North America’s largest and most sweeping doc-deluge, the Canadian International Hot Docs Festival, is once again in full swing, and the moment wouldn’t be complete, for me at least, without some form of commentary that assesses this institutional giant as it marks another year. In that spirit and as with past “taking stock” previews (2014 is here, 2013 is here and 2012 is here) of Hot Docs, I humbly present my take on this year’s fest, divided into three Sergio Leone-inspired sections: what’s promising, what’s looking like a fixer-upper, and what’s circumspect. So that I’m not forcibly removed from the premises for ending on a negative note, I’m also adding a fourth bonus part – what’s great! (even though this part can be found everywhere else in the media sphere). So here we go.
I’ve spent a bit of time looking at the 22 years of Hot Docs programming and my research has revealed countervailing trends in programming at the festival: whereas Canadian content has been in steady decline, American programming has slowly asserted itself at the Toronto festival each year with a muscular annual raft of mostly slick, crowd-pleasing docs (and if you throw a dart at a chart of them you’re more than likely to hit a Sundance film). I’m happy to see that this year that trend has been bucked and there are more Canadian titles than previous editions, totaling an impressive 59 works (not to make this a contest or anything but the catalogue lists 73 American productions – #winning!).
Many of these are co-productions and many lack a Canadian director at the helm (including at least one NFB film, the stunning Hadwin’s Judgement, pictured above), yet this programming turnaround hopefully signals a revival of the festival’s original mandate to showcase and support Canadian documentary makers and their efforts. This is a truly good thing, because the last thing the Canadian doc scene needs right now is more screens dedicated to anything-but-Canadian works.
It’s also a good year for female directors at Hot Docs, with over one third of the programmed films directed by women. While women are increasingly represented in other documentary roles, such as producers and as editors (and film subjects, commissioning editors and festival programmers and volunteers) they continue to face an antiquated glass ceiling at commercial festivals that champion the work of their male counterparts (a problem particularly exacerbated by the cold death grip mainstream festivals have on the old guard of the testicular film canon).
Women have been sounding the alarm on this gender gap in documentary, and it seems some festivals have taken notice: IDFA launched its commendable Female Gaze program last year and this year’s Hot Docs lineup moves in a direction so many have been arguing for for so many years – one that hopefully puts to rest tokenism once and for all and honours, recognizes and highlights the work of so many amazing women filmmakers. And while this progressive programming direction is cause for celebration, the intersectional implications across the festival circuit suggest fair and just doc-maker representation still has a ways to go if we are to advance toward greater artistic diversity in the non-fiction world. But the bottom line is: kudos to the festival for notching up local filmmaking and fairer representation of filmmakers.
The Needs Some Work
That said, there is always room for improvement at any institution. After enduring (and resisting) nine years of policy and action from the most regressive and harmful Canadian federal party in recent memory, many of us in the doc community have been eagerly anticipating hard-hitting films covering this toxic legacy. But here we are at our beloved doc fest, and now we’re asking: where are the projects about Stephen Harper and the Conservatives? From the impressively robust lineup of Canadian fare at this year’s Hot Docs I do not see one film focusing on this crucial issue.
This is the last Hot Docs edition before the next Federal election, and therefore a key opportunity to draw much-needed attention, in a holistic way, to the policies of the Harper regime and the collateral damage they’ve caused across the socio-political and ecological spectrums. Yet this isn’t likely the fault of Hot Docs. Perhaps the festival didn’t receive any such films to consider – a very plausible scenario. In that case, I turn to a related concern that implicates the festival more directly.
Commercial film festivals differentiate themselves from community, alternative and radical film festivals by, among other things, orienting discourse, resources and cultural activity toward markets. Filmmakers need to make money to pay rent, and earning a living from making art is but one quality of the kind of society I want to live in – I don’t deny this, nor besmirch those who pursue these activities. What I am concerned with is the degrees to which we (artists and cultural workers) corral our energies, attention and resources toward market-oriented goals and horizons, and how this forceful gravitational pull repels other crucial concerns, issues and activities.
At radical festivals, for instance, one will encounter very directed efforts toward marshalling documentary’s rebellious spirit toward toppling oppressive structures like colonialism, capitalism and hetero-patriarchy. One will also find a healthy dose of auxiliary events complimenting programming and that seek to critique and resist state policies and programs that support and maintain all those unhealthy isms.
At a moment of unprecedented counter-force upheaval in this country—in particular I’m speaking of the belligerent implementation of the Conservative government’s agenda (which includes the dismantling of the welfare state/civil society and the bolstering of corporate power/elites) along with incredibly powerful and diverse social movements (such as Idle No More and the Quebec student-led anti-austerity movement)—we need documentary more than ever.
At Canada’s most important documentary gathering, these issues could be front and center – providing a platform and venue to combine political discourse, theory, action and art practices. How about a panel on austerity, activism and documentary? Outside of market/impact talks that feel somewhat unmoored from these other related social and cultural forces we could use a doc response to the specificity of our Canadian political context.
Denying these contact zones or bracketing out these issues in the documentary milieu can have a compounding impact by contributing to complacency around destructive state policies while ignoring valuable connections that need to be made or strengthened between activists in socio-political and ecological movements and the greater documentary filmmaking community.
Roundtables, workshops, screening discussions, talks – there are so many ways that this great festival could facilitate discussion and expression around documentary politics and documentary activism as it relates to our political crisis in Canada, and at such a crucial moment in this country’s history, but the focus is regrettably elsewhere (it should also be mentioned the festival regularly book-ends but ignores the annual May 1st activist events in Toronto). I’m willing to bet that without a vibrant social fabric that is centred on fairness, justice and equality and without an environment to live in, markets and impact will cease to matter.
Perhaps bringing back Peter Wintonick’s Friday talks would serve this purpose – if he was still with us I’m guessing he’d lead the charge in some firebrand discussions about what documentary can do to resist austerity as well as how the doc community can work with so many inspiring social movements. Maybe next year…
The Downright Wrong
That need for the development of an intersectional critical activist space brings me to the business side of Hot Docs. A festival can be graded in four overlapping areas: programming, organizational structure, spatial-sociality (the spaces created by the festival) and political economy. On the first, Hot Docs has improved this year and that is extremely encouraging. On the remaining three, there is always work to be done, and it is to the last feature that I now turn.
The most controversial “documentary” at this year’s Hot Docs festival will play hundreds of times to tens of thousands of audiences, and runs at a remarkable 4 minutes and 3 seconds. It is a slick, big budget work with all the hallmarks of a commercial non-fiction hit: exotic settings, lush aesthetics, feel-good narrative and inter-cultural exchange with smiling workers from a distant, pristine land. It also happens to be an advert for Nabob coffee.
Clever marketers behind Nabob’s multi-million dollar “respect the bean” campaign have struck bean gold by securing one of the most coveted of ad-placement spots in the film exhibition milieu: a four minute video projected for audiences before regular programming at North America’s pre-eminent non-fiction event. The advert, much like a sly chameleon, blends in with its host surroundings as it assumes the documentary form to tell the upbeat story of an American Latino who travels to Colombia to discover what it takes to make a real cup of coffee. It turns out that, after implausibly speaking English with Columbian coffee growers, the intrepid Nabobian finds that a good cup of coffee has no bells and whistles (take that yuppies!), but is rather a folksy, down-to-earth straight from the friendly labourers’ hands to sipping mouths cup o’ Joe.
I’ve seen the Nabob advert now seven times (you can too – the video is embedded above) and at two of those viewings I was delighted to hear local audiences booing, albeit very politely, in the cinema. It reminded me of the folks who rang bike bells during a Chrysler SUV advert at Hot Docs several years ago, or those of us flabbergasted to see Coca-Cola as the environmental film sponsor a few editions back. Nabob isn’t as notorious for corporate malfeasance as those other companies, but its big old mean parent company, Kraft Foods, certainly is. Their ad-spot (which extends to physical manifestations throughout the festival environment) is unprecedented. It’s branded doc-entertainment that outruns by several minutes any other previous sponsored content at the festival and masquerades as a documentary short (with an obvious reveal, plot spoiler – it’s really a Nabob commercial). So yep, they snuck that one in.
This is a curious development at a festival that is, unless I missed the memo, not short on cash. With one of Canada’s largest financial institutions, Scotiabank, as the principal sponsor of Hot Docs and dozens of other private and public sponsorships shoring up a snazzy budget that would make the Long Island Composting Film Festival blush, combined with yearly increases in ticket sales, I wonder why such libation sorcery and commercial mal-alignment (to our dearly held doc-values) is needed. To echo one audience member who was subjected to the Nabob doc-advert (docvert?) last Friday: this isn’t TIFF, right? Right?
When culture is managed as business, we find a kind of containment and a kind of contamination. We encounter intrusive corporate commercials that inflect an artistic and social justice environment with commercial interests that are founded on injustice and thrive on inequity (I know it’s just coffee – but look up Kraft’s labour history and those fake cheese slices might not look so naughtily delicious).
As members of the documentary community shouldn’t we translate those aforementioned audience boos into something more tangible? Shouldn’t we register our disapproval with these kinds of institutional decisions and look for better policy that could be developed and implemented at the festival? I have argued elsewhere for the need for a festival “best practices” policy magna carta (OK we could call it something else), but it’ll take more than one grumpster writing once a year to shift the festival tides in that direction. Still, if Hot Docs would innovate and develop such a thing, it would lead by example for other festivals out there in the insanely expanding festival world, and we may one day retool the festival doc screening space as one free of profit-seeking and toxic commercial interests. Or at the very least, no four minute fake documentary adverts.
The Really Really Good
Now that the complaint department and suggestions box are full to capacity, I’d like to end on a positive note. Despite my (predictable) grumblings there are promising developments in the festival’s programming that I can only hope continue with forceful positive development. There are many incredible films to see, a good gleaming chunk of which are political, and with a week of screenings still to go, I’m excited to join Toronto’s notoriously supportive audiences in the Hot Docs screening venues.
It’s a great lineup this year, and for the more politically curious, be sure to check out Daughter of the Lake, Dreamcatcher (pictutred above), Deep Web, Drone, Fractured Land, Gayby Baby, How to Change the World (a film that embodies the festival’s tagline – outstanding and outspoken), On the Bride’s Side, Peace Officer, Sugar Coated, (T)error, Those Who Feel the Fire Burning (although the director might tell you it’s not a political film) and War of Lies.
So see you in the queues and aisles, and perhaps I’ll even see some of you shaking coffee cans at the screen (disrespect the bean!).