In less than one week, Toronto’s Hot Docs, North America’s largest documentary festival, kicks off its twentieth edition, which will run through Sunday, May 5. An essential stop on the doc fest circuit, I’ve been fortunate to attend for the past several years, and will be covering the event for Indiewire once again. Like Amsterdam’s IDFA, what’s especially notable about Hot Docs is its ability not only to draw a huge general public audience, but to attract the participation of nonfiction industry players, especially decision makers for key international broadcasters and funds. The latter annually take meetings and hear pitches in the accompanying Hot Docs Forum, for which I was honored to serve on the selection committee this year, and which I plan to include in my coverage as I have done in the past. That said, my main focus will be on the films – as many of the 205 titles appearing in the lineup as I can see during my time there. Director of Programming Charlotte Cook and her team culled this year’s selections, representing 43 countries, from 2386 submissions, organizing them into eleven different sections. The following spotlights the feature docs I’m most looking forward to, going section-by-section:
Hot Docs launches its anniversary edition with director Shawney Cohen and co-director Mike Gallay’s THE MANOR (pictured), a personal look at Cohen’s dysfunctional family and the strip club that they run. This opening night film appears as one of the fest’s Special Presentations, which beyond featuring an impressive curation of some of the highlights of Sundance and SXSW, also include: Gus Holwerda’s THE UNBELIEVERS, about evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss’ attempts to stimulate meaningful public discussions around science and logic as an antidote to the divisiveness of religion; Raoul Peck’s FATAL ASSISTANCE, a damning exposé of the failure of international aid to post-earthquake Haiti; AJ Schnack’s CAUCUS, following the 2012 Republican presidential hopefuls in the leadup to Iowa; and Julia Ivanova’s HIGH FIVE: A SUBURBAN ADOPTION SAGA, about the cross-cultural complications that result when a Canadian couple adopts five Ukrainian siblings.
The festival holds two main competitions, one for international docs, the other for homegrown nonfiction. In the former category are the twenty-five films in the International Spectrum, which, in addition to singling out circuit standouts like CUTIE AND THE BOXER, 12 O’CLOCK BOYS, and TEENAGE, introduce audiences to titles like: Jon Bang Carlsen’s JUST THE RIGHT AMOUNT OF VIOLENCE, a hybrid look at the methods a Utah reform school takes to set troubled kids straight; another hybrid, Peter Anthony’s unusual, melodramatic THE MAN WHO SAVED THE WORLD, following a conflicted, curmudgeonly Russian who prevented a nuclear war back in 1983; Denis Klebleev’s 31ST HAUL, a portrait of life in a remote Russian village; Bram Conjaerts’ THE CIRCLE, on the Large Hadron Collider, and the residents of the towns below which it was built; Guzmán Garcia’s LOVE STILL, in which the director asks older people to reflect on love; and Dan Shadur’s BEFORE THE REVOLUTION (pictured), a personal excavation of the experiences of the Israeli ex-patriot community in the Shah’s Iran.
Eighteen Canuck documentaries vie for jury recognition in the Canadian Spectrum. Among the most intriguing here are: Michael Jorgensen’s UNCLAIMED, an investigation into the claims of an elderly man that he is a presumed dead Vietnam vet former POW; Mathieu Fontaine’s DEAD OR ALIVE (pictured), exploring the work of funeral directors and undertakers in Quebec; Kent Nason and Teresa MacInnes’ BUYING SEX, looking at the debate over the decriminalization of sex work and shifting laws against johns instead; Liz Marshall’s THE GHOSTS IN OUR MACHINE, following an activist as she documents industrial abuse of animals; John Paskievich’s SPECIAL ED, a portrait of an eccentric would-be politician who dreams of finishing his decades-in-the-making animated film; and John Kastner’s NCR: NOT CRIMINALLY RESPONSIBLE, about the efforts of a formerly psychologically imbalanced violent offender to secure release from the psychiatric facility he’s spent the past twelve years.
Moving over to the non-competitive sections of the festival, World Showcase presents more than thirty features, including: Rena Mundo Croshere and Nadine Mundo’s AMERICAN COMMUNE (pictured), two sisters’ personal revisitation of growing up in the legendary Tennessee commune the Farm; Laura Checkoway’s LUCKY, a portrait of a tough, facially-tattooed New Yorker who struggles with motherhood, homelessness, and a troubled past; Victor Buhler’s A WHOLE LOTT MORE, a character-driven look at an economically beleaguered auto factory that employs workers with developmental disabilities; Matthew Pond and Kirk Marcolina’s THE LIFE AND CRIMES OF DORIS PAYNE, a profile of a notorious octogenarian jewel thief; Alejandro Solar Luna’s THE CONVICT PATIENT, about a Mexican man who was forcibly disappeared for his political activism; Justin Webster’s I WILL BE MURDERED, an investigation into the murder of a Guatemalan lawyer who predicted he would be assassinated by his own President; Marta Dauliuté and Elisabeth Marjanovic Cronvall’s SECOND CLASS, in which the filmmakers win the trust of two Lithuanian migrant workers to reveal their vulnerability; and Riaan Hendricks’ THE DEVIL’S LAIR, about a South African gang member and the growing demands of his family.
Introduced last year, Nightvision is a clever sidebar that focuses on films that expand the limits of conventional doc making. On my list here are: Morgan Matthews’ SHOOTING BIGFOOT (pictured), bringing BLAIR WITCH style theatrics to a search for the legendary Sasquatch; Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s SEARCHING FOR BILL, a hybrid cross-country road movie in search of a stolen car; Jeanie Finlay’s THE GREAT HIP HOP HOAX, exploring what happens when two Scottish mates affect California identities to make it in the music industry; and Amy Finkel’s FUREVER, an often affecting look at the limits people will go to maintain a connection with their deceased pets.
Special to Hot Docs this year is a thematic cousin to the preceding program – Rule Breakers and Innovators offers a dozen films reflecting on cultural disrupters and pioneers. Selections include: Andreas M Dalsgaard’s THE HUMAN SCALE (pictured), in which city planner Jan Gehl argues for the re-imagining of cities for humans, not vehicles; Phie Ambo’s FREE THE MIND, following brain researcher Richard Davidson as he attempts to employ Buddhist meditation to treat mental disorders; Maja Borg’s FUTURE MY LOVE, an exploratory look at futurist Jacque Fresco’s transformative Venus Project; Merete Mueller and Christopher Smith’s TINY: A STORY ABOUT LIVING SMALL, in which the directors attempt to confine their belongings and ecological footprint to the size of a parking space; and Cullen Hoback’s TERMS AND CONDITIONS MAY APPLY, a sobering consideration of privacy and personal information in the digital age.
Music and art-focused docs screen in the festival’s Next section. Of the dozen titles on offer here that I haven’t yet seen, I’m most drawn to: James Leong and Lynn Lee’s THE GREAT NORTH KOREAN PICTURE SHOW, profiling the official starmaking of a North Korean director and actors; Damon Vignale’s THE EXHIBITION, about an artist’s controversial attempt to highlight racist and sexist barriers to the investigation of missing women in Vancouver; Reuben Atlas’ BROTHERS HYPNOTIC (pictured), a portrait of the musician sons of a famed trumpeter as they contemplate the future of their band; and Sini Anderson’s THE PUNK SINGER, about Bikini Kill and Le Tigre’s Kathleen Hanna.
Each year, Hot Docs turns their attention to one country or region for their “Made in” sidebar. This year it’s Poland, with a selection of features and shorts highlighting the Eastern European country’s nonfiction output, including Lidia Duda’s ENTANGLED, about the complicated history between a pedophile and one of his victims, imprisoned for trying to enact revenge; and Wiktoria Szymanska’s THE MAN WHO MADE ANGELS FLY (pictured), a portrait of a world class marionette master.
The festival features a strong retrospective element as well. In addition to a focus on the work of Peter Mettler and a posthumous achievement award retrospective of the recently deceased Les Blank, Hot Docs also offers a new section, Redux. A diverse selection of six older films screen, including Bill Ross’ RIVER (pictured), previously only presented in online webisodes, following the acclaimed Ross Brothers and friends as they sail from Ohio to New Orleans.