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The unprecedented decision was made after Hot Docs found itself up against an unprecedented reality.

Gabriel Li

This year’s Hot Docs sounds like a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. How else to describe a film festival that decided to announce its 2020 programming Tuesday morning ... but no details as to when exactly that programming might be available to view?

“This is the festival as it was confirmed and locked and scheduled, and these are the films and titles and works in the festival. It’s a way of saying, ‘Here they are, and we’re going to continue to look for opportunities to bring these films to you,’” says Shane Smith, Hot Docs’s director of programming. “It’s a chance for filmmakers to start officially talking about their work, to build buzz and let the industry side – buyers, sales agents, distributors – know about films that haven’t been publicized yet. It’s about spreading the word and generating publicity.”

The unprecedented decision was made after Hot Docs found itself up against an unprecedented reality. In a normal world, the festival would currently be preparing to launch its 27th annual festival, which was scheduled to run April 30 through May 10. But thanks to COVID-19, this is no longer a normal world. So a few weeks after announcing it would postpone its 2020 festival to a date yet to be determined, Hot Docs on Tuesday revealed the 238 films and projects it still plans to bring to the big screen. At some point in time.

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"It's never ideal to go out there and announce titles and talk about films without being able to point people to how they can directly see them," Smith says. "But our mission is to advance and celebrate the art of documentary and the work of documentary filmmakers. So we're utilizing this moment to help the films in whatever way we can. This is in no way a ghost festival. Who knows what opportunities will come out for filmmakers in this unprecedented time?"

This year’s festival lineup will comfort any Hot Docs devotee – the programming is again filled with a vast array of films that tackle contemporary politics, celebrity culture, personal history, travelogue and more.

Highlights include The Dissident, a new film by Oscar-winning director Bryan Fogel (Icarus) that examines the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi; Ryan White’s Assassins, which looks at the two women accused of assassinating Kim Jong-un’s half-brother in 2017; Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s controversial Sundance hit On the Record, which details sexual harassment and assault allegations against music mogul Russell Simmons; Lulu Wei’s There’s No Place Like This Place, Anyplace, about the final days of Toronto retail landmark Honest Ed’s; and Alex Winter’s Zappa, which looks at the life and legacy of the legendary musician.

As in recent years, Hot Docs is again focused on diversity and gender parity, with 51 per cent of this 2020′s slate arriving courtesy female filmmakers (down slightly from last year’s 54 per cent figure).

Meanwhile, 28 per cent of this year’s films are Canadian productions – some which have already secured concrete screening plans, thanks to a partnership between Hot Docs and the CBC, which was announced last week. Called Hot Docs at Home, the initiative will offer audiences access to a selection of exclusive, first-run Canadian docs that would have debuted at the festival. That lineup, which kicks off April 16 with the premiere of director Barry Avrich’s Made You Look: A True Story About Fake Art, will be available on CBC, the Documentary Channel and the free CBC Gem streaming service.

The next step, though, is for Hot Docs to secure dates for on-site screenings. Although other Canadian film festivals have either committed to standing their ground with previously locked-in dates (TIFF is set to run Sept. 10-20; the Images Festival is going online-only April 16-22) or have already rescheduled (Inside Out moved from May to Oct. 1-11; the Toronto Jewish Film Festival swapped the end of May for the end of October), Hot Docs is taking a wait-and-see approach.

“I admire the [other festivals'] confidence for staking out those dates, but we have a big program, so we want to be sure we’re able to accommodate as many films as possible,” says Smith. “And we’re lucky; we own a cinema that we’re able to access, so we have a space ready to use when we have the all-clear to open it up to audiences.”

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When Hot Docs 2019 launched this time last year, it was tempting to say that we were living in the golden age of the documentary. Box-office success stories abounded, and there was a genuine sense of momentum, both at home and abroad. Today, Smith admits, the future of the industry is more uncertain than ever. But there is hope to be found in the chaos, too.

“There’s a real sense that we’re all in this together at the macro level,” says Smith. “Documentary is such a malleable form – it doesn’t involve hundreds of people on one set at one time. So in many ways, projects are continuing to move forward. ... I’m inspired by the recent quote from Margaret Atwood that we’re in the ‘better-than-nothing era,’ so we should do what we can. And we’re doing what we can to help the films and the filmmakers and the community get through this – and see how this changes us, too.”

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