Usually documentaries get the short end of the stick when it comes to theatrical releases, but for ten glorious days each spring non-fiction filmmaking takes over Toronto. The Hot Docs film festival has been apart of TO cinephiles’ calendars for 20 years with Oscar winning gems and sadly forgotten classics premiered annually. This year’s line up is once again filled with intriguing selections, but with over 200 features and shorts, it can be a little daunting to decide which entries are worth flickering before your eyeballs. That’s where we come in. To make the Sophie’s Choice of Hot Docs ticket purchasing a little easier, we decided to provide you with a selection of five docs worthy of your attention.
Fourteen years after the fact, director Alex Winter (aka Bill, who went on many most excellent adventures with his bandmate Ted) takes a look back at the legacy of Napster. It was a little computer program that managed to usher in the widespread internet piracy era and kicked off the collapse of the record industry after only a few short months online. Winter compiled a collection of impressively candid interviews with Napster cofounders Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker, as well as most of the major players in the great Napster scandal…well, other than Lars Ulrich of course. With the benefit of hindsight and some wisdom that the teenage web phenoms didn’t have in 1999, Napster’s story plays out like a bittersweet folly. A collection of hyper-intelligent hacker prodigies combined their talents to create revolutionary software that changed music distribution only to have the dinosaurs of the old record industry crush their dreams and alienate an entire generation of potential customers in the process. It’s a fascinating story told with surprising honesty, and one that instantly feels like the definitive take on an important slice of internet history.
Sat, Apr 27, 9:00pm, Isabel Bader Theatre
Sun, Apr 28, 3:30pm, Scotiabank 3
Fri, May 3, 9:30pm, Fox Theatre
Hot Docs’ opening night film is not-so coincidentally one of the fest’s best. The film is VFX artist Shawney Cohen’s directorial debut and a candid portrait of his family. Before you hit the snooze button, I should also mention that Cohen’s family business is a massive strip club/hotel in Guelph called The Manor. So, you can’t exactly say it’s a conventional family portrait, but it is a funny and surprisingly heartfelt one. In a lesser filmmaker’s hands the tale of a 400-lb strip club-owning father, his anorexic wife, his understandably confused sons, and an loosely adopted French Canadian who is regularly in and out of prison (despite his constant insistence that he has “no anger problems”) could be a cynical freak show doc that sneeringly mocks its subjects. However, Cohen’s personal connection ensures that he never loses his compassion for the delightful gang of misfits that he calls family– the three-year journey he documents is filled with as many poignant moments as hilarious asides. The film never feels forced, it just plays out with all the messy entertainment of life.
Thurs, Apr 25, 9:30pm, Bloor Hot Docs Cinema
Mon, Apr 29, 12:00pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 1
Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer
Sliding into Toronto after a well-received Sundance debut, co-directors Maxim Pozdorovkin and Mike Lerner sneak a peak at the feminist punk collective who launched a million memes. The film chronicles the trial of the masked members of Pussy Riot, who were arrested for protesting Russian President Vladimir Putin and the sexist ideals his government upholds thanks to the country’s archaic blending of church and state. The film shows a few balaclava-bound protest performances, but is mostly limited to courtroom footage of the three central members’ trial. At times the trial material can feel a bit dry, but the access the filmmakers were granted is impressive. For those who wondered what all the fuss was about last year, the answers are here. For everyone else, it’s an all-encompassing account of the international controversy.
Fri, Apr 25, 2:00pm, Bloor Hot Docs Cinema
Sun, Apr 28, 4:30pm, Isabel Bader Theatre
Sat, May 4, 7:00pm, Scotiabank 3
Quality Balls: The David Steinberg Story
You might not instantly recognize the name, but David Steinberg is one of the greatest comedy godfathers Canada has ever produced. Steinberg began his career as a performer with taboo-busting humor that landed him a regular guest spot on Johnny Carson as well as the sadly forgotten David Steinberg Show in Canada (which offered a pre-Larry Sanders peak into self-conscious backstage shenanigans as well as early appearances from future SCTV stars like John Candy and Martin Short). From the 80s on, he moved behind the camera to direct cult movies like Candy’s Going Beserk and Dave Foley’s deeply underrated The Wrong Guy, as well as TV shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm. Soft spoken, but with an acidic wit that could cut glass, Steinberg is an enduring comedy icon who finally gets some due respect in this charming profile filled with just as many backstage stories and hilarious memories as you’d hope.
Thu, May 2, 9:30pm, Bloor Hot Docs Cinema
Fri, May 3, 4:15pm, Scotiabank 4
Sun, May 5, 4:15pm, Isabel Bader Theatre
For some Bigfoot is just a character from Harry And The Hendersons, for others the mythical creature is a lifelong obsession. British director Morgan Matthews decided to fly over to the US to film some particularly passionate Bigfoot hunters and ended up with far more than he bargained for. The sad folks at the center of Matthews’ film either make their living or escape their depressing lives by hunting the great beast and don’t take too kindly to an outsider with a camera coming to their community to suggest the creature might not be so real. For the first hour Shooting Bigfoot alternates between a sad and hilarious portrait of grown men determined to prove the existence of bigfoot to the filmmaker, the audience, and themselves. Then, in the final third, two particularly aggressive hunters promise to introduce the uppity director to bigfoot himself and well…the result is in the title. Maybe it’s real, or more likely it’s an elaborate (and surprisingly violent) prank, but either way Shooting Bigfoot is not a movie to be missed and a rare documentary that demands a midnight screening.
Tue, Apr 30, 8:29pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox 2
Wed, May 1, 11:59pm, Bloor Hot Docs Cinema
Fri, May 3, 9:30pm, The Royal Cinema
Phil Brown is a Toronto-based film writer.