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How Hot Docs, North America’s Smartest Festival, Could Anoint an Oscar Winner

Hot Docs has become a must-attend stop on the annual calendar for documentary filmmakers, who flock to Toronto in spring for their annual convention -- and to raise money for their next projects.

Nick Quested and Sebastian Junger at Hot Docs.

In a world where TV networks fight for the opportunity to showcase the best nonfiction content that will keep viewers on their couches, the Toronto-based Hot Docs Canadian International Film Festival (April 27 – May 7) is a very, very good place to be.

What began 24 years ago as a modest showcase for Canadian documentaries is now a sprawling international program that screens 230 titles from 58 countries. The festival still favors homegrown product, but also amplifies movies from Sundance (“Chasing Coral,” “Long Strange Trip,” “City of Ghosts”) and Tribeca (“The Departure,” “A River Below”), as well as some international (Joe Berlinger’s “Intent to Destroy”) and world premieres (“A Moon of Nickel and Ice”).

What Lies Upstream

Filmmaker Cullen Hoback investigates pollution on-screen in “What Lies Upstream.”

Hyrax Films LLC

“Hot Docs creates an environment where you can meet with the best in the documentary world,” said director Cullen Hoback, who brought his sharp pollution whodunit “What Lies Upstream” first to Slamdance, then to Hot Docs (Preferred Content is seeking a buyer). “It brings in distributors, financiers, and other filmmakers in the space. It reminds you that you are not alone; it’s like going to summer camp. That’s the reason all the filmmakers come.”

Christine Vachon

Sure, they fly in filmmakers — but they do more than flog and sell their finished movies. They also flock to Hot Docs for the biggest international market in North America. Networking abounds as filmmakers try to assemble financing for their projects. The rooftop bar at the Park Hyatt in Yorkville was crammed with industry all-stars, from TIFF and DOC NYC programmer Thom Powers and SXSW director Janet Pierson to directors Jennifer Brea (“Unrest,” repped by Preferred Content) and Brian Knappenberger (Netflix’s “Nobody Speak”), New York journalists Anthony Kaufman and Tom Roston, and producer Christine Vachon.

The highlight of the Hot Docs money chase is its annual pitch forum, which takes place  in a dramatic high-ceilinged Hogwarts-like setting at the University of Toronto. Orchestrated by programmer Dorota Lech with an advisory board, this year 20 pitch teams from 20 countries (including 10 women directors and 25 women producers) sat at one end of a long table and faced an intimidating line of buyers, decision makers, and funders including POV, Netflix, and A&E, with some 475 other players serving as their audience.

“Money pitching came into play a dozen years ago,” said Hot Docs director Shane Smith. While the cash isn’t handed across the table, “they let you know if they’re interested.”

Hot Docs Forum

Two movies in the 2017 lineup were made after pitching last year. After a Kickstarter campaign, “Bill Nye: Science Guy” “was put over the top,” said Smith, along with extinction expose “The Last Animals.” Between that and the Hot Docs Deal Maker pitch event (60 projects pitched one-on-one to 65 buyers via some 700 meetings), the fest awards $100,000 a year to upcoming projects.

And then there’s the hard cash. In addition to presenting prizes on awards night, $65,000 went to winning feature filmmakers. (Editor’s note: Anne Thompson attended Hot Docs as a member of the three-person international shorts jury.)

As for the films that utilized Hot Docs as the early plank of an Oscar platform, Netflix is mounting an awards push for Sundance debut “Strong Island,” a deeply emotional, in-your-face personal journey for African-American filmmaker Yance Ford, who postponed his transition from queer woman to man in order to finish his film, which explores the murder of his beloved brother by a Long Island white man. Ford walks us through his family history and dives into a procedural investigation into the homicide, trying to understand why his brother’s killer was never charged.

Shooting "Strong Island"

Shooting “Strong Island”

Joslyn Barnes

Another Sundance holdover is Alexandre Philippe’s obsessive “78/52,” an exhaustive deconstruction of the three-minute shower scene in Hitchcock’s 1960 “Psycho,” which famously required 78 camera setups and 52 cuts. The movie will reward any cinephile, from those who studied Hitchcock’s groundbreaking mise-en-scene in film school to horror fans.

Philippe lovingly recreates black-and-white footage from the movie with actors, mirroring the structure of the original film (whose shocking Janet Leigh murder comes at the 40-minute mark), shooting exteriors of the Bates motel and house on the Universal lot, and recreating Victorian interiors where he filmed his interviews with a bevy of experts from Guillermo del Toro and Eli Roth to Karyn Kusama and Mick Garris. (Regrettably, he was neither able to land Gus Van Sant, the director of a loving shot-for-shot recreation of “Psycho,” nor other Hitchcock experts Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese, and Quentin Tarantino.)


Also digging deep is National Geographic’s “Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS,” which reunites producer Nick Quested and writer-director Sebastian Junger (Oscar-nominated war classic “Restrepo” and sequel “Korengal”), who try to create a comprehensible timeline for the ongoing human disaster in Syria. And they succeed, with help from go-to documentary writer Mark Monroe (“The Beatles: Eight Days a Week — The Touring Years”).

As Junger finished his 2016 book “Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging,” Quested dug into extensive archive and on-site research in Syria (checking back with veteran war correspondent Junger on best practices under duress) and linked up with a Syrian family who were trying to escape from war-torn Aleppo. He gave them a video camera with instructions on how to use it. The father was a natural, capturing amazing footage of the family cowering from bombings, smuggling out to refugee camps, and attempting to escape to Europe by boat.

Junger, who gave up frontline reporting after the death of his partner Tim Hetherington in Libya (tributed in “Which Way is the Front Line From Here?”), fashions a coherent narration: “Isn’t that the point of journalism?” he asked me. “To make everything make sense?”

That’s the point of going to documentary film festivals.

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