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A Virtual Success: Hot Docs 2020

By Marc Glassman

From Nathalie Bibeau's 'The Walrus and the Whistleblower,' which won the Audience Award at Hot Docs.

In this new age of physical distancing and social isolation, computer screens and television monitors have become the focal point for our contact with the world. What we see out there is ominous and tragic, ranging from deadly results of the ongoing pandemic to the rise of racism and a consequent fightback by those who have been the subject of so much hatred for too many years. Everything is in flux, from politics to medicine to culture.

Where does that leave a festival like Hot Docs, which wrapped on Sunday, June 7, with a virtual ceremony, in which their Audience Award winner, the Canadian Marineland exposé The Walrus and the Whistleblower, was announced, taking its place among the five recipients of $10,000 (Canadian, aka CAD) each from the Rogers Group of Funds? The event didn’t take place with people in an auditorium, of course: it was staged to be seen online, with appropriate speeches by presenters and winners. In fact, it wasn't truly the end of the online festival, with Hot Docs continuing to make many of its curated selections available for viewing until June 24.

Such are the strange strategies taking place in a brave new world where culture can only be consumed at a distance. The team at Hot Docs had to create something new: a response that deals with a complete contradiction to the purpose of a festival, which is all about bringing filmmakers, the documentary industry and a rapidly growing audience together to enjoy, debate and appreciate cinema.

The accomplishment of Hot Docs 2020 consists in its cool-headed, innovative approach to forging a new identity: an online festival. They've done it brilliantly, streaming over 140 films with 69 virtual Q&As as well as hosting webinars and sessions with the National Film Board of Canada.

Earlier, in May, they hosted an extremely well-organized Industry Conference, that included a keynote speech by Kenyan director Sam Soko about democracy, documentary, corruption and COVID; close-up sessions with international broadcasters and filmmakers; a panel with producers (including Australian Rebecca Barry and Canadian Ric Esther Bienstock) on surviving and thriving during the pandemic; micro-meetings—really, interviews or talks—in which broadcasters ranging from Crave to Al-Jazeera explain what documentaries they like to commission; "hangouts" with Hot Docs facilitators and colleagues; one-on-one Deal Maker sessions; and Hot Docs' famous Forum.

Hot Docs' Forum has been a flagship event since it started 21 years ago. In the early days, the novelty of watching documentary filmmaking teams of producers and directors pitching their projects to experienced commissioning editors while a roomful of industry observers watched was exciting, to say the least. The Forum, at first, was a feisty affair with many European commissioning editors and some American ones able to immediately commit funds to projects pitched to them at both the Hot Docs and IDFA (International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam) Forums. Content of the projects was hotly debated, and sometimes you could see a project being redeveloped over the space of 15 minutes.

Times have changed a lot since then, and I must admit that I might be slightly romanticizing the early forums. Certainly, the Forum is a decorous contained event now. All the pitching doc-makers are treated with respect but, sad to say, any penetrating questions posed by commissioning editors are deferred by the moderators, who coolly suggest that answers will be supplied during one-on-one meetings. The great thing about the Forum is the projects, often quite imaginative, and the passion that the filmmakers bring to their future documentaries. It's the creative process at its purest.

This year's Forum was shot in advance and, while it replicated the format of having projects pitched and commissioning editors and funders responding, all guided by moderators, it was a different experience. Being in a wood-lined huge room filled with paintings of ancient Canadian patriarchs at one of the oldest buildings at University of Toronto, sitting with friends and colleagues while reacting to pitches, is not the same as seeing the content digitally. But Hot Docs had arranged each presentation immaculately, with the doc-makers presenting in environments ranging from outdoors, sitting next to a Vietnamese temple to inside, in a cool European office. Moderators, including IDA's Simon Kilmurry and Torontonian Catherine Olsen, ran the Forum efficiently—and compassionately—while allowing time for the industry vets to respond to the various pitches.

The first look big winner at the Forum was Children of the Mist, a Vietnamese project, which received $30,000 (CAD) for its intimate tale of the coming of age of a young woman, Di, a member of the Hmong tribe, who live in the mountainous regions of Southeast Asia and China. Director Hà Lệ Diễm, who is also Hmong, has spent three years with Di and her family as she’s grown from 12 to adolescence. A huge turning point in the trailer for the film is a scene of Di being kidnapped to become a child bride during Lunar New Year. Di only narrowly avoided becoming a victim of this shocking Hmong tradition, and Diễm is still documenting the now studious girl as the project is nearing completion. The responses to the pitch were enthusiastic, and best exemplified by Noland Walker of ITVS: "I'm officially shattered for the day."

Second prize and $15,000 (CAD) went to the quirky music profile Just a Band. A Kenyan-Canadian co-production directed by Anjali Nayer and Mbithi Masya, the film centers on four Nairobi musicians whose house-funk electro beats propelled them to popularity with the release of their first album in 2008. A very entertaining and well-edited trailer shows that they are far more than a band: they’re artists, who write fictional biographies, make outrageous music videos and create art installations. Skillfully moderated by a clearly enthused Kilmurry, the responses were good, particularly from POV's Chris White, who said, "You had me at quirky and joyous."

The Corus-Hot Docs Forum Pitch Prize, which awards its recipients $10,000 (CAD) went to Ojiibikaan, a film that honors the Indigenous tradition that "we are all related" to the land and to each other. Co-directed by Sean Stiller and Remy Huberdeau and produced by Lisa Jackson, the film profiles five people who are impacting lives through their practices in food sustainability, herbal medicine, treatment of traumatized women, hunting animals in their natural environments and harvesting wild rice. Disparate functions, to be sure, but they hold together through Indigenous philosophy, which is well expressed in the beautifully shot trailer and pitch. The responses to the pitch were respectful, perhaps best exemplified by Poh Si Teng of Al Jazeera English, who expressed that there should be more broadcasting of Indigenous docs.

From Elizabeth Lo's 'Stray,' which won the Best International Feature Documentary Award at Hot Docs.

Hot Docs hasn't released numbers on audience views and box office results for their virtual festival, but all of the awards have been sent to the winners. The Best International Feature Documentary Award went to Stray, directed by Elizabeth Lo and co-produced by Americans, Turks and a Canadian. (Oddly, the film wasn't part of the online festival, but it did win the big award.) The prize of $10,000 was sponsored by the Panicaro Foundation, and the jury wrote in part, "Lo has given a simple outcast story that reveals much more about our own humanity." Set in Istanbul, Stray could be viewed as a companion piece to the Turkish cat hit, Kedi. Here we follow Zeytin, a large friendly mongrel dog, and other strays as they gambol through a funky downtown area of Istanbul accompanied by Syrian refugees who are nominally their owners. Unlike Kedi, which focuses on the nature of cats, Stray uses the dogs so that the city and its treatment of exiles can be explored.

A Special Jury Prize for International Features, sponsored by A&E for $2,500, was awarded to director Rodrigo Reyes and his US-Mexican team for 499, a magical realist take on Spanish imperialism in Mexico. The conceit used by Reyes is to imagine one of Cortes' conquistadores washing up on the shores of contemporary Mexico, ready to recreate the savage route that had been taken 499 years ago. Drawing attention to the problems that beset Mexico today but conceived in a hybrid manner, the jury praised the film as "poetic and beautiful."

The Best Canadian Feature Documentary Award, worth $5,000 and sponsored by the Documentary Organization of Canada and Telefilm Canada, was given to Jean-François Lesage for Prayer for a Lost Mitten, a lyrical film shot in wintry Montreal. Initially set in a lost-and-found department in the city’s subway system, the film follows people from their search for lost mittens, toques and wallets—one of which is miraculously found, with ID intact—to see what they've gained and what’s vanished in their lives.  

All three winners have made classic festival films, the kind that rarely gets a film release or a major broadcast. One advantage of online festivals is that we all can see such films without going to Park City or Austin or Los Angeles or Toronto. In this interim period before we discover what will be the "new normal," we’re discovering that a major element of going to festivals is randomly running into old friends and colleagues or meeting new ones. Hot Docs tried to address this for the industry with "hangouts," led by festival organizers and good friends. The idea was to replicate a cocktail party, but even the best-intentioned Zoom call can't do that. The point, though, is that Hot Docs tried it out to see if it would work.

The team at Hot Docs clearly attempted everything they could to make an online festival into something that could truly match the real thing. Not all things worked, but they showed the kind of initiative that other festivals must replicate in the coming months. As for Hot Docs, let's call it a virtual success.

Marc Glassman is the editor of the Canadian documentary magazine POV and an adjunct professor in the Documentary Media program at Ryerson University. He reviews films every week for the Toronto radio station Classical 96.3FM and is the artistic director of the literary event program Pages UnBound.