Hot Docs ’22: Shane Smith on return to in-person, diversity in programming

“I think part of what documentary offers in a physical, in-cinema context is connection and community around a subject… given the world that we’re living in, given the stories that ...
April 26, 2022

“I think part of what documentary offers in a physical, in-cinema context is connection and community around a subject… given the world that we’re living in, given the stories that need to be told, I think that there’s no better way to experience them than within a group setting with other people who are interested in similar things that you are, and you can experience and learn [about] that story together.”

In an interview with Realscreen ahead of the 2022 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, Hot Docs director of programming Shane Smith reaffirmed the organization’s commitment to theatrical exhibition as the fest prepares to return to an in-person format for the first time since 2019. As COVID recedes into the background (in terms of public perception and policy, if not reality), the Toronto-based doc showcase is the latest major North American film festival to return to some semblance of business-as-usual, operating at 100% capacity for all festival venues (with mandatory mask-wearing in effect) and forgoing proof-of-vaccination requirements for screenings. (Proof of vaccination is required for all live industry events, however, and all festival staff and volunteers are fully vaccinated.)

Ironically, even as Hot Docs welcomes patrons back they are bidding farewell to two members of their leadership team. The first is longtime managing director Alan Black, who, one day after the full lineup announcement last month, revealed that the 2022 festival would be his last. This was followed two weeks later by the news that co-president and executive director Heather Conway would be moving into an advisory role, only six months after she was appointed to the organization’s top spot.

While these personnel matters are not touched on in the interview below, as Conway’s departure had not been made public at the time of the chat, Smith (pictured) does discuss such topics as how the festival’s online platform, Hot Docs at Home — introduced of necessity in 2020, and now a year-round feature — has impacted the festival’s programming, questions of inclusivity and cultural sensitivity in curatorial decision-making, and the organization’s efforts to build on its commitment to gender parity in its programming with the incorporation of further representational benchmarks.

This interview has been edited for concision and clarity.

Based on the number and range of submissions for this year’s edition [226 films from 63 countries], what is your snapshot assessment of how global documentary production is faring in this third year of the pandemic? Do you think that there’s an atmosphere of “back-to-normal,” or are you still seeing significant negative impacts due to COVID?

Shane Smith: Its been interesting — we expected a dip in production last year because of delays in 2020, but the thing you can always say about documentary filmmakers is, they are resilient! We were nervous going into a programming year wondering how good the work was going to be, what the number of submissions was going to be like, but our concerns were alleviated once we saw the [films]. So from where I sit, there’s surprisingly no major ongoing impact.

If anything [has gone down], the number of films about COVID has declined. But the number of films that incorporate COVID — they’re not COVID films, but you see that COVID is part of the story they’re telling — was definitely noticeable this year. So [this shows me] how documentary filmmakers have been able to adapt  in a way that fiction [filmmaking] hasn’t necessarily, because of the machine that [the latter] is.

The titles in the competition sections, Canadian Spectrum and International Spectrum, range from the intimate and meditative to docs that tackle urgent contemporary geopolitical issues. What are some of the programming considerations when platforming a select group of titles for the competition sections?

Smith: For me, when I’m working with the team on shaping the competition, I don’t want any two films to be alike. Part of what we’re looking for is to show the range and diversity [of the submissions], in every way: in style, in storytelling, in perspective, in country [of origin] for the international competition. We always pride ourselves on the range of the films within the festival, and the competition is kind of a microcosm of that.

We’re also looking for a range of voices and experience level, too: a lot of the titles in both the Canadian and international competitions are by emerging, first- or second-time filmmakers. These are sections which get the spotlight on them, so it’s a chance to amplify new and emerging voices through that platform. We’ll see a lot of experienced filmmakers throughout the festival, but in competition we’re generally looking for new voices as well as new perspectives on the stories that they’re telling.

One of the most notable stories in the doc world this year has been the controversy over the programming of the film Jihad Rehab at Sundance. As an organization, how has Hot Docs’ self-examination around programming processes and practices evolved over the past few years?

Smith: In festival programming, of course, we’re downstream — the films are completed by the time they come to us. But we’re always cognizant of who is telling the story. On our submission form, we ask the filmmaker to tell us about their relationship with the subjects whose story they’re telling. So that’s our way of opening the door a crack for the filmmakers to be open about their motivation, about their relationship, about where they’re coming from and their perspective. And beyond that, if we have questions, we will reach out and ask specific questions of filmmakers.

I also think it’s incumbent on us as a programming team to represent as many diverse perspectives within the team as possible. And there’s work to be done, absolutely, but we’ve made strides — not only in diversifying the programming team, but also in who we get to consult on films.

For example, we started working with GLAAD this year to look at trans films. We have programmers working for GLAAD who are deeply engaged in that conversation. So that’s one example of our engaging with people who have the lived experience to advise on films that we think are interesting. But we are not experts on the subject matter, so we will seek out subject experts who can provide us with that insight.

It’s a whole extra layer to the programming process, but it’s an important one. And in the example of GLAAD, the perspectives that their programmers brought were really eye-opening, and called out some of our blind spots and our biases. So I think more of that is in the cards — we’re a smallish team, so we can’t represent all perspectives from around the world, but we want to be able to call on experts who can provide those firsthand insights, and who can help us shape the best, smartest kind of programming that we can put together.

For a few years now you’ve committed to gender parity in terms of the filmmakers represented in the festival selection, and have announced the percentage of women filmmakers each year. Do you have plans to establish further benchmarks for representation, and for making those statistics public?

Smith: That’s definitely the plan. We’ve started gathering statistics as films are submitted, and then going back to get more detailed statistics — not only about the films in the festival, but also about the films submitted to the festival, so we can see what we’re working with in terms of the films coming to us in the first place.

We’re all gathering information on an ongoing basis, so the goal is to see that our systems and our information-gathering are in place, and that we’re meeting privacy laws and legal and regulatory [guidelines] in our data capture and how it’s shared. But I would say you’re going to see public statistics from us in the coming months for sure, because it’s been something that we’ve been working on and we want to make sure we’re sharing. Transparency is key in making sure that you’re broadening the reach and the representation of the programming.

This is the third year of the virtual platform Hot Docs at Home, which was debuted out of necessity in 2020 but which, according to your previous statements, has helped the organization grow a nationwide audience. Do you see that growth continuing through this year?

Smith: In the context of the festival, the online offering has grown year after year. 2021 was a big increase over 2020, and this year it’s too early to tell, but all of the films in the festival will be available online across Canada. Its good for a variety of reasons — certainly in terms of reach for the festival, but also in terms of access for audiences who can’t physically get out to a cinema. That’s been an important priority for Hot Docs as well. All of our venues are accessible, all of our event spaces are accessible, and now our online platform puts accessibility front and center in terms of reaching an audience of all access levels.

Moving forward, we’ve crossed the digital divide, from a festival perspective, and I think it’s always going to be an element of what we do as an organization. Its going to be incorporated into our DNA — like you said, by force at first, but I think we’ve all come to see the benefits of it across the industry. So we’re still a theatrical-focused, cinema-focused festival, but online has opened up opportunities to expand it on a platform that, so far, has been serving the audience well and that we’ve been getting a good response to.

That said, cinema will never die — because events around the film are what cinema offers too, whether that’s musical performances, a panel discussion, et cetera. And then there’s the filmmakers’ side of it as well. What Hot Docs offers is that direct connection between filmmaker and audience, and that’s why they make films — so that they can get them to audiences and connect to audiences and expand the conversation, or hear what audiences have to say about their films.

That collaborative experience can be delivered in so many ways, but at the moment, being in a room watching a film with people who are feeling a similar way — or feeling a different way, and then having that exchange of ideas — is something that just can’t be done effectively from your couch.

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