TORONTO–Recent big-ticket acquisitions, boffo box-office receipts, and critical and audience acclaim for a small group of broad-appeal titles have inspired some to declare that a golden age of documentary cinema is now upon us.
This may be so, but at the Hot Docs Canadian Intl. Documentary Festival, which opened its 26th edition on Thursday in Toronto with the world premiere of Tasha Hubbard’s “nipawistamasowin: We Will Stand Up,” a deeper, more complex picture of the art, business, and future of non-fiction films is unfolding.
The festival unspools across a program of 234 films (more than half of them features) from 56 countries, and a range of large and intimate market and professional development activities attended by upwards of 2,600 filmmakers and decision-makers (including 300 doc buyers) from around the globe.
Hubbard’s “We Will Stand Up,” the first film by an indigenous filmmaker to kick off the festival, made a powerful impression on opening-night audiences, with its exploration of racism in the Canadian legal system and the history of colonialism in the Canadian prairies. The film traces the story of a grieving family’s pursuit of justice after the killer of Colten Boushie, a young Cree man in Saskatchewan, is acquitted of murder charges.
“This is a film I didn’t want to make, and a film we should not have to make,” Hubbard said. “But I am here because of an incredible family that found itself in the worst possible circumstance. We felt that people and the system needed to be held to account.”
The screening was introduced by Elder Pauline Shirt, who spoke in the Cree language about the importance of healing minds and of respecting each other’s spirit, and closed with the singing of an honor song.
While bubbles and trends have certainly boosted North America’s largest doc festival over the years, Hot Docs as a whole is more like a sustainable evergreen forest, giving back more each year as it grows and introduces new species. In its tenth anniversary year, the festival audience numbered 25,000; in 2018 – Hot Docs’ silver anniversary – that audience had grown almost tenfold. Last year, the festival hit gender parity in its slate; this year, 54% of the directors are female.
A recently released economic study of the 2018 festival, market, and the organization’s year-round operations revealed a total impact of CAN$54.7 million ($40.6 million) on the province of Ontario’s GDP, including CAN$38.7 million ($28.8 million) in direct expenditure at the festival.
“Hot Docs’ role as a catalyst for industry investment is well recognized,” Hot Docs executive director Brett Hendrie said, “and this study indicates the impressive contribution Hot Docs has made to the cultural and economic strength of the city of Toronto and the province.”
High-profile subjects or makers of marquee docs are in abundance this year—among them Dan Rather, exec producer of Adam Bolt’s genetic-engineering exploration “Human Nature”; renowned sex therapist and media personality Ruth K. Westheimer, of Ryan White’s “Ask Dr. Ruth”; comedian John Cleese, a color commentator in John Walker’s world-premiering “Assholes: A Theory”; and artist, activist, and director Ai Weiwei (“The Rest”). Also in attendance are recent fest-circuit head-turners such as Rachel Lears’ “Knock Down The House,” Mads Bruggers” “Cold Case Hammarskjold,” and Petra Costa’s “The Edge of Democracy.”
Beyond the showcase and juried competition programs, the sidebars, such as Animal Magnetism (digging into humans’ complicated relationships with animals), Nightvision (which includes the world premiere of “The E Duce Tapes”) and Persister (women’s voices on women’s issues), are where hot-button issues and form-pushing filmmaking come into focus. “We look at work that is coming in and find ways to connect those themes,” Hot Docs director of programming Shane Smith explained before the festival.
With market events, including the two-day Forum event, kicking in after opening weekend, conversations among independent producers about how to ensure the stability of the documentary field are sure to be amplified in between pitching and deal-making.
“My wish is that we’ll see a real coming together of broadcasters, agencies, and other institutions to support creative feature documentary,” said veteran Canadian producer Ina Fichman, who pitched at the very first Hot Docs, and who this year has a project in the Forum (“Bones,” about the international dinosaur bone trade) and another in Deal Makers, as well as screenings of French director Jennifer Deschamps’ feature “Inside Lehman Brothers,” which she produced.
“I’m a member of the Documentary Producers Alliance,” said Fichman, who spends part of the year in L.A., and the rest in Montreal. “A lot of our conversations are about sustainability—how do you sustain yourself in your industry?
“The great genius of Hot Docs is how the team has evolved the festival—it hasn’t gotten stuffy, it’s created a tremendous body of work and connections. That’s why I haven’t missed a single Hot Docs.”
The Hot Docs Canadian Intl. Documentary Festival runs through May 5.