Hot Docs, North America’s largest documentary film festival, opens its seventeenth year tomorrow, screening over 160 documentaries over the following ten days. Not too shabby for a festival that started as a small, industry-only event in a hotel conference room.
“It was Canadian filmmakers getting together for four days to screen each other’s work,” recalls Chris McDonald, the fest’s executive director. His first year, back in 1998, was the first time international industry types were invited, as well as the first time screenings were open to the public.
“We did them in Little Italy in cafes, which seemed like a good idea at the time,” says McDonald. “Filmmakers don’t necessarily appreciate having cappuccino machines running, phones ringing and streetcars rumbling by when their work is being screened. It was a charming and quaint idea but that was the first and last year we did that.”
McDonald, the fest’s first full-time employee, is now one of 20 full-timers along with the hundreds of other staff hired in the lead up to the festival. “Now we’re in nine different venues and most of the time screening on seven screens simultaneously.”
The growth, he says, can partly be attributed to a worldwide growth in interest in the form. “It’s a global trend,” he says. “Audiences are responding to non-fiction storytelling in a way that they never have before.”
The festival has cast a wide net in terms of subject matter; political films like Bhutto, a bio of the former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto, and abortion rights doc 12 & Delaware are programmed alongside personal films like the Adrian Grenier-directed Teenage Paparazzo, and Canadian entry, Life With Murder.
The Toronto Documentary Forum, running simultaneous to the fest, lets producers and directors pitch their films in hopes of finding financing. Secrets of the Tribe, which screened at both Sundance and Cannes was pitched there a few years ago and makes its Hot Docs debut next week.
Correction - May 6, 2010, 9:34 a.m. EST: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Benazir Bhutto as a former president of Pakistan. In fact, she was a prime minister.