Back to IndieWire

DISPATCH FROM TORONTO: Hot Docs Fest Comes of Age

DISPATCH FROM TORONTO: Hot Docs Fest Comes of Age

Weather can be as important to film festivals as it is to weddings… especially in Toronto. Particularly so for a festival like the Hot Docs where the distance between the Bloor and Royal cinemas can seem like a million miles on a cold, rainy (or even snowy) Toronto spring day. Hair gets ruined. And clothes get wet, making for an uncomfortable experience sitting in a movie theater for two or more hours. However this year, brides and festival-goers alike were bathed in sunshine for the majority of the 11- day documentary event. Hot Docs ran from April 19-29, and concluded Saturday after more than $50,000 in awards was dished out the night before. Amongst this year’s recipients of CDN$5000 each were Best Canadian Feature winner “The Body Builder and I,” filmmaker Bryan Friedman‘s account of his complex relationship with his aging bodybuilder father and Best International Feature “Losers and Winners” (Germany) a doc about the cultural impact of a German smelting plant located in China as it is disassembled, by filmmakers Ulrike Franke and Michael Loeken.

And this year’s audience award went to “War/Dance,” filmmakers Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine‘s masterpiece, which follows a group of war-ravaged northern Ugandan students as they prepare for a national music competition.

“I’m paid to say it’s been the best year ever, but it really has been our best year ever,” says Hot Docs managing director Brett Hendrie with a grin. But it’s not just the favorable weather that has Hendrie smiling–festival attendance jumped 33% jump over last year with roughly 68,000 people viewing the 129 films in the festival program.

And even more importantly, Hendrie feels that this year the 14-year-old film festival truly came of age, the culmination of years of dedication and work on the part of the Hot Docs team.

For one thing, the 2007 program was one of the most exciting and cohesive I’ve ever seen, further evidence of a trend that started with the hiring of director of programming Sean Farnel two years ago. “I think the final piece of the Hot Docs puzzle was bringing in a programming director to create an identity around the films,” says Farnel, who formerly served as the Toronto International Film Festival‘s Real to Reel documentary programmer. “That has been my goal here,” he explains, “to provide a little bit of curatorial identity.”

For Farnel, that identity is intrinsically linked to what he sees as the nature of documentary today: “an eclectic, poetic, playful form, and incredibly relevant.”

And popular. Plucked from this year’s Sundance Film Festival lineup, Hot Docs’ opener “In The Shadow of the Moon” had audiences swooning over its collection of inspiring first-person accounts from astronauts involved in the Apollo space missions. People flocked to off-beat SXSW faves like “Helvetica,” Gary Hustwit‘s remarkably engaging film about the ubiquitous font, and casting-agent-turned docmaker Jennifer Venditti‘s “Billy the Kid” (which won the jury prize for best feature doc at SXSW) a painfully sweet portrait of an awkward teenager afflicted with Asperger’s Syndrome trying to find love and acceptance in a world that misunderstands him.

And in spite of its grisly subject matter and the oversized bunny rabbit mascot that apparently lurked around festival venues to promote it, Curt Johnson‘s “Your Mommy Kills Animals,” about the animal rights/welfare movement, was widely praised and earned a glowing review in Variety, which called it “a miraculously evenhanded treatment of a snarlingly divisive debate.” Good news for distributor Ryan Bruce Levey of Vagrant Film Releasing, who hopes to distribute the film theatrically in Canada later this year.

For Farnel, when it comes to choosing films for the Hot Docs lineup, quality wins over exclusivity. “In terms of programming films that have screened at other festivals, I think there’s a certain kind of film that needs a critical mass of festivals,” he says, “not everyone is at every festival and even when you’re there you can’t help but miss some films that you hope to see at the next stop. So part of what we do [at Hot Docs] is a summary of what we see as the season’s most interesting, relevant films and then add some new ones into the mix.”

Which generally includes a large number of fresh homegrown features, as well as some international ones: “Obviously we’re showing the world premieres of a whole slate of new Canadian films–the international industry is here so we can help promote the good new Canadian docs worldwide.”

Like Toronto-based filmmaker Jamie Kastner‘s controversial entry “Kike Like Me” (yup, that’s the title–think “Black Like Me“), an investigation into Jewish identity in the modern world and Kastner’s own ambiguous cultural background (in the film he poses as a Jew but never answers whether he is actually Jewish or not). Two years ago, Kastner’s engaging pitch for the film attracted a hailstorm of international broadcaster interest at the Toronto Documentary Forum (Hot Docs’ annual pitching forum), and even inspired BBC commissioning editor Nick Fraser to executive produce the film (in spite of the fact that he hated the title). Yet the finished film was met with mixed reactions from the Toronto public. Some people hissed and booed as the credits rolled and one audience member shouted out, “It wasn’t funny!” during the Q&A after Kastner described the film as a “comedic” take on a serious subject.

A scene from Bryan Friedman’s “The Body Builder and I,” which won the Best Canadian Feature prize at Hot Docs. Image courtesy of Hot Docs.

Perhaps the largely Jewish audience was miffed over the filmmaker’s seemingly flip attitude about touring through the remains of the Auschwitz concentration camp, where, after consuming a hot dog, he questions the need for monuments to atrocities like this and suggests that they should just blow up the place. I have to admit, the film left me a little confused and conflicted but I agree with what programmer Farnel said at the beginning of the screening: festivals like Hot Docs’ job is to provoke discussion. Indeed, the lobby at the Bloor Cinema was a-buzzing after the film let out.

This notion of “dialogue” is key to the festival’s identity, Hendrie explains. “In the logo we have a caption bubble [that act as the ‘o’ in ‘hot’], which suggests that we’re about dialogue,” he says. “Not only on the industry side of things, but also the audiences having a dialogue with the filmmakers after the films, and even the filmmaker having a dialogue through their movies.

This logo is ubiquitous around the festival; it adorns the passes, bags, banners, signage and the slides shown before each screening. Hendrie says this is an important part of establishing their brand, “It’s our job to use the logo in a grown up way–a way that says we’ve come of age and we have our own identity. The logo stands out for itself; it’s not just the name of the festival.

“We’ve made a real effort to distill all the noise away from the brand. Our logo doesn’t even say ‘festival’ anymore, it’s simply ‘Hot Docs, Outspoken. Outstanding.’ We used to have some very loud marketing campaigns– over-the-top trailers, and jokey posters,” he says. “To a certain extent we needed to do that to get people’s attention–less so on the industry side but certainly to grab the public’s attention and build up our audience. But now we’re in the consciousness of the city. It’s enough to have our banners just stay ‘Hot Docs’.”

And while at many festivals, an increase of corporate presence may be regarded as an invasion–a necessary evil that is sometimes distracting and even nauseating at times (need I even mention Sundance?). But at Hot Docs this year its increased presence seemed subtly integrated and dare I say, useful. I’m sure I’ll be crucified by certain documentary filmmakers for I admitting this, but I thought the Telus Lounge at the Toronto Documentary Forum (a two-day pitching forum for filmmakers and broadcasters) was a welcome sanctuary to hang out during TDF breaks as opposed to the rigid classrooms and cafeterias at the University of Toronto where the Forum is held each year. Sorry, but it’s true. The lounge also featured a mini screening space for filmmakers to show their work to interested commissioning editors, which, when I dropped by, was being utilized.

Hendrie explains: “That’s what we’re seeing… these organizations are planning their own activities around the festival. [Telus wants] to be better known to the buyers and delegates at the forum–so they’re not just saying “TDF sponsored by Telus,” they’re actually set up a lounge space. Zip.tv [an online DVD rental service] set up a blogging lounge at the Isabel Bader Theater. Rogers Yahoo has set up a whole separate section of their web portal dedicated to Hot Docs with blog coverage, and clips from films and other online content. That’s what we’re seeing – the partnership paired with these organizations planning their own activities around the festival.”

Perhaps this increase in sponsorship interest is backing Hot Docs’ next big move, which could be one of the most useful developments for delegates since the creation of the forum eight years ago. While Hendrie is careful not to reveal any concrete details about their plans, he does say that next year the festival’s “Doc Shop” experience will be entirely digital. The Doc Shop is a library and viewing space for industry delegates to watch all docs submitted to the festival (not just the official selections). “All the [viewing] terminals will be on-demand,” says Hendrie. “You won’t be using DVD players. You’ll be able to log all the films that you watch, and email messages to people directly if you have interest. Filmmakers will be able to see who viewed their film–buyers will be able to block that if they want–but if everybody’s okay with it, people can track who’s viewed their films.”

And following the current trend amongst other film festivals, Hot Docs is looking to venture into cyberspace. Currently, podcasts and videos from the festival’s panel discussions are available on the festival website, and Hendrie says they are exploring other online options to enhance the Hot Docs experience in the future, such as making the Doc Shop catalogue available for to buyers online after the festival. “We’re looking into it,” Hendrie confirms.

As for getting involved in some form of online distribution of documentaries, Hendrie is uncertain about Hot Docs’ potential role. “It’s a really tough issue for us to figure out,” he says, “keeping in mind that some of our key constituents are broadcasters and distributors, we’re in the business of complimenting what they do rather than competing with it. So we’re not too sure what the future holds, but we have meetings with other festivals that are grappling with the same issues.”

He adds, “I think there is a way, and there should be a way for festivals like Hot Docs to use its brand to help filmmakers to get their films into the hands of the public, but I don’t think we would ever want to be in a distributor-type model. The role of the festival is to take its curatorial identity and its brand and connect with audiences that already know our programming voice–that these are films that we endorse.”


In the International Feature Documentary competition, Ulrike Franke and Michael Loeken’s “Losers and Winners” from Germany won the top prize, with a special jury prize awarded to Michael Skolnik‘s “Without The King.” Bryan Friedman’s “The Bodybuilder And I” won the award for best Canadian feature documentary, while a special jury prize in that category went to Serge Giguere‘s “Drive By Dreams.” Johanna Lunn‘s “Forgiveness: Stories For Our Time” won the mid-length documentary prize and Arturo Cabana‘s “Man Up” won the award for best short doc. The Don Haig Award for an emerging Canadian director, bridging doc and fiction work, went to Hubert Davis for “Hardwood” and “Aruba.” The first Lindalee Tracey Award for a Canadian director went to Trevor Anderson for the shorts, “Rugburn” and “Rock Pockets.” Dutch director Heddy Honigmann received the outstanding achievement award at the festival.

[Eugene Hernandez contributed to this article.]

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Uncategorized and tagged

Get The Latest IndieWire Alerts And Newsletters Delivered Directly To Your Inbox