The 2003 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival (April 25 to May 4) is likely to be remembered not as a happy celebration of the fest’s 10th anniversary, but as the one that succeeded in spite of a potentially crippling health scare, caused by an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in Toronto. The talk in the days leading up to the festival was of whether or not it would go on – other major international conferences scheduled to come to the city had been called off. But from the tightly packed opening night party to sold-out screenings to the lively industry sessions, there was little tangible evidence of a crisis. The numbers were indeed down, with festival organizers reporting the attendance of 1,311 delegates this year, an eight percent decrease from last year’s 1,424. In the end, there were 150 cancellations, mostly from European delegates.
Inspired ideas on the part of organizers were what rescued the event from collapse. For example, the highly anticipated filmmaker discussion ‘Nick-squared x 10′, featuring U.K. doc-maker Nick Broomfield and BBC ‘Storyville’ commissioning editor Nick Fraser, was in jeopardy due to Fraser’s absence. But, local producer Nick de Pencier (The True Meaning of Pictures: Shelby Lee Adams’ Appalachia) was enlisted at the last minute to fill the empty chair. Dispensing with the original format (10 questions drawn from a hat one at a time, to be answered by one of the Nicks), the two sat down and had an informal discussion before a full room. Even the Toronto Documentary Forum pulled through, thanks to an experiment in real-time Internet pitching (see On the Slate, page 18).
The SARS jokes flew during the producer seminars. The ‘Survival of the Fittest’ session featured six panelists dispensing tactics for keeping their companies afloat. Andrew Ogilvie of Australian prodco Electric Pictures remarked that he was still recovering from his long flight (which included a stopover in Hong Kong) and not to mind his cough. Ogilvie went on to explain that his company survives by keeping a diverse slate of genres. Fellow panelist Harry Sutherland of Vancouver, Canada-based Producers on Davie touted the merits of working with international copro partners. He said his company has established a relationship with a production company in Japan that has produced 300 hours of programming for Japanese pubcaster NHK, but hasn’t sold anything outside of Japan. ‘Canada is small, but [prodcos can get] a lot of government help from [agencies like] Telefilm Canada and can assist a country like Japan to broker deals around the world.’
Among the 12 films collecting awards at the close of this year’s festival were John Kastner’s Rage Against the Darkness (best Canadian feature-length doc); Paul Devlin’s Power Trip (best international doc); Elaine Epstein’s State of Denial (special jury prize); Johan Kramer’s The Other Final (best first doc); and Raymonde Provencher’s War Babies (audience award).