśmina Wójcik's "The Symphony of the Ursas Factory." Courtesy of Hot Docs

Hot Docs’ retrospectives spotlighted two Julias: Reichert, the distinguished American filmmaker, won the Outstanding Achievement Award for her engaged, politically charged work, while Ivanova, a Russian-Canadian, garnered the Focus On…Prize for her thoughtful, humanistic work. Peter Raymont, a multi-award-winning producer, director and writer, who runs one of Canada’s most respected production companies, White Pine Pictures, and has made films on such figures as Glenn Gould, Ariel Dorfman and Romeo Dallaire, deservedly garnered the Don Haig Award for “his creative vision and entrepreneurship.”

The Forum, Hot Docs’ famous two-day set of pitch sessions, celebrated its 20th anniversary this year. Where it will be in five years, or even next year, is anyone’s guess. A quick reminder: The Forum, like IDFA’s and many around the world, has filmmakers and producers pitch projects for seven minutes, followed by an eight-minute round table of responses from commissioning editors. An audience watches the sessions from the balcony—and some of those silent members may offer financing opportunities later in one-on-ones.

Veteran industry professionals remember when the commissioning editors had money at their disposal and could make decisions without consulting their superiors in broadcasting organizations. That’s rarely the case now. Mind you, the pitches are better than ever, with slicker trailers and punchy, well-rehearsed speeches about the great docs that are going to be made, assuming they’re financed. The problem is that the commissioning editors waffle a lot and the proceedings are further hampered by moderators, who bat many interesting questions away, saying, “You can discuss this in one-on-one sessions.”

There were winners at the Forum, many of which can’t be discussed beyond one-liners, as producers are wary of giving away details about their projects. Midwives, the big $30,000 (Canadian) prize winner, focuses on two women from different cultural and religious backgrounds are working together in a perilous part of the world. The project is being produced by the Canadian company EyeSteelFilm and the German organization AMA, while the filmmaker Hnin (Snow) Ei Hlaing is from Myanamar. The second prize, worth $20,000 (Can.), went to Colour of the Wind, a Finnish-German-Canadian production, which boasted an effective trailer, depicting the rise of disastrous dust storms worldwide.

Twice Colonized, a co-production between the Danish company Anorak Film Greenland and Unikkaat Studios, a Nunavut (Canada) organization, won both the $20,000 Surprise Prize and the $10,000 Corus-Hot Docs Pitch Prize. The film will concentrate on the life of Aaju Peter, an Inuit from Greenland, now living in Nunavut, who was the major presence in Angry Inuk, a hit Canadian documentary directed by Alethea Arnaqug-Baril, now one of the producers of the new film.

Finally, the wonderfully populist Cuban Hat Award went to Bo McGuire and Tatania Bear’s Socks on Fire: Uncle John and the Copper Headed Water Rattlers, an intimate doc about a dysfunctional Southern family. The team won, in part, $895.56 (Can), $135.80 (US), five British pounds, 18 Turkish lire, an additional $1,000 (Can) plus passes to next year’s festival from Hot Docs, a homestay in Copenhagen, consultation from Films Transit,  $2,500 (Can) in camera rentals and post-production services from Cine-Ground in Montreal, and two “We are the North” Toronto Raptors t-shirts. 

Marc Glassman is the editor of the Canadian documentary magazine POV and an adjunct professor in the Documentary Media program at Ryerson University. He reviews films every week for the Toronto radio station Classical 96.3FM and is the artistic director of the literary event program Pages UnBound.