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Festival Focus: Hot Docs

By Agnes Varnum

From Shelley Saywell's 'Martyr Street,' which earned the Best Canadian Feature Award at the 2006 Hot Docs Canadian Documentary Film Festival

While most of the trades were focused on the Tribeca Film Festival, the documentary industry from Canada, Europe, the US and beyond were gathering for the 13th annual Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival and accompanying Toronto Documentary Forum. Even if there wasn't much buzz stateside, you could hear it emanating from across the Canadian border.

The 10-day festival, which ran from April 28 to May 7, presented 101 Canadian and international documentaries to 50,000 revelers--a whopping 25 percent increase in audience attendance from last year. That number doesn't count the rush lines, often around the block, or additional screening programs like Docs In Schools, which brought docs and their makers to 7,000 high school students in special educational discussions, or even DocShop, the industry tape library that housed 1,535 titles with an estimated 3,000 views.

In addition to record-breaking audiences, the industry delegation was up from last year to 1,800 strong. Hot Docs organizers pay special attention to cultivating programs that nurture doc business. Among the programs producers could participate in were Rendezvous, which matches filmmakers and their works-in-progress with international commissioning editors; Micro Meetings, where companies and organizations pitch products and services; Doc Lab, which gives pre-selected writers and directors an opportunity to walk through project development with mentor Kevin McMahon of Primitive Entertainment; and the usual stock of coffee talks, panels, filmmaker rap sessions and informal networking in the spacious Victoria College delegate lounge. Industrious producers will find plenty of opportunities to start, finance, sell or screen their work at this event.

The two-day Toronto Documentary Forum runs concurrently with the festival. The producers and directors of 30 pre-selected projects and 2 wildcard selections with some funding already attached were pitched to 140 international commissioning editors, sales agents and distributors, up from 119 last year. In addition to helping along the next slate of festival programming, TDF attracts documentary funding heavyweights, mainly from North America and Europe, to the festival.

"With the Documentary Forum going on the same time, there's a whole parallel world of buyers you don't usually get a chance to see," noted Steven Ascher, who attended the festival with his film So Much, So Fast, a compelling story of a family dealing with their loved one's diagnosis of ALS, that premiered internationally at the festival. Michaelle McLean, director of TDF noted after it was all over, "I feel it was the best TDF yet. The comments I heard during and since suggest the buyers felt it was a good crop."

And while other festivals are being criticized for lack of focused programming, Hot Docs delivered strong "Canadian Spectrum" and "International Showcase" collections punctuated by emerging trends like "Made in Japan," a selection of intimate portraits revealing turmoil behind the typically shrouded Japanese culture. "It's the job of the festival to highlight and celebrate the best in current documentary," said Sean Farnel, in his strong rookie year as director of programming with Hot Docs. "So, in that sense, it's a survey. But being socially and politically relevant is also at the core of documentary."

To that end, "Join Me! How to Start a Revolution" showcased activists enacting change in tough political times and included two films from the Audience Award Top 10 list: Ronit Avni and Julia Bacha's Encounter Point and Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan's An Unreasonable Man. Addressing young audiences was another thread in "RealTeens," which included the world premiere of Deepa Mehta's Let's Talk About It, in which kids armed with cameras engage in frank discussions about domestic violence.

The presence of this year's Outstanding Achievement Award winner, Werner Herzog, sparked industry excitement. In addition to a retrospective of his documentary work, Herzog appeared for an informal discussion with Farnel, who quipped at the outset that tickets for the evening were being scalped on craigslist. In fact, a few folks who didn't get a seat were hunkered down outside the Isabel Bader Theater trying to hear that famous voice.

Herzog, leery of typical distinctions made between documentary and narrative forms, reflected on "the ecstasy of truth," his way of describing his career-long attempt at reaching higher truth through his stories regardless of whether they are narrative, documentary or some combination of techniques. To the filmmakers in attendance he offered, "Look at all the young filmmakers who are making movies with no money at all; there are no excuses anymore."

Winding down the event, Hot Docs awarded a host of prizes. The winner of the Canadian Spectrum competition went to Shelley Saywell for Martyr Street, a follow-up to her 2001 film A Child's Century of War. Once a busy marketplace, Martyr Street in Hebron, Israel has been deserted. The children the filmmaker had known five years ago are dispersed and the impact of consistent violence and hate is now apparent. The International Showcase prize went to 37 Uses of a Dead Sheep, directed by Ben Hopkins. This inventive ethnographic film was produced in collaboration with the film's subjects, members of the nomadic Kirghiz tribe living in exile in Turkey, as they share traditional stories, modern challenges and even the process of making the film.

The top Audience Award went to A Lion in the House (dirs./prods.: Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert), which delves into the lives of children dealing with cancer over a six-year period. The four-hour film, which aired in June on PBS' Independent Lens, is being distributed internationally through Montreal-based Films Transit. Other prizes and special jury awards can be found at

There isn't enough space to cover everything going on during Hot Docs and it will likely take several visits to experience all the festival has to offer, but that looks like a worthwhile investment. The festival organizers have built a premiere event in North America for connecting to the international documentary community. In addition to the rich 10-day program, Hot Docs has reached out into the Toronto community to cultivate engaged and enthusiastic audiences and strong financial backing from the film industry to ensure longevity. Docs are hot right now, and Hot Docs is looking to keep them that way.