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Toronto’s Hot Docs festival reaches gender parity with 2018 lineup

This year’s Hot Docs will feature the usual array of unexpected subjects and of-the-moment issues that the Toronto film festival has become known for over its 25 years.

The Bill Murray Stories: Life Lessons Learned from a Mythical Man, for instance, looks not at the overarching career of the Ghostbusters star, but the actor’s habit of randomly popping into strangers’ lives via wedding crashes, photobombs and other arbitrary life-changing encounters. On the more serious side, Active Measures purports to uncover ties between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin dating back to the seventies, and features interviews with Hillary Clinton and John McCain.

Yet the most noteworthy aspect of Hot Docs 2018 is not what work is on the screen, but who is behind it. For the first time in the festival’s history, it was revealed Tuesday morning, Hot Docs has reached gender parity with this year’s lineup: Of the 246 films and 16 interdisciplinary projects on the program, 50 per cent of the work comes courtesy of female filmmakers. It is a goal the festival has long been inching toward – last year’s program hit 48 per cent – and will be felt straight from opening night, when Maya Gallus’s The Heat: A Kitchen (R)evolution makes its world premiere. The film cuts directly into the current #MeToo conversation by dissecting the restaurant world’s long-standing culture of abuse and sexual harassment.

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“Formidable filmmakers, in unrelenting pursuit of the truth, are a hallmark of this year’s Hot Docs festival programming,” Shane Smith, director of programming for the festival, said in a statement. “As we celebrate 25 years of Hot Docs, it’s exciting to see that documentary storytelling is as outstanding and outspoken as ever, a vital cultural force in connecting us to our world and to each other.”

On that zeitgeist-catching note, this year’s 25th edition offers a wealth of hot-button films destined to stir the cultural conversation. Trump’s America gets its fair share of Hot Docs coverage, not only via director Jack Bryan’s aforementioned Active Measures, but also Adam Bhala Lough’s Alt-Right: Age of Rage, Maxim Pozdorovkin’s Our New President and the international premiere of The Fourth Estate, in which documentarian Liz Garbus gains unprecedented access inside The New York Times right after the POTUS declares a war against “fake news.” (To hammer this theme home, Hot Docs is also presenting a 25th-anniversary screening of Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker’s The War Room, which offered a blueprint for the modern political machine.)

More off-kilter subjects include Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, directors Morgan Neville and Junlei Li’s look at the legacy of children’s entertainer Fred Rogers; Daniel J. Clark’s Behind the Curve, a cutely titled investigation into the rising number of people who believe that the Earth is flat; Dava Whisenant’s Bathtubs Over Broadway, which examines the connection between the Great White Way and corporate America; and The Trolley, in which noted Canadian filmmaker Stephen Low makes the case for the resurrection of the humble streetcar. The latter film will make its world premiere in a free Imax screening at the newly reopened Ontario Place Cinesphere – a programming move that echoes the Toronto International Film Festival’s decision last September to use the site for a complimentary screening of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, and looks to reinforce the concept of a film festival being an experience that cannot be replicated at home in front of Netflix.

“For many years, some of these festivals didn’t look at Imax films, but for a documentary filmmaker, it’s fantastic,” says Low, whose late father Colin was a pioneer in large-format filmmaking. “It’s weird because Toronto invented Imax, and some of the best documentarians are Canadian. But it’s great that the Cinesphere is being opened again, and is at the centre of this festival.”

Although other festivals such as TIFF have sought to reduce the number of movies they program, Hot Docs’s 246 titles (including full-length, medium-length and short films) represent a record high for the organization. (Last year’s festival offered 230 titles, the year before that 232, while the festival dipped below the 200 mark in 2014.)

This year’s Hot Docs runs April 26 through May 6 in Toronto (hotdocs.ca).

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