Documentary

Hot Docs ’19: Shane Smith discusses highlights for the 26th annual festival

Hot Docs’ director of programming Shane Smith is quite frank about what feature documentaries are likely to draw controversy and buzz at the 2019 Hot Docs Festival taking place in Toronto from ...
April 23, 2019

Hot Docs’ director of programming Shane Smith is quite frank about what feature documentaries are likely to draw controversy and buzz at the 2019 Hot Docs Festival taking place in Toronto from April 25 to May 6.

One film that Smith says is sure to “generate tension” is Phyllis Ellis‘ 90-minute examination of the impact of cosmetics on the body in Toxic Beauty (pictured), world premiering in the Special Presentations category.

“[Toxic Beauty] will open a lot of peoples’ eyes in an interesting, enlightening way, and perhaps encourage changes in behaviors or questioning what is in these cosmetics,” Smith tells Realscreen.

Another film that has the potential to make waves is Fredrik Gertten’s Push, a doc about the issue of affordable housing. Smith says it will resonate with those living in Toronto where affordable housing is an issue, in the countries the film goes to, and in many growing cities and urban communities.

“The film does a really good job of peeling back the layers and looking at the systemic reasons that this is becoming a crisis,” Smith adds.

The Hot Docs curator says there are some trends that continue on from 2018, like the motif of strong personalities found in Ryan White’s Ask Dr. Ruth, a layered look at Dr. Ruth Westheimer’s life and rise to prominence as a sex therapist; and Joan Tosoni and Martha Kehoe’s documentary Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind, a film about legendary Canadian folk singer Gordon Lightfoot who Smith says is “an icon, but someone we don’t know a lot about — personally.”

A film like Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce’s Framing John Delorean is told in a “unique, meta way” that is a different take on the character personality documentary, says Smith. This perspective extends beyond famous faces to strong personalities like Claudia Sparrow’s Maxima, a film about a Peruvian farmer and environmental activist.

Elsewhere, Smith says documentaries like The Edge of Democracy from Petra Costa, and Pachi Bustos’ Haydee and the Flying Fish, use context and history to illuminate present-day issues.

Hot Docs tends to launch each festival year with a powerful Canadian film, and the 26th edition of the festival is no different. First Nations/Métis filmmaker Tasha Hubbard’s feature-length documentary nîpawistamâsowin: We Will Stand Up is that film, with Smith calling the film an important story at this point in Canada’s social and political history.

“We often see films from around the world about these important issues – the abuse of power and problems that different communities face – but Canada has its share of challenges in terms of its reconciliation and understanding its Indigenous population,” says Smith.

One theme that noticeably runs throughout this year’s selections is the proliferation of directors approaching their subjects in unconventional methods. One film that takes an innovative approach to a heavy subject is The Hottest August, a film about climate change told through the lens of New Yorkers in the month of August. Meanwhile, the film Anbessa from Mo Scarpelli looks at the issue of forced relocation in Ethiopia through the eyes of a child of a family that has to leave home.

Similarly, Gods of Molenbeek from Reetta Huhtanen approaches religious differences through the perspectives of children in Moleenbeek, Belgium, while Marcela Arteaga’s The Guardians of Memory, which focuses on the tensions at the U.S.-Mexico border, reminds Smith stylistically of Jonathan Bogarin and Elan Bogarin’s magical-realist feature documentary 306 Hollywood.

“We are seeing the evolution of documentary language that filmmakers are using to tell all kinds of stories – not just creative or artistic subjects – but creative and artistic approaches to heavier and more challenging subjects that don’t often receive that kind of treatment,” Smith explains.

Although Smith is hesitant to name any films he considers to be at the forefront as contenders for awards season, he says Ask Dr. Ruth is “a really great character study” that could be this year’s answer to Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s acclaimed 2018 feature RBG, which looked at the life of associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

He also mentioned a film like Edge of Democracy, which he says is a “skillfully made film” that mixes political and personal, and could also generate some awards buzz, while Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts’s For Sama “has real potential”, having already won the top documentary prize at SXSW, and Australian director Maya Newell’s In My Blood Runs, which world premieres at this year’s Hot Docs, could be seen as a potential festival darling.

About The Author
Senior staff writer Frederick Blichert comes to realscreen with a background as a journalist and freelance film critic. He has previously written for VICE, Paste Magazine, Senses of Cinema, Xtra, Canadian Cinematographer and elsewhere. He holds a Master of Arts in film studies from Carleton University and a Master of Journalism from the University of British Columbia.