Hot Docs 2014 preview: politically punchy program, but diversity concerns persist

Posted by in Cinema, Doc Side, Festivals

It’s springtime in Toronto and that means Canada’s premiere documentary showcase is back for another jam-packed ten day event that will deliver the world of doc to eager local audiences and international festivalgoers.

This is Hot Docs‘s first year with new Executive Director Brett Hendrie steering the ship (Chris McDonald is now overseeing the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema) and it looks like Hendrie has continued his predecessor’s legacy of putting on huge, popular and energized festivals.

In particular, the Hot Docs talks this year look fantastic, with discussions around environmental activism, Sesame Street, gay marriage, and free speech and copyright laws (the latter talk is with one of my favourite writers and activists, Cory Doctorow).

On Friday, April 25 (today) the festival will host a free public talk called “Docs Change People. People Change the World,” organized in collaboration with the Inspirit Foundation, and that looks to be more relevant and enticing than last year’s summit on getting your docs shown at the US Congress.

Hot Docs 2014 thankfully offers less celebrity and crime sensationalism than last year, but still manages to squeeze in some Alice Cooper, Ai Weiwei and family drama.

Pine Ridge

Pine Ridge

I’m thrilled that Hot Docs programmers have wisely selected two very powerful and important docs that we at Cinema Politica have had some involvement with. So be sure to get your tickets for long-awaited The Secret Trial 5 and Children 404 (more on both below).

As one of the largest and longest-running documentary film festivals in the world, Hot Docs is an established institution that consistently offers screenings of amazing new non-fiction work, as well as oodles of talks, social and industry gatherings, professional rendezvous and workshops, and more.

And while I’ve certainly lobbed a fair share of criticism at the festival (namely for the troubling trend toward American populism and a kind of festival commercialism that brackets out activism), this year’s doc roster looks promising in terms of screen politics, production quality and critical voices at the various Hot Docs talks.

Before I get to some of the amazing political films you might want to check out, I’ll first make my requisite annual critical assessment of the fest, which is encouragingly truncated compared to earlier commentaries.


Over the twenty-plus years of Hot Docs, Canadian films have slowly and steadily decreased in number while American films (especially crowd-pleasers from Sundance) have risen in contradistinction to their Canuck cousins.

This year marks another notch in these two trends, with US-produced films accounting for a whopping 37% of all feature-length and mid-length works at the festival, and Canadian-produced titles coming in at a distant second place at 19% of total programming. That leaves about 40% for ROW (Rest of the World) content, the majority of which hails from anglophone regions.

Hot Docs still features the “Canadian Spectrum,” where the majority of Canadian works can be found in the program, and I’ll reiterate what I’ve said here before: the festival should scrap the ghetto for Canada and instead create the “American Spectrum” where all US-produced content could be found and perhaps capped at the 30% mark, or thereabouts.

By releasing Canadian content from the margins and allowing the films to find their place throughout the program, coupled with an increase in percentage of Canadian docs, Hot Docs would bring the local back to the global through cultural mixing. The festival could still find ways to give Canadian productions awards, without the Spectrum category. Still, all that said, it appears to be a good year for both American and Canadian documentary at the festival.

The Sower

The Sower


The usual problem of diversity rears its ugly head again this year at Hot Docs, as it does at every commercial film festival on the planet (alas Cannes continues to hold the prize for most dismal gender parity in programming – take a gander at this year’s official selection line-up and feel yourself time-travelling to the 1950s).

The festival diversity gap occurs when film content is extremely varied in terms of scope and focus (theme, subject, protagonists, geographical region, politics), but filmmakers (and festival managers and programmers) in turn represent a slim sliver of the gender, sexuality, ethnicity and class spectrum.

Hot Docs’s film content is fabulously diverse, and it draws its audience from Toronto’s own multifarious fabric, but the doc-makers in the programming tend not to reflect that diversity with a matched robust plurality (as is the case with other festivals). With regards to gender, a staggeringly diminutive three women directors are among those featured in the 18 Canadian Spectrum films, for example.

Does Canada have women making documentaries? You bet we do.

In Quebec for instance, women are a force in documentary that often out-produce men. So where are they at this year’s Hot Docs? Your guess is as good as mine. The Special Presentations section is more optimistic, where 11 of the 25 films boast women directors. The International Showcase represents a moderate improvement in comparison to the Canadian Spectrum, where 13 of the 36 films have women directors at the helm.

It’s safe to say that gender inequity isn’t the only diversity issue among this year’s roster of film directors, as Hot Docs provides a showcase for more mainstream (better-funded, connected, known and institutionally-supported) works that tend to be made by white North American and European artists. This is not a criticism of the films or filmmakers themselves, to be sure there is much to applaud in the program, but rather I’m highlighting the persistence of a nagging problem that is articulated through festival culture.

This issue of off-screen representation is a much bigger problem than one festival, and represents an ongoing diversity gap in the documentary industry that is in dire need of redress (have a look at this year’s RealScreen Summit to see what I’m talking about). It would be hopeful to see some panels at Hot Docs and other festivals addressing this issue, and less documentary panels celebrating symbolic diversity or Benetton multiculturalism (we certainly have enough of that in Canada).

Despite this industry-wide problem of representation and equity, this year’s Hot Docs lineup has some intriguing exceptions to the rule: works from South Korea, South Africa, Argentina, Thailand, China and Eastern Europe help bring some difference and distance to the usual suspect doc-producers. With this in mind, Hot Docs does show signs of incrementally improving the diversity gap around ethnicity and origins, while it could do better to approach the gender inequity still present at this year’s edition.

With those complaints lodged, I’ll now turn to the goods – the stuff that makes the whole machinery whir with panache and pizazz.

Evaporating Borders

Evaporating Borders


There is much to look forward to in this year’s Hot Docs program, and in particular I’m eager to check out the following political fare (some for the first time, others for a second and third encounter).

The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz (Brian Knappenberger, USA, 105′)
Prominent festivals too often open with apolitical crowd-pleasers, which for this audience member sets a dull tone for the remaining days. This year Hot Docs bucks that trend and opens with a doc that champions hacker activist Aaron Swartz.

As one of the most visionary and daring hacktivists to appear on the scene, Swartz revealed the nasty, cruel and greedy side of university institutions, corporations and governments when he faced an unjust and unfair prison term for releasing thousands of JSTOR articles from an MIT database.

The programmer and co-founder of Creative Commons hung himself in 2013, apparently unable to handle the stress of a show trial and witch hunt. While this documentary has many problems, mostly the non-stop emotionally-manipulative music (at times drowning out voices of interviewees!) and head-scratching B-roll, the filmmakers refreshingly forego any notion of objectivity and have made a film that raises the image of this courageous and creative hero to the status he deserves.

Concerning Violence (Göran Hugo Olsson, Sweden-USA-Denmark-Finland, 84′)
Bringing the revolutionary and post-colonial words of Frantz Fanon to life, the filmmaker who brought us the incredible archival work The Black Power Mixtape 1967 – 1975, returns with a promising doc on Africa’s independence movements.

Children 404 (Pavel Loparev and Askold Kurov, Russia, 70′)
This powerful and timely doc was supported by Cinema Politica through a fundraising campaign that was necessarily undertaken to avoid exposure of the filmmakers, who face serious threats to both their security in Russia. Don’t miss this world premiere of a film that reveals the resistance of LGTBQ youth inside Putin’s homophobic Russia, as they bravely speak out, demonstrate, and raise awareness about the ongoing oppression of young queer people in that country.

The Secret Trial 5 (Amar Wala, Canada, 84′)
Another Cinema Politica-supported doc, TS5 has been in the making for years, and we are thrilled that it will have its world premiere at Hot Docs. The film follows five Canadians who have been unjustly prosecuted under Canada’s dubious security certificate legislation. This is committed political filmmaking at its finest and is not to be missed!

Harlan County USA (Barbara Kopple, USA, 103′)
It would be a different kind of injustice if I didn’t mention this classic political doc, which has been programmed by Hot Docs for a redux, exactly in a time of austerity and rampant anti-union government maneuvering. This riveting1976 masterpiece goes behind the scenes of a mining strike in small town Kentucky, and Kopple is right there when one of the labourers is gunned down by strikebreakers.

The Sower (Julie Perron, Canada, 77′)
Seed saving and food diversity preservation have both become very political acts in our current agro-industry climate. Perron’s film takes a peek at one important effort to safeguard biodiversity in Quebec.

Return to Homs (Talal Derki, Syria-Germany, 87′)
A gut-wrenching anti-war film, this intimate and devastating doc goes behind the scenes of armed resistance inside Syria as citizen-soldiers try to take back their home city of Homs. As men die in battle and scenes of chaos and hopelessness flood the screen, the director never loses sight of this film’s main purpose and strength: to powerfully reveal the human cost of war as well as the incredible human quality of resilience against all odds.

Evaporating Borders (Iva Radivojevic, USA-Cyprus, 73′)
Identity, migration and nationalism go head-to-head on the island of Cyprus in this doc-essay that promises to be deeply personal and politically poignant at the same time.

A Dangerous Game (Anthony Baxter, UK, 90′)
Baxter’s last doc on Donald Trump followed a UK community fighting against the bonehead billionaire’s plans for a massive golf course in their nearby unique ecosystem. The Donald is back for round two as he continues to wreak havoc on precious environments and small communities, but those communities continue to fight his insatiable greed with independent ferocity.

Pine Ridge (Anna Eborn, Denmark, 77′)
A beautifully-shot and dramatically moving portrait of members of South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation, where the Wounded Knee Massacre took place, and where that tragic history haunts the present day struggles of the ancestors who were brutally lost in a colonial mass murder scheme.

Private Violence (Cynthia Hill, USA, 81′)
Beginning with the devastating fact that the most dangerous place for a women is in her own home, Hill follows two women who are tirelessly trying to change the statistics.

Private Violence

Private Violence


Aside from the above titles, I’m also excited to see this year’s Outstanding Achievement Award go to a POV filmmaker who is exceptionally subversive: the UK’s Adam Curtis. Be sure to check out one or all of the five outstanding works Hot Docs will show at the festival.

Lastly, I’m also going to look for the following films: Red Lines (Andrea Kalin and Oliver Lukacs, USA, 98′) is about efforts in Syria to create democracy; The Homestretch (Anne de Mare and Kirsten Kelly, USA, 90′) follows teens surviving homelessness; Come Worry with Us! (Helene Klodawsky, Canada, 81′) goes behind the scenes of cult band The Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra to reveal relationship issues around gender and labour; Vessel (Diana Whitten, USA, 88′) is an intriguing look at the activists who work with maritime law to provide safe abortions in otherwise illegal territories.

To sum up, this year’s festival shows improvement on some diversity issues but has room to grow on others, and seems to have vastly enhanced (at least from last year) the politically-oriented programming with dozens of promising, punchy and POV docs as well as more provocative public talks.

See you in the cinema!

With files from Svetla Turnin. Top image from Red Lines.