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Hot Docs 2014: Buckets of Rain, Beaucoup de Docs

By Marc Glassman

Even during the annual  Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival's celebration of everything nonfiction, not every Canuck obsesses over documentaries. Some are more concerned about hockey, the weather and, if in Toronto, Mayor Rob Ford. Still, it's heartening to note that while hiz-dizhonor was making international headlines by allegedly smoking crack, and local sports fans found their attention divided by, of all things, a basketball playoff, a record number of 192,000 Torontonians and visitors stood patiently in downpours of rain to attend screenings of the 197 films selected to play at Hot Docs.

What made them brave the inclement weather—truly, the worst suffered at the festival in more than 15 years? It's the films, of course, and the sad reality that they're rarely funded or seen on television anymore. Audiences in Toronto react much as they do at IDFA in Amsterdam every November. They come in droves to see work by independent filmmakers with singular attitudes, who are unafraid to investigate societal ills, or profile distinctive figures in arts and culture or create essays about philosophical and communications issues that ensnare many of us.

It's the kind of filmmaking that used to receive munificent financing by broadcasters ranging from PBS to Canada's CBC and TVO to Britain's BBC, France and Germany's ARTE and Japan's NHK. Those organizations, and often the same people, are still at the oblong table, accompanied by representatives from new digi-channels, distribution companies and foundations, for the heated pitch sessions at the Hot Docs Forum. A festival highlight, the Forum is a two-day event, which offers 20 spots, including the randomly chosen Mountie's Hat, to filmmakers who want to get their films properly financed.

It's a modern theater of dreams—or nightmares, depending on the mood of the assembly of financiers who sit in judgment of the imaginative pitches presented by directors accompanied by their producers and main funding partner. The clearest indication of the dysfunction beleaguering the whole system is the inconvenient truth that budgets have dropped in half over the past decade and a half. While it's true that equipment and post-production work is way cheaper than before, what happened to million-dollar budgets for docs?


The Hot Docs Forum. Photo: Joseph Michael Howarth


None of the films presented at the Forum were million-dollar babies. The winning project, which received the $10,000 Shaw Media-Hot Docs Forum Pitch Prize, was the modestly budgeted Tempest Storm, a profile of the legendary burlesque queen, who is still alive and kicking at 84. The production team of Nimisha Mukerji and Kaitlyn Regher allowed themselves $40,150 in fees for a project listed as costing a modest $285,000.

Would Shaw Media, which owns 19 channels, actually show the film, if made? While one can't answer definitively, the group owns a mainstream over-the-top channel Global-TV, plus HGTV Canada, Food Network Canada, National Geographic Channel, Showcase and HISTORY; none are likely to air a doc on Tempest Storm.

This is the great conundrum of Hot Docs and its Forum: Audiences flock to the festival, but there are hardly any institutions left to finance or broadcast the point-of-view films embraced by crowds just outside of the Decision Makers' purview.

There were, as always, a number of controversial projects being pitched. Director Sarah McCarthy (The Dark Matter of Love) and producer/director Mike Lerner (Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer) have come together for a new film, Putin's Number One Enemy, which will tell of billionaire Bill Browder's attempts to bring his former ally to justice. Browder showed up for the pitch, which created quite a stir at the Forum. Several commissioning editors wondered how much influence the wealthy Browder would have on the film—with the appropriate claims of denial being placed on the doc community's radar by both McCarthy and Lerner.

Other intriguing projects include In the Shadow of the Dream, a portrait of Clarence B. Jones, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s lawyer at the height of the civil rights movement; The Babushkas of Chernobyl, a film featuring septuagenarian and octogenarian women who continue to survive in the famously radioactive zone in the Ukraine; and Amina—A Gay Girl in Damascus, about an Internet hoax set in motion by a "pathetic white academic," according to a Forum quip uttered by the avuncular Nick Fraser of BBC's prestigious Storyville slot.

Participants at the Forum went from dreams to reality at the festival's awards presentation at the prestigious Windsor Arms Hotel. Out of Mind, Out of Sight, a compassionate vérité look at the lives being led by four violent offenders, who are now inmates at the Brockville (Ontario) Mental Health Centre, was the $10,000 Best Canadian Feature Documentary Award winner. Veteran director John Kastner, who has won four International Emmys for some of his previous clear-eyed, perceptive work, gratefully accepted the prize for "bringing insight to the emotional complexity surrounding the issue of mental illness."


From John Kastner's Out of Mind, Out of Sight


Before the Last Curtain Falls, a stylishly shot and edited film about the final performance of Gardenia, a play starring transvestite and transsexual performers, won the Special Jury Prize. Moving back and forth between the final theatrical performance of Gardenia and intimate looks of the lives of the actors, director/writer Thomas Wallner's film, edited by Manfred Becker, won $5,000.

A funny and lively eco-doc, Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story, won the Emerging Canadian Filmmaker Award. Director Grant Baldwin and producer Jenny Rustemeyer recorded what happened when they took a vow to eat the discarded food of our society. Funny and instructive, their film shows how one can cook and consume wonderfully well with the detritus of our society.


From Grant Baldwin's Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story


A special jury prize was accorded to the radical doc The Secret Trial 5. Producer Madeline Cohen-the co-winner of the Lindalee Tracey emerging artist award-and director Amar Wala worked with a dedicated crew to document the story of Canada's "Guantanamo North" in Kingston, Ontario, where a small group of Muslims accused of acts of terrorism were held for years. Well-researched and presented, this film exposes the terrifying practice of using "security certificates," powerful and unchallengeable weapons, to imprison accused but not convicted individuals.

The Best International Documentary Feature Award went to the heart-warming Waiting for August, director Teodora Ana Mihai's year-long vérité portrait of a Romanian family held together by Georgiana, a vital and impressive 15-year-old girl. With their mother away in Italy working to support them, it's up to Georgiana to make sure that her brothers and sisters go to school and stay focused and healthy. Waiting for August—the title implies when their mother returns—is a wonderful humanist film.


From Teodora Ana Mihai's Waiting for August


Other award winners at Hot Docs include the diving doc Walking Under Water, which won a Special Jury Prize for International Feature Documentary; director Orlando von Einsiedel, who won the Emerging International Filmmaker Award for his eco-doc Virunga; and for Best Mid-Length Documentary, the circus-doc  Kings of the Wind & Electric Queens. Finally, the highly regarded and multi-talented Canadian producer/ writer/director Michael McNamara won the Don Haig Award for best producer.


From Cedric Dupire and Gaspard Kuentz's Kings of the Wind & Electric Queens


Hot Docs will be back next spring. But will funding for docs improve during that time?

Based in Toronto, Marc Glassman is editor of Point of View magazine and Montage magazine.