Hot Docs ’16: Smith, DiFelice share fest highlights

Hot Docs programming head Shane Smith and associate director of programming Sarafina DiFelice discuss the boost in shorts, a diverse crop of Canadian films and cross-over between doc and live theater in the 'DocX' program. (Pictured: The Apology)
April 27, 2016

The 23rd edition of the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival will take over Toronto starting on Thursday (April 28). Over 11 days, 232 titles from 51 countries will screen across 12 programs, including Rama Rau’s opening night film League of Exotique Dancers and buzzy 2016 doc titles such as Cameraperson, Unlocking The Cage, All These Sleepless Nights, Weiner and The Peacemaker. Commissioners, funders and producers in search of funding will also be on hand for the Hot Docs Forum, a mainstay for docmakers on the festival pitching circuit.

shane smith, sarafina difelice

Shane Smith, Sarafina DiFelice

New this year is a greater emphasis on doc shorts and cross-disciplinary work, following the launch of a program dedicated to interactive and VR docs last year. Ahead of the kick-off, realscreen spoke to programming head Shane Smith and associate director of programming Sarafina DiFelice for highlights from this year’s festival.

Short Films
The Hot Docs program boasts a 55% increase in short film programming over last year. Shorts will screen in two new thematic programs (Command and Control and the Pursuit of Happiness) and ahead of mid-length and feature-length films. To complement the programming, the industry conference will feature a digital shorts-focused panel with Condé Nast’s Sarah Lash, Channel 4′s Adam Gee and CBC’s Lesly Birchard, as well as a workshop with Gee on social impact shorts.

From May 2 to 6, Hot Docs will host breakfast meetings from 9 to 10 a.m. for short filmmakers to meet with producers and execs and screen their work. “We realize shorts are sometimes a starting ground for emerging filmmakers so we want to help them maximize the potential of their films and maybe get that seen and sold,” says Smith. “We also want to make sure the industry for shorts is aware of us and what we can do to support their business goals.”

International and Canadian Spectrums
“It’s a really strong year for Canadian films,” says Smith, adding that this year’s crop of docs in the Canadian program is among the festival’s most diverse. And, indeed, diversity in Canadian documentary is among the topics to be discussed during the industry conference.

He highlights Min Sook Lee’s Migrant Dreams, about two women caught in Canada’s migrant worker program; Sebastian Rist’s Living with Giants, about teenage romance in a remote Northern Quebec community;and Tiffany Hsiung’s look at sex slavery during World War II, The Apology (pictured above).

The latter will feature in the festival’s Big Ideas program with an April 30 event featuring Hsiung, one of the film’s subjects, Gil Won-Ok and Meehyang Yoon, director of the Korean Council for Women Drafted for Military Slavery.

From the International Spectrum, he highlights Christy Garland’s Cheer Up, billed as a look at Finland’s “worst cheerleading team.” “It’s got a surface hook that is intriguing, but it digs beneath that to the real substance of the women involved in the team,” says Smith.

Live performance
The festival’s cross-disciplinary program DocX is returning for a second year and includes several VR and interactive documentaries, a buzzy narrative feature – Canadian filmmaker Matt Johnson’s Sundance favorite Operation Avalanche – and live performances. On May 5, Hot Docs is hosting the world premiere of Oscar-nominated director Sam Green and live cinema artist Brent Green’s “live documentary” performance, which involves the reproduction and deconstruction of documentary elements, such as score and narration.

The cross-over between documentary and live theater is already being experimented with in territory labs run through CPH:DOX in Copenhagen and the Sundance Institute. DiFelice sees the trend as a reaction to the shift to digital. “There’s something nice about bringing back that live element and playing with the audience dynamic there,” she says.

Of course, digital experiences are the backbone of DocX, which now have a dedicated space at Hot Docs House (610 Markham Street). Last year’s inaugural program comprised of three virtual reality experiences that were viewed thousands of times, but this year audiences can participate in interactive installations and 360-degree video experiences in addition to VR.

Hot Docs is a relatively new player on the VR circuit compared with other festivals so DiFelice’s challenge is to get audiences used to making the interactive programming (which is free) part of their festival itinerary. To that end, organizers are staging pop-up VR stations with Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail’s VR effort Surviving Solitary and the reproductive health-focused Across The Line, which will screen in conjunction with Dawn Porter’s Trapped.

VR will also feature at the industry conference during VR On Trial, a mock judicial inquiry into the viability of the technology featuring Google’s principal VR filmmaker Jessica Brillhart and Canadian Film Centre chief digital officer Ana Serrano.

Big Ideas

In addition to The Apology, five other docs are featured in Hot Docs’ fifth annual Big Ideas showcase. ESPN and Ezra Edelman’s seven-and-a-half-hour look at the life of O.J Simpson, OJ: Made In America, will continue its festival run at Hot Docs ahead of its U.S. broadcast premiere. Edelman, sports journalist Robert Lipsyte and former Los Angeles District Attorney Gil Garcetti will be on hand for the screening.

Also in the program are Stefan Sagmeister’s The Happy Film, which is headed to Hot Docs following a premiere at Tribeca earlier this month; Deborah S. Esquenazi’s Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four; Beth Murphy’s What Tomorrow Brings; and Joe Berlinger’s look at the life of motivational speaker Tony Robbins, Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru. Berlinger is also due to appear during the industry conference on May 6, as is filmmaker Heidi Ewing who will discuss her film Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You for an industry audience on May 2.

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