I think it’s fair to say that the centerpiece of Hot Docs for the film industry is the Hot Docs Forum, in which a couple dozen decision makers from around the world — BBC, Vice, New York Times Op-Docs, POV’s Chris White and many others from various international broadcasters — sit around a giant table and respond to pitch presentations from filmmakers who are hoping for varying degrees of support.
This year, I saw several potential, stellar films that take place on the farthest reaches of the planet — car thieves in Israel and a miscarriage of justice in the Philippines — on the block. I was particularly impressed that I could walk directly from the Forum to a screening of 32 Pills: My Sister’s Suicide, a powerful film that had been pitched at the Forum just a year before. One truly gets a sense of the work cycles of the doc filmmaker this way, as well as the vital role Hot Docs plays in the life of a film.
Films about suicide are inherently difficult to talk and write about. And so are first-person films. 32 Pills is no exception on both counts. The film is well constructed, emotional and urgent — it will be very helpful to the millions of people who will see it on HBO. But, as a producer on the film said, there are “perils to personal filmmaking,” and this one is particularly perilous. I hope to write more about it at a later date.
The highlight of my Hot Docs experience was seeing Long Strange Trip, Amir Bar-Lev’s nearly 4 hour Grateful Dead opus. I was never a Dead fan, and I have been avoiding this commitment, but I figured I’d give it a shot. The film starts fairly conventionally, but when it hits about the 20th minute, simulating the Dead’s introduction to hallucinogens, it takes on an entirely new form. Long Strange Trip becomes an experience, one that delves deeper and deeper into the nature of creative collaboration, perceptions of reality and life philosophies. I was riveted for the next three hours. (Yes, toward the end, I felt the film flag but it’s overall Bar-Lev’s best film, and he’s made some great ones.)
I love seeing established directors knock them out of the park like that, but there’s something even more gratifying to discover filmmakers you didn’t expect anything from. Playing God is directed by a veteran German filmmaker named Karin Jurschick who appears to be at the top of her field in her home country, but whom I’d never heard of and whose films have never rocked the firmament on our shores. The film, about mediator Ken Feinberg who adjudicates compensation for massive disasters like 9/11, the BP oil spill and the Newtown massacre, transcends its potentially dry subject matter and is a compelling, focused narrative that provides a clear character study of Feinberg as it covers many of his cases and the victims affected. It’s astoundingly comprehensive, perceptive and belongs on HBO or Netflix or somewhere for the masses.
I’d sing similar praise about A River Below — and add two more elements: stunning cinematography of the Amazon and exciting vérité filmmaking in its complex unspooling of the case of the Amazon pink river dolphin in Brazil. Director Mark Grieco drops you in the river with the dolphins and into the tense dynamics between environmentalists and poor fishermen.
I’d venture to say A River Below belongs on the Academy Award short list, if it can only rise above the fray. The film Step, about a group of female high school step dancers in Baltimore, has been floating on uproarious audience response and if it plays its cards right, distributor Fox Searchlight should be marching this film on many a red carpet at the end of the year, from what I hear. Alas, I missed it. I left the festival in full swing — it continues through the weekend.
You can never see it all at Hot Docs, but at least you can figure out what you should be seeing as soon as you can.
Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival is from April 27 – May 7. Visit the official website for more information.