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” 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.