Are personal docs the hottest?

With dramatic family tales capturing half of the major prizes at the 2007 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, you'd expect that the buzz out of the fest (April 19-29) would be on personal docs focusing on the lives of their filmmakers, or which feature the directors as characters.

With dramatic family tales capturing half of the major prizes at the 2007 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, you’d expect that the buzz out of the fest (April 19-29) would be on personal docs focusing on the lives of their filmmakers, or which feature the directors as characters.

Bryan Friedman’s The Bodybuilder and I won the best Canadian feature doc prize for its look at his dysfunctional relationship with his fitness-obsessed father, while two other Canuck docs, Jamie Kastner’s Kike Like Me (which has the director exploring what it’s like to be Jewish) and Manufacturing Dissent (in which filmmakers Debbie Melnyk and Rick Caine chase Michael Moore) garnered significant media attention.

Moore, of course, is the reigning king of ‘everyman’ journalism, and his latest, Sicko, in which he explores the U.S. health care system, is generating significant anticipation ahead of its Cannes premiere.

All of which would seen to indicate that no doc genre is hotter right now than the personal one. But surveying the industry congregation at Hot Docs yielded a different outlook.

Friedman, who took home $5,000 from Hot Docs’ Awards gala on April 28, doesn’t expect to make another doc in this vein.

‘This was a unique situation,’ he says. ‘I can’t think of another relationship in my life that would merit a film.’

Certainly it is unusual to find your estranged father dealing with his midlife crisis by reaching what the Brits call ‘rude health’ through bodybuilding. Friedman says that he ‘had what I thought was a good, quirky idea – to look into the lives of older guys who were working out, going to bodybuilding competitions.’

He says that it was only when he realized that his father would have to be in the film because he’s a top bodybuilder in his age category, that ‘it became obvious to me that there was more going on in the story than just the competition!’

Michael Burns, commissioning editor for the Documentary Channel, and a financial supporter of Friedman’s film, says he is generally disinclined to embrace personal docs.

‘I make my decision to commit to a documentary because of the filmmaker,’ he says. ‘In that sense, every film is personal. If I decide that there’s a filmmaker I want to work with, then it becomes a question of what film they want to do. The topic is less interesting than the filmmaker.’

Though he’s a believer in auteur cinema, and has worked with filmmakers such as Jennifer Baichwal (Manufactured Landscapes) and Albert Nerenberg (Stupidity), Burns has ‘always been wary of the personal, autobiographical, doc. It often tries to mask an inability to make a good film. Of course, the access is there, because it’s your own story, but are you telling it well enough to engage an audience?’

The National Film Board’s Anita Lee, who coproduced The Bodybuilder and I with January Films’ Julia Rosenberg, has noticed that most Canadian broadcasters are moving away from these types of films, although the board hasn’t.

‘The marketplace is quite mixed right now. We, at the NFB, are distinguishing ourselves by concentrating on docs that have a personal vision.’ For her, Friedman’s film ‘has elements of the competition doc, which is another subgenre, and the strong personal journey. It marries the two, which gives it a wider appeal.’

She counts Gariné Torossian’s Stone Time Touch and Chichester’s Choice by Simonee Chichester as two other personal films that premiered at Hot Docs which were supported by the NFB.

Tom Alexander, director of theatrical releases at Mongrel Media, applauds the success of The Bodybuilder and I, and doesn’t believe the personal doc has peaked, but points out that ‘from a marketing point of view, it can’t be just about a filmmaker. Look at Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation [about the director's relationship with his schizophrenic mother]. It got great reviews, but it wasn’t that successful theatrically. I think that’s because the film was only about his personal issues, and you were either into him or you weren’t.’

Mongrel’s greatest documentary hit was the hard-hitting, politically oriented The Corporation, so it’s not surprising that Alexander looks chiefly for ‘a documentary that will stir up something in the viewer. I want the audience to leave the theater after watching a documentary wanting to do something about an issue, or at least wanting to talk about the subject of the film.’

For him, a successful point-of-view doc is ‘about politics or sociology, but can be accessed by the public through a personal gateway,’ like those by Moore, or Super Size Me by Morgan Spurlock.

Award-winning journalist Linda McQuaig was part of a team at Hot Docs pitching a film version of her anti-President Bush book about Iraq, It’s the Crude, Dude. Producer Mary Armstrong and director Germán Gutiérrez intend to place McQuaig as a forceful presence in the film.

‘If it’s more effective in selling the message and easier for an audience to relate to a personal story,’ says McQuaig, ‘that’s alright with me.’