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Documentaries Shed Light in Dark Times, Hot Docs’ Shane Smith Says

Hot Docs director of programming Shane Smith, who is a juror at the Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival, thinks audiences today have a growing hunger for documentary films, at a time when a wide range of fests and platforms have made the movies more accessible and the form’s storytelling capabilities are more essential than ever before.

“We’ve never had more information in our lives, but at the same time we’ve never had less insight into what’s…really going on,” he says. “Those stories that we hear about everyday…can really be enlivened and enlightened for us in documentaries, and that’s one of the things that I love about the form.”

Smith is serving on the jury of First Lights, a competition section for debut feature-length docs, at Ji.hlava. Ahead of his first visit to the former mining town, Smith had high praise for the renowned doc fest. “It feels like there’s a real adventurousness in the programming and willingness to push boundaries,” he says, noting the organizers’ determination to “walk their own path as a documentary festival in a world that has a lot of documentary festivals and a lot of platforms for documentary.”

Earlier this year, Hot Docs presented the Changing Face of Europe program at the 25th edition of the acclaimed Toronto fest, and Smith noted that Europe’s documentary filmmakers are “increasingly looking outside of their countries for stories, and bringing their international perspective to those stories…but also seeking ways to tell local stories so that they resonate globally, and connect with audiences that aren’t familiar with that subject, with that story, with that country, with that culture.”

He adds, “We live in dark and confusing times, and I think audiences are looking for light. And that’s what documentaries can bring.”

Smith praises what he sees as an exciting evolution in the documentary field, where new technologies and hybrid forms are creating a range of fresh possibilities for filmmakers. “Documentary is such a malleable and flexible form of filmmaking,” he says. “It’s been incredibly enlightening to me over the last few years to see how far documentary filmmakers are pushing the form in interesting directions.”

He continues, “We’re in this golden age of documentary filmmaking now, and that success also frees up filmmakers and producers to push the boundaries even further, to experiment with form in whatever way they think will best serve the story….The future is kind of boundless.”

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