Hot Docs: 14 documentaries you need to see this year

The popular festival's director of programming chooses his must-sees for 2017.

The popular festival's director of programming chooses his must-sees for 2017.

Hobbyhorse Revolution traces the growing "sport" of hobbyhorse racing (Hobbyhorse Revolution)

With the rise of streaming services like Netflix and the availability of affordable, pro-level gear, documentary filmmaking has taken off — and every year, the very best of the world's documentary films screen at Toronto's Hot Docs, North America's largest documentary film festival and conference.

From there, the films — which cover everything from pop music to politics — often hit screens and festivals in other cities, or are available online.

But with over 200 films to choose from, where do you begin? We checked in with Hot Docs director of programming Shane Smith and got his list of 14 documentaries you need to see this year, as well as his take on each one.

1. Give me Future (U.S./Cuba)
Director: Austin Peters

"This is a documentary about the band Major Lazer going to Cuba and what they find there. It's not just your standard musical bio doc; what they find is a really vibrant youth culture that's discovering creative ways to get their fix of U.S. pop culture. Kind of a Cuban youthquake."

In Give Me Future, Major Lazer travels to Cuba and finds a vibrant youth culture that uses inventive means to get their fix of American pop culture (Give Me Future)

2. Loving Lorna (Sweden)
Director: Annika Karlsson, Jessica Karlsson

"Loving Lorna is a really beautiful coming-of-age story about a girl, her horse and her dreams of becoming a farrier — someone who shoes horses — and this is happening in urban Ireland. Horses and highrises, together at last."

3. The Last Resort (Italy/Greece/France)
Director: Thanos Anastopoulos, Davide Del Degan

"The Last Resort is a great look at the last of the segregated beach resorts in Italy. The men on one side, the women on the other, and the lives, loves, and the gossip of each side — and how they interrelate with each other. It's a real, real gem."

4. Strad Style (U.S.)
Director: Stefan Avalos

"This was at the Slamdance Festival in Utah, and it should get a release in the coming months. It's a really quirky time-is-running-out thriller documentary about a man in Ohio who makes replicas of violins, and he promises to make a copy of one of the most expensive violins in the world for a famous European virtuoso. Will he make it or will it all fall apart, including the violin? The potential is very real."

The Other Side of The Wall is a stunningly intimate and cinematic look at life as an immigrant in Mexico (The Other Side of The Wall)

5. The Other Side of the Wall (Spain)
Director: Pau Ortiz

"By a Spanish filmmaker, shot in Mexico, this is a really stunningly intimate and cinematic look at life as an immigrant in Mexico. Instead of Mexican immigrants in the U.S., we are looking at Honduran immigrants in Mexico — a brother and sister attempting to keep their family intact when their mother is falsely incarcerated. This, to me, is one of the reasons documentaries exist: to show us the lives that we'd never see and the ordinary people who are inspiring just by living their lives."

6. Who is Arthur Chu? (U.S./Canada)
Director: Yu Gu, Scott Drucker

"Remember Arthur Chu? He was the Jeopardy! champion a while ago. And this follows Arthur as he segues from a Jeopardy! champ to a blogger and a cultural pundit — battling online trolls, and finding a way to channel his success into social justice. It's a really interesting portrait of a character in transition."

7. Forbidden Games (U.K.)
Director: Adam Darke, Jon Carey

"For the soccer-inclined, we're world-premiering Forbidden Games. It's about the rise and tragic fall of the British soccer player Justin Fashanu. It's a really interesting cautionary tale about the high price of fame and the impact of being outed as gay. It happened 20 years ago, so this documentary looks back at his experience as a young man who was ill-prepared for fame and even more so for being outed. It also has a Canadian connection: He actually played soccer for Hamilton for a while back in the 1990s."

I Am Another You looks at homelessness, mental health, and the relationship between the documentary filmmaker and their subject (I Am Another You)

8. I am Another You (U.S.)
Director: Nanfu Wang

"I am Another You really looks at homelessness, mental health, and the role of the documentary filmmaker in seeing and helping their subject. It's all intertwined: the filmmaker is following her subject, but she realizes she doesn't really know her subject; so she's questioning her motives as a filmmaker while delving into this young man's life and learning more about his challenges and his mental illness. To me it's one of the must-see films at the festival."

9. Resurrecting Hassan (Canada/Chile)
Director: Carlo Guillermo Proto

"From Canada, we've got Resurrecting Hassan, a really intimate and fascinating story about a family of blind Montreal buskers, a dead son, and a mystical Russian healer who claims he can resurrect the dead son. And that's just the beginning: this film really dives into the family relationships and the impact the death of the son has had on this family, who have incredible voices, and they sing in the subways of Montreal. So it's a wonderful family portrait, a character portrait, and a look at longing and death as well."

10. Hobbyhorse Revolution (Finland)
Director: Selma Vilhunen

"If you don't have a horse, it's no problem, because these Finnish teens demonstrate with their hobbyhorse competitions, their flash mobs and online videos, that actually having a horse is not a problem at all: you can just have a hobbyhorse. They have built up their own competitions, networks, YouTube videos, and they have turned hobbyhorse riding into a sad or a new sport — you be the judge. But some of the girls from the film will be here, and they make a really strong case that riding a hobbyhorse is a legitimate activity."

11. Secondo Me (Austria)
Director: Pavel Cuzuioc

"This is a beautiful film that shows the beauty of life is in the small details. It's a look at the lives of those people who run the coat checks in some of the biggest opera houses in the world. They aren't sitting in and watching the music, and they aren't onstage performing, but they have their own rich lives as well. So it's really wonderful to see the camera turned on the people we exchange pleasantries with, but don't really get to know. It's sublime and sweet. A really great film."

12. Ramen Heads (Japan)
Director: Koki Shigeno

"We've got a spotlight on Japan this year, and one of the films is Ramen Heads. It's a really popular film right now about the joys, the deliciousness, and the skill of making ramen, and it features some of the best ramen chefs of the world in Tokyo."

13. Living the Game (Japan)
Director: Takao Gotsu

"We also have Living the Game, which is about living the life on the pro video game circuit for Japanese gamers who play Street Fighter competitively. This is a big thing; there is big money involved here. But it's an intimate story of technique versus flash and the lure of competition. So we're looking at all different kinds of lives from all different kinds of perspectives."

Living the Game follows pros on the Japanese video game circuit who play Street Fighter competitively — and for big money. (Living the Game)

14. Long Strange Trip (U.S.)
Director: Amir Bar-Lev

"For fans of the Grateful Dead, there's Long Strange Trip — a four-hour deep dive into the career of the Grateful Dead with lots of amazing, rarely seen footage, and new information in there. And that one is going to be coming out later in the month — but it's worth seeing on the big screen for sure."

Hot Docs runs April 27-May 7.

— Jennifer Van Evra, q digital staff


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Account Holder

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?