At 25, Toronto’s Hot Docs International Film Festival isn’t slowing down: with over 260 films representing 56 countries and contributions from Morocco, Estonia, Kosovo, Syria, and Bosnia, this year’s documentaries offer a diverse sampling of subjects, from pop culture to politics.
From April 26 to May 6, Hot Docs will tempt with debuts such as the international premiere of Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, director Morgan Neville’s intimate portrait of beloved TV star Mister Rogers, the Canadian premiere of Alt Right: Age of Rage by Adam Bhala Lough, focusing on white supremacist Richard Spencer, anti-fascist activist Daryle Lamont Jenkins and Charlottesville, the North American premiere of Evangelia Kranioti’s insider look at Rio de Janeiro’s queer culture in Obscuro Barroco and the international premiere of Love, Gilda, a loving view of comedienne Gilda Radner by director Lisa D’Apolito, including memories from Amy Poehler, Melissa McCarthy, and Maya Rudolph.
This year’s festival will have a focus on women and women’s voices with the Silence Breakers series.
This year’s festival will have a focus on women and women’s voices with the Silence Breakers series. Chosen by three senior female programmers, these documentaries focus on stories that could only be made and told by women, like director Sarah Menzies’ Afghan Cycles, the story of an all-female cycling group, Primas from director Laura Bari on the survival of two cousins, both victims of sexual assault, Time for Ilhan, about a Somali-American Muslim woman trying to get elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives from director Norah Shapiro, and Yours in Sisterhood, a participatory documentary that shows young women from across America reading letters to the editors sent to Ms. Magazine in the 1970s, directed by Irene Lustzig.
Shane Smith, director of programming for Hot Docs explained how the closing gap between when events happen and when documentaries are made is getting shorter, thanks to availability of more funding as well as places to show documentaries. Timely stories include premiere of Jack Bryan’s Active Measures, an expose of the world of Russian espionage and its connection to the 2016 American election, the premiere of Liz Garbus’ The Fourth Estate, revealing the triumphs and challenges of New York Times reporters covering U.S. President Donald Trump, and The Reckoning: Hollywood’s Worst Kept Secret, the premiere of the second documentary about Harvey Weinstein by Barry Avrich, detailing the reality for Weinstein and the past year’s revelations.
Playing a key role in the creation and distribution of films is part of Hot Docs legacy said Smith, but that’s not its only impact. “This festival has created an audience, like with our Docs in Schools program, exposing high school students to documentaries and encouraging them to seek out more films.” The program provides films to Ontario high schools free of charge and offers complimentary admission to students and seniors for daytime festival screenings.
Smith started attending the festival in 1997 as a fan and has seen how the connection between viewer and filmmaker became a hallmark of Hot Docs. Being on-stage with Tony Robbins after the screening of I Am Not Your Guru, revealed the power of Robbins presence as much as the devotion of his followers. “I got a taste of what it must be like to be Tony Robbins. It was weird, fascinating, and amazing to see the response to him.”
As always, Hot Docs satiates a myriad of tastes with films such as the international premiere of McQueen, the rags to riches story of the fashion designer by Ian Bonhote and Peter Ettedgui, the world premiere of Andy Irons: Kissed by God, Steve and Todd Jones’ film on the maverick surfer, and Mercury 13, focusing on the little-known history of female pilots who tested for NASA’s space program in 1961 by David Sington and Heather Walsh.
Pop culture faves this year include an examination of pop culture through the eyes of activist/pop star M.I.A in Matangi / Maya / M.I.A, directed by Steve Loveridge, The Bill Murray: Stories Life Lessons from a Mythical Man directed by Tommy Avallone documenting the funny man’s spontaneous interactions with strangers, and I Used To Be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story, director Jessica Leski’s spotlight on the devotion by female fans for their favourite band.
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