Character drives Hot Docs fest

Event expects to bounce back with larger venue, record attendance

TORONTO — With the increasing B.O. success of documentaries such as “Bowling for Columbine” “Super Size Me,” “Capturing the Friedmans” and “The Fog of War,” documentaries are going mainstream.

And the 11th annual Hot Docs Toronto Intl. Documentary Festival (April 23-May 2) is riding the wave. North America’s largest docu fest and market bounced back from last year’s SARS crisis with a new and larger venue and record numbers of both delegates and moviegoers.

“We turned some corner. I’m not sure how to define it,” says executive director Chris McDonald. “New venue, more screens, more delegates, more public attendance.”

When the final numbers are tallied, attendance is expected to top 2002’s record of 25,000. Midway through the fest there were twice as many soldout screenings, even with a 50% increase in capacity as the festival moved from Toronto’s Little Italy to larger digs on the U. of Toronto campus.

There was a buzz around the unprecedented security measures introduced to protect the identities of the subjects in “What Remains of Us,” which co-helmers Francois Prevost and Hugh Latulippe filmed secretly in Tibet. Screening drew members of the exiled Tibetan government and garnered a lengthy standing ovation.

“We wanted to give a voice to Tibetans inside of Tibet after 50 years of silence,” Prevost told the crowd, “and bring their message to the people who can help them.”

The slate featured 106 docs, more than half of them North American or world premieres. Three pics, including opening-night film “The Ritchie Boys” about a group of German Jews who formed an elite U.S. intelligence unit during WWII, came from filmmakers who braved last year’s SARS crisis to pitch their projects at the Toronto Documentary Forum.

The 36-film, 25-country international showcase included the closing-night film, “Control Room,” a U.S./Egypt co-production from Jehane Noujiam (“Startup.com”) examining the war in Iraq from the perspective of the journalists of Al-jazeera, the Arab world’s network news service.

The 30-film Canadian spectrum opened with “The Take,” following Argentine workers occupying and running bankrupt businesses without the boss.

“Everyone’s noticing the number of really strong character-driven films we have this year,” McDonald says. “Even films focusing on conflict and war are doing it in unique ways.”

Repeat screenings were scheduled for 40% of the program, and fest organizers hope to offer repeats of all pics next year.

Two docs that drew critical acclaim were the investigative Canada-France co-prod “Origin of AIDS” from Catherine Peix and Peter Chappell, exploring the theory that the AIDS epidemic was begun by the use of an experimental polio vaccination in the 1950s; and a road-trip exploration of the American South in Andrew Douglas’ “Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus.”

The fifth annual Toronto Documentary Forum staged 36 pitches for 80 commissioning editors from around the globe.

The international spotlight this year was trained on the Netherlands, while South Africa celebrated a decade of democracy with a selection of films.