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Hot Docs: A Global Feast

By Marc Glassman

The 17th annual Hot Docs festival in Toronto started with a bang--I almost wrote "a rush"--with an Opening Night gala presentation of Thomas Balmès' Babies and a premiere of Scott McFadyen and Sam Dunn's new rock doc Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage. After the films, there was a "green carpet" party at the Royal Ontario Museum (recently renovated by celebrity architect Daniel Libeskind) featuring local cocktails, eco-cuisine and a fairly hefty ticket price--$175--for a good cause: "The Friends of the Environment." The spirit at the after-party was effervescent, with the doc community--local and international--out in force to chat, drink, flirt and dance. If this is an industry in crisis, you certainly couldn't tell it at the ROM.

Over the course of the following week and a half, from April 20 to May 9, Hot Docs screened 166 films in 10 programs ranging from a South American survey to a retrospective on British veteran vérité specialist Kim Longinotto. Lovers of docs and stats will find it hard to stop dwelling on details. The festival presented lots of premieres:  20 world, 30 international, 26 North American, 48 Canadian and 16 Toronto. 

Docs from around the globe were represented: 47 from the US, 30 Canadian, 20 from the UK, 10 from Germany, seven from Brazil, six from the Netherlands and, well, you get the drift. Even Yemen and the Republic of Cameroon made the cut, with one doc apiece. The best stat of all? Forty-eight docs were from first-time filmmakers.

While all of this constitutes good news for the documentary and independent film scenes, one should approach all of the merriment around Hot Docs--and other documentary fests this year--with caution. True, this is clearly a landmark year in what is now one of Toronto's iconic festivals. But it's also certain that funding sources for docs are drying up around the world as the market for TV viewers and advertising dollars continues to fracture and governments grow increasingly reluctant to fund arty projects or prop up threatened public-minded broadcasters. And without TV dollars or arts council grants, many of the docs selected for this festival would never have been made.

Working to address the dodgy funding situation worldwide, the Toronto Documentary Forum's (TDF) director, Elizabeth Radshaw, "asked producers to explore and develop their projects' distribution, engagement and interactive strategies as part of their submissions." Thirty projects were pitched over two days, as well as an improvised submission chosen out of a "mountie's hat."

With the projects a mixed bag dealing with subjects as diverse as the traumatic and dramatic lives of height-challenged females (Tall Girls), the impact on the continent of soccer's first African World Cup (Africa10) and the gay-related reason behind the killing that started Nazi Gemany's viciously anti-Semitic Kristallnacht (Nice Jewish Boy), the TDF is always exciting. It transports us out of the quotidian festival experience and into a theater of dreams. For two days, the passions of filmmakers are played out in a room full of friends, rivals and potential backers.

The big winner of this year's TDF was doubtlessly Yung Chang, the acclaimed director of Up the Yangtze. He came in with two projects, China Heavyweight and The Fruit Hunters, both of which scored well with the 450 industry observers and 120 commissioning editors attending the sessions. Doc guru and China Heavyweight producer Peter Wintonick, of Manufacturing Consent and IDFA's Talks acclaim, started the pitch posing as a boxing announcer, standing towards the middle of the stage, swaying and intoning "in this corner, the light heavyweight champ Yung Chang will present his latest documentary project."

Wintonick got laughs and everyone's attention for a film about amateur boxers in China training under the watchful eye of a pugilistic Buddhist master for the 2012 Olympics. Among the enthusiastic respondents to the project was Patricia Finneran of the Sundance Institute, who started the next pitch (for Jonathan Stack's doc proposal Connected) by saying that "it's unfair to follow Peter." Wintonick observed a few days after the pitch that "there's never enough money, but we should be ready to go into production by the fall."

Yung did even better with EyeSteelFilm's producer Mila Aung-Thwin for The Fruit Hunters, which will investigate the seductive smells, colors and tastes in exotic fruit--and the people who are fighting to preserve them around the globe. Again, there was a gimmick: three commissioning editors were given a fruit to eat, which changes a human's taste buds from tart to sweet for a few minutes. At the end of the pitch, which included the possibility of having the film be a "doc Avatar" shot in 3D by potential producing partner the National Film Board of Canada (NFB), the trio was asked to eat lemons. Each pronounced the taste to resemble lemonade.


The team behind The Fruit Hunters, which won the CanWest-Hot Docs TDF Pitch prize. Photo: Joseph Michael



The Fruit Hunters won the Canwest-Hot Docs TDF Pitch Prize, which includes $40,000 (Canadian) and is voted upon by the international commissioning editors at the Forum. A second prize of $15,000, awarded by the NFB for "digital development" was given to The House that Herman Built, a project with an intriguing cross-media element. The story of a friendship between artist Jackie Sumell and Herman Wallace, a Black Panther radical imprisoned in solitary confinement for 38 years has developed creatively over the past eight years. Sumell worked with Wallace to come up with his dream house and that plan has turned into a potential community space for youths in New Orleans, Herman's hometown. Charmingly, the project also garnered the Cuban Hat, a "real cash, no strings attached" prize by colleagues attending the TDF. A total of $1013.67 was donated, including $500CD from EyeSteelFilm, $18 US, 5 Czech koruna, 2 Israeli shekels, 38 Malaysian cents, 20 pence and a Toronto transit token. (The design for Herman Wallace's project will be interactive and available online; for more information, check


From the website for The House That Herman Built. Left to right: artist Jackie Sumell; a plan for inmate and former Black Panther Herman Wallace's dream house; Herman Wallce. 


The festival, which drew record attendance numbers of over 136,000, gave its Audience Award to Thunder Soul, Mark Landsman's film about the 35th year reunion of Houston, Texas's all-black and very funky Kashmere High School Band. Israeli filmmaker Yael Hersonski garnered the Best International Feature Award and $10,000 for A Film Unfinished, a beautifully realized deconstruction of a never-released Nazi propaganda film about Warsaw's Jewish ghetto. Laura Poitras garnered $5,000 and a Special Jury Prize for The Oath, her film about Osama bin Laden's former driver, as well as his brother-in-law, who was a prisoner of the US in Guantanamo.


From Yael Hersonski's A Film Unfinished, which won the Best International Feature Award.



Director Shelley Saywell, like Poitras, fearlessly took on a Muslim subject for her Best Canadian Feature Award-winner, In the Name of the Family. The powerful, vérité-style doc investigates honor killings, when fundamentalist fathers kill their daughters for becoming Westernized in their dress and beliefs. The jury, which gave Saywell $15,000, stated in part, "We were all moved by the young teenage Muslim women struggling to figure out their own identities, caught between two opposing worlds, to whom it gave voice."


From Shelley Saywell's In the Name of the Family, which won the Best Canadian Feature Award.



The Special Jury Prize for a Canadian Feature, which is accompanied by $10,000, was given to Oscar-winner John Zaritsky's Leave Them Laughing, a moving portrait of feisty comic and cabaret singer Carla Zilbersmith, who is a dying of ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease). Israeli filmmaker Tomer Heymann won the Best Mid-Length Award (and $3000) for I Shot My Love, about the challenging relationship between a German and Jew. Swede Jonas Odell garnered the best Short Prize for Tussilago, an animated doc set in the radical 1970s about a young woman's relationship to a German terrorist.

Last, but hardly least, the HBO Emerging Artist Award went to Jeff Maimberg for the eerie and moving Marwencol about Mark Hogencamp, who has re-created his life after a terrible beating through the creation of his own miniature world, populated by Barbie dolls, GIs and Nazis, all of which he has re-painted and re-imagined.


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