This article was corrected May 5, 2003.
TORONTO — When he arrived in Toronto on April 26 for the North American premiere of Werner Herzog’s “Wheel of Time” at the Hot Docs Intl. Documentary Festival, Steven Seldenberg expected 10 people to show for the screening.
The head of development at London-based Cafe Prods., a subsidiary of Alliance Atlantis, instead found the theater filled to capacity, and he and his colleagues from abroad enjoyed a hero’s welcome as Torontonians saluted the fortitude of attendees who braved the specter of SARS to make the trip.
A veteran of Amsterdam’s massive doc festival, it’s his first time at Hot Docs.
“At Amsterdam you have 100 broadcasters from 40 to 60 countries,” he says, “and here there would have been an international component, but SARS just knocked everyone out.”
Not literally, of course. The arrival of the SARS scare couldn’t have been more poorly timed for Hot Docs. The festival kicked off its 10th anniversary on April 25, just as Toronto became known as a North American hot spot for SARS after the World Health Organization issued a travel advisory April 23 suggesting people postpone non-essential travel to the city.
“Anyone that works in a corporate culture couldn’t come,” Seldenberg says, because their insurance wouldn’t cover them, “unless you’re small and clever enough to get other insurance.”
The advisory was rescinded on April 29, but for Hot Docs, organizers had to make do with a much smaller international contingency than usual.
There were some shuffling of chairs as attendees filled in for no-show commissioning editors and panelists, and the festival’s popular pitching event, the Toronto Documentary Forum, now in its fourth year, was moved to one day and an online component instead of two days. But otherwise the slate was unaffected, events were packed, and there was nary a surgical mask in sight.
Some filmmakers reportedly attended precisely because of the SARS scare, reasoning that they’d get more time with commissioning editors and there’d be less competition.
One pitch that created a stir at the Toronto Documentary Forum was “Lewis Lapham’s The American Ruling Class,” a “dramatic-documentary-musical hybrid” exploring finance, media, government and advertising by way of a tour of the corridors of power.
Producer is Libby Handros and director is John Kirby of The Press and the Public Project.
Raymonde Provencher’s harrowing tale “War Babies,” about the children conceived of rape in wartime, was the audience’s pick as the top film at the festival. Second prize went to “The Moon and the Violin,” from Carole Laganiere, about the colorful residents at a retirement community for artists in Montreal, and “Men of the Deeps,” about a coal miners choir in Canada’s East Coast, took third.
Filmgoers were buzzing about “State of Denial,” a powerful film from South African director Elaine Epstein surveying the landscape of the South African AIDS crisis, as well as the Canadian film “Men of the Deeps,” from John Walker, about the last day of a mine in Eastern.
Closing night film was the world premiere of “The Last Round,” tale of the 1966 boxing match in Toronto between legend Mohammad Ali and George Chuvalo from filmmaker Joseph Blasioli.
Hot Docs, North America’s largest documentary festival, this year featuring 122 films from 29 countries, was slated to wrap May 4.