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Hot Docs Festival – Oh Myyy!

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The benefits of living in a city with a vibrant culture and thriving art scene are too many to list.  But near the top of mine is Toronto being home to around 70 festivals throughout the year, including Nuit Blanche, the Toronto International Film Festival (commonly referred to as TIFF) and by far my favourite of them all, the Hot Docs Festival, North American’s largest documentary film festival.

Offering an outstanding selection of 139 films this year from Canada and around the world, screening in venues across the city, for an avid film goer and doc lover like myself, Hot Docs was 11 days of unadulterated delight.  I laughed, I cried (three times actually), was angered and horrified, captivated and engaged, sometimes all while watching the same film.  And if the packed midnight screenings at the Bloor Cinemas every night (see Nightvision Series below) was any indication, there were many of us die-hards around.

In a climate of overhyped, overpriced festivals, Hot Docs, despite having grown in size and prominence, has remarkably managed to remain low-key, inexpensive and solely about the films and its audience.  Compare this to the much larger, glitzier TIFF where the films have almost been overshadowed by celebrity sightings and talk of which designer dressed so and so at the premiere.  Not to mention the cost of a single TIFF ticket is over $20 and festival packages can set you back almost $400.  Hot Docs prices, thankfully, have remained affordable for the average person.  For instance, because we’re nerds and cheap, Jeff and I will usually split a Festival 10-Pack which includes 10 tickets and one all access pass to the late-night screenings for the early bird special of $109 (regular price is $125).  And since we’re Bloor Hot Docs Cinema members, we get two free festival tickets and 15 % off any additional tickets purchased.  If we were still students or seniors, we would be able to attend all the daytime screenings for free!  So even after purchasing a second late-night pass for $12.40 (a steal of a deal, if you ask me) and a few additional tickets, we still hadn’t cracked the $200 mark for the both of us.  In case you’re wondering, I watched 11 films in total and Jeff watched 15.

Of course I’ve got nothing but love for feature films.  I believe both genres bring unique perspectives of our world and the complexities of human nature.  So, why docs over feature films?  Some would argue that the point of watching a film is to escape reality, not be confronted with it.  But when I think back on the countless films I’ve watched over the years, it’s the documentaries that have had a significant impact on shaping how I view the world.  In an age of predictable and cookie-cutter media products, docs still offer a degree of realism, relevancy and balance.  Of course like any other storytelling method, a well-balanced approach can still leave a documentary slightly biased to favour the point of view of the filmmaker, so it’s important to watch them with a healthy dose of skepticism.  However, unlike feature films, I can be watching the worst documentary ever produced and still leave the theatre feeling like I’ve at least learned something.

Back to Hot Docs…

Jeff and I have a tradition we follow that begins the day the festival screening schedule booklet is released. We separately read all the synopses of the films and asterisk the docs that pique our interest. Then we confer to see which selections we have in common. Surprisingly, from the list of over 100 films, we usually have a handful that intersect, but there are always a few that we just can’t agree on. A laborious negotiation process ensues, which occasionally ends with an agreement to disagree, and Jeff pencilling in a matinee screening alone while I toil away at work. Finally, before it’s too late, we snatch up our tickets before the films in higher demand (see Big Ideas Series below) sell-out, followed by the month-long waiting period for the festival to actually begin.

The participating festival theatres range from modern commercial movie theatres (Cineplex Scotiabank Theatre), to 100 year old vintage theatres (Bloor Cinema: recently modernized and re-envisioned as an exclusively documentary-centred theatre – pictured above), to theatres in historic Toronto buildings (Hart House and the Royal Ontario Museum).

Each documentary is followed by a brief question and answer period with the filmmakers and/or their subjects, which is almost as good as watching the film itself.  It’s an opportunity to gain an insight into what happened when the cameras weren’t rolling, or if someone was as douchey / nice as they were portrayed on film. At this year’s Hot Docs, we had the chance to hear from one of Jeff’s heroes, the legendary skeptic and occult/paranormal/supernatural debunker, James Randi, following the documentary celebrating his life, An Honest Liar. We were even treated with a magic trick from this adorable 85 year old man.

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Even better than the regular Q&A portion, Hot Docs offers screenings with special guests with an extended Q&A period, as part of the Big Ideas Series. Last year, we were lucky enough to catch Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss, supporting the release of The Unbelievers. So, this year, we made sure we to get tickets early to ensure we caught a few films from this series. It was a pleasure spending an extra hour hearing from George Takei (To Be Takei) about his LGBT human rights work and his complicated relationship/rivalry with William Shatner. We were even treated to an “Oh myyy!” during the discussion. Our next treat was hearing from one of our childhood heroes, Caroll Spinney (I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story), the man who played Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on Sesame Street. Mr. Spinney even brought a special guest, reportedly in the overhead compartment on the airplane, Oscar the Grouch, himself—Jeff’s inspirational figure.

Probably the highlight of the festival was the Big Ideas Series presentation of the film The Case Against 8 about the legal battle to overturn the controversial California ballot initiative passed in 2008 banning same-sex marriage. We were privileged to hear from the two same-sex couples that the successful appeal was centred around, Paul Katami and Jeff Zarillo, and Kristin Perry and Sandra Stier. These brave souls who sacrificed their private lives to fight a public battle for their right, like other Americans (and Canadians since 2005), to marry the person that they love, shared with us intimate thoughts of how this important battle meant for their deepest loved one. I think even Jeff was moved to tears, although he insists someone cut an onion.

The Nightvision series of the festival, which consists of more unusual, cult-y documentaries, is also a hoot. They are typically lower profile and low budget films, but are often the zaniest docs. The screenings are usually at midnight, and I have to arm myself with caffeine so that I can fully appreciate these gems. The highlight this year was Giuseppe Makes A Movie, which tells the story of Giuseppe Andrews, an independent filmmaker whose goal is to make a film in 2 days on a $1000 budget using homeless people or friends from his trailer park as actors, while seldom filming more than one take on a shot or caring about film continuity.

Before we knew it, the 11 exhausting days (from the lack of sleep due to the 1:30 am weekday finish times for the Nightvision series) flew by, and the waiting game now begins for future wide release screenings of the docs that we didn’t have time to squeeze in. We already have plans to catch Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry which is scheduled to play at Bloor Cinema in late May.

The Hot Docs Festival in Toronto takes place at the end of April and beginning of May.

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MEET THE LOCAL: KRISTINE BERNABE

 

Images. Photos by Kristine Bernable.

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