Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Hot Docs 2013: Preview

Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival

April 25 to May 5, 2013

Hot Docs keeps getting bigger, whether you mean the fact that it now has The Bloor as its year-round base, 200+ titles being screened during the festival or its increased geographic sprawl. Every year there's a few more growth spurts and mutations, and every year there's a little bit more of a sense that you can't see more than a fraction of the titles on offer — but it's still very much a festival worth celebrating.

With the closing of The Cumberland, screenings are once more spreading out from what had been, for many years, the festival's Bloor Street/U of T hub. (Although the addition of daily screenings at Hart House does add one more spot to this cluster.) Anyone planning multiple films in a day has to be a bit more careful with factoring in getting-around time. Filling the need for more screens, the festival has expanded to the S--------- Theatre (at John and Richmond, formerly The Paramount, now quite unpleasantly named after an oligopolistic corporation). To the good, with a lot of action at the TIFF Lightbox, this does create a new "southern hub" with six screens bunched closer together. (Also new this year, "Docs at Dusk", a free outdoor screening of Brothers Hypnotic on May 2 in the Burwash Quad next to Bader Theatre.)

What to see:

  • Look beyond the big-name stuff. For one thing, a lot of those (especially the ones with popcult cachet) are going to become the backbone for the programming at The Bloor over the next year, so you'll have your chances. And some of the other stuff, especially in the World Showcase, might not make its way here again. Done right, Hot Docs is a trip around the world. Don't worry about seeing the buzziest stuff — just carve out a festival that reflects what you want to see, and then on top of that, find something completely unlike that and go on an adventure.
  • Follow the masters. There are a lot of new films from directors with stellar track records that mark them as easy picks. Kim Longinotto, who received a retrospective back in 2010, is one of my all-time fave doc makers. She returns to the festival with Salma, about a woman in India fighting against patriarchal social forces with poetry. I might not have gone to see the film just based on that concept, but knowing it comes from such a masterfully sympathetic storyteller means it's among my most-anticipated. John Kastner also received the retrospective treatment last year — and his ability to reflect the humanity of wrong-doers without whitewashing their deeds will be called upon in NCR: Not Criminally Responsible. Local hero Alan Zweig carved out his own style with his caustically self-reflective docs, and that sensibility means you can count on 15 Reasons to Live to be something more than gooey sentimentalism.
  • See the retrospectives. If the above didn't make it clear, one of my favourite parts of the festival are the Retrospective series, which give a chance to take a closer look at an individual film-maker's career. These screenings tend not to get the same amount of hype as some of the splashy new releases, but they're quite often the best thing at the festival. This year's Outstanding Achievement Award retrospective comes with a sad note as recipient Les Blank passed away earlier this month, and will not be here to share his experiences. Burden of Dreams, his most famous film, isn't screening here, but the chance to see three programmes of his lesser-known works (many of which focus on regional American music cultures) should not be passed up. The mid-career "Focus On" retrospective presents the works of Peter Mettler, and is recommended to those who like a more abstract/non-linear cinematic experience. It will also include an experimental image/live soundtrack screening on April 28.
  • Also worth noting outside of the competition films are the half-dozen entries in the Redux program, which brings back docs that might not have got their due the first time 'round, especially given the later acclaim some of these film-makers have found. That's the case for River by Bill and Turner Ross (who'd move on to 45365 and last year's Tchoupitoulas) and The Burger and the King (by Man on Wire director James Marsh). These only get one screening apiece, so keep an eye out when you're putting your festival schedule together.

For list-lovers, here's a few more films that caught my eye for one reason or another. Expect reviews of these to pop up over the next few days.

Of course, what I'll end up seeing with be shifted around a bit. Do pay attention to what people are saying once the festival gets going. More than once, my favourite film at the festival's end was one that wasn't on my radar at the start.

Practical details: Tickets are available online or at the festival box office (in the lower level of Hazelton Lanes). They'll set you back $14.60 (or $6.20 for late-night screenings). There are also cheaper pass options available, plus don't forget about the free same day tickets (for screenings before 5 p.m.) for seniors and students. Keep a close eye out for which screenings have gone rush.

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