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Hot Docs 2004: Bigger, More Sophisticated, But Still Nurturing

Hot Docs 2004: Bigger, More Sophisticated, But Still Nurturing

Hot Docs 2004: Bigger, More Sophisticated, But Still Nurturing

by Sarah Keenlyside

A scene from “Checkpoint,” which screened at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival.

“There are soooo many good films this year,” gushed Chris McDonald, executive director of the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival (April 23-May 2), at its opening night party. After running the event for six years it’s nice to see he’s still totally jazzed about it. And so were the opening night partygoers who packed the cavernous Walker Court room at Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario. Looking around the space I was struck that since I last attended the festival two years ago, Hot Docs has totally gone uptown. I noted the immense discoball casting shards of light around the moodily lit room and the musical stylings of that St. Germain album playing in the background (you know the one I mean: this album is to film festivals what the Gypsy Kings are to Mexican restaurants — utterly ubiquitous). Overall, the atmosphere was urbane and sophisticated, a little bit glitzy (although nobody told the invitees; they still came dressed docu-casual), and yet, as friendly and down to earth as it has been since the first year I attended.

Last year, Hot Docs’ central command moved closer to the Toronto International Film Fest’s turf descending around chic Bloor Street (from Toronto’s bohemian Little Italy). The festival is also bigger, not just in size, but also in stature — it is now the largest doc fest in North America. Yet somehow its growth has not strained the mechanics behind the operation — this year things appeared even more organized and more polished, from the cute, orange Hot Docs T-shirts worn by the volunteers, to the thick film catalogue (priced at an economical CDN$2 per copy!), to the noticeably slicker, more streamlined graphic design of the festival’s print materials. It feels this year like Hot Docs is blossoming into the younger sister of TIFF (as opposed to say, its “poor country cousin”). This growth has also not changed the festival’s warmth for filmmakers, delegates, and the public alike. “I have nothing but positive things to say about Hot Docs,” says filmmaker Sarah Goodman, who also attended last year. “It’s becoming bigger, but at the same time it’s still very nurturing.”

This growth is likely an effect of the recent rise in popularity of the documentary form. More doc titles are appearing at video stores that ever before and more films are garnering theatrical distribution deals. Around the festival people were chattering about the recent success of the Canadian doc “The Corporation,” which, according to industry reports, had earned more than CDN $1 million over the April 16 weekend, becoming the most successful Canadian doc in history. “There seems to be a renaissance of docs screening theatrically,” says McDonald, “There is a real public appetite to see these films on the big screen and I think we’ve helped to create that appetite, at least locally.”

And so it came as no surprise that Hot Docs’ attendance at screenings this year was way up — over 40 percent from last year. Even during last year’s fest when SARS was making front-page news, the festival weathered the storm and saw a 32.5 percent increase in audience numbers over the year before. What was affected were the numbers of industry delegates that attended, which declined from 1400 delegates in 2002, to 1100 last year. The festival took a financial hit from those lost sales when they refunded the delegates money (McDonald estimates they lost about CDN$80,000 in revenue, however they made up much of the shortfall by adjusting costs for the decreased number of people attending.) This year, a record 1600 delegates showed up, which constitutes a very healthy recovery indeed.

Such has not been the fate of the embattled Banff TV Festival and the charitable foundation that runs it: they filed for bankruptcy this past April (although they say the festival will go on as planned this year). The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Arts News website reported on April 15 that the downfall is being blamed on the effects of SARS, mad cow disease (which hit Alberta’s economy particularly hard), and the war in Iraq. Hot Docs’ industry delegates were a-buzzing at the news from Banff, but expressed little shock that its president and CEO, Pat Ferns, was stepping down from his post, acknowledging that an element of poor management contributed to the event’s downfall. Ferns will take on a more “creative role” in the organization in the future.

In any case, the documentary industry is alive and well, as evidenced by Hot Docs 2004’s program. This year 106 docs from more than 25 countries were screened, starting with Christian Bauer’s splendid world premiere “The Ritchie Boys.” The Canadian/German film elegantly weaves interviews and archival footage to recreate the story of an elite intelligence unit trained at Camp Ritchie, Maryland, during the Second World War. Made up of German-Jewish intellectuals who fled to the U.S. to avoid persecution from the Nazis, the unit pioneered techniques of psychological warfare, mastering the skill of interrogation and creating wartime propaganda. In the Q&A session after the screening, two of the film’s endearing heroes passed on an anti-war message to the crowd, a sentiment that would heavily permeate the 10-day festival.

Numerous other films delved into issues of war, ethics, and cultural relativism, as well as the impact that war has on children. “Arna’s Children,” which won the FIPRESCI Award for best first documentary at Hot Docs, stunned audiences with its raw portrayal of a group of Palestinian children who attend a small theater group in Jenin, run by a remarkable Jewish woman called Arna. The film, directed by Juliano Mer Khamis (who is Arna’s son and of both Jewish and Palestinian blood) and Danniel Danniel, follows several of the children — from around the ages of eight or nine — and catches up with them again as teenagers. Many of these young men have become leaders in the resistance movement and one of them even carries out a suicide mission. The film offers a sensitive perspective on the Palestinian condition and sheds light on the reasons that lead to the children’s life choices.

Toronto-born, New York-based filmmaker Sarah Goodman’s doc “Army of One” turns the tables as it follows three young people who, in the wake of post 9-11 fervor, join the U.S. armed forces. The army is not all they expected, however, and all three experience some level of disillusionment — one of them goes AWOL and another even contemplates suicide. The film, which was pitched last year at Hot Docs’ Toronto Documentary Forum, was eventually financed by the CBC, SBS Australia, IFC-Canada and the BBC, took the festival’s best Canadian feature award.

Adding to its recent success at the San Fransisco Film Festival where it won the Golden Gate Award for best feature documentary, and having won the top award at the Amsterdam International Documentary Festival, the immensely powerful film “Checkpoint” nabbed Hot Docs’ best international documentary feature award. The film takes viewers to military checkpoints between Palestinian and Israeli territories. For three years the filmmakers documented exchanges between the Palestinian crossers and stationed Israeli troops capturing the tense and often explosive exchanges that took place at these sites. Filmmaker Yoav Shamir accepted his trophy with the words, “The thing I wish for is for ‘Checkpoint’ to stop being relevant.”

That sentiment was shared by many attending the festival, including veteran Canadian journalist and filmmaker Michael Maclear. Maclear, who was the first Western journalist to venture into North Vietnam during the Vietnam War, was honored with a lifetime achievement award. A retrospective of his work was screened during the festival, including the world premiere of his new film, “Vietnam: Ghosts of War.” The film tracks Maclear’s stories from North Vietnam both during and after the war, and draws parallels with our current conflicts in the Middle East. Vancouver-based filmmaker Nettie Wild was also spotlighted and a retrospective of her films was screened, including her most recent, “Fix: The Story of an Addicted City.”

Other spectacular films garnered attention and awards at the festival. “The Origin of AIDS,” directed by Catherine Peix and Peter Chappell, won the award for best direction in the Canadian spectrum program. The Canada/France coproduction gathers evidence in support of the controversial theory that AIDS was introduced to humans from chimpanzees during an experimental polio vaccination campaign of 1 million people in the former Belgian Congo. While it does not prove the theory unequivocally, it does prove that those who worked on the project lied about the source of the tissues, claiming they were not from chimps, but from other species of monkeys that do not carry the simian virus SIV that researchers believe spawned human HIV and AIDS.

There was also lighter fare to be seen at the festival, which provided much needed levity from the weight of serious subjects on the slate. Several Sundance favorites including “Word Wars,” “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster,” and Morgan Spurlock’s “Super Size Me” garnered enthusiasm from audiences. Chicago-based filmmaker Ruth Leitman unveiled her most recent doc to the world, cheekily entitled “Lipstick and Dynamite, Piss and Vinegar.” The film delves into the strange and tough world of women’s wrestling, from its roots in the 1940s until today. Toronto’s Alan Zweig, whose last film “Vinyl” was a smash hit at Hot Docs in 2001, also presented the world premiere of his latest opus, “I, Curmudgeon.” The film is a hilarious yet touching personal essay about Zweig’s grumpy, pessimistic outlook on life as he trades stories of disappointment and frustration with those of other notable grouches (including Harvey Pekar, of “American Splendor” fame).

And while all these screenings were going on, business was being conducted behind the scenes in the hallowed halls of the University of Toronto. Panel discussions, round tables, seminars, master classes, and most notably, the Toronto Documentary Forum were staged throughout the week. The TDF is a two-day, round table pitching event modeled after the FORUM for International Co-financing of Documentaries in Amsterdam. This year, I fancied calling it “Docu-Idol.” As an observer of the event, it truly has a reality television feel as filmmaking teams are given seven minutes to pitch projects to a panel of up to 35 staring judges who either praise, offer support, or rip their project to shreds. Nick Fraser from the BBC, who is known at these events for being particularly clever in his criticisms, could rival Simon Cowell of “American Idol” for sardonic wit any day.

Going back to the theme of cultural relativism that was present in many of the films during the festival, there was a particularly relativistic moment during the TDF sessions I attended. When asked if he would be interested in investing in the film “Paul Watson: Eco Pirate,” about the notorious co-founder of Greenpeace and extreme activist against the whale hunt, broadcaster NHK Japan’s Takahiro Hamano replied shyly and without prejudice, “I eat whale.”

We all shared a good laugh, and then moved on to the next pitch on the agenda.

[For a full list of festival winners, visit]

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