If you're passing by Toronto's Bloor Cinema next month during the annual Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, you might hear an uncommon sound: laughter.
Embracing its populist side, the 22nd edition of Hot Docs, which runs April 23-May 3, includes a number of films about comedy and comedians which are likely to bring a new audience to the festival. "So many people feel that documentary means 'educational,' " said Charlotte Cook, director of programming, in an interview. "Being able to celebrate comedy is, I think, really exciting. Bringing people who wouldn't engage in the festival in that way is going to be really fun."
Still, Hot Docs being a documentary festival, its comedy will be tempered by reality's dark clouds. The opening night film, Tig, is a profile of the stand-up comic Tig Notaro that was made in the wake of a notorious August 2012 performance she gave only days after learning she had breast cancer. That night, she welcomed the audience by saying: "Good evening. Hello. I have cancer. How are you?"
Two other films spotlight comic performers who struggled for years with the vagaries of show business: Howie Mandel's feature film directorial debut, Committed, tracks the little-known Vic Cohen scrambling for success in Hollywood; 3 Still Standing is about a trio of comics who fell by the wayside after tasting fame in the 1980s.
But there will be other, perhaps more joyful comic profiles, including the backstage pass Monty Python: The Meaning of Live; Live From New York!, pegged to the 40th anniversary of Saturday Night Live; Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon (starring a who's who of male comedians), and the world premiere of Being Canadian, an investigation by Calgary-born TV writer Rob Cohen (The Simpsons, The Big Bang Theory) into his fellow countrymen's character.
Still, Hot Docs will not be all fun and games.
This year's festival includes a number of films that grapple with some of the darker aspects of Internet culture. Director Rama Rau looks at one of Canada's most notorious cyberbullying cases in No Place To Hide: The Rehtaeh Parsons Story; Help Us Find Sunil Tripathi follows the family of a missing young man who was mistakenly fingered by an online vigilante mob as one of the Boston Marathon bombers; and Deep Web investigates the case of Ross Ulbricht, who authorities allege is a founder of the online black market Silk Road.
The Amina Profile, a Canadian feature which received strong reviews when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, tells the fascinating, cautionary tale of a romance that developed between a Montreal-based woman and the author of a blog titled A Gay Girl in Damascus.
"I'm very pro-Internet. I believe it's one of the greatest tools that's ever been given to the world," said Cook. Still, noting the horrific tale of Rehtaeh Parsons and its fallout, "we have a lot of films that show nothing is black and white, when it comes to the technological revolution we've had."
Other noteworthy Canadian films include Danny, a portrait of the former premier of Labrador and Newfoundland, Danny Williams, who faced down Big Oil; Haida Gwaii: On the Edge of the World, director Charles Wilkinson's follow up to his acclaimed Oil Sands Karaoke; and Sugar Coated, a look at how the sugar industry has stayed healthy even while engaging in practices that make some people sick.
This year's edition of Hot Docs also includes more live programming than ever, as Cook and her team grapple with how to adapt a film festival for the age of Netflix.
"A lot of people are very nervous about things like (video-on-demand) and Netflix," said Cook. "I think, actually, documentaries thrive on [those] platforms."
"But the flip side to that is – What is the festival for?" she asked. "For the filmmakers, it's very much a place where work that hasn't already been picked up gets a chance to really shine and prove itself in front of an audience." As for audiences: "If you can sit and watch a great documentary on Netflix, what does it mean to get a babysitter, pay for parking, buy a ticket, come to the festival? So, for the last four years, that's something that, internally, we've really been thinking about."
Live events at this year's festival include conversations with Tig Notaro; Danny Williams; Deep Web director Alex Williams and the parents of the film's subject, Ross Ulbricht; Pras Michel, formerly of the Fugees, who will discuss Haitian politics; and the 2014 Canadian Olympic hockey gold medalist goalie Charline Labonté, former Major League Baseball player Billy Bean, and U.S. college football player Conner Mertens, talking about their experiences as openly gay athletes, which are chronicled in the doc Out to Win.
The legendary director Frederick Wiseman and his collaborator Karen Konicek wil speak about their work-in-progress film Jackson Heights with CBC host Piya Chattopadhyay
And the festival will stage a one-night-only interactive performance to launch the final chapter of the National Film Board's groundbreaking digital documentary project Highrise.
"I love going to these things, especially when there's a conversation afterward, or a Q&A, or a live component, because you really feel you've witnessed something nobody else can," said Cook. "As all of us in the festival world keep playing with this idea of what the festival experience means, I think we're just going to see more and more reasons to attend them."
Editor's note: The world premiere of Danny will not occur at the Hot Docs festival. Being Canadian is an investigation into Canadians' character, rather than just their humour. Incorrect information appeared in the original version of this article.