Hot Docs 2011

Hot Docs 2011 featured image

By Marc Glassman

“It’s back!” North America’s biggest documentary festival. 199 films. 13 venues. 18th edition. More than 45 countries represented. April 28-May 8, 2011.

It’s a rite of spring. In late April, when the weather in Toronto is still chilly, a film festival unpacks its wares, calls forth an international contingent of sincere, dark-suited self-proclaimed media activists as well as the city’s ever appreciative culturally oriented public and proclaims that what it’s doing is Hot.

And so it turns out to be. Just as the Toronto International Film Festival ushers in the fall, after an appropriately cold mid-week rainy day, the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival–what a moniker!–announces the coming of flowers, greenery, tight tinier clothes–and, bien sur, a plethora of grand non-fiction films.

This year is no exception. Sean Farnel, Hot Docs’ Director of Programming, admitted to last night’s sell-out crowd at the Winter Gardens that “bigger and better” is a cliché–but that it perfectly describes this year’s festival.

Nothing has changed in the organization, which runs like a Rolls Royce under the efficient and effective regime of executive director Chris McDonald. All the key members of his staff are back: Rose Bellosillo, Director of Development; Brett Hendrie, Managing Director; Elizabeth Radshaw, Forum coordinator; Lynne Fernie, Canadian Spectrum programmer and many others. So are the sponsors: the NFB, Telefilm Canada, Rogers–name it and find them on the credits.

You don’t have to be Nostradamus to predict that this will be another record year for Hot Docs. Multitudes of Torontonians have put the event on their agendas. Nothing short of a sequel to Katrina can break the upward momentum of the festival.

As a lover of documentaries, politics, social issues, essays, journalism and independent thought, I couldn’t be happier. But, once again, it’s essential to note another apercu from Mr. Farnel. He called the docs made for this festival to be “gifts,” meaning that they’re gems but that no one was making money creating this current crop of films. A radical statement, of course, but apart from such exceptions–and exceptional people–as Michael Moore, Errol Morris and this year’ Opening Night doc-maker Morgan Spurlock, Farnel is right.

The CBC, BBC, PBS and other publically minded broadcasters around the world have had their funding cut back significantly in the past half-decade. Commercial ‘casters are designating “reality TV shows” as docs. In an economically challenged environment, with audiences diminished by the so-called 500 channel universe, docs with a point-of-view are rarely being commissioned.

There’s the drama in documentaries–and the irony. Just as docs are hotter than ever, no one wants to fund them.

OK, you’re thinking. Duly noted. But what should I see at Hot Docs?

Let’s be patriotic and go Canadian first. Wiebo’s War is a beautifully constructed, take-no-sides doc about the controversial Dutch-Canadian Christian fundamentalist whose community has been threatened by gas and oil conglomerates who are destroying the environment around their farm. Wiebo Ludwig has served time in Alberta prisons for allegedly destroying the property of the powerful oil companies–but David York’s doc makes it clear that there are two sides to this issue.

Radical to the right of us–and to the left as well. Eco-Pirate by B.C.’s Trish Dolman offers a profile of Paul Watson, founder of Greenpeace, who is too confrontational even for that institution. Still crazy after all these years? You bet.

Inside Lara Roxx is a compassionate view of a Montreal porn star who went to Hollywood and came home with HIV. The Mighty Jerome is a beautifully made archival piece about Olympic medalist Harry Jerome, a Jamaican Canadian who suffered from racism–even in this supposedly enlightened land. Grinders is a fascinating and intelligent look at poker playing–and luck–in contemporary Toronto.

There’s a plethora of fine international work about unique individuals–true doc celebrities. Bobby Fischer Against the World profiles the strange yet charismatic man who turned chess matches into global events. Mama Africa takes us into the life of the great–but tragic–South African singer and activist Miriam Makeba. Becoming Chaz is a fair-minded treatment of Sonny and Cher’s child Chastity, who has gone through gender reassignment in order to find himself. How to Make a Book with Steidl places the enigmatic German art publisher front and centre, offering rare insights into a creative perfectionist whose canon of works includes collaborations with conceptual photographers Robert Frank, Jeff Wall and Joel Sternfeld.

Terence Macartney-Filgate, a true doc pioneer, receives the Outstanding Achievement treatment at the Festival. His Pinter People is a brilliant depiction of the funny, angry British playwright and his dramatic characters. Alan Zweig, the acclaimed Toronto curmudgeon, is the deserved “Focus” for this year’s Hot Docs. His quirky self-absorbed films are must-sees, particularly Vinyl, a doc that morphs from a study of record collectors into a sad, black comic look at loneliness.

There’s much much more to see at Hot Docs. My recommendation? Look at the catalogue and read the descriptions. Unlike fiction films, which are hard to categorize in 100 words or less, docs truly are about subjects and situations that can be captured quickly. True, you may not see a masterpiece but a study of poverty in Indonesia or a fight for property rights in Brooklyn will be about those topics. And that’s the beauty of docs–hot or cool.

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