Truth can be stranger—or even more interesting—than fiction, so the rise of documentary film in recent years perhaps comes as no surprise, given the endless supply of compelling stories real life has to offer. Toronto’s annual Hot Docs film festival has steadily attracted a die-hard following over its two decades, this year showcasing 197 documentaries from Canada and around the world over 10 days to over 180,000 attendees and conference delegates. Sold-out screenings and long rush lines are now commonplace, but that buzz is half the fun.
“People are hungry for longer-form stories—something that takes you into the issues, or people’s lives. Our notion of documentary used to be a little bit dry, thinking back to something we were forced to watch in school—we all remember those,” notes Hot Docs’ senior Canadian documentaries programmer Lynne Fernie, laughing. “But today’s documentaries are all about engaging with a beautifully constructed reality. It prompts a different discussion than a Hollywood film.”
Anxiously double-checking the schedule and chatting with strangers in the rush line at one of Hot Docs’ 10 participating cinemas across the city has become a sign of the arrival of spring for Toronto film buffs. To keep up with the demand, many films have at least three screenings, and Fernie has a key tip for those fretting about missing out on advance tickets to that highly touted film they’d wanted to see: “If a film is rush, you can still get in 80 per cent of the time,” she points out. “The festival holds back tickets for pass-holders, and there are always no-shows.”
What sets Hot Docs apart from that other big Toronto film fest is its accessible, interactive approach—in addition to a conference component for established and aspiring documentarians, the festival boasts open public talks and many screenings often have the filmmakers and subjects in attendance to take audience questions. This year, guests include renowned oceanographer Dr. Sylvia Earle, actor George Takei, and rock singer Alice Cooper, among many others.
With nearly 200 documentaries covering nearly any subject area one can think of, deciding what to see at Hot Docs can seem near impossible. Even Fernie, who views hundreds of films each year in making her final selections for the festival, wishes she could get to more screenings. That said, her list of can’t-miss films from this year’s slate includes Everything Will Be by Sundance award-winning director Julia Kwan, which captures the tug-of-war between generations in Vancouver’s rapidly gentrifying Chinatown. “There is the old guard, then the new hipsters are moving in with their cool spots and galleries, and both sides are just kind of astonished by each other,” Fernie says.
As musicians increasingly make their living from touring in an age where record sales have been all but replaced by downloading, more and more young artists are faced with the conundrum: how to juggle family with being on the road? Come Worry with Us! follows violinist Jessica Moss and singer/guitarist Efrim Menuck from Montreal post-rockers Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra as they embark on tour with their young son Ezra in tow. “It’s a great look at the juggling act of parenting, arts, and especially motherhood,” Fernie says. In The Secret Trial 5, director Amar Wala examines Canada’s “security certificate” provision that saw five Muslim men detained for a collective 30 years without charge or explanation. “When you see this film, you think, ‘We worked so hard to get John Greyson and Tarek Loubani out of prison [in Egypt],’ but we’re doing it, too,” Fernie says. “So in that sense it’s an important film for Canadians to see.”