Hot Docs back and bigger than ever

Docs must indeed be hot, judging by the continuing growth of the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival.

Docs must indeed be hot, judging by the continuing growth of the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival.

The 14th annual Hot Docs, unspooling April 19-29 at a half-dozen venues in central Toronto, will screen 129 films, the majority of which are features, including 34 Canadian premieres.

When Chris McDonald was hired as the festival’s first full-time employee in 1999, less than half that number of films was screened. Most were shorts, and there were only five premieres.

‘We’ve turned the corner in audience growth,’ says McDonald, today Hot Docs’ executive director. ‘Attendance at the screenings has grown by over 20% in each of the last two years. We’re projecting audiences at this festival to reach 60,000. Quite frankly, we’d like to double last year’s public screening figure of 50,000 by 2009.’

Bold words, but McDonald’s performance over the past nine years has been nothing short of remarkable. The former development director at the Canadian Film Centre targeted marketing and audience development as priorities after he established the industry’s essential pitch session, the Toronto Documentary Forum, in 2000.

‘Now we’re known as a brand,’ McDonald says. ‘The public understands that 90% of our events have a director present. Doc Soup, our non-festival monthly screenings, regularly draws 1,000 people.’

Among Hot Docs’ public initiatives is Docs in Schools, which will draw 11,000 high school students to free fest screenings of socially relevant films.

This year’s festival will offer plenty of hard-hitting social documentaries as well as cultural fare. McDonald credits his programming team, headed up by Sean Farnel, with a strong lineup in the International Spectrum program.

Selections include: Jennifer Venditti’s Billy the Kid (U.S.), a black comic portrait of a troubled teenage boy; In Memoriam Alexander Litvinenko (Netherlands), about the Russian spy who was recently poisoned to death, by Jos de Putter and Masha Novikova; and Milk in the Land – Ballad of an American Drink (U.S.), a bizarre but fascinating look at the industrialization of the beverage in this part of the world, by Ariana Gerstein and Monteith McCollum.

Opening the event is the Canadian premiere of In the Shadow of the Moon, a look at NASA’s Apollo astronauts in the late ’60s and ’70s, by U.K. director David Sington.

Dutch filmmaker Heddy Honigmann – known for capturing candid emotions from her subjects – will get the retrospective treatment in addition to receiving this year’s outstanding achievement award. She will also screen her latest, Forever, about the famed Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris.

Closer to home is the fest’s Focus on Kevin McMahon, which will feature four films by the director from Toronto prodco Primitive Entertainment, including The Falls.

This year’s fest will also feature the inaugural Doc Mogul luncheon, which will honor former TVOntario creative head of programming Rudy Buttignol, whom McDonald dubs ‘Hot Docs’ godfather.’

Scheduling information is available at the festival website.