Hot Docs couldn't hold this year's festival as planned — so they put it in your living room
CBC and North America's largest documentary festival have teamed up for Hot Docs at Home on CBC
When organizers of the Hot Docs Film Festival announced that they would be forced to halt the proceedings of their 27th edition (originally scheduled for April 30 - May 10), they joined a growing list of film festivals postponed or cancelled due to COVID-19. The movie industry has taken a rough hit in the wake of the global pandemic, and while quarantine measures have increased our dependence on home streaming content to help us feel together in isolation, the act of communal moviegoing is facing what some consider to be an existential threat.
The thought of a spring without Hot Docs is a lot more than the doors being slammed on a long lineup of eager festival attendees looping around the block outside the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema. While the heart of the festival is made up of the 238 documentary projects that were scheduled to premiere over the course of 11 days, it's also the largest annual gathering of the international documentary filmmaking community. Through a series of industry forums, pitch meetings, and the Doc Shop — a market for buyers, distributors, and sales agents — whole careers come into existence each year at Hot Docs.
It was cause for celebration, then, when the festival announced that it wouldn't be putting a full pause on its April launch, partnering with CBC and documentary Channel to mount Hot Docs at Home on CBC. Instead of screening its lineup in physical cinemas throughout Toronto, a selection of documentaries are being broadcast on CBC and documentary Channel every Thursday night, while simultaneously being made available to stream on CBC Gem.
One of the key organizers behind this initiative was Jennifer Dettman, executive director of Unscripted Content at CBC, who explained that they took immediate action upon the discovery that Hot Docs 2020 wouldn't go ahead as planned. "We started discussing ideas as soon as we knew the Festival would be disrupted by the pandemic," says Dettman. "We were committed to finding ways to support the festival and the documentary filmmaking community during this period."
The docs screening as part of Hot Docs at Home cover subject matter spanning from a filmmaker investigating her aunt's disappearance during the Ethiopian Red Terror (Finding Sally) to a Marineland trainer-turned-activist's plot to rescue a walrus he formed a bond with (The Walrus and the Whistleblower). Last week, the festival held its virtual "opening night" with Made You Look: A True Story About Fake Art, which chronicles the downfall of a famous NYC art gallery following the revelation that its collection was suffused with forged paintings. Tonight sees the premiere of 9/11 Kids, which uses the school kids to whom George W. Bush was reading on that fateful morning as a lens through which to explore how the world has changed since 9/11.
Not every film festival forced to forego their 2020 edition has had the same opportunity to make their programme viewable via streaming. Much of the time, once a film has been shown to the public online, it stands far less of a chance of getting picked up by distributors. With this in mind, Dettman outlined their particular approach for selecting which documentaries to broadcast: "To start, we approached filmmakers of documentaries originally commissioned by documentary Channel. We drew on the strength of these relationships to move quickly, and knew the films would be a strong launch to our Thursday night series. By giving these premieres a national audience for a short time across CBC platforms, the films are still in position to resume with a later theatrical run, followed by a return broadcast on documentary Channel. We are proud of these films and excited to share a unique festival-at-home experience with our viewers across Canada."
It's a unique situation indeed — one which calls for "creative solutions," notes Shane Smith, director of programming at Hot Docs. Smith says that this initiative is ingrained in the ethos of Hot Docs, a festival that feels a long-standing commitment to its audiences. "This partnership between CBC and Hot Docs is a perfect example of organizations working together for the good of both of our audiences," he says. "Hot Docs' mandate is to support and showcase the work of documentary filmmakers, and CBC has an incredible track record of doing the same. Arts institutions and festivals need to be joining forces now more than ever to forge new partnerships like this. By collaborating, we all benefit — and ultimately, if we succeed in getting Canadian documentaries to larger, more diverse audiences, we're doing our job."
That's one of the most noteworthy features of Hot Docs at Home. The multiplatform experience doesn't simply showcase what your average festival-goer would have otherwise missed out on at this year's festival — it brings these documentaries to viewers across the nation, many for whom attending Hot Docs would have never been a possibility.
Dettman echoes this sentiment: "We're proud to bring these festival premieres to Canadians across the country including new audiences who may discover the power of documentary filmmaking for the first time as a result of this initiative. We hope this opens up new thinking and more opportunities beyond this crisis to bring even more forms of art to a wider range of audiences."
To offer audiences a glimpse of what's to come once this has all subsided, the festival team went ahead and revealed the official 2020 lineup selected by their programming team, even though plans for when and how the films will be seen remains TBD. While we're still able to get our Hot Docs fill with a new film every Thursday, seeing the selection of 238 new documentaries that would have made up this year's festival is a reminder of how much we're anticipating the day when filmmakers and fans alike will have the chance to congregate together in a cinema again.
Having taken measures to offer an alternative home festival in the age of COVID-19, might this experience set the stage for a virtual Hot Docs in future years? Smith says, "Never say never! Hot Docs has always adapted to the needs of our audiences and our industry, and if providing more digital elements works for those stakeholders, we'll continue to explore ways to enhance the festival experience. We're learning to connect with each other in entirely new ways at the moment, but the key is to strengthen our bonds and build community and understanding. That's what documentaries do, and we're going to offer that opportunity to audiences and filmmakers in whatever ways we can."
When the majority of CBC's reporting and the greater news cycle are consumed by coverage of COVID-19, Hot Docs at Home serves as a unique form of counterprogramming that may provide a much-needed breath of fresh air. Each Thursday night at 8pm, the festival-at-home offers audiences the opportunity to dive into a captivating true story about something other than the pandemic.
Read more about Hot Docs at Home on CBC and see the full schedule here.
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