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Not a Teenager Anymore: Hot Docs Celebrates its 20th Anniversary

By Marc Glassman

It's hard to discuss the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival without weighing in with superlatives. This is an event that just grows and grows, absolutely dominating the cultural landscape of Toronto for the first half of its 11-day run (from April 25 through May 5 this year) and maintaining a strong interest throughout—rather like Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) does every September.

Toronto's TV news shows, magazines and newspapers, both mainstream—the Globe and Mail and Star—and alternative—NOW and The Grid—follow the lead of an early Hot Docs convert, the CBC, which filled its radio shows with interviews and learned commentary on some of the major docs at the festival. Such locals as John Kastner, whose film NCR: Not Criminally Responsible deals with a hot-button issue involving people who are mentally disturbed and the moral and legal ramifications for those attacked by them; Kelly O'Brien, the maker of a poetic and quite moving film Softening, about her severely brain-damaged child; and Shawney Cohen, the creator of the controversial Opening Night film about his dysfunctional family and their strip club, The Manor, all garnered a great deal of attention.    

Torontonians love a success story, which helps to swell the numbers every year for Hot Docs and TIFF. This year's announced figure of 180,000 attendees outdid last year's total of 169,000. The festival had 418 public screenings—157 of which went rush—of 204 films on 16 screens across Toronto. Over 180 filmmakers and 55 doc subjects attended Hot Docs, satisfying queries at screenings, responding to media requests and, in many cases, pitching their next projects to a large group of international broadcasting commissioning editors.

A team of 11 programmers, led by British-born director Charlotte Cook and Canadian Lynne Fernie, reviewed 2,386 applications to come up with their selections. Do the math—getting into an event as big as Hot Docs offers filmmakers a one-in-ten odds.

Despite the daunting figures, you can see why documentarians want to screen at the festival. Crowds in Toronto are sophisticated and respectful. "Their questions are usually pointed," observes Robin Smith, the Bloor Hot Docs cinema programmer and CEO of the doc distribution company Kinosmith. "I noticed that the numbers actually grew during the week, with line-ups around the block for screenings at the Bloor. As a distributor, I find it useful to spend time outside of theaters after Hot Docs screenings to hear the audience's comments because they're often really perceptive."

The award winners were announced on May 3 at a prestigious niche venue, the Windsor Arms Hotel, in a presentation by CBC radio's genial host Jian Ghomeshi. The best International Feature went to a truly global work, Dragon Girls, by German filmmaker Inigo Westmeier, about three young women attending a Chinese martial arts school in the northern Henan province. Set next to the Shaolin Temple, the birthplace of kung fu, the Tagou School has over 20,000 students, including the three profiled "girls." Westmeier's camera feasts on grand scenes of choreographed martial rituals, which evoke Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger and Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia. With verve and compassion, she captures China's "lonely generation," children who have been effectively abandoned by parents intent on making enough money to cope with the demands of a newly capitalist economy.


From Inigo Westmeier's Dragon Girls.


The Special International Jury Prize was also awarded to a Chinese film, Cloudy Mountains, a beautifully constructed and intensely human doc, which, according to the jury citation, showed "an isolated community struggling to keep its humanity despite the overwhelming industrial wreckage resulting from the pursuit of blind economic growth."

The best Canadian Documentary Award went to the autobiographical work When I Walk by Jason DaSilva. DaSilva made the film, about his ongoing struggles with multiple sclerosis, with Alice Cook, his American wife and caregiver. Tremendously moving, but leavened with a sense of humor, When I Walk is a deserved winner of the $10,000 prize. "Its honesty gives a rare view into the challenges of making a self-reflexive documentary when you lose some control as a director and participant," commented Canadian programmer Alex Rogalski, pointing out that Cook gradually had to take over as co-editor, co-producer and co-writer of the film as DaSilva's illness progressed.


Jason DaSilva, from his film When I Walk.


The other Canadian prize-winners for, respectively, directorial vision and emerging filmmaking talent, were garnered by Hugo Latulippe for his gorgeously shot Alphée of the Stars, which documents his family's struggles with their developmentally challenged daughter, and Nicolas Renaud for Brave New River, a film that examines how hydroelectric projects in Quebec's James Bay have changed the environment and the lives of the area's historic Cree tribe.

Hot Docs offers a special Filmmakers Award, chosen by documentarians whose work is among the festival's official programmed selections. This year, two films tied for the prize: These Birds Walk, by Bassam Tariq and Omar Mullick, a verité doc about the Edhi Home, which cares for displaced and orphaned children in Karachi, Pakistan; and the extraordinary The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear, a film made in Georgia, a picturesque but impoverished country in the Caucasus region, just south of Russia.

Tinatin Gurchiani's film uses audition interviews with Georgian young adults to open up a lens on a land and people in transition from a traditional rural life, which resembles that of Appalachia, to the alienated but cool existences that many spend in cities like the capital, Tbilisi. Immensely imaginative and compassionate, Gurchiani turns her camera on a wide assortment of people including an elder Georgian who wanders in, hoping to play a character actor in the film (he does, unwittingly) to a young man desperate to have his imprisoned brother's girlfriend continue to write to him in jail, to a glamorously sad Goth woman who would like to have a machine make her disappear.


From Tinatin Gurchiani's The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear.


The Audience Award went to Muscle Shoals, Greg "Freddy" Camalier's look at the Alabama township where such acclaimed rhythm and blues artists Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, The Staple Singers and Wilson Pickett recorded some of the greatest soul songs of the '60s. Maureen Gosling and Chris Simon's doc This Ain't No Mouse Music! also proved popular with Toronto's audiences. Ranked number seven in the Hot Docs poll, their film profiles Chris Strachwitz, a German who came to the American South in the '60s and never looked back, creating one of the finest roots music record labels, Arhoolie, which championed such notables as blues legends Mance Lipscomb and Lightnin' Hopkins, zydeco great Clifton Chenier and Tejano accordionist Flaco Jimenez.

Simon and Gosling dedicate their film to Les Blank, who was a longtime collaborator with both of them and Strachwitz. Hot Docs' Outstanding Achievement Award deservedly went to Blank, who passed away this spring. Like Strachwitz, Blank's art was in documenting authentic culture, whether it was the Creole and Cajun in Louisiana, the Chicanos in California and Texas or the rural blacks in the American South of the '50s and '60s. Mouse Music is full of the passion and poetry reminiscent of Blank's best works; the film offers clips from The Blues According to Lightnin' Hopkins, Marc and Ann and A Well Spent Life, all of which also appeared in the festival's retrospective.

A major factor in Hot Docs' international appeal is the festival's assiduous attention to the economic aspects of making films. It's been 14 years since Executive Director Chris McDonald and his team embraced the Documentary Forum model initiated by IDFA (International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam). Those gladiator-style pitch sessions, in which a producer-director-broadcaster team attempts to persuade a table filled with hardened international commissioning editors to finance their project, still dominates two days of industry meetings at Hot Docs. But the Forum was supplemented this year by a new initiative, Deal Maker, in which a producer-director (or duo) interacts directly with a buyer who has already expressed interest in the project.

Elizabeth Radshaw, Hot Docs' industry program director, seemed to be everywhere during the festival—helping to organize a weekend "hot hacks" session with Mozilla Firefox, giving her blessings to a "Connect the Docs" event that awarded the best interactive website, making sure that Deal Maker rolled out correctly, and even finding time to pitch with four presenters at the Forum.

"It's a behemoth," says Radshaw about Hot Docs, "but we try to keep a feeling of intimacy. Every year filmmakers come up to me and say, ‘Thank you for taking care of us.' We really do care about who they are and what they want to make in the future.

"We spent last summer polling the industry asking what their needs are now," Radshaw continues. "Their response was, ‘We need more match-making curation.' They didn't want us to lose the Forum and its funding of POV one-off docs. But they wanted us to accommodate projects for broadcast: science, history, blue chip and series, arts and culture, and even some experimental pieces.

"We did that with Deal Maker. We worked with filmmakers on their trailers and pitches. And we talked to commissioning editors about new filmmakers and new projects. It's all about building relationships!"

The numbers for Hot Docs' industry events are huge. Forum attendees saw 20 projects representing 12 countries presented to over 180 commissioning editors and other funders, while at Deal Maker, 55 projects were pitched to 50 buyers at approximately 400 meetings.

The winner of the $10,000 Forum pitch prize was Some Kind of Love, a Canadian project presented by producer Trish Dolman of Screen Siren Pictures, director Thomas Burstyn and British Columbia-based Knowledge Network broadcaster Murray Battle. Despite its Canadian credentials, the project is British- and American-oriented, dealing with the often-fractious relationship between two elderly siblings, Yolanda, a London-based artist and former set designer now diagnosed with Alzheimer's, and her brother Joseph, a famous AIDS doctor in New York, forced to return home to take care of his sister.

Over the course of the two-day Forum sessions, Some Kind of Love was the only project where one broadcast executive, Sarah Jane Flynn of Canada's Shaw Media, committed an actual figure, $50,000, outbidding Marguerite Piggott of Super Channel. In the old days, such activity was normal—but these are tougher economic times.

A $10,000 prize was offered to the best Deal Maker as well. The winning pitch was Spitting Venom, a doc focusing on rap battles in New York, Toronto and elsewhere. Director Ken Galloway seemed slightly nonplussed by the award, which he didn't find out about until two days after the festival concluded. He ascribed the pitch's success to a "trailer we're proud of" and concluded ruefully, "Now we only need $290,000 to get our budget together."

While the Forum takes place in a huge room, with other doc-makers, producers and commissioning editors watching the projects being pitched, Deal Maker takes place in a one-on-one setting. Asked to describe what it's like, award-winning filmmaker John Kastner observed, "It was sort of a Dickensian scene: A large university hall with rows of long tables, the beseechers on one side, the beseeched bent over their notes on the other. The commissioning editors who had chosen to meet with you had selected your project as a possible after reading a brief description of it. Like any dating site-arranged rendez-vous, you desperately hoped your swain would not be disappointed after meeting you in person. And towards the closing minutes of your pitch, hovering nearby, was the next beseecher, circling overhead like a vulture, determined that you would not eat into his precious 15 minutes."

Radshaw and the Hot Docs team realize that digital technology is changing documentary culture. Filmmakers have to think about their websites, not just for promotion, but to further the documentary experience provided in their films. Some filmmakers are creating documentary works solely online, or as apps or games.

Hot Hacks, in its second year at the festival, allowed five filmmaking teams to work with new media technologists Mozilla and Secret Location to produce the beginning of a Web documentary. Book of Judith, a project by director Sarah Goodman and producer Amit Breuer, was one of the selected quintet of candidates.

Goodman found the two-day experience to be "awesome and enlightening." Her project focuses on Judith Snow, a quadriplegic artist who has been the subject of a successful Toronto play. Breuer and Goodman want to create a site that will explore the senses as experienced by someone in Snow's condition. "We decided to concentrate on sight, touch and sound," explains Goodman. "In the film, we want to have a choir of able-bodied and disabled people. For the Web, we thought of making a virtual choir with people of different abilities." In less than two days, a choir was created, and it became the major part of their five-minute presentation. "A girl who was there wanted to add her voice to the choir and we were able to accommodate her, right on the spot," says Goodman.

The other initiative undertaken by Hot Docs in tandem with Cuban Hat organizers Giulia Frati and Diego Briceño was Connect the Docs, billed as the first transmedia pitching session. The winning team was the Lost Time Media duo of Robinder Uppal and Marc Serpa Francoeur, who are just graduating Ryerson University's Masters in Documentary Media program. The World in Ten Blocks focuses on a Toronto shopping district, which is owned mainly by recent immigrants to Canada. Through their stories, it's possible to learn a great deal about what it's like to work and live in Toronto while holding on to important aspects of life elsewhere, in homelands that are far away from Canada.

Docmedia guru and jury member Peter Wintonick enthused about the project: "It will be a great, yet simple intermedia doc app and trans-platform vehicle, which will give Web-based users a video-rich personal data-and image-base immersion into the immigration experiences of small business owners in one of the world's most culturally diverse cities. For now, one will be able to interactively access individual video stories or a montage of impressions around different subject areas combining the whole group."

Thinking of the future of documentary filmmaking, Radshaw observes, "We need more conferences and workshops. There's a great need to approach our business differently in a changing landscape. Who are our customers now? We need a new toolset. Can we find different paying models? It takes magic, not just money to make documentaries." 

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