Documentaries are often referred to as ‘windows on the world,’ to the point of cliché. But, as seen by the winners of two of the top prizes at this past Friday’s awards ceremony for Hot Docs 2009, clichés always have a ring of truth to them. Through the two winners – Hubert Davis’ Invisible City and Simon El Hebre’s The One Man Village – audiences at this year’s festival could catch a glimpse of both the gritty urban environment of Toronto’s Regent Park and the deserted, war-torn Lebanese village of Ain El Halazoun, respectively.
Davis’ City nabbed the Best Canadian Feature Documentary honor, which came with a CDN$15,000 cash prize courtesy of the Brian Linehan Charitable Foundation. Davis was a little hoarse when it came time to deliver his acceptance speech, as he had just given a radio interview prior to the ceremony, and several through the week. Still, he gave thanks to the jury for proving that the residents of Regent Park, the Toronto community featured in his film, aren’t invisible, and that their voices and stories can and will be heard.
The film follows two Regent Park teens, Mikey and Kendell, over three years, and the challenges they face over that period. The jury for the Canadian feature prizes, which included filmmaker Nahid Persson Sarvestani; critic Geoff Pevere and Silverdocs’ director of programming Sky Sitney, praised City for maintaining ‘a focus on the raw material of real human experience while honoring the documentary as a cinematic art form.’
El Habre’s gripping The One Man Village took the A&E-sponsored Best International Feature Documentary title, and the CDN$10,000 cash prize that came with it, courtesy of Hot Docs. The film tells the story of the director’s uncle, who is the only person remaining in a mountain village that was rendered desolate by the civil war of 1975-1990.
The Special Jury Prize for a Canadian feature went to Waterlife from renowned Toronto docmaker/producer/writer Kevin McMahon. The film, an engrossing examination of the state of the Great Lakes, won a CDN$10,000 cash prize courtesy of the Brian Linehan Charity Foundation.
Cooking History from Slovak producer/director Peter Kerekes claimed the Special Jury Prize for an international feature. The film, which looks at military conflict through the eyes of European army cooks, earned a CDN$5,000 cash prize courtesy of Hot Docs.
The emotional highlight of the night came in the presentation of the Outstanding Achievement Award to Alanis Obomsawin. A selection of the 76-year-old’s work, spanning her 40 years as an NFB filmmaker, was presented in a retrospective during the festival, including the world premiere of her latest, Professor Norman Cornett: Since When Do We Divorce the Right Answer From an Honest Answer? In her acceptance speech, Obomsawin said that her work as a filmmaker, as a musician in the 1960s and as a member of the Abenaki Nation has always been fueled by the desire to grant Aboriginal people a voice. In talking about her father, who died in his early forties, she told a story about returning to her school classroom after she had been falsely accused of a transgression by a teacher. Her father made sure she was allowed back into the school, and also that the teacher would deliver an apology in front of the class. Obomsawin, in turn, took the opportunity at the awards podium to deliver her own moving message to her father. ‘In the morning, the sun is rising, and I am dancing,’ she said, her voice quaking with emotion. ‘Can you see me?’
New talent was spotlighted with two awards categories. The Don Haig Award, sponsored by documentary and honoring emerging Canadian talent, went to Brett Gaylor (RiP: A Remix Manifesto) and Tracey Deer (Club Native). The HBO Documentary Emerging Artists award went to South Korean director Chung-ryoul Lee (Old Partner).
The prize for Best Mid-Length Documentary (CDN$3,000 from Hot Docs) went to Bartek Konopka’s Rabbit a Berlin, which tells the story of a rabbit reserve that grew out of a patch of land between the east and west portions of the Berlin Wall. The Best Short Documentary honor, sponsored by Playback and also the recipient of CDN$3,000, went to Kara Blake’s The Delian Mode. The short spotlights the life and times of electronic music pioneer Delia Derbyshire, perhaps best known for the eerie Doctor Who theme.
The Lindalee Tracey award was part of the proceedings for the third year in a row, offered to emerging Canadian filmmakers working in the spirit of the late, renowned Canadian filmmaker and author. To be chosen for this award, filmmakers must exhibit the qualities that Tracey brought to her work – a passionate point of view, a strong sense of social justice and a sense of humor. This year, the honor went to two filmmakers: Montreal’s Laura Bari and 18-year-old Will Inrig.
The awards show itself moved at a reasonable clip, and was ably and enthusiastically hosted by Billy Bob Thornton’s favorite CBC radio/TV personality, Jian Ghomeshi. Every effort was being made, said Ghomeshi, to keep the show at just a little over an hour, to allow for ‘maximum drinking time’ at the after-party, thrown at Avenue Road resto Manyata.