The Hot Docs festival opens on Thursday in Toronto with a screening of Morgan Spurlock's sponsorship spoof POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.

Spurlock, who sprang into the public eye with Super Size Me, made cold calls to thousands of U.S. firms to find sponsors for the movie, which exposes the pervasiveness of product placement.

It is one of 199 documentaries to screen in 16 cinemas around Toronto for the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival.

The annual event is bringing celebrity guests to the city, among them:

  • Kevin Clash, the puppeteer behind Elmo, who is featured in Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey.
  • Bob Forrest, the former frontman of post-punk band Thelonious Monster and now judge on Celebrity Rehab. He stars in Bob and the Monster.
  • Tim Credeuer and Dustin Poirier, mixed martial artists from Fightville.
  • Chaz Bono, whose transgendered story is told in Becoming Chaz.

A late Canadian celebrity comes to life in Charles Officer's Mighty Jerome, about Canadian track legend Harry Jerome.

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The story of track star Harry Jerome, seen in 1964, is told in the documentary Mighty Jerome. (National Film Board of Canada)

"He was a star no matter how you look at it," Officer said of the runner who held the record for both the 100-yard and the 100-metre events in 1960. Jerome overcame racist attitudes  and unrealistic expectations to compete on behalf of his country and serve as a role model for others, Officer told CBC News.

Jerome competed for Canada at the 1960, 1964 and 1968 Olympics, bringing home a bronze medal. He lost a race after a debilitating injury in 1962 that had the media calling him "a quitter," but he recovered to win gold at the 1966 Commonwealth Games.

Officer worked with an archivist and with Fil Fraser's biography of Jerome to find historic footage to tell the story of the black athlete, who died in 1982 at age 42 of a brain aneurysm.

"I found out that Bill Bowerman, his coach [at University of Oregon], filmed practically every practice and every competition. This guy had a little 16mm camera and he filmed everything — he was so ahead of his time," Officer told CBC News.

Bowerman, a co-founder of Nike Inc., ran a legendary track program that gave birth to a generation of stars. But Vancouver, where Jerome grew up, was no slouch at track and field in the 1960s either. Archival footage, some from CBC, shows 500 people turning up at events in support of local amateur athletics.

"Vancouver has statues around town and they're runners — Terry Fox, Percy Williams, the four-minute-mile [a record set in Vancouver in 1954] and then Harry Jerome. There is something about that community that's unheard of," Officer said.

"It told me something about how we look at young talent in this country — there is an amazing thing to be celebrated," he added.

The NFB-produced documentary mixes archival footage with interviews of people who knew Jerome, including his wife Wendy and Dr. Douglas Clement, a contemporary who went on to become the inventor of sports medicine.

Mighty Jerome premiered at the Vancouver International Film Festival in 2010 and ends its run on the festival circuit at Hot Docs ahead of a theatrical release later in May.

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Lee Hirsch's film The Bully Project examines the pervasiveness of bullying, including the story of Alex, a 12-year-old from Sioux City, Iowa. (Lee Hirsch)

Pushing boundaries

Among the festival's hotly anticipated films is The Bully Project, U.S. filmmaker Lee Hirsch's examination of  what life is like for kids on the receiving end of bullying and how ineffective school policies prolong the violence.

Hot Docs programming director Sean Farnel says many of this year's films push the boundaries of the genre.

Films such as Empire North, in which a Danish filmmaker imagines a whole new identify for himself, performance art film Marija's Own, and The Future Is Now, which blends real and acted segments, seem to defy the conventional description of documentary.

"What you're seeing is an incredible blurring of the lines between documentary and fiction," Farnel said.

"We've been seeing that over the last few years now and even traditional documentaries are becoming so seamlessly good at telling stories and feeling like fiction films. Those walls are coming right down."

Hot Docs runs April 28 to May 8.

With files from The Canadian Press