Hot Docs Programming Head Shane Smith Lauds the ‘Power of Documentary’ as Festival Returns to Toronto Cinemas

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Three years ago, the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival drew nearly 230,000 attendees to venues across Toronto. It was a record-breaking turnout, and a hopeful harbinger that even amid the growing disruption of streaming platforms, audiences were flocking more than ever before to North America’s largest documentary festival.

It has not returned to cinemas since.

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After the coronavirus pandemic prompted a last-minute online pivot in 2020, Hot Docs was again forced to host a virtual fest last year. Now, as the curtain is set to rise on its 29th edition, the festival’s director of programming, Shane Smith, admits to a case of nerves after the long absence. “Some of us haven’t been on stage for a while,” he tells Variety. “But it’s going to be great to get back into the groove, get that muscle memory reactivated.”

This year’s edition will offer a reminder not only of how much has changed in the past two years, but of what has remained constant. Like other festivals forced to adapt during the pandemic, mounting back-to-back virtual events has taught the organizing team some valuable lessons about how Hot Docs can evolve in an increasingly online world. But it has also underscored what makes in-person screenings so vital to the Hot Docs community.

“Programming the festival online, and presenting it online the last couple of years, has really shown us what we love about what we do, and that is connecting filmmakers to audiences,” says Smith. “That has happened online, but it hasn’t happened with the sort of electricity that you get in a cinema, when a filmmaker is able to see in real time the audience response to that film, and we are able to help…start a conversation between audience and filmmaker.”

The response so far has exceeded expectations: despite lingering wariness about pandemic travel, as well as the logistical challenges involved for many international filmmakers, Smith reports that roughly 90% of the directors presenting films at Hot Docs will attend the festival – a figure that’s almost in line with pre-pandemic attendance.

The organizers have nevertheless been forced to make some concessions. As the world slowly begins to emerge from the pandemic, at a pace that often varies from one country to the next, industry programs such as Forum, Dealmaker, and Distribution Rendezvous – which bring together hundreds of filmmakers and decision-makers from across the globe – will again be held virtually this year.

“We just didn’t know what the setup would be and how could you plan to have 20 pitches with all those buyers in person, and still have travel restrictions and still have testing restrictions and still have so many barriers to movement,” says Hot Docs industry program director Elizabeth Radshaw. “This is a transition year. And so to offer the greatest respect to that market [we decided] to keep it online.”

The festival opens April 28 with the world premiere of Jennifer Baichwal’s “Into the Weeds,” about a former groundskeeper who battles an agrochemical corporation after his cancer diagnosis. It’s the second time that Baichwal is opening Hot Docs, after 2009’s “Act of God,” something Smith describes as “a great testament to the longevity to her work, to her career.”

In the depth and breadth of this year’s selection – which features more than 200 documentaries, including 63 world and 47 international premieres – the veteran programmer sees a diverse range of filmmakers grappling with both the past and its impact on the world today, often in very different ways. “What we’ve seen in the programming is really a sort of excavation – a deep vein of investigation and unearthing or excavating events and examining events from the past,” he says.

Some of that work bears out in an intimate personal context, as with Jasmin Mara López’s exploration of her own sexual abuse in “Silent Beauty,” which world premieres in the festival’s Persister section, or Reed Harkness’ “Sam Now,” an emotional portrait of a mother and son’s relationship after she leaves the 14-year-old to start a new life. That film will have its world premiere in the International Spectrum competition section.

Other films use a wide-angle lens to investigate political and systemic fractures. José Joffily’s “A Symphony for a Common Man,” which has its international premiere in the Special Presentations program, offers a revisionist look at the 2002 ousting of Brazilian diplomat and head of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, José Bustani, as America marched to war with Iraq. In “The Killing of a Journalist,” which world premieres in the International Spectrum, director Matt Sarnecki digs into the failed, corrupt investigation into the murder of a Slovakian journalist.

Across the program, Smith sees filmmakers pursuing a “deep investigation of the systems surrounding us,” something he attributes to the lingering influence of the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on our societies. “The reckoning that happened in the last couple of years, people are really looking at the world and asking questions in a way that they may not have been before the pandemic hit us,” he says.

Among the anticipated titles having world premieres in Toronto are Cody Sheehy’s “Make People Better” (pictured), which tells the inside story of the disappearance of the Chinese biophysicist who secretly created the first genetically designed babies; “The Talented Mr. Rosenberg,” a lurid look into the story of infamous Toronto con man Albert Rosenberg, directed by Barry Avrich; “Million Dollar Pigeons,” Gavin FitzGerald’s charming introduction to the wildly competitive world of pigeon racing; and “The Quiet Epidemic,” Lindsay Keys and Winslow Crane-Murdoch’s investigation into Lyme disease that reveals why ticks, and the diseases they carry, have been allowed to spread globally.

Notable international premieres include Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner “The Exiles,” which follows Chinese-American documentarian Christine Choy as she explores the unseen footage of a documentary she began working on soon after the Tiananmen massacre; Reid Davenport’s “I Didn’t See You There,” a first-person account of living with disability shot from the director’s wheelchair, which won the best director award in Park City; Chase Joynt’s dual Sundance prize winner “Framing Agnes,” which tells the story of a young trans woman who entered a sex disorders study in 1958 seeking gender-affirming care; and Ron Howard’s “We Feed People,” a chronicle of chef and Nobel Peace Prize nominee José Andrés and his work providing healthy food to those affected in disaster zones. Andrés will be joining the festival for a virtual conversation with audiences.

Hot Docs will also give its Outstanding Achievement Award to Anand Patwardhan and screen a selection of documentaries shot over the course of the Indian filmmaker’s prolific 40-year career. “The timeliness of [his work] is incredible,” says Smith, pointing to Patwardhan’s explorations of political division, religious fundamentalism, disinformation, and the crisis of masculinity. “These themes are just so incredibly resonant today…. He’s a seer, really. And what he’s seen in India has played out in other countries around the world.”

Like other festivals to unspool since the Russian invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, Hot Docs has marshalled its resources to show support for Ukrainian filmmakers, curating a selection of Ukrainian documentaries that are available to Canadian audiences through the festival’s VOD platform, while programming three films either made in Ukraine or by Ukrainian filmmakers. Among them is “Outside,” by Olha Zhurba, which will have its international premiere in the International Spectrum competition section.

More than just an act of solidarity with Ukrainian colleagues – many of whom are on the frontlines fighting against the Russians – Smith says the programming is a response to audience demand. And it underlies, too, the unique role played by documentary film in the world today.

“[It] is just indicative of the importance and necessity of documentary storytelling in helping explain our world to ourselves, in showing us different perspectives and different insights into our world,” Smith said. That’s especially the case, he adds, in the wake of “massive disruptive world events.” “It makes sense that people are looking for answers, or looking for information, at the very least. And this is the power of documentary.”

The Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival runs April 28 – May 8.

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