FESTIVALS: An Even Hotter Hot Docs; The Best Is Yet To Come
by Sarah Keenlyside
(indieWIRE/ 05.09.01) -- Despite a sub-arctic blast of air conditioning during the closing night festivities, the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival ended on the warmest of notes. The awards ceremony finished on an emotional high when filmmaker Gerry Rogers accepted the Gold Award for Best Canadian Documentary for her film "My Left Breast," a courageous and poignant account of Rogers'experiences battling breast cancer. Nary an eye was dry in the house after Rogers recounted how the removal of her left breast brought her heart "closer to the surface" -- and therefore closer to her work as a documentary filmmaker.
Later that evening, Cuban rhythms filled the room when renowned Toronto saxophonist and flutist Jane Bunnett and her band took the stage in celebration of the closing night film "Spirits of Havana" (Bay Weyman and Luis O. Garcia). The feature documentary follows Bunnett on her travels around Cuba and her quest to find the heart of Cuban music. The whole evening capped off what many festival-goers were calling Hot Docs' best year yet.
When I first attended Hot Docs in 1999, the then 6-year-old festival was in a state of transition. That year marked the arrival of a new executive director (Chris McDonald) and a drastic change of location -- from the conference halls of a downtown Toronto hotel to the lively and colorful neighborhood of 'Little Italy.' It also marked a turning point in the festival's focus; from a primarily Canadian showcase with limited relevance on the world scene, to a multifaceted, international industry event -- the largest of its kind in North America.
It can be safely said that in 2001 Hot Docs really got its shit together. Filmmaker Doug Block ("Homepage") would agree. "This is the most useful industry event I have ever attended," bluntly stated the New York native, who could be spotted throughout the week peering into a DV camera collecting images for his next film. Block, and other industry-ites were treated to an extensive lineup of professional development panels and workshops (including master classes with D.A. Pennebaker/Chris Hegedus and Albert Maysles), a videothèque containing over 1200 titles for buyers to peruse, micro-meetings, ample schmoozing opportunities at the daily cocktail parties, and the second installment of the annual Toronto Documentary Forum (TDF).
The TDF is a two-day, round table pitching event modeled after the FORUM for International Co-financing of Documentaries in Amsterdam. This year, over 50 commissioning editors and funders from Canada and around the world gathered to hear the pitches in Toronto (or in some cases, to offer sardonic remarks about the projects). In the wake of last year's TDF, over 50% of projects pitched attracted financing from broadcasters (including Richard Meech's "In the Shadow of a Saint," Bente Milton's "Alison's Baby" and Lech Kowalski's "The Boot Factory" -- all of which screened in this year's fest). It's too early to know how this fresh batch of films will fare, but judging from the positive response to many of the pitches -- such as Jennifer Dworkin's "Love's Journey," which impressed even the most jaded of commissioning editors -- it's possible that this year will be even more successful than last.
Hot Docs 2001 also surpassed previous years in terms of attendance: not only by the public (who came out in droves for such films as "Spirits of Havana," Mark Singer's "Dark Days," and Kate Davis'"Southern Comfort" -- all of which sold out on the first day of the festival), but also by filmmakers from around the world.
The festival turned a spotlight on Nordic countries and a sizeable delegation made the long journey from Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland to present their films. Sweden-based filmmaker William Long was on site to accept the National Spotlight's Best Documentary award for "Vision Man," his film about an aging Inuit hunter reflecting on bygone times.
While the festival was founded on, and still maintains a strong core of Canadian content, the number of international films more than doubled this year over last. Twelve were screened in the Nordic Spotlight and 30 more in the International Showcase. Among those films were Italians Fabrizio Lazzaretti and Alberto Vendemmiati's "Jung (War) in the Land of the Mujaheddin," a gruesome, yet vital document about the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan and the efforts of an Italian surgeon to provide basic medical aid to war victims. And Leo Regan's "100% White," which captured the Silver Award for Best International Documentary, a candid portrait of three former Neo-Nazis living in contemporary England.
A sort of impromptu Sundance 2001 reunion seemed to take shape as a sizeable selection of Sundance films were also included in the Showcase. D.A. Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus and Jeahane Noujaim came to town to present their film "Startup.com" on opening night. Al Maysles, Deborah Dickson and Susan Froemke introduced their latest doc "Lalee's Kin: The Legacy of Cotton." Barbara Hammer brought her film "History Lessons," and Kate Davis presented "Southern Comfort" (along with the film's star Lola Cola) which subsequently won the Gold Award for Best International Documentary and Hot Docs' first ever Audience Award. Sundance co-director Nicole Guillemet and Meredith Lavitt of the Sundance Institute doc program were also out and about picking up ideas for next year's House of Docs.
Overall, Hot Docs seemed to reach a new level of sophistication this year, finally achieving a rare balance between the domestic and international elements of the festival, as well as managing to serve the interests of both the industry and the public. Amid the excitement of the closing night party, International Showcase programmer Marc Glassman stopped to tell me that he thinks Torontonians are starting to catch on to the idea that "documentaries can be sexy and exciting." He beamed about the festival's success this year but promised me, "The best is yet to come."
[Sarah Keenlyside is a freelance writer living in Vancouver, B.C. She had a really good time at Hot Docs and isn't ashamed to admit it.]