Hot Docs faces reality head-on

Bee Nation, Lana Šlezic’s documentary about Saskatchewan’s first province-wide First Nations Spelling Bee, will open the 24th edition of the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, it was announced this morning.

At a press conference at the recently rechristened Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, director of programming Shane Smith rolled out the bulk of the 2017 festival, which features 230 titles from 58 countries, organized into 13 different programs. Nearly half the 2017 slate (“close to 48 percent”) is the work of female filmmakers.

A Better Man, Attiya Khan and Lawrence Jackman’s documentary about domestic violence – which grew out of Khan’s desire to confront her own abusive ex – will have its world premiere at the festival in the juried Canadian Spectrum program. Other films making their world premieres in the program include Alan Zweig’s Hope, which picks up with Steve Fonyo two years after Zweig’s award-winning Hurt Ann Shin’s My Enemy, My Brother, an expansion of her 2015 short film Charles Officer’s Unarmed Verses, about young poets and musicians in the north Toronto neighbourhood of Villaways, and Charles Wilkinson’s real-estate documentary Vancouver: No Fixed Address.

The festival will host another series of Scotiabank Big Ideas series, which offer high-visibility Q&As and panels after selected films. Educator and television personality Bill Nye will join directors David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg for a conversation about Bill Nye: Science Guy student activist Joshua Wong will join director Joe Piscatella to discuss Joshua: Teenager Vs. Superpower director Jeff Orlowski and Richard Vevers, founding partner of The Ocean Agency, will explore the issues raised in Chasing Coral.

A screening of The Last Animals will be followed by a Q&A with Sam Wasser of the Centre For Conservation Biology and Gretchen Peters of the Satao Project and director Kate Brooks director Brian Knappenberger and Gizmodo Media Group’s John Cook will hash out the ramifications of the lawsuit that ended Gawker in Nobody Speak: Trials Of The Free Press. And after City Of Ghosts, director Matthew Heineman will be joined by “a special guest” – presumably one of the citizen journalists of his Raqqa documentary. (City Of Ghosts is one of eight documentaries about Syria screening in this year’s festival.)

Japan gets the national spotlight this year, with the Made In Japan program importing six features including Takashi Nishihara’s epic About My Liberty, which follows the millennial protests against a sweeping security bill, and Koki Shigeno’s Ramen Heads, an examination of the signature noodle dish.

The May 6 screening of Ramen Heads will be followed by a Food & Film luncheon event, for which a separate ticket is required it’s one of four such events tied to a given film.

The others are a “dinner & dialogue” event following the April 29 screening of City Of Ghosts, aimed to create “an evening of community, conversation, food and hope” at the Dish Cooking Studio a martini reception before the May 3 screening of Josh Greenbaum’s Becoming Bond, a documentary about one-time 007 George Lazenby, and “Meat At The Table”, which follows the May 6 screening of Dustin Harrison-Atlas’s New Chefs On The Block with a private dinner at Big Crow with Toronto wunderkind Anthony Rose.

New for 2017, the Democrazy program looks at “the new age of democracy” through features like Annie Goldson’s Kim Dotcom: Caught In The Web, which tackles the rise of digital piracy through its most notorious proponent, and Luke Walker’s Pacmen, about the Super PAC behind the Republican Presidential campaign of Dr. Ben Carson (who failed to win the GOP nomination, but became Donald Trump’s secretary of housing and urban development). Cullen Hoback’s What Lies Upstream examines the state of America’s drinking water, while Scott Harper’s You’re Soaking In It notes advertising’s shift from focus groups to data mining in the quest for the personalized sell.

The new Magnificent Obsessions program devotes itself to devotion, telling the stories of a falconry competition in Qatar (Yuri Ancarani’s The Challenge), a Flemish Christian activist determined to trigger Christ’s return by sending Jews back to the Land of Israel (Eefje Blankenvoort and Arnold van Bruggen’s Bring The Jews Home), Japanese gamers who play Street Fighter on a championship level (Takao Gotsu’s Living The Game) and the “competitive chicken pageantry” of New Zealand’s National Poultry Show (Slavko Martinov’s Pecking Order).

The Singular Sensation(s) program tackles the cultural impact of distinctive individuals. In addition to the aforementioned Becoming Bond and New Chefs On The Block, titles include Leandra Leal’s The Divine Divas, which catches up with the transvestite cabaret heroes of 60s Brazil half a century later Bobbi Jo Hart’s Rebels On Pointe, which follows the drag ballerina troupe The Trocks on a world tour Sandy Chronopoulos’s House Of Z, a profile of fashion designer Zac Posen, and Vaishali Sinha’s Ask The Sexpert, about a 90-year-old doctor who writes a sex advice column in Mumbai, where sexual conversation is still taboo.

The cutting-edge Nightvision series offers a host of intriguing features, including Theo Anthony’s Rat Film, which wowed Sundance audiences with its examination of Baltimore’s vermin problem in the context of the city’s issues with class and race The Road Movie, which looks at life in modern Russia exclusively through dash-cam footage, and 78/52, a feature-length dissection of the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho from Alexandre O. Philippe, director of The People Vs. George Lucas and Doc Of The Dead.

The Artscapes series returns to explore the intersection of art and film with features like 32 Pills: My Sister’s Suicide, in which director Hope Litoff investigates the eponymous event through an inventory of the items left behind. Austin Peters’s Give Me Future looks at Major Lazer’s free concert in Havana, while Oren Jacoby’s Shadowman looks up New York City artist Richard Hambleton, a comrade of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. And Jian Fan’s Still Tomorrow profiles Xiuhua Yu, a Chinese poet with cerebral palsy given the chance to reinvent herself when one of her poems goes viral on a grand scale.

Doc X is back with a new lineup of one-night-only events that includes The Maribor Uprising: A Live Participatory Film based on the street protests in Slovenia (May 2) Africville In Black And White, “an interactive and collaborative live documentary” about the condemnation and destruction of a Black community outside Halifax some 50 years ago, staged at the First Evangelical Lutheran Church (May 3) and the debut performance of Canadaland: A Guide To Canada, Jesse Brown’s combination stage show and book launch (May 6).

This year’s Redux program concentrates on a selection of Canadian films directed by women, including Lynne Fernie and Aerlyn Weissman’s Forbidden Love: The Unashamed Stories Of Lesbian Lives, Janis Cole and Holly Dale’s P4W: Prison For Women, Anne Claire Poirer’s Tu As Crié: Let Me Go and Tracy Deer’s Mohawk Girls – the latter accompanied by short docs from Alanis Obomsawin and Michelle Latimer.

Maya Gallus is the subject of this year’s Focus On series, which will screen half a dozen of her films from 1991’s Elizabeth Smart: On The Side Of The Angels to 2013’s Derby Crazy Love. And music documentarian Tony Palmer receives this year’s Outstanding Achievement Award and attendant retrospective, including his 1968 BBC program All My Loving, an episode of his massive 1976 series All You Need Is Love (the one about the Beatles, naturally) and his 2010 feature Bird On A Wire, about Leonard Cohen’s 1972 European tour.

In addition to the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, this year’s screening venues include the Isabel Bader Theatre, Hart House Theatre, Innis Town Hall, the Scotiabank Theatre and TIFF Bell Lightbox, with satellite screenings at the Fox Theatre, The Revue, The Toronto Centre For The Arts and the Aga Khan Museum.

The Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival runs from April 27 to May 7. For the complete schedule and program, visit or the festival box office at 605 Bloor St. West.

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