Can't decide what to see at Hot Docs? These are our top 9 picks

If you're interested in stories about art, music and culture, get your iCal open. These are the Hot Docs films we're most excited to see.

If you're interested in documentaries about art, music and culture, these are the films to see

Guitar legend Link Wray in a scene from Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World. The film plays this year's Hot Docs festival in Toronto. (Courtesy of Hot Docs)

Hot Docs launches April 27 in Toronto. The documentary film festival is the biggest of its kind in North America, which means it's got one seriously stacked program guide to match. This year's schedule runs 230 titles deep, which is about 221 more film summaries than anyone has the patience to read — unless you work for CBC Arts, anyway.

We've scanned the schedule already, so if you're interested in finding docs about art, music and culture, get your iCal open and start scrambling for tickets. These are the nine films we're most excited to see.

Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World

Blame the baby boomers. The history of rock 'n' roll has been told so many times, you'd think there was some unofficial law requiring a rock movie for every dude born between  the years of 1946-1964. But that glut of rock docs is one of the things that makes Rumble's story so remarkable. How, after all these years — and all these films and books and VH1 Behind the Music episodes — was a major chapter of American music history left out? Namely, the major influence of Indigenous artists on jazz, blues, rock, folk and heavy metal. Charley Patton (Choctaw/African America) is credited as being the "father of the Delta Blues." Link Wray (Shawnee), best known for his song "Rumble" — a subversive hit that inspired generations of rock legends — invented the "power chord."  Jimi Hendrix (Cherokee/African American) — well, he probably doesn't need an introduction. Featuring interviews with Iggy Pop, Slash,Tony Bennett, Quincy Jones, Martin Scorsese — as well as iconic subjects Buffy Sainte-Marie, Robbie Robertson and more — this one had us at the promise of an "untold story."


Sunday, April 30 at 8:45 p.m

Tuesday, May 2 at 1:45 p.m.


In Monticchiello, Italy, theatre is life. For real. Every summer, the villagers write and produce a play, and every time, the story is based on their day-to-day lives. The cast could be as small as six, or as big as 90 — since the actors all live in this tiny hilltop town. And they do it as a way of resolving the issues facing their community, a tradition they've kept up since 1966. Unless you're planning a trip to Tuscany, this is your only way to see a show, and Spettacolo shadows this totally unique theatre company as they prepare for their 50th anniversary production.


Sunday, April 30 at 8:30 p.m.

Tuesday, May 2 at 12:30 p.m.

Saturday, May 6 at 12:45 p.m.

Still Tomorrow

Yu Xiuhua is a 39-year-old woman with cerebral palsy living in a remote community in rural China. She's also the country's most famous poet — launched to fame when her writing went viral in late 2014. That kind of real-life fairytale is enough to capture our attention, but Still Tomorrow is about what happens next. Yu's newfound fame and fortune offer her the promise of independence — something she's never really experienced because of her physical disabilities. But achieving the life she dreams of won't be easy. Married off at 18 to a much older man, Yu is trapped in a bad marriage. Now, she wants a divorce — so she can have a chance at finding the kind of love she writes about. But life, of course, is complicated. The consequences of leaving the relationship extend beyond her family. Divorce is still a cultural taboo, especially for a woman in the public eye. Whatever happens, she sounds like a heroine to root for, and Yu's much-loved poetry is interwoven throughout the film.


Saturday, April 29 at 4 p.m.

Sunday, April 30 at 10:30 a.m.

Sunday, May 7 at 1:45 p.m.

32 Pills

Ruth Litoff was beautiful, talented, well-loved. In 2008, she killed herself.  32 Pills is, in one way, a mystery story about the artist's suicide. As one witness recounts in the trailer, police had never seen anything like her death. She was found in her apartment surrounded notes and gifts for her dearest friends — the scene set like a stage. But the film goes beyond being a true-crime tale. Filmmaker Hope Litoff is Ruth's sister, and 32 Pills is her investigation of what happened. It promises a devastatingly personal journey, one that explores not just Ruth's life and work, but the complexity of family relationships.


Monday, May 1 at 9:30 p.m.

Tuesday, May 2 at 1:45 p.m.

Friday, May 5 at 3:30 p.m.

Sunday, May 7 at 3:30 p.m.

La Chana

Antonia Santiago Amador (a.k.a. La Chana) was the most famous flamenco dancer of the '60s and '70s. She toured the world, appeared on television, in movies. Then, at the top of her game, she quit. The public never knew why, but La Chana — who is now in her late 60s and still passionate about dance — is ready to reveal the dramatic personal story behind her disappearance, as she returns to the stage for a show that could be her final performance. 


Monday, May 1 at 9:15 p.m.

Wednesday, May 3 at 11 a.m.

Thursday, May 4 at 9:30 p.m.


It's another story about an artist who's been M.I.A. for decades, only to resurface as a quirky and fascinating documentary subject. But this one, Shadowman, has a Canadian connection. Before there was Banksy, there was Shadowman. In the late '70s and early '80s, the street artist left menacing silhouettes in dark corners and alleyways of New York City. The artist's not-so-secret identity was Richard Hambleton, a painter born and raised in Vancouver. And when not terrorizing the streets as Shadowman, he ran with Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring — while collector demand for his artwork soared. Shadowman never reached the same legend status as his contemporaries, though. He's survived addiction, skin cancer and homelessness, and the doc picks up with the promise of a comeback. Discovered living in obscurity, two fans offer him the chance to put on a new show. But does he want to take it?


Thursday, May 4 at 6:15 p.m.

Friday, May 5 at 1:30 p.m.

Saturday, May 6 at 3:45 p.m.


Meet your new feminist hero. Chavela Vargas is Mexico's most badass musical icon, a gun-toting, tequila-chugging, self-made woman who romanced Frida Kahlo (and possibly most of the country) while recording songs that have mesmerized audiences for generations. Vargas died in 2012 at 93 years old — but she appears throughout the film to spin her own larger-than-life stories. Filmmaker Catherine Gund interviewed Vargas back in 1991, and that vintage footage launched the project. At the time, fans thought she was already dead; her struggles with alcoholism had kept her from singing for years. But she was, in fact, primed for a comeback. This doc promises to serve as an introduction to her legend, her music and her no-fear passion for life.


Wednesday, May 3 at 7 p.m.

Thursday, May 4 at 10 a.m.

Friday, May 5 at 6:15 p.m.

Saturday, May 6 at 1 p.m.

Unarmed Verses

We covered Charles Officer's last doc, The Skin We're In, earlier this year, and we're just as excited to catch his newest film. Unarmed Verses is a Toronto story about a community in transition, and it's told through the eyes of a smart and compassionate 12-year-old named Francine. Francine immigrated to Canada from Antigua when she was four, and she lives in The Villaways neighbourhood, north east of downtown. It's a low-income area that's the focus of a redevelopment project, one that is disrupting the lives of residents, for good and bad. While her family and others face relocation, Francine joins a local arts program where she learns to express herself through music — sharing her observations on family, poverty and growing up throughout the film.


Monday, May 1 at 6:30 p.m.

Tuesday, May 2 at 3 p.m.

Saturday, May 6 at 3:15 p.m.

Resurrecting Hassan

Anyone who takes the Montreal metro knows the Harting family.  Denis, Peggy and their daughter Lauviah sing in the subway. They're a family of blind buskers, and Resurrecting Hassan — which won the grand prize for best Canadian feature at the Montreal International Documentary Festival last year — reveals a story most commuters probably wouldn't stop to hear. The Hassan in the title is Denis and Peggy's son, the only sighted member of the family, who tragically drowned. The film begins as a portrait of their grief — though early reviews suggest the story takes an unexpected, and significant twist. 


Sunday, April 30 at 2:45 p.m.

Tuesday, May 2 at 12:30 p.m.

Friday, May 5 at 3:30 p.m.

Hot Docs Film Festival. April 27 to May 7. Various locations, Toronto.


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