Could the 31st Edition of Hot Docs Be the Last for the Ailing Toronto Fest? Organizers Warn It Might Be

The 31st edition of Canada’s influential Hot Docs Film Festival, which gets underway Thursday, could very well be the last.

For the past month, the Toronto festival, one of North America’s largest dedicated to documentaries, has been roiled by staff and funding turmoil. On March 25, artistic director Hussain Currimbhoy and 10 of the fest’s programmers abruptly exited their posts. That was followed by Hot Docs president Marie Nelson issuing an “urgent appeal” for more funding. But the Canadian government declined to provide funding for the doc fest in the federal budget unveiled April 16. The budget added more $88 million in funding for the screen sector, including $17 million over three years for the larger Toronto International Film Festival.

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The mass exodus of staff and lack of much-needed government funding has put the future of Hot Docs in serious jeopardy. Fest organizers indicated as much after the federal budget was unveiled. “The federal government’s decision is putting the future of an important theater and cultural hub at risk, despite ongoing calls for support from our community,” Hot Docs said in a statement accusing the government of picking “winners and losers in Canada’s cultural landscape.”

The financial woes facing Hot Docs aren’t surprising given the fact that film festivals all over the world are struggling financially. COVID hit many non-profit film festivals hard and many have yet to recover. Both big and small fests are battling drastically shrinking revenues due in part to poor ticket sales and weakening sponsorships, donations and grants. Last August, the Toronto Intl. Film Festival lost its lead sponsor Bell after 28 years. In April at the Mill Valley Film Festival, founder and Director Mark Fishkin announced that the California Film Institute — the nonprofit that runs the fest — was half a million dollars in the red. As of May 2023 Hot Docs, according to Canada Revenue Agency report, had a $1.5 million deficit. Fishkin and Nelson, are asking for personal donations to keep their respective festivals standing.

“I’ll be completely honest with you: we’re struggling,” Nelson said in an April 22 email to Hot Docs patrons. “So much so that there’s a possibility this festival will be our last. I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure that’s not the case. Can you help me? While I explain a bit about the crisis Hot Docs is facing, will you consider making a quick donation today, to keep us going over the next few months?”

While the doc fest’s financial situation is dire, the internal war that appeared to transpire behind the scenes was a seismic blow. Losing 10 seasoned programmers one month before a festival that includes a slate of 168 films is potentially catastrophic.

On March 25 in a joint statement on social media, as first reported by Screen Daily, Hot Docs senior international programmer Myrocia Watamaniuk wrote, “I have made the heartbreaking choice to exit the 2024 Hot Docs Festival. I do so with 9 of my fellow colleagues, listed below. I will continue to fight for films and filmmakers — they are the bedrock of all film festivals, and the reason I do this job.”

Watamaniuk had been with Hot Docs since 2001.

Watamaniuk and the nine programmers who left Hot Docs put together the 31st edition of the fest prior to their departure. The 10 programmers who exited alongside Watamaniuk are: Samah Ali (international programmer, features, 2020–2024), Vivian Belik (international programmer, mid-lengths, 2020–2024), Jesse Cumming (international programmer, markers, 2021–2024), Angie Driscoll (senior international programmer, features and shorts, 2003–2024), Margaret Pereira (international programmer, mid-lengths, 2023–2024), Gabor Pertic (international programmer, features, 2010–2024), Kaitlynn Tomaselli (international programmer, features, 2023–2023), Mariam Zaidi (international programmer, shorts and Canadian programmer, features and shorts, 2016–2024) and Yiqian Zhang (Canadian programmer, features and shorts, 2023–2024).

An internal letter dated Feb. 20 and addressed to the Hot Docs board of directors and senior management, which was obtained by the Toronto Star, states that the programmers’ workplace had been turned upside down due to Currimbhoy, the now departed artistic director. Currimbhoy, who had stints at Sundance, Sheffield DocFest, and the Melbourne Film Festival, was hired by Hot Docs in November 2023.

“We have individual stories and experiences to share, which all speak to a pattern of disrespect, dismissal and degradation by artistic director Hussain Currimbhoy and supported by senior management,” the letter allegedly stated.

A source who did not want to be named says that Hot Docs’ decision to let Currimbhoy state that he had chosen to “step down” for personal reasons as opposed to being fired triggered the 10 programmers to leave before, and not after, the festival. They also wrote a public follow up to their first statement.

On March 27 in a joint online statement the departed programmers wrote: “We consider ourselves to be one of the most principled, process-driven programming teams in the business, and we were unable, this year, to carry out that process.” The statement went on to say that the programming environment at Hot Doc had “recently turned into a toxic workplace created by: a lack of respect for business communication; team members’ voices not being heard and/or being dismissed’ and contracts breached across various programs.”

In a statement to Variety, all 10 programmers said, “Due to a confidentiality clause in our contracts, we are faced with the very real fear of legal repercussions and this intimidation prevents us from speaking to any specifics, even anonymously, at the moment,” adding that they believe it important “to correct inaccuracies in the narrative and timeline being presented by Hot Docs and others, so as to prevent this from ever happening again. We hope we will be able to do so soon.

“Our audience and filmmakers are our first priority and we would like this to be understood before the festival begins so their experiences won’t be compromised in any way.”

During a press conference last month Nelson said, “We understand that our union is far from perfect, but I also know that the only way we can create a more perfect union is if we do it together, and so I will continue to work to try to earn that trust and hope that (the programmers) will come back, and if they don’t come back this year that they’ll come back next year.”

Charlotte Cook, who served as Hot Docs director of programming from 2011 to 2015, describes the programmers who left the fest as “some of the most passionate, dedicated programmers I’ve ever interacted with.” Cook, who co-founded and runs the non-profit documentary production studio Field of Vision, fears that the film community doesn’t place enough value on festival programmers.

“There’s a huge amount of skill that goes into being a programmer and choosing films for a festival, there is a lot more that goes into it than is often perceived,” Cook says. “I worry that the skill of programming is being undervalued across the field. I think many people think being a programmer is just sitting around and watching a ton of films and it’s obvious which to choose, and it’s an easy job.

“In programming you’re watching rough cuts, you’re balancing a program to make sure it’s reflective and inclusive of so many factors, serving both the filmmakers and your audience. It isn’t simply about taste, far from it.”

She worries that a lack of appreciation for the skill required to program festival will lead to more problems at festivals.

“To give up a programming job like the Hot Docs jobs is a very, very difficult decision,” Cook says. “It is incredibly difficult to maintain a living as a programmer. I think any kind of perception that it was a reactionary move or a non-supportive move towards the festival is just something I can’t even compute knowing that group of people.”

Dawn Porter, whose film “Luther: Never Too Much,” about R&B star Luther Vandross is opening Hot Docs, says that directors who have been invited to the fest have been reassured that this year’s edition will be without any hiccups. But despite the assurances, Porter is concerned.

“Festivals are a crucial part of a nonfiction ecosystem,” she says. “We need people with deep pockets to not just support the movies, but to support the places that play our films.”

Yance Ford will be at Hot Docs with “Power,” a Netflix doc about the history of American policing. Ford said that he never considered pulling out of the festival despite behind the scenes concerns.

“I used to be a programmer, so I know that programming is not something that you just dial in,” Ford says. “Programming is something that you invest in because it says something about the festival and it says something about you and your vision as a programmer. So for 10 of them to leave at once was shocking.

“How does one respond to their sudden departure? It seemed to me that we filmmakers had an obligation to meet the ticket holders and the audiences at Hot Docs as expected,” Ford says “It’s an incredible festival. The audiences are amazing. So, in the absence of any concrete knowledge I felt like we still have to go to the festival.”

Also attending is filmmaker Gary Hustwit with “Eno,” about visionary musician and artist Brian Eno. The film’s producer Jessica Edwards said she was initially “super nervous” going to the Toronto fest.

“I wasn’t sure what it would look like logistically,” Edwards says. “I wasn’t sure how it would feel in the theaters. I wasn’t sure about the tech team and hospitality and the sort of machine that works to get a filmmaker to a festival. We didn’t hear from the festival for a couple of days after everything went down and then we got an email and it was reassuring and welcoming.

“Gary and I spent a lot of time talking about it and what was important to us was the idea that you support the things that support you. So we are very excited to bring ‘Eno’ to Toronto audiences. If Hot Docs, God forbid, goes away then filmmakers will have lost the opportunity to connect directly to their audiences and that makes me very sad.”

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