Nonfiction Filmmaking Fans Get Their First Look at Hot Docs 2016
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Nonfiction Filmmaking Fans Get Their First Look at Hot Docs 2016

The largest festival in North America devoted to documentary filmmaking unveils a slate of world premieres, Canadian launches, and interdisciplinary installations and performances.

Still from festival opener The League of Exotique Dancers.

Hot Docs’ top brass announced the nonfiction festival’s stacked 2016 slate, boldly promising “more curious, more daring, more innovative, and more fun” offerings than ever before.

With no regrets offered to 2015’s survivors, a slew of programmers unveiled the highlights from the new crop of 232 docs at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema this morning—including 118 world and international premieres from 51 countries, 40 per cent of them directed by women.

Director of programming Shane Smith kicked off the big reveal by announcing that Canadian filmmaker Rama Rau’s The League of Exotique Dancers is the opening night selection, marking a return to Canadian openers after recent years had flirted with premiering Sundance holdovers. Rau explains that the film about the golden age of American burlesque performers was made by an all-female crew, boasting that some of the film’s stories have never been told before—“mostly because no one asked,” she says.

Still from O.J. Simpson: Made in America.

Beyond the opener, some of the fest’s highlights include Joe Berlinger’s look at motivational speaker Tony Robbins and the premiere of ESPN’s O.J. Simpson: Made in America, pitched as a “deep dive into the trial of the century,” presumably cutting closer to the bone than Ryan Murphy’s current FX series of the same. Among the less star-powered offerings, we’re also eager to see Jonny Von Wallström’s The Pearl of Africa, which, from the trailer, strikes us as a lyrical take on being a trans woman in contemporary Uganda.

Still from Migrant Dreams.

The festival also made time to hype its stuffed Canadian program. Senior Canadian programmer Lynne Fernie announced titles covering issues as diverse as indigenous land rights and stories of migration and exile. Of these, we’re particularly curious about Min Sook Lee’s Migrant Dreams. The winner of Cinema Politica’s 2016 Alanis Obomsawin Award also returns to Hot Docs with a film about debt bondage in Ontario.

Still from Operation Avalanche.

The festival is also rolling out its new interdisciplinary DOCX programme, which combines nonfiction filmmaking with performances, installations, and virtual reality work. The lineup includes a performance by acclaimed American live documentary filmmaker Sam Green and the Canadian premiere of Toronto filmmaker Matt Johnson’s Sundance hit Operation Avalanche, a fiction film culled in part from footage shot when the crew infiltrated NASA by claiming to shoot a documentary about the Apollo space program of the 1960s. (We won’t question the film’s premiere status, but will mention that it already screened last fall, a bit sotto voce, at the Royal.)

It can be hard to get a read on a festival’s prospects from its opening presser, but if we had to put our finger on the overarching theme of the launch, we’d go with money—this, in spite of one programmers’ insistence that the films’ topics could be divided along the lines of “the pursuit of happiness” and “command and control.” While the programmers’ names scrolled up the screen in fast-forward in a matter of seconds, long stretches were devoted to the fest’s many financial backers, a telling, if largely unspoken, statement on the precarious status of nonfiction filmmaking, programming, and distribution.

Amidst some of the drier tributes to the moneyed sponsors who make the whole show possible—such as, say, a word from the senior VP of Canadian marketing for Scotiabank, a soft-spoken fellow with nice shoes—some encouraging figures did emerge. The festival’s cash pool has seen a boost this year, rising to a cool $167, 000 ($25 000 of which is earmarked for the top Canadian film) as voted by audiences. And industry programmer Elizabeth Radshaw made note of an initiative called the CrossCurrents Doc Fund, designed to foster storytelling from within under-represented communities.

Whether that industry funding will transform the landscape of nonfiction filmmaking remains to be seen. But we’re cautiously optimistic, as we are about any festival that offers free daytime screenings for students and seniors, and subject matter ranging from burlesque pioneers to the kettling tactics used in the G20.