Last Call at the Gladstone Hotel’s Neil Graham (left) and Derreck Roemer.
One of the things that makes Toronto’s film festivals great is the mix. In the words of documentary director Kevin McMahon, “I can go to see a screening and see both my neighbour and a filmmaker in the lineup.” But most local filmmakers have been too busy to see many movies at this year’s Hot Docs. The festival is one of the world’s biggest documentary markets, with delegates from film distribution and production companies, buyers from television and school librarians. While the documentarians art is onscreen, there are a lot of deals unspooling behind the scenes.
For example, Jamie Kastner’s Kike Like Me was born at a Hot Docs pitch session two years ago. Through his original pitch (contemporary Jewish hipster culture), the Toronto-based filmmaker was able to sell rights and secure funding from BBC’s Oscar-winning series Storyville, Sundance Channel (U.S.), TVOntario, CHUM, Canal D, SCN (Canada), YLE Finland, TV2 Denmark, SBS Australia, and Noga 8 Israel. The concept has since changed (it’s now a film about identity centering on the conceit that the filmmaker is going undercover as a member of the tribe); and Kastner has grander ambitions for the film, and is hoping to secure a theatrical release.
Kastner’s flick takes him around the world, but other Toronto filmmakers represented at this year’s festival have focused on local themes. Last Call at the Gladstone Hotel is a story about what happens to the longtime residents and staff of the venerable dive when it is bought by developers. We asked director/producers Derreck Roemer and Neil Graham if such a Torontocentric story was a hard sell to distributors. “We think there’s an extra resonance beyond this being a Toronto film,” says Graham. ” It’s like when we see movies about Harlem or the Bowery in New York.” Adds Roemer, “One of the primary things it does is give voice to a white underclass.” It also explores the universal question about what makes a neighbourhood livable. And the filmmakers found out that the subject of gentrification is not black and white. “It’s easy to romanticize the old drinking hole, but the place was falling apart.”
Not all Toronto tales are told by locals. In Forgiveness: Stories For Our Time, Nova Scotia’s Johanna Lunn interviews people whose family members were violently murdered, including a man whose wife was killed by the I.R.A. and a vicar whose daughter was killed in the London Subway bombings. Central among the subjects is Lesley Parrott, mother of Alison Parrott, who was abducted and murdered from Varsity Stadium in 1986. Her killer wasn’t apprehended until 1996. Yet from the beginning, Lesley was able to forgive the man who murdered her daughter. Formerly the Program Director for The Independent Film Channel Canada, Lunn wanted to make a film that explored forgiveness after other programmers rejected a script about a man who forgave the killer of his son. “We had a bit of a debate about that story line with some saying it was ridiculous, there was no way someone would forgive the person who murdered their child. Period. The reactions were rather strong on both sides and that intrigued me.” The subject intrigued the Hot Docs jury, who have awarded the film the best mid-length documentary trophy.
Lunn was drawn to Lesley Parrott from her work with the Stay Alert…Stay Safe street proofing campaign. “Murder is such an unthinkable event,” says Lunn. “It would be so easy to be lost and stuck in anger, hatred and wanting revenge, Lesley knew from the bottom of her heart that she didn’t want to walk down that road. She did not want the loss of Alison to perpetuate a cycle of violence.” While Lunn’s film talks to the individuals most directly affected by these crimes, it acknowledges that these violent acts have a profound effect on the community as well. “Friends, family, and the community as a whole…it takes a long time for people to work through the horror of the loss and get the good memories back.” While Lunn is in town to promote Forgiveness, she is also working toward her next film. “I am very interested in this idea of personal responsibility and am currently doing research for a documentary that explores this as it relates to alternatives to war.”
Still from Forgiveness: Stories For Our Time courtesy of Hot Docs.