In a city inundated with film festivals, Toronto audiences have only truly embraced two: TIFF in the fall and Hot Docs in the spring. While the idea of showcasing the best of world cinema, which TIFF has been pursuing since its early Festival of Festival days seems to be perfectly reasonable strategy, it’s still a pleasant shock to realize that a celebration of the best documentaries in the world can also attract sold-out screenings.
Even the title Hot Docs seemed cheeky and a bit foolish a couple of decades ago. Who would have thought of documentaries as “hot” back then? Not most of us, who associated the form with didactic teachers’ aids for high school students, or rather earnest long-form pieces of broadcast journalism. And what about the term “doc”? It’s now interchangeable with “documentary”—and, more to the point, “doc” implies, “hey, this is going to be fun and challenging, not boringly worthwhile.”
Kudos to the Hot Docs team of Chris McDonald, Brett Hendrie, Shane Smith, Alex Rogalski, Elizabeth Radshaw and so many others over the years, going back to the insouciant pioneers Paul Jay and Debbie Nightingale. When you can change the language surrounding an art form and essentially reinvent the meaning of a word, you’ve genuinely achieved something.
Hot Docs 2017 opened last night to a sold-out (naturally) gala screening of Lana Slezic’s Bee Nation, a gentle and moving film about the first group of Saskatchewan Indigenous kids to participate in a national spelling bee. In many ways, the film has the values of classic documentaries. It’s about children learning important life lessons: how to compete fairly; how to learn; how families working together can help a child achieve more than thought possible; and how, with education, a new generation can progress and accomplish more than their parents. A veteran photographer, Slezic captures moments of tenderness between fathers and daughters and mothers and sons. In this year, when Indigenous people are finally gaining wide recognition in Canada, Bee Nation is a liberal’s dream, with the festival’s audience pleased to see the progressive nature of children’s education on the reserves. Bee Nation is also a case of fine filmmaking, with multiple narratives playing out for an audience eager to learn more about the delightful children featured in this doc.
The festival offers an Outstanding Achievement Award—apparently Lifetime achievement is too “ageist” a term—and this year, the recipient is the British master of music documentaries, Tony Palmer. A film chronicler of Sergei Rachmaninoff, Margot Fonteyn, John Osborne, Igor Stravinsky, Yehudi Menuhin, Carl Orff, Benjamin Britten and Ralph Vaughan Williams, Palmer is known for the artistic flair he brings to his subjects. In Harvest of Sorrow, he makes use of Rachmaninoff’s home movies and letters to his daughters to craft an intimate portrait of the legendary musician and composer. Featuring the voice of John Gielgud reading Rachmaninoff’s personal prose and the symphonic stylings of Valery Gergiev, this is a beautiful and impressive film. So, in its own way, is Margot, a touching bio-pic about the great ballerina Margot Fonteyn, whose romantic life was as melodramatically difficult as her career was justly celebrated. Lovers of Fonteyn’s Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty will enjoy this doc and so would fans of the famed Hollywood melodrama expert Douglas Sirk, as we find out how badly mistreated she was by her Panamanian husband “Tito” Arias and his entourage. Palmer’s retrospective also celebrates his friendship with John Lennon, which was manifested in his pop-doc classics All My Loving and All You Need is Love.
The Canadian retrospective, blandly called Focus On celebrates the work of Toronto feminist Maya Gallus. Her films are character driven narratives, with people whose lives are unique and deserving of being documented. Gallus’ bio-pics on two notable Canadian authors Elizabeth Smart and Mazo de la Roche are remarkable for their understanding of the intricate strategies women use in crafting prose styles and writing unusual narratives. In the very moving Girl, Inside, she compassionately records the transition of her protagonist Madison from a man into a woman. And in the brilliant Erotica, Gallus skillfully reveals the creative personalities who broke taboos and made art embracing women’s passions and practices.
As always, Hot Docs has sections devoted to specific genres; this was a strategy once employed by TIFF in its earlier (and, dare I say, better) years. Artscapes is dedicated to the relationship between culture and society; two films that I can recommend are: Barry Avrich’s Blurred Lines about the commercialization of contemporary art and A Story of Sahel Sounds, which focuses on the amazing music created in the Sahara Desert. Democrazy examines the terrifying global political scene. Two films that should be viewed are: Jason O’Hara’s State of Exception about the struggle for liberty in Brazil during the World Cup and the Olympics and Meuthen’s Party, an up-close and personal examination of an emerging right-wing party in Germany.
As always, Hot Docs will offer unique treats to their growing audience. Just to leave you on a good note, please check out: the poetic and funny animal rights film Do Donkeys Act; the beautifully constructed look at mathematician and violinist Jim Stewart, Integral Man; and the intense portrait of a family of blind buskers Resurrecting Hassan.
Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus
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