Hot Docs

From McQueen to M.I.A. to Mister Rogers, here are the must-see arts films at Hot Docs 2018

Can't decide what to catch at this year's festival? These docs about arts and culture will get you started.

Can't decide what to catch at this year's festival? These docs about arts and culture will get you started

Still from McQueen. (Courtesy of Hot Docs)

Things are about to get real. The Hot Docs Festival, the biggest documentary film festival in North America, returns to Toronto for its 25th year this week, running April 26 to May 6 at 14 venues around the city. And if you're seeking out some great, real-life stories about the arts — whether that means photography or fashion, architecture or retro kids' TV — these are the films the CBC Arts team can't wait to see.

Shirkers

Picked up by Netflix after an award-winning debut at Sundance, the algorithm will be tempting me with this one quicker than you can say "unsolved mystery featuring a strong female lead." Shirkers shares an unusual chapter from the director's life story, the director being Sandi Tan, an L.A-based author who found 70 film canisters in her proverbial mailbox one day — a stash that arrived as mysteriously as it disappeared in the first place.

That footage? It was Tan's, though she hadn't seen it in more than 20 years. Back in the early '90s, when she was a teen punk growing up in Singapore, Tan and her friends started production on an ambitious first film called Shirkers, a sort of proto-hipster road movie/horror flick — which would have been the first of its kind in Singapore cinema.

Tan was the star, a feminist assassin. The director was an American high school teacher named Georges Cardona. He was her friend, her mentor — but he disappeared without warning, taking the entire film with him, and in Shirkers (the doc), Tan plays detective, tracing the mystery of the betrayal back home to Singapore and creating a whole new version of her original teen-dream movie project in the works. Original footage is stitched throughout. —Leah Collins, senior writer 

(Showtimes and more info.)

Won't You Be My Neighbor

Mr. Dressup, the Friendly Giant, Gordon from Sesame Street: At three years old, if you'd asked me to name the biggest stars on the planet, you'd get a list of unusually mild-mannered dad types. Them, and possibly Spider-Man. Save Spidey, though, there was definitely a time when kids' TV — at least here in Canada — was ruled by a sort of slow TV ethos. Film doll furniture being re-arranged and you'll find a happy toddler, and Mister Rogers' Neighbourhood was part of the same gentle universe, the strangest thing about it — to my preschooler eyes, anyway — being that Mister Rogers himself seemed to be perpetually changing into fresh cardigans.

On that front, Won't You Be My Neighbor — a portrait of Mister Rogers himself, Fred Rogers — promises to be a deep dive of nostalgia, but even for those who would've taken Thundercats over Daniel Tiger any day, the trailer alone should still get you sobbing. Director Morgan Neville, who won the Oscar for 20 Feet from Stardom, portrays Rogers as a gentle revolutionary. He invented a TV show that ran for decades, one that respected kids' intelligence and emotional capacity, while insisting on a message that, despite hundreds of episodes, remains a difficult lesson for just about every human being to nail: just be kind and love one another. The film gets a theatrical release June 8. —Leah Collins, senior writer 

(Showtimes and more info.)

McQueen

I was never into fashion. As someone who wears basically the same thing every day, I could be slotted in the "not a fan" category. But when I saw this, things changed for me, and so began a lifelong worm-holing session on all things Alexander McQueen. To say his clothing, his shows, his life had a flair for the "dramatic" would be an understatement. Rags to riches story, check. Artistic heights, check. Tragic end, unfortunately, check. What else would you want in a film of one of your favourite artists? As someone who still plays out "what could have been," I am hoping that this film offers more insight to the life and death of this man that I admire so much. I am low-hanging fruit for this doc and would gladly buy merch if there is any. While I think that this year's Hot Docs lineup is probably the hottest I've ever seen, this is the film I want in my life to fuel my own creative aspirations. Special shoutouts to my fellow Canadian filmmakers who are gracing the Hot Docs screens this year (The Guardians, Call Her Ganda, Take Light). —Romeo Candido, senior producer 

(Showtimes and more info.) 

The Proposal

Jill Magid in The Proposal. (Courtesy of Hot Docs)

Luis Barragán was perhaps Mexico's greatest modernist architect — but you'd be forgiven for not being familiar with his work. (Google it; it's beautiful.) A few years after his death in 1988, Barragán's professional archive was purchased by a wealthy Swiss family, and in the years since, they've kept tight control over images of his designs. The Proposal — yes, this is a movie about art, love and copyright — traces a quixotic project by the American conceptual artist Jill Magid to have those archives returned to the people of Mexico. The project itself is a little convoluted, but suffice it to say it involves turning Barragán's ashes into a 2.02-carat diamond with which Magid delivers the titular proposal. Magid, who directed the film, has come under fire for allegedly not letting pesky details get in the way of a good tale and for casting herself in the role of crusading hero. But even if the doc is a little one-sided, it promises to be a fascinating exploration into what happens when an artist's public legacy ends up in private hands. —Andrew D'Cruz, executive producer 

(Showtimes and more info.)

Gurrumul

The story is about Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, an Indigenous singer-songwriter who died last year of liver and kidney disease, just as his star was rising. Born blind, the musician grew up adhering to Yolngu cultural traditions in Australia and likely never imagined the success he would one day achieve. After performing with a feisty young up-and-comer named Sting in 2009, he became internationally known, opening the door for him to play for Barack Obama and the Queen. His posthumous album, Djarimirri, was the first Indigenous language album to top the music charts in Australia. 

In Yolngu culture, the name of deceased people are not to be spoken, nor video or audio recordings shared. The tribe apparently made a special exception in Yunupingu's case for this film, and it looks incredible and sad. I cried about 18 times during the trailer. —Lucius Dechausay, video producer

(Showtimes and more info.) 

Mr. SOUL!

We are in the midst of major revolutions in media, with writers and filmmakers trying to rectify decades of erasure of BIPOC, female and LGBTQ stories. Who knew that in 1968 a program called SOUL! became the first nationally broadcast all-Black variety show on public television? Bridging worlds of art and activism, and anchored by an openly gay host, it was before its time. I'm looking forward to digging in the crates with the creators to get a taste of this show that laid the groundwork for diverse and political storytelling on TV. —Lucius Dechausay, video producer 

(Showtimes and more info.) 

MATANGI/MAYA/M.I.A.

Stephen Loveridge's documentary, MATANGI/MAYA/M.I.A.explores the troubled childhood of Mathangi Arulpragasam as a child of a Tamil Tiger and her subsequent evolution into a controversial pop star with a political voice. The film takes archival footage from M.I.A.'s childhood/youth/adulthood, and showcases her journey to becoming a music star using her platform to drive change. —Asmi Chandola, video producer

(Showtimes and more info.) 

Love, Gilda

Original Saturday Night Live cast member, Gilda Radner. (Courtesy of Hot Docs)

Who doesn't love an emotional documentary tribute to a pioneering legend? In this case, it's the late, great comedian and honorary Canadian Gilda Radner (she dropped out of high school in Michigan to pursue acting in Toronto) via Lisa D'Apolito's new film Love, Gilda. Through recently uncovered audio diaries, the original Saturday Night Live cast member's own voice guides us through the film, which also includes interviews with many of the female SNL standouts that followed in her footsteps, including Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph. —Peter Knegt, producer 

(Showtimes and more info.) 

Barbara Rubin and the Exploding NY Underground

In 1964, 18-year-old Barbara Rubin caused a sensation in New York City when her half hour experimental short film "Christmas On Earth" made its debut, complete with orgy scenes and double projections. She would go on to become a pivotal member of the city's underground art scene, though her story is hardly one that has been given its rightful place in history. Chuck Smith's new documentary, which is world premiering at Hot Docs, will hopefully do some good in changing that. —Peter Knegt, producer 

(Showtimes and more info.)

Witkin & Witkin

Director Trisha Ziff is back at Hot Docs with another film that has photography at its centre. As both a documentary filmmaker and curator of photography, she's made several docs that focus on photography including Chevolution, The Mexican Suitcase, and 2015's The Man Who Saw Too Much. With this year's Witkin & Witkin, she sets her lens on one photographer who's always fascinated me, Joel-Peter Witkin. I first encountered his images when I was in university, and was struck by his carefully constructed photographs that are grotesque and transgressive, and also shockingly poignant. I never knew that he has an identical twin brother named Jerome who is also an artist. Their artistic practices are quite different — Joel-Peter's complex photographs deal with death and the macabre, while Jerome's realist paintings draw on political and social themes. The documentary follows both brothers over the course of five years to reveal their distinct philosophies, personalities and their relationship with each other. —Mercedes Grundy, producer

(Showtimes and more info.)

Primas

The Montreal International Documentary Festival described the film as a "a stirring tribute to the deep strength of vulnerable yet resilient women," and that's something I'd like to watch right now. In this time of women speaking out about abuse, it's important to see stories of women and girls working to express and heal themselves. Directed by Laura Bari, the film is a portrait of two teenage cousins who have survived horrific sexual violence and are working to overcome the trauma. The film follows Rocío and Aldana as they share their experiences with each other and discover a therapeutic artistic practice through dance, theatre, circus and visual arts. —Mercedes Grundy, producer

(Showtimes and more info.)

CBC Docs is a sponsor of Hot Docs; here's where you can find their films at the festival. There'll also be free ice cream throughout the festival in the CBC Docs Ice Cream Truck, which is all our favourite things in one place.

Hot Docs Festival. April 26 to May 6. Various venues, Toronto. www.hotdocs.ca

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