Canadian documentary cinema takes center stage at Hot Docs, with films screening across programming strands, and pitch events—such as Forum and Deal Maker—connecting the global doc marketplace to the Canadian industry on its home turf.

The 2021 slate includes 17 Canadian-produced features, most world premiering in the competitive Canadian Spectrum program, and seven international feature co-productions, most also world premieres.

For this year’s virtual edition, Toronto’s famously doc-savvy local audience—which enjoys the big-screen doc experience year round at Hot Docs’ cinema (now via its streaming platform)—is joined by viewers from across Canada.

As of Wednesday, world premiering Spectrum titles “One of Ours” (CBC), “Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy” (NFB), “Hell or Clean Water” (CBC), and “Still Max” were among the top 10 audience faves. Social-media chatter—which follows every shift in position on the Top 20 list, refreshed daily on the Hot Docs website—is more crucial than ever to festival buzz.

(The Audience Award winner qualifies for consideration for the Oscar for documentary feature without a standard theatrical run, provided it complies with the Academy rules; the top five qualifying Canadian features in the audience poll win a Rogers Audience Award, which comes with a cash prize.)

While Canadian film submissions were down this cycle, senior Canadian programmer Alex Rogalski, who’s worked with Hot Docs since 2010, says the quality remained high. “We saw a range of themes like other years, but we also saw a number of films where the subjects’ lives, or the production, were interrupted by COVID, so we have films that are shot over a period of time, with certain expectations, and then take a hard turn.”

Sean Horlor and Steve J. Adams’ “Someone Like Me” (NFB), for example, follows the parallel stories of a gay asylum seeker from Uganda and the group from Vancouver’s queer community who sponsor him; when the pandemic hits, conflicting ideas on how to support him arise.

Aside from zeitgeist moments, Rogalski says the slate has an abundance of strong “I’m not who you think I am” films.

In “One of Ours” (pictured), viewers meet Haitian-born Josiah Wilson, who was adopted and raised by an Indigenous family in Calgary, and made the news in 2016 when he was racially profiled and banned from competing in an Indigenous basketball tournament. The film, which tracks his path of healing in a complicated family environment, is the first feature of Yasmine Mathurin, a recipient of the 2019 Netflix-BANFF Media Diverse Voices Fellowship.

In “My Tree,” director Jason Sherman travels to Israel, where he discovers many uncomfortable truths as he seeks out the tree that was planted in his name years ago for his bar mitzvah.

In developing a well-rounded slate, the programming team keeps an eye open for filmmakers working in more remote corners of the country and an ear out for stories exploring pressing global topics.

Cody Westman’s “Hell or Clean Water” follows Newfoundland sea-urchin diver Shawn Bath, who has removed 15,000 pounds of garbage from the ocean floor single-handedly, as he edges close to financial ruin in order to save the planet. “Even locally, nobody knew what he was doing,” recalls producer Jenny Hawley, whose previous film won best Canadian feature at Whistler last year.

“Cody caught Shawn at the cusp of him getting the word out,” Hawley continues. “It’s a hot topic but we didn’t want to shout at people. [Shawn is] an unlikely environmentalist, he’s not perfect—like the rest of us.”

Auteur features are well represented in Spectrum: “Archipelago” is Félix Dufour-Laperrière’s experimental exploration of the historic Saint Lawrence River; in the black-and-white “Grey Roads,” Jesse McCracken returns to his rural hometown and reconsiders the two different models of masculinity he grew up with; in “Zo Reken,” Emanuel Licha creates a portrait of Port-au-Prince through encounters with citizens still struggling 11 years after the earthquake.

Shannon Walsh’s “The Gig Is Up,” which follows global gig workers who toil “behind the apps,” is one of three films in the festival with Ina Fichman credited as either a producer (Michal Weits’ “Blue Box”) or executive producer (Bobbi Jo Hart’s “Fanny: The Right to Rock”).

Fichman, who is also chatting up new projects in the Forum and Deal Maker, chairs the board of directors of the Documentary Organization of Canada. “It’s been a very unusual year, there’s a lot of COVID exhaustion,” she told Variety before the festival. “We’ve been doing a lot of sharing of information amongst ourselves about how to handle the basics—what does a festival strategy or a distribution strategy look like—during a pandemic.

“Having all these events online has, interestingly enough, been encouraging a more equitable conversation across the community,” she added.