×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

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.

More Film

  • Jim Jarmusch in 'Carmine Street Guitars'

    Film Review: 'Carmine Street Guitars'

    “Carmine Street Guitars” is a one-of-a-kind documentary that exudes a gentle, homespun magic. It’s a no-fuss, 80-minute-long portrait of Rick Kelly, who builds and sells custom guitars out of a modest storefront on Carmine Street in New York’s Greenwich Village, and the film touches on obsessions that have been popping up, like fragrant weeds, in [...]

  • Missing Link Laika Studios

    ‘Missing Link’ Again Tops Studios’ TV Ad Spending

    In this week’s edition of the Variety Movie Commercial Tracker, powered by the TV ad measurement and attribution company iSpot.tv, Annapurna Pictures claims the top spot in spending for the second week in a row with “Missing Link.” Ads placed for the animated film had an estimated media value of $5.91 million through Sunday for [...]

  • Little Woods

    Film Review: 'Little Woods'

    So much of the recent political debate has focused on the United States’ southern border, and on the threat of illegal drugs and criminals filtering up through Mexico. But what of the north, where Americans traffic opiates and prescription pills from Canada across a border that runs nearly three times as long? “Little Woods” opens [...]

  • Beyonce's Netflix Deal Worth a Whopping

    Beyonce's Netflix Deal Worth a Whopping $60 Million (EXCLUSIVE)

    Netflix has become a destination for television visionaries like Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy, with deals worth $100 million and $250 million, respectively, and top comedians like Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle ($40 million and $60 million, respectively). The streaming giant, which just announced it’s added nearly 10 million subscribers in Q1, is honing in [...]

  • Roman Polanski extradition

    Academy Responds to Roman Polanski: 'Procedures Were Fair and Reasonable'

    UPDATE: The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has responded to a lawsuit from director Roman Polanski that claimed he was unfairly expelled from the organization behind the Oscars. “The procedures taken to expel Mr. Polanski were fair and reasonable. The Academy stands behind its decision as appropriate,” a spokesperson said. The Academy’s statement [...]

  • Lorraine Warren dead

    Lorraine Warren, Paranormal Investigator Who Inspired 'The Conjuring,' Dies at 92

    Lorraine Warren, paranormal investigator and demonologist whose life inspired franchises like “The Conjuring” and “The Amityville Horror,” has died. She was 92. Warren’s son-in-law Tony Spera confirmed the news. Spera said on Facebook, “She died peacefully in her sleep at home.” He continued, “She was a remarkable, loving, compassionate and giving soul. To quote Will [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content