Screening a hundred movies, mostly premieres, Hot Docs is the biggest doc fest in North America and the second largest in the world, after Amsterdam’s IDFA. You find the same big-name commissioning editors at Hot Docs as at IDFA and even a live-action replica of the IDFA Pitching Forum. In fact, there are so many parallels that I am offering you a handy checklist for distinguishing between the two festivals – in case you ever find yourself stumbling into a cinema after a hard night of festival partying and wonder whether you’re in Amsterdam or Toronto.
If you don’t see any canals and the coffee shops only sell coffee, you’re in Toronto.If the moderator at the Forum is wearing a Canadian Mountie’s hat, you’re not in Amsterdam. The food is a lot better in Toronto but the parties are less fun – there are more business-related networking opportunities than there are chances for party animals to let their hair down (unless I just went to the wrong parties or left too early).
If you find yourself watching a great Canadian film, that’s no guarantee you’re at Hot Docs. Canadian films get picked for festivals everywhere. I’ll even stick my neck out and make a terrible, sweeping generalization: Canadian documentary films are on the whole more polished, stylish and sophisticated than, say, their US equivalents. I’m not arguing that Canadians are genetically more talented; but Canada’s policy of supporting filmmakers financially and creatively has paid off by giving Canadian talent more of a chance to shine on screen.
Perhaps it’s a North American speciality, but one area where I felt Hot Docs comes out on top is marketing. With banners and posters all over Toronto, the festival makes a slick hard-sell to the general film-going public for the whole concept of non-fiction cinema. Special trailers were screened before every film – Canada’s Documentary Channel trailer runs:
«Tonight, if you feel scared, angry, or emotional… remember, it’s just a movie.» Then the payoff: «Yeah, right.»
Hot Docs’ own cinema ad is a witty, spoof production number, Hollywood-musical-style, featuring a prom queen amid a chorus of gutter life. You can enjoy it yourself online at ( http://www.hotdocs.ca/festival_trailers.cfm ).
Judging by the sell-out shows and queues round the block for stand-by tickets, Hot Docs marketing to the general public is effective. Talking to my neighbours in the cinema seats (not industry people, but innocent members of the public), I got heart-warming responses like
«The thing is, it’s better than the movies because you know it’s true. I guess it is a bit voyeuristic, but the way they edit it to cut out the boring bits, it’s more exciting than real life.»
«I’m watching four films a day.»
«I never watched a documentary at the cinema before, but I’m so glad I came. Who needs fiction when you have this?»
«Now I’ve discovered this festival, I’ve decided to take the week off work next year so I can come to more films.»
One of the festival’s smartest marketing ploys was to offer free, late-night screenings of films about sex, in a strand they called Show Me Yours.
If you close your eyes and just listen to Nick Fraser’s voice at the Toronto Documentary Forum, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’re in Amsterdam. All the usual suspects from the European broadcasting scene are there – among an impressive total of over one hundred European, North American, Australian and Japanese financiers hearing pitches over the course of the two-day event.
Two crucial differences from Amsterdam though: an innovative feature of this year’s TDF was role-swapping, i.e. giving commissioning editors slots at the Forum to pitch their channels to filmmakers. A nice idea; but at the risk of insulting people I ought to be cultivating, I must say the CE pitches I saw weren’t as impassioned or well-prepared as the producers’ pitches to the CEs. I guess the sad truth is that we are hungrier for them than they are for us.
Secondly, it seemed to me that Hot Docs is more nurturing to producers who come to pitch at their Forum than IDFA by organising one-to-one rendezvous meetings between CEs and producers and ‘speed dating’ networking sessions.
The pitches at this year’s Toronto Forum were enjoyable to observe. In Spam: The Documentary, first-time director Dave Manning (in his day-job he’s an editor) proposes to do for spam what Morgan Spurlock did for McDonald’s. He says ‘yes’ to every email offer of penis enlargement, college degree certificates and cash from the Nigerian royal family. Dave sums up his concept as Super-Size Me with a penis, which is an attractive proposition, let’s face it. I wish him well with the project, though I’ll refrain from sending Dave an email to tell him so, for fear of a camera crew turning up on my doorstep. Cam Bennett’s As Seen On TV! The K-Tel Story is a glorious nostalgia romp for anyone who has ever watched TV commercials in the 1970s. Cam showed hilarious clips, scripting a history-of-the-business film as a feature-length K-tel advert.
Not a comedy, but a highly original animated feature documentary with a delicious dark sense of humour, Ari Foman’s Waltz With Bashir was an outstanding pitch from Israel. The film is an autobiographical tale of 24 hours in his life as a 19-year-old conscript in the Israeli Defence Force, while Palestinian women and children were being massacred by IDF allies in refugee camps, and a day that has haunted him ever since. “When you choose film school, not business school, it’s because you’ve got one story to tell,” said Ari in his pitch. Canadian Ian Hammah’s Blood Sweat And Code, while a bit earnest for my taste, has great fun with computer graphics, and presents the novel idea that computer games are the biggest format innovation since Caxton’s printing press.
I saw so many good pitches that I found myself wondering why there’s ever any dull factual programming on TV? As in any pitching event, only time will tell how far the interest expressed in the room will result in hard cash for the producers; but Hot Docs has a reputation for being a place where deals are struck and business gets done.
Like IDFA, Hot Docs includes filmmaker talks and masterclasses in the festival, but I have to say it was a shame they were tucked away so discreetly from the main festival venues: I missed the crowded IDFA sessions with filmmakers in Amsterdam cinema lobbies. Errol Morris was the undisputed star turn. He entertained a packed house with his diatribe against the evils of cinéma-vérité. “Vérité is remarkably stupid” he railed. “From the beginning I always tried to find the heaviest camera I could, I lit everything, I set-decorated the interviews, I had people look into the lens of the camera. I tried to be as intrusive as possible.” Asked whether he believes it’s ethically ok to make fun of people in his films, Morris retorted, “There’s a prevailing belief that the job of documentary filmmakers is to convey how wonderful people really are. But what if they suck?”
It was a bit disheartening for us lesser mortals to learn that even a giant of Morris’s stature couldn’t get any films funded for years and years after the triumphs of his first two doc features. He told the audience he still can’t make a living from documentaries, keeping the wolf from his door only by directing commercials. His presentation ended with a screening of Morris’s commercials for Miller Beer and Quaker Oats. “I’m a bride of Mammon,” he confessed. “I just never know when Mammon will demand conjugal rights.”
Finally, paying off the headline of this article, I must turn to street fighting. I can’t report on any punch-outs at Hot Docs between disgruntled filmmakers and overweening commissioning editors. Nor were there any riots at the box office when the tickets ran out. Nevertheless, street fighting was high on the agenda. It was gratifying to see that both the Best International Documentary and the Audience Award went to the same film: Street Fight, directed, produced, shot and cut by New York filmmaker Marshall Curry. Rough around the edges in the way first-timer US docs tend to be, Street Fight is a rollicking tale of goodies versus baddies. Curry follows the election campaign of Cory Booker, an African-American Democrat candidate, to become the mayor of Newark. The twist is that Booker’s opponent is also African-American and Democrat – and claims that Booker is secretly white, Republican, and Jewish. Truth obviously counts for little in a US election campaign. I pass no judgment on the fact that a film documenting the iniquities of machine politics in the US should be so universally popular in Canada.
Without ever asking whether your prefer Amsterdam or Toronto, if you ever get the chance to go to Hot Docs–take it. It is truly hot.