What We’re Seeing This Year at North America’s Largest Documentary Festival

By Diane Slawych

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A still from “nipawistamasowin”

Our wind-down recommendations are a great way to forget about a grueling work day. This week, book your tickets to this year’s Hot Docs festival.

When: April 25 to May 5, 2019

What it is: Film lovers won’t be starved for choice at the 26th edition of the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto.

Where it’s located: Films and events take place at 12 different venues, most of them in the downtown core, including the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema (506 Bloor St. W); TIFF Bell Lightbox; Scotiabank Theatre and Isabel Bader Theatre.

Why visit: For the mind-altering experience you’re likely to have; for the many free films and events; for the Q&As with filmmakers; and to be the first to see many world and international premieres.


A still from “On the President’s Orders”

This year’s slate includes a whopping 234 films and 18 interdisciplinary projects from 56 countries in 15 programs, with women making up more than half the directors in the festival program.

The festival opens with the world premiere of “nipawistamasowin: We Will Stand Up,” which examines the Canadian legal system after the alleged killer of a young Cree man named Colten Boushie, is acquitted. From there, the fest’s 11-day run includes a dizzying array of docs that range from funny to bizarre, shocking to transformative.

A sample: “Ask Dr. Ruth” (about the 90-year-old sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer); “Mr. Toilet: the World’s #2 Man” tells the story of an unlikely hero who tries to solve the dire global sanitation crisis by securing six million toilets for India; “On the Presidents Orders” (about leader Duterte’s war on drugs in the Philippines); and “The Reformist – A Female Imam” (a woman in Denmark opens one of Europe’s first mosques run by female imams).

“The work of documentary filmmakers in their unrelenting pursuit of the truth is as necessary as ever,” explains Hot Docs director of programming Shane Smith.

There’s plenty of truth telling in the docs that make up some of the 15 programs, such as “Persister” (docs that deal with women speaking up and being heard) and “Making Believe” (which examines the ways in which truth can be deceiving).

Other programs include “Animal Magnetism” (about the complicated relationship between humans and animals); “Nightvision” (future cult classics), and the “Changing Face of Europe.”


“XY Chelsea” is a new documentary and look at Chelsea Manning’s life.

It’d be impossible to take in all the docs and events in 11 days but many film buffs first check the Special Presentations. This year’s line up includes ” Stieg Larsson: The Man who Played with Fire”; “American Factory,” about an abandoned GM factory in Ohio that’s reopened by a Chinese billionaire; “Advocate” (about one of the few Israeli human rights lawyers willing to defend Palestinians); and “XY Chelsea” (about whistleblower Chelsea Manning’s new life).

Also, take a look at some of the free events such as IMAX screenings at the Ontario Place Cinesphere, and the Virtual Reality and interactive experiences at the Autodesk Technology Centre at 661 University Ave. The festival ends with a free encore screening of the doc that wins the Rogers Audience Award for best Canadian documentary.

A still from Julia Reichert’s “American Factory.”

A retrospective will honour American documentary filmmaker Julia Reichert, with films including “Growing up Female”; “Union Maids”; “Seeing Red: Stories of American Communists,” and her new film, “American Factory,” which premieres April 30. Meanwhile the Festival’s Focus On program will spotlight the work of Canadian filmmaker Julia Ivanova including her new film “My Dads, My Moms and Me,” which will have its world premiere in May.

For something a little different, check out one of the food and film events such as the pizza making workshop with Pizzeria Libretto’s executive chef following a screening of “Alla Salute.” Attend a conversation with artist and activist Ai Weiwei (his new film “The Rest” – about the plight of refugees in Europe, will also screen at the festival).

See the video installation, Touching from a distance II: Transmediations in the Digital Age, at the Goethe Media Space. Or, watch the live performance of Supreme Law, a satirical retelling of the origins of Canada’s Constitution with comedian Jus Reign.

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