From a European point of view at least, Hot Docs is “the” North American event to attend for doing business (except Sundance, perhaps, if you are aiming for the theatrical market). This is mainly due to the Toronto Documentary Forum (TDF), whose pitching sessions are modelled on the FORUM in Amsterdam. Many European CEs travel to Toronto, and the North American channels are heavily represented, including CEs from all sorts of channels like Court TV, CNN, Vision, the Sundance channel, the documentary channel and ITVS. TDF alone attracts the doc business, but the Hot Docs film programme is absolutely worth the trip, too. The International Showcase was high quality and local audiences flocked to the cinemas, even though summer had just arrived in Toronto.

Many European doc festivals require an international premiere for their competition programme, which often results in having to include mediocre films in the programme. Hot Docs has decided to do things differently. Only 9 of the 31 films in the International Showcase programme were either international or world premieres (yet there were many more world or international premieres in all the programmes put together). This gave the organisers the freedom to simply choose the best films that paid off, enabling them to present a powerful programme.

Five months before Hot Docs, the festival hired a new Director of Programming, Sean Farnel, who used to programme docs for the Toronto International Film Festival. He explains Hot Docs’ priorities: “In general, a film’s premiere status is only one variable among many in our selection process. Ultimately, our goal is simply to offer as diverse a programme of good documentaries as possible, which I believe we did. It seems to me that the obsession with premieres among the many film festivals does not always serve the films nor the filmmakers. I think it’s more important to have a curatorial identity and purpose. As I’m new here, I’m still in the process of defining and refining these things for Hot Docs. But given our place on the festival calendar, I do see an opportunity for Hot Docs to present a selection of the season’s best new work, as well as films that were unfinished or unjustly overlooked by key festivals such as Sundance, Berlin and Rotterdam.”

“I understand the premiere pressure that festivals face and I think it’s important and exciting to launch new work, but for me there needs to be some balance. Of course, there is an Industry imperative to presenting premieres, as those who travel to film festivals to do business want to see the newest films. However, my experience is that one always misses good films at any given festival, and it’s nice to have opportunity to catch up elsewhere. At Sundance, “A Lion in the House” was screened by exactly seven people at the Industry screening I attended. It won our Audience Award. While there are many, many film festivals these days, if the key events ignore such special films just because they’ve played elsewhere, then these films will disappear without building a critical mass, which is a shame.

Below are reviews of a selection of the films.

In the Pit
in_the_pit_lst075476Mexico 2006, 85 min.
Director: Juan Carlos Rulfo
Production: La Media Luna Producciones
World Sales: La Media Luna Producciones

“In the Pit” is a peek into an authentic male universe: workers building the second level of Mexico City’s massive freeway. This work is not for those with a fear of heights as the men have to balance on thin baulks high above the ground and climb the unfinished structures in awkward positions. The camera follows them, capturing the nature of their work, which is hard, dirty and dangerous and consists of long workdays. They work hard for low pay, but don’t have a choice if they want to eat.

Their friendships keep them going. They are tough guys, at least on the surface: one used to be a Mafioso, others have dubious pasts. They reveal small bits of their life to the director and among themselves they talk man’s talk: a lot about women, but also about politics, and a few times we follow some of them back to their humble homes.

The close universe of these men contrasts with the gigantic grandiosity of the freeway construction project which is depicted in a total shot of the construction site sped up in fast motion making the men seem like busy ants going up and down the structures. The scene is set to loud percussion music and the cars rush by. The final scene is one long impressive bird’s eye view from a helicopter of the whole freeway as it meanders kilometre after kilometre through the landscape. Hundreds of men are working on the road, all whose individual destiny is to slave away for modernisation.

The General Store
18681009-jpg-c_300_300_x-f_jpg-q_x-xxyxxFrance 2005, 84 min.
Director: Chantal Briet
Production: Yenta Production
World Sales: Yenta Production

In classic, observational style at its best, this film is set in the general store of one of Paris’s predominantly immigrant suburbs. In an area of large concrete apartment blocks, one little shop is left: Ali’s general store. Ali is a hard-working shop owner, in control of everything, but he has also taken on the role of being the local social worker. He employs a couple of outcasts to help him out. And he is friends with everyone living in the neighbourhood who goes to the shop to buy food or, more likely, to chat and meet other people.

Everybody frequents his store: old ladies who can barely walk, young immigrants, kids, outcasts. Yet Ali has a special gift with people: he is able to get the best out of them, to encourage their good sides. He does so to such an extent that he even forgives and befriends a guy who has broken into his shop to steal liquor, an incident they now joke about together.

The only setting of the film is inside the store and in the immediate vicinity outside. The film consists of a string of scenes where nothing really happens; people interacting, patient camerawork and skilful editing depict a place that is far more than a store. It is a microcosm that leaves behind a feeling of hope. Chantal Briet was asked to make a film about utopia, and Ali’s shop is a utopia in the middle of a tough neighbourhood.

Austria/Italy 100 min. 2005
Director: Tizza Covi & Rainer Frimmel
Production: Vento Film
World Sales: Vento Film

Babooska is a circus princess, which may sound like every little girl’s glamorous dream, but there is little glamour in the humble nomadic life of this Italian circus family. They travel across the country performing in all sorts of small towns. Often, only a few people show up and funds are tight. It is a hard life. The film doesn’t focus on the performance, few shots are from the circus ring, it merely focuses on what to do in one’s spare time when you are 20 and constantly travelling around to all these small places: how to get a life. Babooska joins up with a man who also travels with the circus. They check out the local bars or hang around in a small van. Babooska also spends a lot of time with her family –father, mother and two sisters. Her younger sister attends a new school every time they move, her older sister is leaving the circus to get married.

The film takes on a straightforward style, depicting a dreary environment of grey landscapes, dull supermarkets and rainy weather, eliminating any notions of adventurous circus life. The time span of the film runs from Babooska’s 20th to 21st birthday, a period when nothing changes. But Babooska doesn’t complain and the film pities no one. It merely shows the warm relations of a family struggling to make ends meet.

The Railroad All Stars
Spain 2estrellas_de_la_linea-864759827-large006, 91 min.
Director: Chema Rodriguez
Production: Telespan 2000
World Sales: Media Luna Entertainment

The film follows the ups and downs of a self-constituted football team, but this is no run of the mill team: the players are prostitutes from Guatemala City’s toughest neighbourhood. The creation of the football team, their training and their tournaments form the narrative structure of the film that, in the process, delves into the lives of the prostitutes who work along the railroad. Though the women don’t have a dream job, they don’t pity themselves either. They are actually not troubled by what they do, they just want respect and better protection from the police. So, to draw attention to their situation, they decide to form a football team.

Though the women have a lot of fun playing football and like to joke around with each other, we hear fragments of their stories during the course of the film. Many are victims of incest or rape or have had children they were unable or not allowed to keep. Some also live in violent relationships. The stories are supported by a song playing a few verses at a time throughout the film, the lyrics are related to the theme.

The football team revitalises them and, despite many obstacles, they manage to play in a tournament, even get a sponsor (a travel agency), play against the police and travel to El Salvador to play a game. Images are carefully framed, altering between tight, revealing close-ups of the women and total shots of, for example, the railroad where children play football as men visit the prostitutes next to the railroad. That is how life unfolds here.

Modern Times Review