With a rainstorm raging outside, the Hot Docs festival got off to a damp start at Toronto’s historic Winter Garden Theatre on Thursday. The sold-out audience of soaked film enthusiasts laughed ruefully when Nick de Pencier, the producer and cinematographer of the opening night gala, Act of God, quipped, ‘We couldn’t have asked for better weather.’
The film, which deals with weighty philosophical issues around God and destiny, profiles subjects whose lives have been transformed by lightning: they’ve either been hit by it or dealt with people dying from it. When de Pencier continued to exult in the evening’s ‘shitty weather,’ his director, Jennifer Baichwal, quickly responded that the rain wasn’t all that bad.
De Pencier looked at his companion, shrugged, and commented, ‘We’re married, you know.’
The screening duplicated the rain-swept conditions outdoors. The full-length documentary — which features award-winning novelist Paul Auster, legendary avant-garde guitarist Fred Frith, Toronto playwright James O’Reilly, a French ‘lightning museum’ curator, a Las Vegas-based evangelist and grieving Mexican mothers — is suffused in a grey-green palette and racked by increasingly threatening sounds of thunder and lightning.
Baichwal’s remark before the lights dimmed — ‘I can’t say ‘enjoy it,’ because it isn’t that type of film’ — proved to be all too correct. The crowd responded to her doc with quiet respect rather than complete admiration. It may not bode well for the commercial release, which starts today at Toronto’s Varsity Cinema. Brilliant philosophical fare without a lead character or an obvious story arc could prove to be a hard sell at the box office.
Hussain Amarshi, president of distributor Mongrel Media, disagrees. ‘We expect that the audience that saw it tonight are the opinion makers and will spread the word about the film,’ he said. ‘For the kind of art house cinema we release, we have one chance, one hit to really promote it. With the [Hot Docs] opening slot, this was the time to move. If we waited for a month or two, the press notices would have been old.’
‘The idea is that the film will appeal to a wider audience than those just interested in documentaries,’ he concluded.