For the first time in two years the Hot Docs Canadian Intl. Documentary Festival is hosting in-person premieres and screenings, after COVID-19 forced the 2020 and 2021 editions of the annual event to unfold virtually. To celebrate, Hot Docs’ programming director Shane Smith selected 226 films from 2563 submissions to screen in-person and online beginning April 28 in Toronto. The lineup includes 63 world and 47 international premieres across 15 programs.From Lyme Disease (“The Quiet Epidemic”) to Hong Kong’s history of protest (“Blue Island”) to the lucrative world of international pigeon racing (“Million Dollar Pigeons”), the 29th edition of Hot Docs offers up an assortment of titles from 63 countries that tackle a myriad of issues.“I think of it as a buffet or dinner table that we are setting,” says Smith. “We are looking for as much diversity in the courses that are being served. We are putting together this delicious menu and finding as much variety as we can.”Jennifer Baichwal’s “Into the Weeds,” about a former groundskeeper who battles an agrochemical corporation after his cancer diagnosis, will open this year’s festival. It marks the second time in 13 years that a film directed by Baichwal is opening Hot Docs – the first being “Act of God” in 2009.

Baichwal, a Canada-based filmmaker, says that part of the reason she wanted to launch “Into the Weeds” at the Toronto festival was because she assumed it would not be a virtual-only event.“I’ve been doing this for 30 years and nothing replaces the experience of sitting in a dark room with a bunch of people who are brought together in a shared experience,” says Baichwal. “When you first see a film with an audience and get immediate feedback from people it’s gratifying, and that’s whether the feedback is positive or negative.”“Into the Weeds” is one of 27 docus in the fest’s special presentations section, which includes the international premiere of “The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales,” an exploration by Abigail Disney, Walt Disney’s great-niece, of the growing inequalities in America while she advocates for better pay for Disneyland “cast members.”Disney is hoping that the docu will help people, especially the heads of corporations, reconsider their definition of success.“It’s actually not wrong to bring your conscience with you to work,” says Disney. “And to recognize that things you do and say in a boardroom have lived consequences for human beings who work for you. So, I’m asking business people to go back to kindergarten and think about principles and then come back to business and figure out how it should work.”“The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales” is one of several titles, including “Aftershock,” “Fire of Love,” “I Didn’t See You There” and “Nalvany,” that are screening  at Hot Docs after premiering virtually earlier this year at Sundance.

“We definitely look to Sundance to identify some key titles that have started to garner some profile and attention, and that we know our audience is becoming aware of,” says Smith. “There’s certainly a place for those films alongside the discoveries and films from countries that you don’t see a lot of work from. So, it’s all about the balance.”This year 49% of the directors heading to Hot Docs are female and, in the fest’s Persister program, women’s stories are highlighted. Three docs making their world premieres are: Phyllis Ellis’ “Category: Woman,” which investigates the policing of women’s bodies in sports; Chloe Sosa-Sims’ “Hunting in Packs,” which follows three female politicians who fight the establishment; and Patty Ivins “Deconstructing Karen,” which features white women at a dinner party discussing white supremacy and acknowledging their unconscious biases.“The film features white women from all walks of life,” says Ivins. “They are different ages with different belief systems, but one consistent thing is that most of them don’t believe they have a racist bone in their body. What we discover in watching the movie is that it’s easy for liberal women to think that Republicans are the worst and for Republican women to think that liberal women are the worst. But the truth of the matter is that all white women have work to do in this space to deconstruct their own inner, our white supremacy.”