You know spring has sprung in Toronto when the trees in Queen’s Park are budding with life, the sun peeks from behind the clouds and documentary lovers and filmmakers crawl out of their respective caves to make their annual pilgrimage to Hot Docs (April 28-May 7), Toronto’s homage to non-fiction film. The festival launched its 13th season this year with the North American premiere of Chema Rodriguez‘ “The Railroad All Stars,” a documentary about a Guatemalan soccer team comprised of female sex workers. The screening was followed by a lively party, where industry types gathered to rub elbows with colleagues, grunt about funding shortages and fill up on the free booze (literally – by the end, it was all gone).
Meanwhile on opening night, a film about another kind of pilgrimage screened. “Walking to Werner” chronicles filmmaker Linas Phillips‘ 1200-mile journey from Seattle to L.A. to meet his hero Werner Herzog, which may not seem like a big deal except that he walked the whole way. Though not the official opening night selection, “Walking to Werner” was for me a fitting and fun start to this year’s event, which honored Herzog with a lifetime achievement award and retrospective of his documentary work. Throughout the festival, six classic Herzog docs were screened, including “Fata Morgana,” “Lessons of Darkness,” “My Best Fiend” and “Little Dieter Needs to Fly.”
In fact, Herzog’s mere presence at Hot Docs inspired a near frenzy of media attention and ardent fans clamored for a ticket to “An Evening with Werner Herzog.” The intimate chat with the director was hosted by festival lead programmer Sean Farnel, who informed the audience that someone offered $10,000 on Craig’s List for a ticket to the event. (It’s true, although the offer looked kinda sketchy).
Herzog, looking spiffy in a double breasted suit, accepted his award at the festival’s closing night ceremonies on May 5, along with other Hot Docs winners, including Ben Hopkins, who took the prize for best international feature for “37 Uses for A Dead Sheep,” and Shelley Saywell who won best Canadian feature for her film “Martyr Street.” The film presents a shocking and deeply moving account of violence and intolerance in the city of Hebron through the eyes of two families – one Palestinian and one Israeli – who both live on one of the most dangerous streets in the world. The audience award for best feature went to “A Lion in the House,” directed by Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, a remarkable feat for a four-hour documentary. The epic and immensely emotional film follows five families as they struggle to cope with their children having cancer.
Overall, Hot Docs screened 101 films this year, selected from 1612 submissions. This year Farnel noticed a trend towards activist films, and even created a special program for them. Says Farnel, “The ‘Join Me! How to Start a Revolution’ program was started because we were seeing a large concentration of activist work. Not just diagnostic films, but films about people working through problems.” Six films were included in the program, including the much talked about “An Unreasonable Man,” a portrait of political activist and consumer advocate Ralph Nader.
Unfortunately for General Motors, nobody told their marketing department. In a case of possibly the worst-placed advertising ever, the car manufacturer screened ads for their monstrous Cadillac Escalade SUV before every film, including the Nader doc, which recounts the story of the man whose 1965 book “Unsafe At Any Speed” slammed car companies – in particular GM – and thereby launched his career as a pundit. The irony wasn’t lost on the audience of “OilCrash” either, who boo’d rather than oohed at sight of the ads. As the film points out, the Hummer – another SUV made by GM – gets about 10 miles per gallon.
The activism bug spread into the industry side of the festival as well. Several projects were pitched at the Toronto Documentary Forum, including “The Basement Tapes” presented by EyeSteelFilms, which would explore the issue of music in the digital era through the eyes of director Brett Gaylor, an authority of the “Free Culture” movement. “The Hunt For Justice” was proposed by Dutch filmmaker Klaartje Quirijns and Eyes Wide Films, and would follow American lawyer Reed Brody as he attempts to bring to justice Hissene Habre, the vicious former dictator of Chad. Charles Darwin‘s great-great grandson Matthew Chapman pitched “The Descent of Man,” which would follow his quest to answer the question: why, in this day and age, do 54% of Americans favor the intelligent design/creationism theory over Darwin’s theory of evolution?
The Forum, or TDF as it’s referred to, is modeled after the FORUM for International Co-Financing of Docuementaries in Amsterdam. Here in North America, the TDF is the biggest pitching forum for documentary projects. Production teams have seven minutes to present their projects to a round table of international broadcasters, who then have eight minutes to comment on the projects and, hopefully, pledge financial support.
A daunting task for the producers, no doubt. Which explains why a bottle of whisky and several shot glasses were placed on the pitching table for the use of the presenting teams. At the end of the two-day event, Forum director Michaelle Mclean held the bottle high and proclaimed, “Look, almost all the Scotch is gone – it must have been a good session.”
In fact, the whole festival was good this year and it ended on an inspirational note for me. I decided not to sell my $10,000 golden ticket to the “Evening with Werner Herzog.” Instead I opted to hear the director speak about his views on the documentary form: “In a doc artistic invention can be somewhat limited . . . invention of facts can create a deeper truth, an ecstasy of truth”; On the making of his film “Fitzcarraldo“: “At first, the studio wanted to be involved in the film until they learned that I wanted to move a real boat over a real mountain, not a fake boat over a fake mountain – they got kind of frosty”; On the media: “I recently read that I had left a promising career as a NASA scientist to become a filmmaker”; And on his favorite movie these days, “The Real Cancun“: “It’s really a film about who gets laid first – it’s that lack of pretentiousness I liked.”
But it was his closing words that left the strongest impression with me. When asked to give advice to aspiring filmmakers, he said, “If you have a clear vision, don’t be afraid. Look at all the young filmmakers who are making movies with no money at all – there are no excuses anymore.” Meaningful words from a man who really did pull a real ship over a real mountain and made a movie about it.