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FIRST PERSON | How to Take on Programming Hot Docs Without Breaking It

FIRST PERSON | How to Take on Programming Hot Docs Without Breaking It

Four months ago I found myself sitting in a half-empty apartment in Toronto about to start the biggest challenge of my life, taking over the position of Director of Programming at Hot Docs. For the previous three months I had been traveling across Europe looking for films for the festival, many of my new colleagues had joined along the way and I had several films in mind for the festival, but I knew that this moment in early January would be when reality would truly set in.

I come from a varied background, from production to journalism, broadcasting to photography, foundation funding and year-round venue programming. My main involvement with film festivals has been programming specialist strands and panels, and so I knew the learning curve would be steep. Hot Docs had taken a chance on me, and now I had four months to try and not break the largest documentary festival in North America.

When I took this job I spoke to many people within the film industry that I respected, surveying their thoughts about festivals, and my new home in particular. One friend, on being asked why they hadn’t applied for the job, replied that they weren’t interested in working in “niche cinema” and that phrase has stuck with me continually since then.
One of the first questions people ask when you take on a role like this is what your vision is. It’s a question I always ducked around, often replying with terrible jokes such as “fiction” or “romantic comedies,”,which always understandably fell flat. I have to admit that I hadn’t even comprehended that on taking this role that my personal view would be tantamount. I believe highly in collaboration. I know that I personally work better when bouncing ideas amongst a group of people. I am more interested in ideas than anything else, it’s the diverse presentation of ideas that is what fundamentally fascinates me about cinema.

For me documentary is a record of how we feel and think at any one time. It is a means for the incredible stories that exist within our world, through the people that are living them. It is entirely about the audience. The festival and the films are for them.

The Hot Docs programming team is uniquely large. It’s one of the many superb aspects of the festival that my predecessor Sean Farnel put in place, and it’s one that I’m most grateful to him for. We have a team of twelve programmers, three that focus solely on Canadian submissions, and nine that programme the international side. They are joined by an invaluable core programming admin team, who manage all other aspects.

Whenever I felt that we may be taking a chance on a very very rough cut, or a film that seemed incredibly strange that we’d fallen in love with, we took the risk. I’m so thankful to our programming team for their dedication and focus in helping championing films to find their place in the festival.

Throughout the programming process this idea that documentary is “niche” remained at the back of my mind. That it would be an important perspective to take on the programme was fully cemented in January at the Cinema Eye awards when Steve James used his winning acceptance speech to make the declaration that documentary is not a genre. From that point we worked to try and find a way to make the programme as varied as we could, to show excellent storytelling through non-fiction in as many different ways, from as many viewpoints, and for as many different audiences as possible.

Whether I’m down the rabbit hole with my unabated love for this art form, I cannot comprehend the notion that documentary could ever be thought of as niche or a genre. Documentary is everything. I don’t know if I’m naive, that my dream of seeing this gorgeous and important way of telling stories getting the support, funding, and prominence, that it deserves in my life time is unrealistic. I know that it’s what drives me, it’s the closest thing I could say to having a vision.

In interviews leading up to the festival a question kept recurring. How did I feel technology was affecting documentary? Did I feel that the ease of access to technology would bring the quality of documentary down as the number being made increased? I’m always surprised when these questions are asked as they are the same questions that were asked when the printing press was invented, or cassette tapes, home video, the list goes on. The question completely discounts the talent and skill it takes to tell a story. Having the ability to tell a story made more accessible, and to people who may otherwise have not been able to afford to do so being seen as a problem is startling. We have moved from a one to many to a many to many media landscape and this is where documentary can thrive. We now live in a culture that no longer wants to be told what they should watch, read or listen to, but one that seeks out quality. We know that film is going to exist online in a completely different way. But this also raises a question about film festivals, and where they lie in the importance of a film, and audience’s, journey.

As I look back on this year’s Hot Docs, which finished only two days ago, I think to the many moments that I think are unique to what makes film festivals so important. They are not simply about presenting films, awards, and markets. They are about the exchange of ideas between filmmakers, audiences, and a greater cultural dialogue that lasts long after a festival is over.

When I heard that Nina Conti, director of Her Master’s Voice, was so blown away by The Kid and the Clown that she introduced herself to Ewan, the clown from the film, so that she could find a way to take her ventriloquist act into hospitals to talk to terminally ill children I remembered that the power of change through documentary can come from even just one audience member. When I think about a film like Off Label, which is trying to find a different way to run an important issue through beautiful character-based storytelling I’m so excited about where we’re heading. Shut Up and Play the Hits is crafted in such an amazing way that it encapsulates the incredible atmosphere of live performance, so much so that I couldn’t physically drag myself away from the theatre and stayed to experience it. That it elevates music documentary to combine ideas of legacy, quality of life and the personal decisions we all make shows that filmmakers are looking to different ways to push traditional styles forward. Seeing Stacy Peralta spending two hours giving advice to Jason Tippet and Elizabeth Mims from Only the Young, or multiple standing ovations for legendary photojournalist Don McCullin demonstrates that the impact of a festival, for both filmmakers and audiences, can be uniquely special. The incredible array of home-grown Canadian talent that was on display at the festival, whose diversity of subject matter and themes acted itself as a microcosm of the power of documentary, is a testament to how it must be championed.

The festival is now joined by its own venue, The Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, which is dedicated to documentary programming year-round. Opening not long after my arrival it almost felt like having a partner in crime, and a supportive reassurance that so many of us are trying to strive for a greater prominence for this work.

When it comes down to it, it again comes back to the audience. This year our audience grew to hit over 165,000. They are the proof that we are not just a sub-section of cinema, but that we are here to stay and are only getting better.

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