Hot Docs and Coca-Cola

Posted by in Dispatches, Doc Side

Image above: The advert for Coke, which played before our screenings at the festival, reads: “Thanks to Coca-Cola Canada for supporting the presentation of environmental films at Hot Docs.”

Below is an excerpt from a longer piece I’ve just posted on Art Threat about the documentary festival Hot Docs, currently underway in Toronto. This is one of the largest festivals for documentary in the world, and this year organizers have made the very unusual and short-sighted blunder of signing on Coca-Cola as the environmental film presenter for the fest. I plan on writing more about this after talking with more organizers, but for now, here is an excerpt from the my Art Threat piece:

And now finally, the ethics of the fest: I plan on writing about this more in the future, but for now I’d like to flag a huge problem with this year’s edition of Hot Docs. Organizers have made the massive mistake, ethically inexplicable as it is, of signing on with none other than Coca-Cola as their, get this, environmental film sponsor. At many of the social events I accosted Hot Docs management about the festival facilitating greenwashing for one of the world’s worst human rights and environmental abusers. For a festival that showcases a film genre interested in not only truth but social justice, it is bizarre that they would take such a careless decision to not just bring on Coca-Cola as a sponsor, but give the company the space it needs to misrepresent itself as a corporation concerned with the environment. Coke’s eco-record is well-documented, and judging from my conversations with many audience members at Hot Docs, I’m assuming also well-known. Imagine a cigarette company sponsoring the festival’s cluster of films on health issues. Imagine BP sponsoring a program of eco-disaster docs.

Off the record, Hot Docs organizers told me that there is a “firewall” between programming and the business of the fest, and that there was a discussion about bringing on Coca-Cola as a sponsor, but it seems it wasn’t a protracted debate. This separation between art and economy at a festival like Hot Docs is about as real as objectivity in documentary, or the tooth fairy. The relationship is a delicate balancing act that determines the ability of the organizers to show quality documentary cinema. I appreciate this tension, but it is hardly a firewall when Coca-Cola is given the opportunity to associate their brand (in fact, the opportunity to rebrand) with environmental documentary cinema.

Hot Docs is risking their reputation with this new partnership, and if they think it will pass over without notice they are wrong. The Coca-Cola commercial played before every film I watched at the festival, and each time I overheard audience members around me, surprised and in disbelief: “What? You’ve got to be kidding me!” The reaction from documentary filmmakers was, of course, even more sever. Festivals like Hot Docs may feel immune from questions of ethics, when confronted by those of us who bring attention and protest to unethical sponsorship, but with their Green Galas, carbon offsetting, and other eco-friendly initiatives (and promotions), I’m venturing festival organizers actually do see the importance of addressing a newly-formed alliance with a company with one of the worst track records on human rights and the environment in the world (and I’m also sure Hot Docs ist familiar with Coke’s record, considering the documentaries on this very subject). Let’s hope enough people talk to them about this issue and they drop Coke for next year.