TORONTO — The 23rd edition of Hot Docs ignites Thursday night with the world premiere of Rama Rau’s provocative romp “League of Exotique Dancers.” Over the next ten days, 232 Canadian and international films screen for more than 200,000 Toronto doc-watchers, while hundreds of doc financiers and programming execs, nearly 100 from the U.S. alone, converge on the market hub next week — all part of Hot Docs’ widely recognized brand, which presents and funds documentary year round through various platforms and partnerships.
When Australian-born Shane Smith, the festival’s new director of programming, moved to Toronto in 1996, Hot Docs, which was founded in 1994, was mostly a screening and networking confab for the Canadian industry. The event heated up in the late 1990s, when the public was let in and the Forum (two-day co-financing pitch event) introduced.
“It’s been inspiring to watch the festival grow and see how it’s built an enthusiastic audience,” says Smith, formerly the Toronto International Film Festival’s director of special projects and, before that, its director of public programs.
Across Hot Docs marquee series Big Ideas (U.S. director Beth Murphy’s world-premiering “What Tomorrow Brings” among six high-profile features presented with extended onstage convos), competition and core strands, and focused pop-up sidebars, global themes abound.
“Scattered throughout the festival are many films about refugees and borders,” Smith says. “There’s definitively a meta-narrative about resettlement or displacement with films like ‘The Crossing,’ ‘Migrant Dreams,’ ‘Chasing Asylum’ and others.” Smith also notes several Hot Docs world premieres offer fresh perspectives on historic or familiar subjects—among them Tiffany Hsiung’s “The Apology” (the legacy of sex slavery in Japanese-occupied Asia circa WWII), Brendan Byrne’s “Bobby Sands: 66 Days” (which draws from Sands’ hunger-strike diary), Alethea Arnaquq-Baril’s “Angry Inuk” (Inuit youth defend their traditions using “sealfies” and social media) and Jared P. Scott’s “The Age of Consequences” (climate change examined through the lens of the military-industrial complex).
“Toronto’s cinema-literate audiences are particularly adventurous,” Smith says. “They’re willing to be taken outside their comfort zone to experience everything the documentary form is doing right now.”
Hot Docs’ expanded interdisciplinary Doc X does just that, with Toronto helmer Matt Johnson’s reality-blurring Sundance hit “Operation Avalanche” (Lionsgate) programmed alongside performance-enhanced screenings, interactive installations, and array of VR and 360° films that immerse viewers in hot zones and remote places.
“VR is still so new in terms of consumer experience, and the industry has had a head start,” Smith says. “Documentarians, as well as many journalists and major news organizations, are advancing the capabilities and impact of these new forms of storytelling. Foregrounding this work presents a valuable opportunity for the industry to see first hand what audiences think of the experience.”
Also on the new-frontier front, UK filmmaker Mike Day’s world-premiering “The Islands And The Whales” (examining the isolated culture of the Faroe Islands where whales are hunted for food) is the first feature documentary to use Dolby Atmos, a technology that moves sound precisely through three-dimensional space to create an immersive experience. At the conference, Dolby, Skywalker Sound, and the filmmakers present a case study of “Islands,” which is being repped by Ro*co Films.
Aside from Hot Docs “Made In” spotlight on Australia, Smith’s background has also influenced the little things this year.
“You’ll see a 50% increase in the number of short documentaries, some preceding features and some grouped thematically,” says Smith, a former shorts programmer at Sundance and other fests. “That’s partly because I greatly value the form, but also because there are more ways for established and emerging filmmakers to get shorts produced and seen widely, such as the digital platforms of the New York Times and The Guardian (both attending the market), Field of Vision, and digital initiatives of many broadcasters.
“Things are so much more fluid these days—there’s no stigma about where your story is being told.”