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Top Picks of Hot Docs 2017

An eclectic mix of films come to Toronto.

From the history of Halifax’s long-lost Africville to the glittery world of New York’s party mavens, “people can discover more about what’s happening around us from documentaries,” says Shane Smith, director of programming for the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, which kicks off its 24th iteration on April 27.

The largest documentary festival in North America, Hot Docs makes a point to emphasize local support with their Hot Docs Canadian Spectrum program, which ensures differing perspectives on Canada culture are featured. Some highlights for this year: Motel, the story of how a Niagara Falls motel transformed into affordable housing units; The Road Forward, an indigenous musical telling the story of six decades of indigenous activism through song; and Hope, a sequel to Hurt (2015) detailing the rise and fall and return of Steve Fonyo, the cancer survivor and former national hero.

But while Canada certainly gets its due, Hot Docs’ offerings this year are extremely diverse. “Documentary can be anything—it’s malleable,” explains Smith. Here, a look through some highlights across the spectrum of films showing at this year’s festival.

Fashion, fun, and some frivolity can be seen in House of Z, an intimate portrait of designer Zac Posen by director Sandy Chronopoulos about Posen’s rise, fall, and rise again. Then, there is the world premiere of Susanne Bartsch: On Top—a profile of New York City’s nightlife queen who has orchestrated the city’s craziest parties for the past 30 years and counting.

Several docs this year pull material from recent news headlines, including two international premieres. The first, Hondros, is a retrospective testimonial by artist Greg Campbell celebrating the work of noted photojournalist Chris Hondros who dedicated his career to documenting the effects of war and died in Libya in 2011. The other is, Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press directed by Brian Knappenberger, chronicles the court case of Bollea (Hulk Hogan) v. Gawker and the unprecedented $140-million verdict which led to the website’s demise in 2016.

While Canada certainly gets its due, Hot Docs’ offerings this year are extremely diverse.

Seven documentaries this year reveal different views on Syria, including the Canadian premiere of director Matthew Heineman’s City of Ghosts, which will be included in the Food & Film series. Participants dine with the director after the screening and discuss the film while enjoying a family-style meal from Newcomer Kitchen, a non-profit providing support for newly-arrived Syrian female refugees.

Three other films make up the Food & Film series: New Chefs on the Block, documenting the never-ending stress of opening a new restaurant in Washington DC, hosted by Toronto chef Anthony Rose; Ramen Heads, with a post-screening meal at Momofuku Nikai; and Becoming Bond, delving into the strange and singular story that led former car mechanic George Lazenby to land the role of agent 007 in 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, followed by a post-screening cocktail party.

This year’s DocX programming highlight is the world premiere Africville in Black and White by Gemini Award-winning filmmaker Cyrus Sundar Singh, detailing the plight of 400 African-Canadians who nurtured their own community in the Bedford Basin neighbourhood of Halifax for 150 years before its church was bulldozed in the night in 1967.

Each year Hot Docs puts a director in the spotlight: for this festival, filmmaker Lynne Fernie curates the work of Maya Gallus, well-known for her female-focused films. Six of Gallus’ works will be screened during the festival including Dish: Women, Waitressing and the Art of Service, Derby Crazy Love, The Mystery of Mazo de la Roche, Girl Inside, Erotica: A Journey into Female Sexuality, and Elizabeth Smart: On the Side of the Angels, with Gallus in attendance at all screenings.

Indeed, this year’s offerings are diverse, offering much to choose from for any taste.

Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival runs from April 27-May 6, 2017 in venues throughout Toronto.

Read the Hot Docs picks from 2016, here.

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