There are hundreds of film festivals around the world each year. There are many fewer documentary film festivals, those that attempt to “document” reality. The first doc festivals began in Europe: in Leipzig (1955), Visions du Réel in Nyon, Switzerland (1969), Paris (1978), Munich (1985) and Amsterdam (1988). Hot Docs, founded in Toronto in 1993, was among the first documentary film festivals in all of the Americas. There are now 21 such festivals in North and South America, including the DOXA Festival in Vancouver and the Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montréal, both begun in 1998.
Hot Docs, the Canadian International Documentary Festival, running from April 24 – May 4 in Toronto, is showing 202 films in 11 different venus. The full gamut of subjects is on offer: activism and protest, aging and the elderly, art and artists, children and youth, crime and punishment, disabilities, ecology and the environment, education, family issues, fashion and style, film and filmmakers, gender and sexuality, health, labour and working people, love and relationships, music and musicians, myths and legends, politics and political intrigue. For those who like to use film festivals as a cheap way to travel, there are many films on cultures and issues in Africa, America, Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East. Also films dealing with immigration, multiculturalism and race, indigenous cultures and LGBT issues. The screening schedule is available at the Hot Docs website.
I have lived in Toronto for over 40 years and this is the first year that I have really plugged into Hot Docs. April is always a busy month and, in the past, Hot Docs has slipped by without my realizing it. My friends knowledgeable about film think that is a big mistake. Hot Docs is more low key than TIFF, and the quality of the films varies as with any film festival. But Hot Docs includes many world or North American premieres and, as the film-makers tend to stay for all their showings, the Q & A periods after the films are consistently interesting. Tickets are more readily accessible, online or at the box office in the lower level of Cumberland Terrace, 2 Bloor Street West. Festival passes include free tickets for late-night screenings (after 11:00 pm). Subject to availability, seniors (60 and over) and students (with valid ID) can attend daytime screenings (starting before 5:00 pm) free of charge, by picking up their tickets the same day at the screening’s venue. Box offices at the venues open one hour before the first screening of the day.
Because we are out of the city for part of the festival, I’ve limited myself to five films. The first is Bintou, describing the life of an enterprising young dressmaker from Burkina Faso (in sub-Saharan West Africa, where I once worked as a teacher). At TIFF there are often films from or about Burkina Faso but not this year, so I will make up for that at Hot Docs. My second film is The Secret Trial 5 about Canada’s security certificates used to imprison five Muslim men without charge for almost 30 years, while the evidence against them remains secret. I know a couple of the lawyers who represented these individuals; they are among the most skilled and respected in the profession, but the procedure is still secret. This is a huge anomaly in our legal system. My third choice is Silenced where three of the world’s most famous government whistle-blowers discuss their experiences. My fourth is Everything Will Be, described as “a heartwarming and cinematically stunning ode to a community in transition,” which was Vancouver’s Chinatown. My final pick, Nelson Mandela: The Myth and Me, is billed as an “award-winning and somewhat controversial” documentary describing conflicting points of view on post-apartheid South Africa and “Mandela’s… sainthood status.” South Africa and Mandela have been the focus of much of my attention this past year. Hearing alternative perspectives may complete the picture.
My choices would not be your choices. That we have so many choices is a gift not to be overlooked.
P.S.: I understand that Dawson City Yukon hosted a Short Film Festival recently. At the Bell Lightbox in Toronto, TIFF joined the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies to open the Just For Cats Cat Video Festival which is also scheduled for Saskatoon, Montreal, Vancouver and Regina. I invite anyone who can report on these festivals to share with us in the Comment section below.