» Hot Docsbreaks through

Canada’s doc festival grew into an international force between the founding of  the Toronto Documentary Forum in 2000 and the SARS crisis of 2003. Marc Glassman, then one of the festival’s film programmers, charts Hot Docs’ growth in part two of his historical report.

The year 2000 saw a radical rethinking and expansion of Hot Docs’ mandate and programme by executive director Chris McDonald. Founder Paul Jay’s concept in 1992 was to give clout to his fellow Canadian documentary filmmakers by celebrating their work at a festival and conference, capped off by a massive awards gala. While he and festival coordinator Debbie Nightingale had succeeded admirably in doing that and even adding a small international programming component, Hot Docs remained a Canadian event geared mainly to its own film and broadcast industries.

McDonald set about changing that approach in 2000, his breakout year after getting his feet wet during a transitional festival in 1999, when Nightingale was still the festival director. Rudy Buttignol, then creative head of network programming at the Canadian public broadcaster TVOntario and the co-chair of Hot Docs’ International Advisory Council, persuaded McDonald to emulate IDFA’s (International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam) influential Documentary Forum. The Forum, which Buttignol had been attending for years, was then at its height, with documentary TV series and features being financed in occasionally rancourous but stimulating pitch sessions.

Hot Docs envisioned the Toronto Documentary Forum as a spring mirror event to IDFA’s fall date
Michaelle McLean

McDonald realised that a Toronto-based Forum would attract an international audience of broadcasters and their commissioning editors, producers and filmmakers.
With one stroke, it would change Hot Docs from a national event to one of global importance for the industry.

Michaelle McLean, who had extensive experience working in the media industries as Telefilm Canada’s Head of Creative Affairs, was approached to run the Toronto Documentary Forum.

“Hot Docs had done a formal deal with IDFA,” she recalls, “allowing them to copy the Forum. My contract was to launch a version under Hot Docs’ banner in Toronto.

“I sat down with Jolanda Klarenbeek (IDFA’s Forum Director at the time) and talked through the format – from the physical layout to how they selected projects and crated their production schedule. The IDFA folks had created a wonderful thing. The format’s fundamental collegial aspects – a round central table, the sharing of details, the respect for other cultures – were more European than North American in sensibility but launching in Canada was less of a stretch than in the USA.

“Hot Docs envisioned the TDF (Toronto Documentary Forum) as a spring mirror event to IDFA’s fall date. Business started at one event would be further developed at the other – not just the official catalogue projects but the stuff done in hallways and around the lunch tables. Easily as much business was done off-table as around the central table…”

The TDF was immediately successful. Approximately 260 delegates came to the inaugural year including representatives from the BBC, ARTE, ZDF and most of the other European broadcasters as well as HBO and other American listener-sponsored stations. That number quickly doubled over the next two years with Hot Docs offering financial support: “The broadcasters who came to co-pitch selected projects automatically had three nights at a hotel covered—to encourage them to participate and, hopefully, keep them at the table to hear the other pitches. If a TDF broadcaster was also going to be on an industry panel elsewhere at the festival, we would often subsidise their travel.”

When asked to assess what the TDF meant to Hot Docs, McLean is characteristically succinct. “The Forum raised Hot Docs’ profile internationally in a really big way. Once business is done at a festival, it becomes a calendar destination for the players.”

While McLean was building up the TDF, the film programming team was not idle. Managing director Karen Tisch had assembled a team that included Shannon Abel and me on the international side. In 2001, David McIntosh became the Canadian film programmer as the intricately assembled jury system created by Nightingale was slowly displaced.

In 2000, Hot Docs presented the Canadian premieres of Long Night’s Journey into Day, Deborah Hoffman’s award-winning account of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee, Russian director Vitalij Manskij’s mock-doc about growing up in the Soviet Union Private Chronicles, Monologue and Naked States, a funny profile of photographer Spencer Tunick, who shoots groups of people outdoors in the nude – a practice he continues today.

In addition, cinema verité legend D.A. Pennebaker and his partner Chris Hegedus attended the festival as Lifetime Achievement honourees and a retrospective of their work was also screened. An old friend of theirs, Albert Maysles, returned to Hot Docs to run a Master Class. Appropriately, Peter Wintonick’s Cinema Verité had its Toronto premiere at the festival. There was a survey of Australia’s documentary cinema while Canadian selections included Jennifer Baichwal’s personal journey to the Ganges The Holier It Gets, Alan Zweig’s first doc hit Vinyl, about obsessive record collectors and Magnus Isacsson’s moving account of a group of homeless singers The Choir Boys

The next two years saw steady growth at the festival but then, in 2003, disaster struck. SARS – Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome – hit Canada in early April. With the death toll in the country at 13 including three in one day in Toronto, the World Health Organization issued a travel advisory on April 23 warning people not to come to the city. Two days later, Hot Docs started.

“Every single one of the broadcasters cancelled except for those who were already in the air, which were the Aussies and the New Zealanders,” recalls McLean. “Chris would have none of us cancelling so it became a hilarious challenge to see if I could imagine piping people in via phone or internet. It was exhausting but fun in the end and the broadcasters in particular were incredibly supportive – sitting for hours on open phone lines in London, Paris, New York, etc. in order to show support for our plight.”

Toronto audiences responded to SARS by coming out to Hot Docs in record number

Werner Herzog, who had refused to agree to a Hot Docs retrospective (it would happen a few years later) changed his plans – and came to Toronto. The festival had a very lively programme including films by Maziar Bahari (Along Came a Spider), who was later to be imprisoned in Iran; Hany Abu-Assad (Ford Transit), then a young unknown Palestinian filmmaker; American indies Liz Garbus (Girlhood) and Rory Kennedy (A Boy’s Life); Russian auteur Victor Kossakovsky (Tiche! Hush!); veteran Dutch doc-maker Jos de Putter (Dans, Grozny, Dans); and José Padilha (with the devastating Brazilian hostage shoot-out film Bus 174).

Toronto audiences responded to SARS by coming out to Hot Docs in record numbers. The festival programme caught up with the Doc Forum that year in terms of power and prestige. After this very rocky 10th anniversary, Hot Docs was ready to take on more challenges as it continued to grow._

The first part of Hot Docs’ life was published in DOX issue 98. Read it here.

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