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Hot Docs and the Toronto Documentary Forum

By Betsy McLane

D.A. Pennebaker shooting with a tried and true Arriflex, is a featured film pioneer in <em>Cinema Verité: Defining the Moment</em>. Photo courtesy of the National Film Board of Canada.

The year 2000 saw Toronto’s Hot Docs Film Festival truly come of age. The success of the screenings, coupled with an auspicious debut for the Toronto Documentary Forum (TDF), made this first week in May a new staple of the documentary calendar year. Credit goes to the festival and forum organizers, especially Chris McDonald, Rudy Buttignol. Michaelle MacLean Amy Briamonte and the Amsterdam Forum’s Jolanda Klorenbeek who worked very hard to create a positive atmosphere for screenings and discussion.

The Canadian Independent Film Caucus, a national association of Canadian documentary filmmakers, founded the festival in 1994. In 1996, Hot Docs became a separately incorporated organization with a mandate to showcase and support the work of Canadian and international documentary makers. As expected, the emphasis is on Canada, and sometimes the very regional issues facing Canadian documentarians overshadowed the international aspects of the gathering. The complicated Canadian system for obtaining government funding for independent work had been severely criticized by the independent community. In an effort at redress, government representatives made a formal presentation at the opening of the festival, which produced even more animated discussion and activism among the Canadian producers. For the non-Canadian, the sheer novelty of seeing national government representatives speak directly to an audience of documentary makers and offer them increased subsidies, however small, was astonishing. The emphasis on Canadian issues and Canadian product, however logical, justified and revealing, did become a bit wearing. One long-time US media activist remarked ruefully, "Not only is this the usual, white and male; it’s white, male and Northern.”

There was global representation. The festival featured a showcase of new Australian documentaries, with filmmakers in attendance, sponsored by the Australian Film Commission. The selection committee for the forum included people from the US and Britain as well as Canada, and attendees came from around the world. Notably, Mohammed Hashem, one of the founders and co-directors of the DocuDays in Beirut festival, made the journey from Lebanon and was overjoyed with the opportunity to see so many films (See December 1999 ID for more on Beirut DocuDays.). Television commissioning editors from various Western European countries were also well represented. A list of delegates can be found at the excellent Hot Docs website,

Over 70 films were shown during the festival, most at the Royal Cinema, a fanciful venue in the heart of Toronto’s Little Italy. With the festival headquarters and the forum site a few blocks up the street, the area is a wonderful host to Hot Docs. The only minor downside to the festival location is the fact that the official hotel is a half-hour walk away from the theatre. This distance was not a factor for local audiences, who turned out in record numbers.

The documentary selection included opening night home-town favorite Cinema Verité: Defining the Moment, from Peter Wintonock and company. This look at the international roots of vérité in the 1960s (with a special nod to Canada’s contribution) is a must-see for everyone who cares about documentary making. Winners of the festival competition included The Holier it Gets, directed by Jennifer Baichwal, Best Independent Canadian Film; Avant le Jour, directed by Lucie Lambert, Best Feature; Zyklon Portrait, directed by Elida Schogt, Best Short; Godard a la tele, directed by Michel Royer; and Long Night’s Journey Into Day, directed by Frances Reid and Deborah Hoffman, tied for Critics Prize for Best International Documentary. In all more than twenty awards were given in a variety of categories and craft areas.

On Friday, Hot Docs presented a symposium dedicated to discussing the critical issues surrounding the art and business of documentary. Along with a keynote address by cultural critic Mark Crispin Miller, the day encompassed discussions of supporting creative work on television, hybrid genres and an interview with vérité pioneers D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, who were on hand to received the Hot Docs Lifetime Achievement Award at the closing night gala. The lively symposium sessions were audiotaped and can be purchased via the website.

Not quite so public are the inner workings of the forum. This highly successful overture into matching pitching producers with buying television editors was a mirror of the International Forum for the Co-Financing of Documentaries that takes place each November in Amsterdam. Pitches conducted by such notables as Jan Roefkamp. Nick Fraser, Chris Haws and Jolanda Klorenbeek received a typically pointed response. Filmmakers from Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Iceland, New Zealand, Russia, the UK and the US filled the two day TDF with project proposals of every kind. Application forms for the 2001 TDF will be available on the website in autumn 2000 and those interested in the Amsterdam Forum November 27-29 should contact the IDFFA website.