Documentaries are flourishing on film and television alike, but few film festivals provide a platform for the art form on the scale of the Hot Docs International Documentary Film Festival, which opens its 26th edition this week in Toronto. The widely-attended event unites influential figures in the non-fiction filmmaking community with general audiences eager to consume a broad spectrum of new work. This year’s edition features a whopping 232 titles from 51 countries. Here are five notable highlights.
“66 Days: Bobby Sands”
Joining Steve McQueen’s “Hunger” as one of the most visceral and comprehensive films ever made about the Troubles, Brendan Byrne’s new documentary begins as an intimate chronicle of Bobby Sands’ fatal hunger strike before widening into a study of colonialism as a war of attrition. Sands — who, in 1981, refused food for 66 days in an effort to force the British government to recognize incarcerated IRA members as political prisoners rather than common criminals — is one of the most famous Irishmen in recent history. And yet, as one person reflects early in the film: “So little is known about Sands’ life that you can fill in the blanks however you want.” While Byrne’s film features talking head interviews with people who knew him personally (one guy played on his football team, another fed him the prison food that he didn’t eat), “66 Days” is less interested in demystifying Sands as a martyr than it is in dissecting how he became one. Using loads of choice archival footage, and even a pinch of animation to depict Sands becoming dislocated from his own body, Byrne conceives of a hunger strike as something akin to a work of art. In doing so, he makes one of his own. —David Ehrlich
“Dallas” memorably used dream reasoning to retroactively delete a whole season’s worth of episodes from the show’s canon, so it’s no surprise that a documentary springing from a generation culturally influenced by the 80s primetime soap wastes no time reinventing its own internal logic. Director (and quasi-star) Livia Ungur initially charts how “Dallas” became the first trickle of western culture into her own life in Romania during the waning years of Nicolae Ceausescu’s regime. But “Hotel Dallas” quickly embraces an amorphous approach to examining the show’s lingering aftereffects, decades after the show went off the air. (Come for the black-and-white reenactment of a pivotal “Dallas” car accident scene, stay for the montage where time literally begins to reverse.) Ungur’s companion through this bizarre artistic essay is Patrick Duffy, the impetus for and benefactor of that notorious 1986 retcon. As a Lynchian version of his “Dallas” Bobby Ewing character, Duffy speaks to and with Ungur as she visits with family members and tries to reconcile her life as an artist in New York. Through the lens of a family whose ups and downs dovetail with the Ewings in some unexpected ways, “Hotel Dallas” doesn’t reflect American entertainment as much as it refracts it, reveling in its own unclassifiable spirit. —Steve Greene
Although it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, Matt Johnson’s sophomore feature following his 2013 debut “The Dirties” merits inclusion here for one specific reason: it’s technically not a documentary. Instead, “Operation Avalanche” follows a fictionalized version of Johnson and his pal Owen Williams as a pair of dopey filmmakers in the late sixties who uncover a CIA conspiracy to fake the moon landing. Their odyssey takes them from secure meetings with top officials to a Stanley Kubrick film shoot. But this isn’t your average mockumentary. As with “The Dirties,” Johnson displays a tremendous command over the non-fiction form, blending multiple formats, archival materials and inventive camerawork to create a truly convincing sense of time and place. The result is a gripping comedic thriller that suggests “Dr. Strangelove” by way of Christopher Guest. The continually engaging mashup of genres outdoes most contemporary studio comedies for sheer entertainment value — it’s got slapstick moments and killer chase scenes alike — but Johnson also proves himself adroit at showing how documentary techniques create a precise framing device to rendering historical events on a personal scale. While not a documentary, it’s a shrewd meditation on the public’s relationship to real life, and nobody’s carving out a niche in that area better than this inventive filmmaker. —Eric Kohn
The “F For Fake” of the wine community, Reuben Atlas and Jerry Rothwell’s “Sour Grapes” is a doc that’s almost as cagey as its subject. In fact, the film doesn’t reveal what — or who — its subject really is for the first 30 minutes or so, as it jauntily dives into the weird world of wine auctions that sprung up during the dot com boom. Through that strange lens, the film introduces us to an eccentric collection of super-rich men who get together and spend their “fuck you” money on absurdly expensive bottles of Burgundy. Slowly, a young Indonesian immigrant begins to emerge from the pack, a genius young oenophile who has a mysterious family background and one of the most refined palettes that any of his friends have ever seen. Needless to say, it’s not a huge surprise to learn that all is not quite what it seems, but as his story begins to collapse, his downfall uncorks a number of fascinating questions about what ultimately determines the true value of art. —DE
“What He Did”
In 1988, Danish writer Jens Michael Schau killed his longtime partner and fellow novelist, Christian Kampmann. The lives of the two men and the events leading up to the night of the murder formed the basis for both Schau’s memoirs and a resultant theatrical work presented by the Mungo Park theatre in Allerød, Denmark. Weaving together on-camera testimony from Schau and behind-the-scenes footage of the play’s production, Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s film foregoes a meticulous dissection of the crime and focuses instead on the surreal process of constructing an artistic narrative. As Schau sits in on the preliminary production meetings, the shock doesn’t come from the fact that a convicted killer is collaborating on his own story, but instead from the calm, rational approach of the play’s director and performers. Throughout these discussions, as Schau observes the various edits and creative liberties affecting this public presentation of his life’s story, he becomes a ghost who is both haunter and haunted. His reticence to participate in both the documentary and an impending public reading of his work (at one point, Schau himself tells the camera, “This is a bad idea”) offers an intriguing parallel to the ethical questions pondered by the Mungo Park creative team. Some may find the film a bit too removed or clinical in its approach, but there’s a reward in finding the tiny differences in Schau’s telling of the story and what’s put on stage. “What He Did” doesn’t posit Schau as a maltreated genius or a despised monster, but showing him exist in a space almost impossibly between those two. —SG