Like a lot of people, the Hot Docs Canadian International Film Festival (official name) is “trying to figure out who we are,” according to program director Charlotte Cook: In other, trying to figure out where they’re going to go, now that the fest has hit its 20th year — a convenient moment to reassess, if not necessarily change your whole MO.
Which the festival certainly is not about to do. No, it’s not as intimate as it once was, back when it was confined to uptown – theater closings last year forced the festival into the less-than-intimate Scotia Bank multiplex that is less than beloved by Toronto Film Festival audiences. But while Amsterdam’s IDFA still reigns supreme in the doc world by virtue of size and coffee shops, Hot Docs is the go-to nonfiction fest in North America, by virtue of expansive programming and progressive intelligence. There are plenty of premieres, but good films are good films and if they’ve happened to play elsewhere they’re still welcome here. Hot Docs also provides showcases for films that will, by definition, winnow out the wussies: A tribute to cinematic mad scientist Peter Mettler this year includes his delirium inducing “Gambling, Gods and LSD” and a live performance with the group Biosphere (with Mettler sitting in on edit software). The “Made in Poland” section is simply a really good idea.
The doing-better-by-being-smarter approach, as antithetical as it may seem to the movie business at large, is behind Hot Docs policy re: live people. “A lot of festivals bring in celebrities to drive attendance,” Cook said. “One of the things we’re doing is looking at the films, and bringing in speakers who make sense.” Cook had to fly off – she wanted to watch Anita Hill (“Anita”) do a Q&A. Others visiting Hot Docs include Romeo Dallaire (“Fight like Soldiers, Die Like Children”), the Canadian senator and former UN general who was thwarted in his efforts to halt the Rwandan genocide of 1993-94; and Richard Dawkins (“The Unbelievers”), evolutionary biologist, atheism-advocate and author of, most famously, the “The God Delusion.”
“We’re not doing anything the filmmakers aren’t already giving us,” Cook said.
Docs raise questions. And while they more commonly concern matters of politics, humanity and social progress, they also probe matters of filmmaking itself, notably in “The Expedition to the End of the World,” Danish director Daniel Dencik’s tale, set aboard what looks to be an 18th-Century pirate’s galleon, and amid scientists and artists, to previously inaccessible, ice-packed fjords in Greenland. Counterpose the technology necessary to make such a beautiful movie, with the technology that lay behind the global warming that has now made the fjords accessible, and you have a tidy metaphor for misguided human.
But you also have a tension between the kind of real-world cinematography of “Expedition,” which provides genuine thrills, and the CGI-generated imagery of so much studio product. When you know a director can do anything, it produces yawns. When you can’t figure out how the underwater shots were done, or are watching a glacier collapse in real time, it makes you wonder. And that’s what movies are supposed to do.