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Hot Docs 2011: Final Thoughts on the Documentary Film Festival

May 9, 2011

By John C.

Elmo & Kevin Clash outside the Isabel Bader Theatre in Toronto at Hot Docs - May 7th, 2011

The 18th annual Hot Docs Film Festival came to a close over the weekend, with Family Portrait in Black & White being named the best Canadian feature, Dragonslayer the best international, and the overrated Somewhere Between being voted by audiences as the best of fest.  With the numerous fine films being screened, I hope you all found something to see over the last 11 days.

Between April 28thMay 3rd and May 6th I published 3 sets of capsule reviews, including my brief thoughts on a total of 18 films.  Today I am looking back on my personal highlights and low points of the documentary festival, and telling you which films to watch for when they get released in theatres.

Hot Docs started bright and early for me on the morning of April 19th with a press screening of director Cindy Meehl’s thoroughly satisfying and beautifully shot documentary, Buck.  The fest opened to the public on April 28th with the Toronto premiere of Morgan Spurlock’s solidly entertaining POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, and over the course of the last 11 days an impressive total of 199 films have been screened at 16 different venues across the city.

When all was said and done, I had the privilege of seeing and profiling a total of 18 films ranging in length from 59 to 127-minutes, the majority of which garnered a recommendation.  As I was also juggling regular screenings and other writing, I unfortunately didn’t get the opportunity to see every one that I had hoped.  But the 18 I saw were more than enough to get a good taste of the quality and diversity of this year’s festival, offering a nice balance between entertainment and more traditional documentaries.

Films like Liz Garbus’s Bobby Fischer Against the World and James Marsh’s Project Nim were psychologically fascinating, leaving audiences with a lot to think about.  But it was ones like POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, the story of St. Catherine’s native Ralph Zavadil told in Beauty Day, and the insightful and shockingly hilarious look at child actors offered in The Hollywood Complex, that proved documentaries can be entertaining and thoughtful at the same time.

Besides the movies, the other great joy of a film festival comes from meeting the people behind the camera.  I got the opportunity to meet Jack Sanderson, who’s the producer and subject of the wonderful documentary, Becoming Santa.  Sanderson’s friendly personality is just as strong in person as what we see on-screen as he goes through “Santa school,” and here’s hoping the film finds a distributer to release it closer to Christmas.  I was also fortunate to meet the inspiring director of The Bully Project, Lee Hirsch.  Even just for a few minutes post-screening, Hirsch is clearly dedicated to taking a stand against the severe abuse many kids receive on a daily level at school.

Although it didn’t get quite as much attention as it rightfully deserved, Hirsch’s The Bully Project was by far the most powerful and heartbreaking film I saw at the festival, leaving audiences emotionally drained but desperately wanting to make a difference.  In many ways, Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey emerged my personal favourite of the festival, offering a moving and inspirational nostalgia trip for older kids and adults.  I unfortunately didn’t get a chance to meet the loveable furry red Muppet in person, but I already look forward to revisiting the film once it’s released in theatres.

On the flipside, I didn’t enjoy the near-constant rain here in Toronto especially when I had to stand in line, and certain films didn’t hold my interest as much as I’d hoped.  But selected disappointment and physical exhaustion was a small price to pay for the many good and even great films that I saw and the numerous insightful Q&A’s that followed several of the screenings.   All in all, it was a good festival and a strong representation of the current state of documentary filmmaking, offering thoughtful and entertaining films that will rightfully keep audiences talking long after they’re released in theatres.

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