Toronto’s Hot Docs Celebrates 25 Years of Truth-Telling Documentaries

When Hot Docs, the documentary film festival held annually in Toronto, staged its first event back in 1994, the program presented a mere 21 features, including the Noam Chomsky profile “Manufacturing Consent” and Nick Broomfield’s “Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer.”

From the humble beginning, this celebration of nonfiction short subjects and features has become the largest of its kind, and one of the most internationally recognized, receiving 3,000 submissions from across the globe for possible inclusion in the 2018 event.

“We’re in the golden age of documentary, and we’re seeing that in the volume of films submitted,” says Hot Docs director of programming Shane Smith, “but also the range and quality of the stories being told. I never have trouble finding films for the festival. The problem is deciding on the final selection because of the number of quality films that we see.”

This year’s Hot Docs, which runs from April 26 through May 6, boasts over 200 films, which will be screened at 13 venues around the city. It’s an impressive program that includes much-anticipated releases including the international premiere of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” a film that looks at the life and legacy of beloved children’s TV personality Mr. Rogers, and new features from Academy Award-nominated documentarians Liz Garbus (“What Happened, Miss Simone?”), Richard Rowley (“Dirty Wars”), and Louie Psihoyos (who won the Oscar in 2010 for “The Cove”).

The programmers for the festival are also continuing their efforts to reflect the major storylines happening around the world. One key example is their world premiere of “Active Measures,” a potentially explosive documentary from Jack Bryan that takes a deep dive into Russia’s espionage program and the effect it may have had on the 2016 U.S. presidential election. As well, Hot Docs is highlighting films which amplify the rising volume of female voices against oppression, sexual violence and harassment everywhere from the Minnesota House of Representatives to Afghanistan.

“These films really speak to women’s roles in the world and women’s place in the world,” says Smith, “and how that’s being challenged around the world at this point in time.”

The growth and reach of Hot Docs has been one of the more impressive cultural success stories of the past quarter-century. Founded in 1993 by the Documentary Organization of Canada, the event was initially intended as a place for filmmakers from the 10 provinces to share their work and support one another’s efforts. But as its reach and scope has grown, the festival and its accompanying outreach initiative have become fixtures in the Canadian cultural landscape. This includes the Hot Docs Showcase, which helps bring documentaries to theaters and festivals throughout Canada, and Docs for Schools, a program of free screenings held for students around Ontario.

Most impressively, Hot Docs is proving how hungry Ontario’s cinephiles are for interesting documentaries all year round. In 2014, they launched the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, a theater dedicated to presenting nonfiction films and a tasteful smattering of fiction fare.

“Toronto audiences are very sophisticated,” Hot Docs executive director Brett Hendrie says. “They’re very international in their outlook and are very interested in stories from around the world. And I think that they have an affinity for the subject matter that we show, whether that’s social justice or human rights or culture or the environment. That has really helped us cultivate an audience on a year-round basis.”

Hot Docs is also keeping a sharp eye on the future of documentary storytelling. Toward the end of the festival, organizers hold a forum that allows directors to pitch their nonfiction films to potential funders or nab distribution deals for finished work. And this summer, they will hold a pair of day camps for young Canadians interesting in entering the world of documentary filmmaking.

There’s also a fascinating spotlight being given to non-traditional documentary formats in this year’s Hot Docs schedule. Titled Doc X, this program will feature a live performance by Toronto filmmaker Kelly O’Brien of her slideshow project “Postings From Home,” and a video installation from German artist Philip Scheffner that uses a clip of a boat full of refugees traveling a waterway to seek asylum in Europe. Things get even more immersive with an array of virtual reality work that takes viewers to the melting glaciers of Greenland, the Olympic National Forest, a high school wheelchair basketball game and beyond.

“One of the things I love about documentaries is how malleable a form it is,” Smith says. “I think VR and interactive experiences are of interest to filmmakers to be able to reinforce that connection and build that sense of empathy.”

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