Reality Checks: How Hot Docs Helps Underappreciated Documentaries Find Life

Reality Checks: How Hot Docs Helps Underappreciated Documentaries Find Life

READ MORE: ‘Raiders!’ and ‘Mavis!’ Highlight Hot Docs 2015 Lineup

The clean and friendly Canadian city is home to two of the biggest film festivals on the planet, the Toronto International Film Festival in the fall, and Hot Docs, currently underway, which is North America’s largest nonfiction festival. With 210 documentaries from 45 countries, Hot Docs has an expansive range of nonfiction cinema, and like TIFF is to narrative cinema, it’s almost impossible to pigeonhole the programming.

“We’re such a large festival — our audience will hit 200,000 people,” Hot Docs director of programming Charlotte Cook told Indiewire, “so we can show just about anything.”

But while the scope of the festival demands an array of diverse documentaries, including a fair share of already proven pop-culture crowd-pleasers (“Tig,” “Mavis!” “Raiders!” “Live from New York!”) and the latest in accessible nonfiction journeys (“Unbranded”), a large majority of movies on display are challenging and formally groundbreaking documentaries that would get shorter shrift at other prominent North American festivals. For Cook, then, Hot Docs isn’t just about expansiveness, but also advocacy.

“The commercial outlets can’t take everything,” she explained, “so our festival can elevate those films that deserve better, and help them get exposure.”

Discovering the Gems

For instance, far-out films, such as Greek-born French filmmaker Evangelia Kranioti’s “Exotica, Erotica, Etc.,” a fever dream about an old prostitute and sailors at work, or Swiss newcomer Nicolas Steiner’s “Above and Below,” a visionary and otherworldly portrait of outliers in underground tunnels and spacesuits, may have flown under the radar at, respectively, Berlin and Rotterdam. But Hot Docs gives these emerging talents a platform to shine. (Of Steiner’s project, a school thesis film, Cook added, “His talent is something we had to support.”)

If festivals like True/False and CPH:DOX are celebrating the hybridity of current nonfiction practice, Cook sees less explicit docu-fiction blurring, and more risk-taking endeavors. “I get this real sense that documentary filmmakers are playing with cinematic form more, in general,” she said. “Traditional fiction film requires more money, so it’s a more constrained environment than documentaries.” With docs, Cook has seen “a great freedom to experiment,” she added.

Indeed, the festival’s choice to host the world premiere of British director Ross Sutherland’s “Stand By For Tape Back-up” seems especially bold. A unique kind of mix-tape performance art-piece, which has shown in live versions throughout the U.K., the video feature is composed entirely of brief clips of ‘80s popular culture touchstones such as “Ghostbusters,” “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” “Jaws” and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” recorded by the filmmaker’s grandfather.

Over these deteriorating video images, which are replayed, slowed down, frozen and dissected, Sutherland speaks in voiceover—sometimes confessional, sometimes rapping—a funny and thoughtful running commentary, equal parts media re-appropriation and personal meditation on death, depression, and
grief.

Another festival highlight can be found in the world premiere of “Missing People,” by David Shapiro (co-director of “Keep the River on Your Right”). The film follows Martina Batan, the director of a prominent New York art gallery, who has suffered through depression and insomnia ever since her teenage brother was killed in 1978. The unsolved murder has left her literally blocked—vividly illustrated by the large square Lego block she somnambulantly labors over in the wee hours of the night. Beautifully shot by cinematographer Lisa Rinzler and produced by doc veteran Alan Oxman, “Missing People” is a powerful and subtly touching portrait of psychological trauma and loneliness. 

A Healthy Marketplace

Because Hot Docs is also the largest documentary market in North America, there is a huge presence of international buyers and programmers, looking for product. In the last few years, industry attendance has hovered around 2,400 professionals. “If you haven’t sold internationally,” said Cook, “this is the place to go.”

“Radical Grace,” for instance, which is a scrappy inspirational portrait of a group of elderly and affable feminist Catholic nuns fighting against strict Vatican orthodoxy, could get a big boost after its Hot Docs world premiere, where local press and audience buzz have the potential to drive industry attention. Producer Nicole Bernardi-Reis told Indiewire that there had been “some strong interest from a number of decision makers,” and they will leave Hot Docs “with strong relationships that will definitely play a part in the launch of the film.”

Promising New Directions

Real-life courtroom nail-biters are a major structuring device in several Hot Docs titles, including Andreas Koefoed’s Danish entry “The Arms Drop,” a compelling and emotionally satisfying conspiracy thriller, which interweaves the stories of two men caught in a web of geopolitical intrigue; one seeking justice for his unfair treatment by the British and Indian governments; the other facing extradition and, potentially, torture in India.

“The Arms Drop” is one of many films at Hot Docs that proves how cinematic the documentary form has become, with as many compelling characters and plot twists as any dramatic feature. If documentaries may have been perceived as educational or informational in the past, Hot Docs offers glaring evidence of the medium’s breadth and accessibility.

As Cook recalled, “Before, there was this ingrained belief that there wasn’t an audience for documentaries. But the way they are now being released on the same level as their fictional counterparts and being treated in the same way, the audience is out there.”

READ MORE: 10 Special Presentations to Look Forward to at the 2015 Hot Docs Fest

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