‘The Bar Keeps Getting Raised’: Hot Docs Programming Head Shane Smith on Mounting a Second Pandemic Edition

When the coronavirus pandemic began sweeping across the globe last year, Canada’s Hot Docs, one of the world’s leading documentary film festivals, was among the first international fests forced to pivot to an online edition. But while the abrupt shift might’ve caught the organizing team off-guard, the result hardly felt like a compromise: along with virtual screenings of more than 200 films, the festival attracted a record number of buyers to its doc market.

One year later, audiences and industry players alike have grown accustomed to a virtual festival experience, and Hot Docs is poised to build on the success of last year’s trial by fire. “We’ve done it once, and the bar keeps getting raised,” says programming director Shane Smith. “We’re constantly looking at what other festivals were doing, how they were doing it, how to engage the audience, but also how to engage the industry and the filmmakers, and keep them connected.”

That process began with building a VOD platform to bring the Hot Docs viewing experience straight into consumers’ homes—a necessary measure when Toronto theaters were shuttered last spring. Yet Hot Docs at Home wasn’t just a rousing success during 2020’s improvised, pandemic edition: it’s attracted a dedicated and growing subscriber base across Canada, who festival organizers hope will continue to stay engaged year-round.

It’s indicative of how audiences, as well as the industry as a whole, have adapted to the changing times. “This is normal for now, and potentially for a while to come,” says Smith. “But it hasn’t negatively impacted on the business of documentary, from our perspective, in terms of sales, in terms of acquisitions, and in terms of profile and programming.

“Business is still going on,” he continues. “There’s still the need and demand for these films. If anything, it’s increased, because of the additional viewership, and the additional platforms that have launched, and the additional programming and content that platforms are looking for.”

Despite a slimmed-down program, this year’s Hot Docs boasts entries from a record 66 countries, available via Hot Docs at Home for viewers in Canada. The festival opens April 29 with the world premiere of “A.rtificial I.mmortality,” from Canadian filmmaker Ann Shin, who explores the latest advancements in AI, robotics and biotech with visionaries who argue for a new age of post-biological life.

Other timely standouts include “Wuhan Wuhan” (pictured), in which director Yung Chang teams up with a group of intrepid videographers as they capture life in the Chinese city during the early days of the pandemic, and “Viral,” which shows COVID-19’s impact on today’s youth through the social media posts of seven young people.

“It’s an interesting year, particularly after the year we’ve gone through, in terms of eye-openings and awakenings and reckonings,” says Smith. “We’re looking at the films through the lens of what the past year has been like, definitely in terms of specific COVID stories and takes on the pandemic, but also the issues that have bubbled to the surface as a result of that.”

That includes films like “The Gig Is Up,” director Shannon Walsh’s exploration of the gig economy, which reflects a growing, collective unease over our relationship with labor and the workplace. And an era of mass protest comes to the forefront in “Faceless,” Jennifer Ngo’s behind-the-headlines story of the 2019 Hong Kong demonstrations, seen through the eyes of four young protestors.

Representation, which has always been a Hot Docs hallmark, is evident throughout the program, which has again achieved 50-50 gender parity—something Smith says is “built into the DNA” of the festival. “That’s been happening here for the last four, five years,” he says. “It’s just become more critical over the past year, seeing things in a different way.”

In “Dropstones,” Caitlin Durlak follows a mother who returns to Newfoundland’s Fogo Island to raise her two sons after fleeing an abusive relationship years ago. Elizabeth D. Costa’s “Bangla Surf Girls,” meanwhile, tells the story of three rebellious working-class teenage girls in Bangladesh who escape stifling family lives by riding waves and chasing a thrilling sense of freedom.

Also having its world premiere is “Only the Ocean Between Us,” an exploration of growing into adulthood amidst the uncertainty of displacement told through video letters between two Indigenous filmmakers in Lima, Peru, and two Syrian refugee filmmakers in Za-atari Camp, Jordan.

This year sees a greater number of Indigenous voices and stories than ever before, including “Spirit to Soar,” Tanya Talaga and Michelle Derosier’s follow up to Talaga’s award-winning book, which sees her return to Thunder Bay after the inquest into the deaths of seven First Nations high school students.

Another standout is “Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy,” in which filmmaker and actor Elle-Maija Tailfeathers turns the camera on her own community of the Kainai First Nation in Alberta to document their fight against the opioid crisis. “It’s beautifully crafted, collaborative filmmaking about the opioid epidemic on Indigenous communities,” says Smith. “[Tailfeathers] has become a real voice for Indigenous filmmaking.”

Tailfeathers is also among the speakers at this year’s industry conference, which includes opening keynote speaker Jenna Wortham, staff writer for The New York Times Magazine and co-host of the hit podcast “Still Processing,” and acclaimed filmmakers Jennifer Holness and 2020 Outstanding Achievement Award recipient Stanley Nelson, who will each lead masterclasses discussing their careers and their work to cultivate and uplift Black, Indigenous and other marginalized voices. The Hot Docs conference program will be available via streaming worldwide.

“In many ways, we’re looking more closely at who’s telling whose stories, what perspective they’re coming from, their relationship to the people whose stories they’re telling,” says Smith. “Filmmakers have always questioned the status quo, and the systems and historical precedents, in their work, and have brought that to us. And we’re seeing that more than ever this year.”

The Hot Docs Canadian Intl. Documentary Festival takes place online April 29 – May 9.

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