Documentary makers have their lenses trained on the world as the Hot Docs festival unspools in Toronto.

The opening film, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, created by American freelance journalist Alison Klayman, follows the dissident artist over the last year as he defied the Chinese government.

The 11-day festival features films from China, Jamaica, Indonesia and Australia — 54 countries in total — but also Canadian films that focus on issues in India, Afghanistan and other countries. A total of 189 films have been selected for North America’s largest documentary festival.

As large news organizations pull back on their international coverage, documentary makers are stepping in to fill the breach, bringing personal and in-depth stories with fresh points of view. Often they face barriers, cultural, physical and financial, to making these films.

Klayman had to navigate around Ai’s disappearance and later house arrest to talk to the outspoken dissident, while Chinese authorities maintained constant surveillance on him.

Negotiated access to camp

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Chinmayee, 14, poses with a rifle at the Durga Camp Graduation Ceremony. (Hot Docs)

Canadian filmmaker Nisha Pahuja worked for two years to gain access to a Hindu fundamentalist camp for girls to make her film The World Before Her, which contrasts the young contestants in the Miss India pageant with a group of teen girls undergoing training at a Hindu camp.

"To me it reveals one of the key divisions in the country. India is at a kind of precipice — it's kind of deciding whether it's going to become modern and secular — it is secular but not quite — or whether it is going to back to tradition and have religion play a key role in politics," she told CBC News.   "I was looking at the way women were being used to create these two ideas of Indian identity."

Pahuja, who earned a high-profile screening at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York before coming to Hot Docs, said both the pageant and the camp became nervous about her presence as the film progressed and she had to frequently renegotiate access.

She had to establish trust with each of the players to make the film work, she said, adding that it was difficult to represent a subject as complex as India's contemporary culture in a documentary.

"Things are changing in India, the media has played a big role because it shows women what the possibilities are," said Pahuja, an Indo-Canadian who was able to raise private funding for her film through Storyline Entertainment.  

Afghan girls learn to box

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The Boxing Girls of Kabul hope to get to the Olympics. (Hot Docs)

Afghan-Canadian Ariel Nasr also focused on a story about young women in The Boxing Girls of Kabul, a National Film Board production that looks at a group of teen girls training as boxers in the Afghan capital.

The girls, training in a dusty stadium where the Taliban used to execute women, have an enthusiastic coach, but have never even stood in a boxing ring before they entered their first tournament in Vietnam.

Nasr said he had to gain approvals from the Afghan National Olympic Committee and a local NGO that funded the girls’ training, as well as from the girls and their families.

"I went down and met the girls and met their coach – that was the main thing. There were all the obstacles that apply to the culture — of access to women and the taboos of showing them in media and women practicing sports in general," he said.

The girls are taking on those taboos with the fresh enthusiasm of the young, but as Nasr follows them in their training, they begin to become worried about what media scrutiny might mean for them.

Some of the boxers hope to compete at the London 2012 Olympics, if they can gain a place through the world competition set for next month in China.

Other films at the festival that take an international outlook

  • When the Trumpet Sounds: A Canadian film about a Colombian teen who wants to be a bull-fighter.
  • The Reluctant Revolutionary: A U.K. film about a Yemeni man who assists a journalist during the Arab Spring.
  • Call Me Kuchu: A U.S. film about a Ugandan activist trying to promote gay rights in his country.

Hot Docs also has a program dedicated to Canadians stories, as well as its World Showcase and a special focus on films from Southeastern Europe.

Concern over doc funding

The festival plans a retrospective of the films of John Kastner, a Toronto documentary maker who has done several films on the criminal justice system that includes Emmy winner The Lifer and the Lady. It tells the story of convicted murderer Ron Cooney as he battles his demons and works toward his dream of a new life with the woman he loves, a prison volunteer.

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Sisters Bunny Drudge and Leona McLeod, lament their separation: after spending 30 years together they are forced to live in separate seniors’ homes in John Kastner's Rage Against the Darkness. (Hot Docs)

Other films in the retrospective series include Rage Against the Darkness, about seniors heading into long-term care, Fighting Back, about children beating the odds with leukemia and Hunting Bobby Oatway, which examines sexual offenders being released to the community. 

"It is glorious to have retrospective like this and yet it’s tinged with sadness for me because I couldn’t do it today," Kastner said in an interview with CBC's Metro Morning.

He is one of many documentary makers sounding a warning about lack of financing and a lack of public outlet for Canadian documentaries. He says federal budget cuts to the CBC, NFB and Telefilm are making Canadian docs into an "endangered species."

"I’ve been very lucky, I’ve won four Emmys for Canadian stories, but Canadian broadcasters are retreating from the documentary business and these cuts are just another body blow.  What you’re seeing is the Americanization of life on Canadian television screens," Kastner said.

Kastner’s next project is NCR – Not Criminally Responsible – a film which for three years followed patients with mental disorders who have committed crimes.

"This is the kind of film that can’t be made cheaply," he said. "These are the kinds of films that the CBC and the National film Board accommodate and to dig that deeply into Canadian life and show people something that they’ve never seen before – that takes time, it takes money. Sure you can do something fast and dirty, but that’s not going to tell  you about Canada."

The Hot Docs festival runs until May 6 in Toronto. Hot Docs Live, a festival collaboration with Cineplex, brings two featured docs to 35 cinemas across Canada – China Heavyweight and Indie Game: The Movie.