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Fest Notebook: Form-Busting Films Get Warm Welcome at Hot Docs

Toronto fest delivers its cinema-crazed citizenry the cream of global nonfiction

If you want to take the temperature of the documentary, go to Toronto in the spring, when Hot Docs delivers its cinema-crazed citizenry the cream of global nonfiction. Intl. Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam may have more films, and some of the U.S. docu fests, like True/False, may have more curatorial chutzpah. But Hot Docs, which just turned 20 last week, remains a hot spot for doc lovers. Unlike certain major festivals, this relatively intimate, decidedly democratic affair attracts more civilians than press and industry; there are free screenings for seniors and students; and ever since the festival moved into venues downtown (like its bigger cousin, the Toronto Film Festival), there’s more of a geographical balance as well.

But among the films themselves — 205 this year, from 43 countries — one could detect a kind of stratification going on, not so much a class system or hierarchy, but rather a formation of genres within the genre. There was also a more-than-insistent suggestion that, at this particular moment, the documentary is the freest format for movie art.

This is a contrary notion, to be sure: The nature of the docu, conventional wisdom says, is to be constrained by truth. But with 3D technology, CGI and a franchise philosophy controlling so much studio product, and the so-called independent world afflicted by the kind of conventional thinking imposed by economic insecurity, the documentary — with fewer commercial expectations anyway, and more of a cowboy attitude — has become a wellspring of formal innovation.

Over 11 days, Hot Docs presented 11 official programs and handed out 13 official awards. Unofficially, films fell into messy categories: Political films became art films became social-issue docs became biographies, and music docs seemed to attract the lion’s share of audience voting. Some of the hardcore political docs, such as “Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer,” “The Kill Team,” “Narco Cultura” and the more-than-cautionary online privacy movie “Terms and Conditions May Apply,” incorporated a variety of stylistic flourishes and inventions, while more straightforward films — the Sundance-preemed Anita Hill bio “Anita” and “Occupy the Movie,” a fluid but clip-heavy assessment of the Occupy movement — relied on the traditional interview/archival structure.

Then there were hybrids: Patrick Reed’s “Fight Like Soldiers Die Like Children” (pictured above) featured former United Nations general Romeo Dallaire and graphic-novel-style animation; Penny Lane’s “Our Nixon” made inventive use of White House homemovies. Even when addressing the weightiest subject matter, documakers have been freed to use what they feel is necessary and right to make their statements, and perhaps their always-limited commercial options have loosened up accordingly. As noted by filmmaker and Hot Docs regular Peter Wintonick, there were a lot of tube-friendly 56-minute movies in Toronto, which indicated some optimism in advance.

What stood out in particular were the films lurking around the margins of the form, expressionistic exercises in creative filmmaking that would only barely fit any purist’s definition of a documentary — and one needn’t go as far as the work of Canadian avant-gardist Peter Mettler, who received a mid-career retrospective from the festival (and gave a live film-performance presentation with the musician Biosphere).

“Aatsinki: The Story of Arctic Cowboys,” by the gifted Jessica Oreck (“Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo”), is a work of ethereal beauty that employs no music, no narration and very few explanatory titles, offering a strictly observational, utterly engrossing account of the lives of reindeer herders in Finnish Lapland. “Expedition to the End of the World,” a travelogue/thriller set among previously inaccessible fjords of northeastern Greenland, was a meeting of the Stone Age and state-of-the-art, a cutting-edge portrait of a pristine world. And Mika Mattila’s “Chimeras,” an oblique take on the Chinese mind at a key historical moment, used the art of its two principal subjects, and a survey of the Western influences permeating Beijing architecture and culture, to create an ominous portrait of a global power in transition.

What “Chimeras” and some of the other more adventurous docs at Hot Docs noted was the ability of filmmakers — and the capacity of the genre, in league with modern technology — to make movies about abstract ideas, even when conventional visual materials aren’t readily available and may not even exist. In many cases, documentaries are becoming art films, whether or not their subject is art.

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