Hot Docs 2013 – A Preview

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Hot Docs – the biggest documentary film festival in North America taking place in Toronto between April 25th and May 5th – hits its 20th year this April (schedule available and tickets on sale now) and has found a perfect mix of maturity and swaggering confidence. Its been a year since it helped re-launch the Bloor Cinema as a hub for documentary films (the building itself is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year) and the gamble seems to have been paying off. Not only is the theatre still sparkling from its refurbishment, but business is good and Hot Docs itself is prepping for a record setting festival – the 205 films being presented are the most ever for the fest as are the 44 world premieres and they surpassed last year’s submission total by 250. Doc films are in a mature and healthy state.

But that doesn’t mean that Hot Docs is standing still or feeling complacent. Its decision to open the festival with the world premiere of The Manor – the story of a small town Ontario strip club and the impact it has had on the family that runs it (which includes the director) – shows they are happy to steer clear of the obvious and safe choices. This is also clear in the many additional aspects of the festival:

  • The Industry Conference provides workshops, networking, education and a number of experienced speakers – this year’s keynote is being handled by Ondi Timonder (director of Dig!, We Live In Public and Cool It) and she will no doubt tie into the theme of the conference: Rule Breakers and Innovators.
  • The Hot Docs Forum has raised $50 million over the last 14 years by allowing filmmakers to pitch their ideas to a host of potential international backers (a “Dragon’s Den” of documentary film fundraising).
  • The Hot Hacks program mixes filmmakers and the tech-savvy to produce web docs.
  • Their community outreach combines free outdoor screenings, the Hot Docs 20 screenings (bringing back old faves before the festival begins), free screenings during the day for seniors and students, neighbourhood screenings, free docs to schools, etc.

 

Pretty impressive and I haven’t even really started to dig into the lineup yet…Here’s a few of the films being presented that stood out for me:

 

Rule Breakers and Innovators

To map with the theme of their conference, an entire program of films has been selected that focus on the people that continue to push any defined envelope they can find. For example:

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  • The Human Scale – “It’s either cars or humans” says Jan Gehl as he looks at how to recreate major urban centers on a smaller scale in order to make them more “intimate, lively, safe, sustainable and healthy”. Could be an interesting companion to Urbanized.
  • William And The Windmill – A 14 year-old boy in Malawi builds his own windmill with found parts and manages to keep his community alive. As he gains attention across the globe and opportunities for his own future, he has to struggle with a very different world view.
  • TPB AFK – The Pirate Bay Away From Keyboard – This doc promises to tackle the issue of copyrights in our modern age of digital content through the story of The Pirate Bay – the largest file sharing site in the world. Unsurprisingly, the feature has already been available online.
  • Downloaded – Continuing that theme, Alex Winter gives us the story of Napster (and its creators Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker) and how it changed the nature of the music business – for good and bad.
  • We Cause Scenes – Improv Everywhere have garnered a huge fan base of folks who have watched their public hijinks via YouTube videos (the Best Buy uniform prank, a carousel horse race, 200 people simultaneously freezing in place in Grand Central Station, etc.). What sets these guys apart from other pranksters is that they typically aim to put a smile on the faces of the unsuspecting public and don’t try to create overly uncomfortable and embarrassing situations.

 
 

Big Ideas

In this special series of three films, additional time will be spent in post-screening discussions with the filmmakers as well as the subjects of their films. These may prove to be some of the most interesting (not to mention popular) events of the fest.

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  • The Unbelievers – Another film that has already made its way to the online world, The Unbelievers documents the travels and talks of Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss as they work to turn people’s attention towards science and reason and away from faith and fundamentalism in order to gain understanding of our universe.
  • Anita – Twenty years after her testimony regarding Clarence Thomas’ sexual harassment, Anita Hill discusses and revisits it all for the first time.
  • Fight Like Soldiers Die Like Children – Lieutenant-General Romeo Dallaire saw first hand the carnage of Rwanda and has been a staunch fighter against children being used as soldiers. Certainly a topic that everyone would agree with, but Dallaire is actually trying to solve the problem.

 
 

Music

Hot Docs always seems to find some superb music-related docs every year and it looks like they’ve done it again…

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  • Finding The Funk – A history of funk music? That’s all I need to hear…
  • Mistaken For Strangers – With every release, I’ve become more and more a fan of The National – in particular, lead singer Matt Berninger’s distinctive vocals. Matt’s brother Tom decides to document their 2010 world tour and the film purports to be much more than simply a look backstage.
  • Brothers Hypnotic – The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble has been digging its heels into my iPod’s playlist for the last couple of years with their Afro funk inspired grooves. Except for the lone drummer, the other 8 members are all brothers, all play brass instruments (4 trumpets, 2 trombones, a euphonium and a sousaphone) and create music that is joyful and soulful.
  • Muscle Shoals – Muscle Shoals Alabama is one of the secret ingredients of some of modern music’s most deeply passionate songs. Here’s hoping the secret gets out with this film.
  • This Ain’t No Mouse Music – Chris Strachwitz is more than just a muscial archivist – he’s determined to bring the sounds of American folk music (from blues to cajun to tex-mex) to a wider audience. Strikes me as a life well spent.

 
 

The Political

What’s a documentary film festival without a few argument-starting political rants?

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  • Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer – The courageous ladies of Pussy Riot are trying to challenge the power of the Orthodox Church and Vladamir Putin and it hasn’t gone over very well with those in charge so far…The film received the World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award at Sundance.
  • Caucus – The seven candidates of the 2012 Iowa Republican Caucus are followed as they try to swing voters, attend events and let down their guard. I normally love these kind of films (and with AJ Schnack behind the lens, I expect it will be a fascinating look), but I’m not sure I can put up with the odious Michelle Bachmann for more than a few seconds at a time.
  • Fatal Assistance – The former minister of culture in Haiti looks at how international aid completely failed his country.
  • God Loves Uganda – Not content with trying to vilify homosexuals in North America, American Evangelicals have targeted Uganda. Given the strict laws against homosexuality there, it appears they’ve gained a foothold.
  • The Great North Korean Picture Show – A look inside North Korea’s film school – how do you maintain your artistic creativity and still please Dear Leader? Along with The Defector: Escape From North Korea, we should be provided with some additional insight into a corner of the world few know much about – aside from their recent threats of annihilation.
  • Occupy: The Movie – The film promises more than just a rah-rah reliving of the social activist movement as it looks at how effective it was as it quickly faded after its initial widespread publicity.

 
 

And a Grab Bag of Others…

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  • The Expedition To The End Of The World – The trailer shown at the press conference looked fantastic as a motley crew explore the straits in the Arctic that open up during the summer months.
  • Alcan Highway – A homeless guy changes a beat up truck into a mobile home which he then uses to go on a 4000km journey to try to finally find a place to settle down.
  • Aatsinki: The Story Of Arctic Cowboys – A look at reindeer herders in Lapland.
  • After Tiller – A portrait of the four remaining doctors in the U.S. that still do third trimester abortions.
  • Chimeras – A film about Eastern artists trying to figure out how their culture can avoid Western influence.
  • I Am Breathing – A man with one year to live builds a time capsule for his new born son. As a father, I honestly don’t think I’ll be able to watch this…
  • I Will Be Murdered – Days before it actually happens, a Guatemalan lawyer predicts his murder on YouTube and proactively blames the president.
  • Life And Crimes Of Doris Payne – The world’s most notorious jewel thief stands trial for her most recent crime.
  • The Man Who Saved The World – In 1983, a Soviet soldier responds to a message of an American missile attack by disobeying his orders to retaliate.

 

There’s also the Redux program (bringing back some lesser known favourites of the festival), a focus on the work of Les Blank and Peter Mueller, and the Night Vision program that holds midnight screenings of some of the more off the wall documentaries that have snuck into the festival. The breadth and scope of Hot Docs is hard to take in all at once, but it’s easy to see how it is helping to keep the documentary genre alive and well.

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