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Hot Docs’ Slate, Industry Program Pushing Women to the Fore

Last year, for the first time in its 25-year history, the Hot Docs film festival achieved gender parity in its slate, at a time when many other large cinema organizations were just signing – or still working towards – their versions of 50/50 by 2020, the influential gender equality model for film funding launched by the Swedish Film Institute in 2012.

This year, a whopping 54% of the 234 Hot Doc titles are female-led, from high-profile films like Rachel Lears’ “Knock Down the House,” Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang’s “One Child Nation,” and Petra Costa’s “The Edge of Democracy,” to provocative buzz docs such as Rama Rau’s “The Daughter Tree,” Maya Newell’s “In My Blood It Runs,” and Barbara Miller’s “#Female Pleasure.”

Hot Docs’ audience is 67% female—we are representative of our community,” said director of programming Shane Smith. “Getting to gender parity wasn’t that difficult. When you are actually looking for something you can find it. Many female-led features we’ve presented have received our highest audience ratings ever. We consider our base when we make our final selections. The work is strong, the audience is there.”

To paraphrase: Gender parity isn’t rocket science.

Although gender equality wasn’t something Hot Docs had been specifically tracking or working towards, Smith said studies published by research and advocacy organizations like the Center for the Study of Women In Television and Film and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media fueled conversations, while the rise of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements urged the organization to look at its numbers and see if it could do better.

Hot Docs’ programming team has been majority female since Charlotte Cook was director of programming, from 2011 to 2015. “Hot Docs has a built-in level of interest and insight on gender issues, and commitment to ensure we have a diversity of voices in our films,” Smith said. “When I came on board, I wanted to ensure we kept working on that.”

The festival’s 2018 sidebar program Silence Breakers, which showcased female-led films inspired by #MeToo, received a strong response from audiences. This year, Persister – selected by senior international programmer Angie Driscoll and the senior programming team – expands the scope of stories about women, told by women, with films such as Marwa Zein’s “Khartoum Offside,” about Sudanese women who fight for their right to play soccer, Yu Gu’s “A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem,” and Pachi Bustos’ world-premiering “Haydee and the Flying Fish,” about Chilean activist women who were rounded up during Pinochet’s regime.

This year’s Redux sidebar showcases Studio D, “an institution that concretely addressed the lack of films by women,” according to programmer Kiva Reardon. The National Film Board’s ground-breaking studio was founded in 1974 by Oscar-winning producer and director Kathleen Shannon, and soon afterwards was winning Oscars for films like Beverly Shaffer’s “I’ll Find a Way,” Terre Nash’s “If You Love This Planet,” and Cynthia Scott’s “Flamenco at 5:15.”

American veteran documentarian Julia Reichert, who co-directed with Steven Bognar the Sundance best direction winner “American Factory” (also screening at Hot Docs), is the subject of Hot Docs’ Outstanding Achievement Award Retrospective, which includes her Emmy-winning “A Lion in the House” (also co-directed with Bognar) and several others notable docs.

“Julia was one of the first female feminist documentary filmmakers, and has been doing this work – on labor, on women’s issues, on social issues – for a long time,” Smith said. “She is under-heralded, so this is an opportunity to introduce her work to audiences.” 

With the conference, the Forum, and other market activities kicking into high gear this week, Hot Docs can offer hard evidence, should anyone ask, that its festival industry programming and year-round film funds and training are also rocking gender parity.

“We only measured it for the first time this year,” Hot Docs industry programs director Elizabeth Radshaw told Variety. “We didn’t realize that across all of our funds we have awarded over 50% to women; of the 70 fellows in our Doc Accelerator Lab over the past six years, 50 were women. Over the past five years of the Forum, we’ve hovered around 56% female-led projects, and Dealmaker projects are around 51%. It’s always reflected our community and been a clear intention of our team to just do it.”

“I don’t know of any other festivals that are quite at 50/50 yet,” Smith said, “But we’ve shown the audiences are there, and the work is there, so we hope we’re providing some kind of leadership.”

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