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Hot Docs set for Yank invasion

Some 189 docs from 51 countries on slate

TORONTO A small army of U.S. players is set to descend on Toronto for Hot Docs, North America’s leading documentary fest, mart and confab, which opens today with “Ai WeiWei: Never Sorry,” Alison Klayman’s portrait of China’s artist-activist.

It’s the first of 189 docus from 51 countries unspooling over the next 10 days.

The U.S. contribution — including “Waiting for Lightning,” Jacob Rosenberg’s bio of skateboarder Danny Way; “Beware of Mr. Baker,” Jay Bulger’s examination of rocker Ginger Baker; Bill and Turner Ross’ New Orleans-set “Tchoupitoulas” and Chris James Thompson’s “Jeff,” about murderer Jeffery Dahmer among others — may find the fest’s enthusiastic auds igniting buyer heat.

The event is gearing this year’s robust industry conference program, Doc to the Future, toward documakers seeking alternative financing, marketing and distribution models as they face a shrinking international broadcast market for the auteur-driven pics fest auds, at least, can’t get enough of.

Having recently expanded its brand locally with the 700-seat Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, the fest takes a giant leap next week with Canada’s top exhibit Cineplex. It will present the domestic preems of two local docus — helmer Yung Chang’s “China Heavyweight,” and James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot’s Kickstarter-funded “Indie Game,” both Sundance pics — at 35 theaters across the country, including simulcast post-screening filmmaker Q&As.

“Audiences are increasing at festivals and community screenings across the country, they want to engage in critical issues,” said Lisa Fitzgibbon, executive director of the non-profit Documentary Organization of Canada, which advocates for 850 independent filmmakers and conducts consumer and policy-focussed research.

“Our funding structure now leans more towards the industrial side of documentary, so we need to find homegrown solutions to bring new revenues, like private funding sources, into the stream to support one-off and POV films so we don’t lose unique voices.”

But if local documakers are reeling from recent news of cuts to pubcaster CBC, the National Film Board of Canada and federal funding agency Telefilm’s theatrical docu program, they’re not down for the count.

In addition to “Heavyweight,” Canada-made fare like the NFB-produced “The Boxing Girls of Kabul” and the world-preeming “Buzkashi!” (combative horsemen in Tajikstan), “Fists of Pride” (Thai boxing on the Burmese border) and “Legend of a Warrior” (filmmaker trains at his estranged father’s martial arts gym) reflect a fighting spirit.

Other offerings are Tribeca-preeming Canada-Germany co-production “The World Before Her” and world preeming pics including U.K.-produced “Shadows of Liberty,” an expose of corporate media, and “Ping Pong,” a look at the over-80 world table tennis championship in Mongolia.

Hot Docs Forum and Market director Elizabeth Radshaw said the annual pitching event, running May 2-3, remained a vital place to launch projects to the international industry, but added, “The relationship between filmmaker and audience is much more direct now, so we’ve shifted the conference to reflect that with more session-based programming.”

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