Hot Docs opens its 21st edition tonight, Thursday, April 24, and runs through Sunday, May 4. With nearly 150 new feature-length docs, plus more than a dozen retrospective selections, the festival is the largest nonfiction event in North America, drawing filmmakers, industry, and an impassioned audience to Toronto each year. I’ll be attending again, though my Nantucket duties have meant that I’ll only be at the festival for its final weekend, unfortunately missing the event’s corresponding Forum earlier in the week. While this means I’ll only manage to see a fraction of the fest’s offerings, the following provides a section-by-section run-down of the new titles that have most intrigued me:
The Special Presentations includes the opening night selection, Sundance alum (and future Nantucket title) THE INTERNET’S OWN BOY: THE STORY OF AARON SWARTZ; Chad Walker and Dave LaMattina’s portrait of the SESAME STREET icon, I AM BIG BIRD: THE CARROLL SPINNEY STORY (pictured); and Igal Hecht’s profile of the infamous WWF super villain, THE SHEIK.
A baker’s dozen of titles compete in the International Spectrum, among them: Gabriel London’s THE LIFE AND MIND OF MARK DEFRIEST, which questions the continued incarceration of a mentally troubled inmate with a penchant for escapes; Juan Passarelli and Mathew Charles’ THE ENGINEER, portrait of El Salvador’s sole criminologist; Jos de Putter’s SEE NO EVIL (pictured), a look at apes in retirement; Teodora Ana Mihai’s WAITING FOR AUGUST, about a Romanian teenager tasked to take care of her younger siblings in her mother’s absence; Helen Simon’s NO LULLABY, which explores patterns of sexual abuse within a family; and Eliza Kubarska’s WALKING UNDER WATER, focused on a young indigenous boy’s choice between traditional and modern ways.
National cinema shines in the 18 films of the Canadian Spectrum competition, including: Bahman Tavoosi’s A DRESS REHEARSAL FOR AN EXECUTION (pictured), a complex meditation on documentary photography, centered on a famed Iranian photo; Gregory Gan’s THE THEORY OF HAPPINESS, on a rural Ukrainian utopian community; Madeleine Grant’s THE BACKWARD CLASS, about a class of Indian “untouchables” prepping for their final exams; Julia Kwan’s EVERYTHING WILL BE, on the gentrification of Chinatown; Grant Baldwin’s JUST EAT IT: A FOOD WASTE STORY, in which the filmmakers live only on discarded food for six months; and John Kastner’s OUT OF MIND, OUT OF SIGHT, on the experiences of four patients at a forensic psychiatric hospital.
The non-competitive World Showcase provides viewers with a diverse range of international experiences, including: Kris Kaczor’s DIVIDE IN CONCORD, the story of a feisty eighty year old’s mission to ban bottled water; Andrea Kalin and Oliver Lukacs’ RED LINES, an insightful exploration of the Syrian crisis from the perspective of influential insiders; Tony Shaff’s HOTLINE, an exploration of the continued need for human connections in our increasingly digital world; Ryuji Otsuka’s THE BEIJING ANTS, on the rapidly rising cost of living in China; Johanna St Michaels’ PENTHOUSE NORTH, a look at a Swedish former beauty queen’s struggle to keep her NYC apartment; Simone Catharina Gaul’s BINTOU, about a fashion designer in Burkina Faso; Anne de Mare and Kirsten Kelly’s THE HOMESTRETCH, a portrait of homeless teen high school students; Randy Murray’s THE JOE SHOW, about Arizona’s controversial sheriff Joe Arpaio; Tim Toidze’s KHRUSHCHEV DOES AMERICA, an exploration of the Soviet Premier’s 1959 visit to the US; Matthias von Gunten’s THULETUVALU, a look at climate change’s impact on two diverse communities; Stephanie Wang-Breal’s TOUGH LOVE, an investigation into America’s child welfare system; and Ilkka Rautio’s WONDER WORLD OF ICE (pictured), about Chinese ice sculptors in Lapland.
The Nightvision section offers innovative expansions of the nonfiction form, including Adam Rifkin’s GIUSEPPE MAKES A MOVIE (pictured), on a prolific low-budget filmmaker; and William Westaway’s THE WRITER WITH NO HANDS, about an author’s obsession with the strange disappearance of a Hollywood screenwriter in 1997. The fest’s Mystery, Myth & Legend sidebar also delves into the arcane, such as Dave Jannetta’s LOVE AND TERROR ON THE HOWLING PLAINS OF NOWHERE, about the unusual death of a mathematics professor in Nebraska; and Karolina Bregula’s FIRE-FOLLOWERS, a pseudo-doc about a fictional city and its history of strange fires.
Art and music take the spotlight in Next, including: Lina Plioplyte’s ADVANCED STYLE (pictured), a profile of stylish senior women; Hyoungju Kim’s THE BASEMENT SATELLITE, on an art project aiming to construct the first civilian satellite; Jordi Morató’s THE CREATOR OF THE JUNGLE, about a hermit who builds an elaborate playground in a Spanish forest; Dennis Mohr’s MUGSHOT, a history of the titular photographic criminal record; and Paul Rigter’s THE NOSE – SEARCHING FOR BLAMAGE, following a perfumer’s creation of a new scent.
Relationships and affairs of the heart are the focus of the Love, Factually sidebar, which features: Jonathan Howells and Tom Robert’s ALFRED AND JAKOBINE (pictured), about a couple who circled the world in a London taxi cab; Elwira Niewiera and Piotr Rosolowski’s DOMINO EFFECT, on the personal and political troubles of an ambitious politician in an unrecognized Black Sea nation; Jonathon Narducci’s LOVE ME, a look at the Ukrainian mail-order bride industry; Geeta V Patel and Ravi V Patel’s MEET THE PATELS, a personal chronicle of looking for love; and Christian Frei’s SLEEPLESS IN NEW YORK, a look at heartbreak.
Finally, Hot Docs’ annual focus on one nation’s nonfiction output this year is Made in Denmark, a look at recent Danish documentary, such as Elvira Lind’s SONGS FOR ALEXIS, about a FTM musician whose girlfriend’s parents disapprove of their relationship; and Karen Stokkendal Poulsen’s THE AGREEMENT (pictured), in which the EU’s chief negotiator must mediate a territory dispute between enemies Serbia and Kosovo.