Arts Review, The Arts

Hot Docs Sizzle in Toronto

Hot Docs Sizzle in Toronto featured image

A little history

Everybody loves a success story and there are few that can match that of Toronto’s love affair with Hot Docs. Now celebrating its 20th anniversary, Hot Docs is second only to TIFF as the most popular film festival in Toronto. Starting with a bold name designed to counteract the general public’s perception of documentaries as earnest classroom fare, Hot Docs was initially embraced only by Canada’s public broadcasters and its own industry. Apart from sold out opening night screenings of films by British bad boy Nick Broomfield (Aileen Wuornos: Selling of a Serial Killer) and American Oscar winner Barbara Kopple (the Woody Allen biopic Wild Man Blues), the city didn’t immediately embrace the festival.

Torontonians aren’t fickle but they need to be wooed and won; then they become loyal. As the years progressed—and especially after 1998, when Chris McDonald was appointed as the festival’s executive director—Hot Docs grew from its solid foundations in Canada’s documentary community to become an event that has national and worldwide influence.

With the coming of its Documentary Forum in 2000, which brought in commissioning editors from all the major European and US broadcasters, the festival became vitally important to filmmakers across the globe who wanted to finance their next docs. Concurrently, Hot Docs began to programme Lifetime Achievement awards and Spotlights on national cinemas, which increased the presence in this city of internationally recognized artists.

Werner Herzog, Al Maysles, D.A. Pennebaker and Frederick Wiseman began to show up at Hot Docs—and the city began to take notice of its documentary festival. The growth since then has been stellar. From 69 films screened to 7000 people in 1999—the year before the Forum—Hot Docs hit a peak last year, with 189 documentaries being shown to 165,000 aficionados.

Hot Docs 2013: some glowing Canucks

Canadian films always occupy premier spots at the festival. This year is no exception, with films by such veterans as John Kastner, Alan Zweig and Anne Wheeler screening in tandem with impressive work by rising stars Liz Marshall, Ann Shin and Katherine Knight and Marcia Connolly as well as fascinating student work by Andrew Moir and former experimental filmmaker Kelly O’Brien. Hot Docs’ Canadian Spectrum programmers Alex Rogalski and Lynne Fernie are pleased with what they both feel is a “bumper crop” of new Canuck work.

John Kastner’s NCR: Not Criminally Responsible continues this award-winning filmmaker’s journey into the heart of darkness of violent offenders. Like his previous film Life With Murder, Kastner’s searching camera and subtle interviewing style reveals the humanity behind someone who has been judged to be psychotic at the time of his brutal crime. Sean Clifton, Kastner’s subject, attacked and tried to kill Julie Bouvier outside of a Walmart in Cornwall, Ontario simply because she was the “prettiest girl” in his eyesight when a homicidal rage overwhelmed him.

Incarcerated for years in a mental facility in Brockville, Clifton has slowly come to grips with his life. Kastner’s genius is his ability to make us understand how woebegone Clifton was at the time of the attack and how remorseful he is now. NCR charts the progress of a mentally diseased criminal into someone who has reformed to the extent that he’s actually attempting to integrate into normal life again. It’s a long and painful journey but John Kastner has been able to document it in this moving and powerful film.

Ann Shin’s The Defector: Escape from North Korea is a doc thriller that invites viewers into the lives of at-risk women on the run in China from Kim Jong Un’s despotic regime. Placing herself in harm’s way, Shin goes on the road with illegal North Korean refugees Yong-Hee and Sook-ja as they travel across China to Laos and Thailand, where they will finally be free. Shin’s incisive eye reveals the anxiety and almost naïve fragility of her two female leads while concentrating on the ambiguous nature of the broker Dragon, who has organized their highly criminal road trip through Asia. A film made with depth and understanding, The Defector is Shin’s journey of learning into Korean life, North and South, in contemporary times.

Katherine Knight and Marcia Connolly’s Spring and Arnaud is a fascinating and moving tale about the relationship over the past quarter of a century of two of Toronto’s top artists, Spring Hurlbut and Arnaud Maggs. Knight and Connolly approach the couple with respect, allowing them the time to reveal their art and love for each other to the camera. Neither artist’s work can be easily summarized: Hurlbut is a sculptor who has become fascinated by architecture and issues of space in recent years while Maggs’ pristine photography has usually been used to create serial images of numbers and objects, with meanings that are often quite hermetic. By contrast, their relationship is clearly loving and fulfilling. Knight and Connolly capture the final years of their time together as Maggs, at 85, finally has to deal with his own passing. Spring and Arnaud is a clear-eyed, exquisite look at a couple in love, at work and coping with mortality.

Kelly O’Brien’s Softening is a courageous self-portrait of an artist and mother coping with Teddy, a child who was born with extreme brain damage. An intimate look at her family, O’ Brien’s documentary, which was made at York University, where she is in a graduate course, shows how the love manifested for Teddy by her eldest, Emma, and her husband Terence have softened her own pain in dealing with her son. Using Super-8 footage, reenactments, text, black and white and colour photography, O’Brien’s Softening is a beautifully constructed mid-length film about love, loss and understanding.

Softening will be playing at Hot Docs with Ryerson film student Andrew Moir’s remarkable Just As I Remember, which looks at the effect on two families of ALS (Amytrophic lateral sclerosis), a disease that creates paralysis in its victims. Moir’s sharply edited and highly personal film deals with his own father, who has chosen to live a highly circumscribed life with ALS and the Katz family, whose father has decided to cease medical intervention at a critical point and accept his demise.

Peter Mettler and Les Blank

Hot Docs always “spotlights” a Canadian in mid-career and an international figure for an “outstanding achievement” retrospective. This year, the documentarians being highlighted are two filmmakers, whose work is highly contrasting, Canada’s bravura avant-gardist Peter Mettler and the down-home American veteran Les Blank.

While it’s easy to suggest that the two filmmakers are quite different, many things bring them together. They’ve shot most of their films, unusual in an age when few documentarians are also cinematographers. Mettler and Blank’s films often show people whose lives are in the margins of society—whether it’s the seekers after ecstasy in Gambling, Gods and LSD or the rather ecstatic New Orleans revelers in Always for Pleasure. Both love music though Blank’s bluesy Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mance Lipscombe and Mardi Gras giants The Neville Brothers are far different from the experimental sounds of acclaimed guitarists Fred Frith and Jim O’ Rourke and electronica artist Gabriel Scotti in Mettler’s films. Above all, the films made by Blank and Mettler are fiercely independent.

Mettler’s spotlight features his two finest accomplishments. Picture of Light is a bit of a shaggy dog story in which the filmmaker encounters innumerable obstacles, including a rather memorable encounter with a wall in a northern Manitoba motel before he finally shoots the aurora borealis, arguably Canada’s Holy Grail. And in Gambling, Gods and LSD, Mettler documents the ineffable: the ecstatic state as revealed by drug takers, religious fundamentalists and the creator of LSD, the ultimate Zoomer, then 99-year-old scientist Albert Hoffman.

Blank’s best film Burden of Dreams, about the making of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, is sadly lacking from this retrospective but his two best docs about blues musicians, The Blues According to Lightnin’ Hopkins and A Well Spent Life (about Mance Lipscombe) are being screened. So is the effervescent Always for Pleasure, which captures the fever and fervor of Mardi Gras in music, dance and crazy, heated crowd performance. All are worth seeing.

Les Blank died in early April at the age of 77. I was looking forward to seeing him again. I brought Les to Toronto for a Blues festival at Harbourfront Centre in 1989. Les was a man of few words but everyone was choice. He hated the d-word. To Les, using the word documentary was the kiss of death. He wanted to make people feel entertained by his films. Titles were absolutely essential. We agreed that his best was the one he used for a documentary he made about Alice Waters’ food festival in California, Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers. (No, it’s not in the retrospective.)

Les and I spent a week eating spicy food, a challenge in Toronto at that point. We went to a Szechuan place, a couple of Indian restaurants, an Ethiopian diner (not that spicy but the food was great) and Southern Accent in Markham Village. The owner, Frances, recognized Les and made us Cajun cocktails.

The last night he was here, we returned to Southern Accent. Les ordered a garlic appetizer and had us both eat it. Les told me that you only eat garlic when you feel that you’re with family.

As I wish Les a heartfelt goodbye, I wonder whether he’s pleased that the diminutive of the d-word is now OK—thanks to Hot Docs.

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