15 Must See Documentaries from the Opening Weekend of Hot Docs’ 25th Landmark Year

Starting today and running until May 6th at a variety of Toronto area cinemas, the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival commemorates a landmark year. For twenty-five years, Hot Docs has committed to bringing together the best in non-fiction filmmaking from around the world for a ten day celebration of the form. Across fourteen eclectic, well curated programs, the festival will screen 246 feature, short, and mid-length documentaries from 56 different countries, with the festival achieving gender parity among presenting filmmakers for the first time in the festival’s history.

There’s never a shortage of quality documentaries to choose from on any given day of Hot Docs, with films and programs geared expressly towards nearly every cinematic taste, historical curiosity, or social issue. It’s quite often a chance to see some of the year’s most buzzworthy documentaries before their theatrical runs later in the year, but more often a great chance to see well made and researched passion projects and vital documents on the big screen that might not be seen in such a venue otherwise.

With that in mind, here’s a look at fifteen, big name films and potentially hidden gems (in no particular order, but generally grouped together by the date of their first screening) that you’re going to want to make time for at Hot Docs 2018 when they bow on the festival’s milestone weekend.

Stay with us throughout the 2018 Hot Docs festival for daily dispatches, interviews, and looks at more films worth seeing that screen  all the way up to the closing weekend.

The Heat: A Kitchen (R)evolution

This year’s prominently programmed opening night film comes courtesy of veteran Canadian filmmaker and festival regular Maya Gallus, who returns to look at women in the service industry for the first time since her 2010 feature Dish – Women, Waitressing, & the Art of Service. Turning her eye towards the back of the house, Gallus’ latest looks at a cross section of women who head up kitchens in a managerial and ownership capacity in the largely testosterone driven restaurant industry. Showing on a business level that maintaining successful eateries is just as risky and fraught for women as their male counterparts, Gallus also deftly and empathetically showcases how much her subjects have sacrificed and subjected themselves to in a bid to live out their culinary dreams. More than just another “foodie doc,” The Heat finds Gallus ditching loving shots of mouthwatering delicacies in favour of personal narratives of people overcoming patriarchal norms, bullying, and prejudices. If most men are exposed to cooking by women in their homes growing up, then why aren’t more women chefs? It’s certainly food for thought.

Screens

Thursday, April 26 – 9:30 pm – Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema

Saturday, April 27 – 1:15 pm – TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

Sunday, May 6 – 3:30 pm – Isabel Bader Theatre

Three Identical Strangers

For his latest documentary, British filmmaker Tim Wardle looks back on a well documented and curious American “public interest story” from the 1980s that effortlessly blends hopeful uplift, unimaginable tragedy, and an incendiary expose of an unfathomable, long kept secret experiment that’s almost too sickening to be believed. At the start of the decade and via an unbelievable, life altering coincidence that’s impossible to make up, New Yorkers Robert Shafran and Edward Galland – both of whom were adopted – learned that they were long lost identical twins. When the local media starts spinning this story of long lost brothers into an uplifting puff piece, they discover the existence of a third identical brother, David Kellerman, living in the same city. The discovery and surrounding media interest brings these men closer together (and eventually further apart over time), but once they start asking why an adoption agency would break up a set of identical triplets in the first place, the brothers uncover a startling conspiracy at the heart of one of New York’s most supposedly reputable Jewish adoption agencies. Wardle doesn’t have to embellish the stories of these men at all, letting the facts and recollections of those willing to talk about what happen shine above any and all previous coverage of the case. Those familiar with the story of the triplets will find plenty to be shocked and moved by in Three Identical Strangers, and those with no knowledge of the familial break-up and continuing fall out will be blown away and left with plenty to think about.

Screens

Thursday, April 26 – 6:30 pm – TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

Friday, April 27 – 1:30 pm – Scotiabank Theatre 4

The End of Fear

Even if abstract painting isn’t your cup of cultural tea, artist and filmmaker Barbara Visser’s Dutch documentary The End of Fear uses creative techniques, pointed re-creations of events, and non-traditional gumshoe movie tropes to cut to the heart of artistic jealousy and unconstructive criticism. In 1986, the art world was stunned when a valuable, massive, but colourfully minimalist abstract painting from American artist Barnett Newman was slashed and virtually destroyed by a disgruntled fellow painter brandishing a box cutter at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum. A conversation wasn’t only sparked about differing artistic styles and cultural merits of the work, but also about the delicate and often subjective nature of restoring such a work and the legal matters and in fighting that would unexpectedly arise. Visser cleverly recreates the events along a literal and visual timeline, while also asking a willing painter to foolheartedly attempt a re-imagining of Newman’s seemingly simple, but astoundingly complex work.Whether one finds the painting in question – titled “Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue III” – to be all that much to look at is immaterial, but just as people will look into Newman’s art and see many different things and experience many potentially conflicting emotions, Visser’s film shows how a work of art can reflect some of the art world’s darker professional proclivities.

Screens

Thursday, April 26 – 6:45 pm – TIFF Bell Lightbox 4

Friday, April 27 – 4:15 pm – Scotiabank Theatre 4

Friday, May 4 – 6:45 pm – Fox Theatre

I Used to Be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story

Admit it: at one point in our lives, we’ve probably liked at least one song from a musical act that could be classified as a “boy band,” a group of good looking lads thrust together by record producers or keen eyed promoters that were designed to move CDs, sell loads of merchandise, make teens swoon, and sing ditties about love, desire, and being young. Australian filmmaker Jessica Leski travels the world to look at boy band hysteria from the perspective of those either currently in the throes of such a mass marketed, but joy inducing addiction to a musical act and those who unapolagetically look back on their allegiance to groups like The Beatles, Take Five, and Backstreet Boys with emotional fondness and clearer sensibilities. I Used to Be Normal has clearly been cut down from a much larger, sprawling potential project (which isn’t surprising given just how many musical acts could fall under such a classification across history), but Leski has whittled her potentially daunting material into an exceptional cross section of personal experiences that reflect on how women of different cultural backgrounds can find different forms of emotional and hormonal catharsis through their fandom. It’s a lovely work that wears its heart firmly on its sleeve, but also a fascinating bit of musical and cultural scholarship.

Screens

Thursday, April 26 – 9:15 pm – TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

Friday, April 27 – 12:00 pm – Hart House Theatre

Friday, May 4 – 9:30 pm – Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema

Sunday, May 6 – 12:30 pm – Hart House Theatre

Death By Popcorn: The Tragedy of the Winnipeg Jets

Screening in the festival’s Redux section of classic documentaries (with all of this year’s selections comprised of Canadian efforts), Death By Popcorn is well worth seeking out based on the curiosity factor, strength of the material, and the likelihood that viewers probably won’t get a chance to see it again for quite some time. Mired in legal controversies and copyright issues since it’s intended production for television in 2006, this unlikely collaboration between emerging filmmaker and visual artist Matthew Rankin (currently a luminary in the Canadian short film world), fellow Winnipeg filmmaker Mike Maryniuk, and archivist Walter Forsberg cheekily and poignantly looks at their home city’s fraught, but loving relationship to their one major sports franchise. Considering that the Jets have done pretty well this season and the city’s relationship is a bit more stable since their return, the artfully composed Death By Popcorn as aged wonderfully and only grows in resonance. It’s just a shame that this will likely be the only chance to see this one in a local theatre for decades to come. As an added bonus, the film is paired with an equally curious CBC produced short World Famous Gopher Hole Museum, a similarly contemplative and subtle look at Torrington, Alberta’s most notable and unusual tourist attraction.

Screens

Friday, April 28 – 12:00 pm – TIFF Bell Lightbox 3

Take Light

After being shortlisted for a Best Documentary Short Oscar in 2017, Canadian-Nigerian filmmaker Shasha Nakhai returns to her industrial minded hometown of Port Harcourt, Nigeria for her debut feature, Take Light, an on-the-ground look at how one of the world’s biggest gas producing countries somehow inexplicably doesn’t have the infrastructure or resources to supply over half of its population with consistent electrical power. Nakhai returns to Port Harcourt at a formative time for the country. While the once corrupt and ineffective state run power company has become privatized and switched to a more efficient, ethical, and structurally sound ways of conducting business, workers for the company still face scars, prejudices, and anger from overtaxed, everyday people who still see those providing (and in some cases taking away) electricity as being evil. Take Light not only looks at the human side and emotional strains of a messy situation where an entire community is being taken advantage of by the same greedy industry, but also a potentially prescient look at where many fossil fuel dependent countries could be heading in the not too distant future.

Screens

Friday, April 27 – 6:45 pm – Hart House Theatre

Tuesday, May 1 – 3:15 pm – Scotiabank 3

Thursday, May 3 – 6:30 pm – Scotiabank 3

Mercury 13

With Mercury 13, filmmakers David Sington and Heather Walsh look back on a branch of aviation and aerospace history that has been unfairly scrubbed and overlooked in the record books simply because it involved a lot of badass women working in an industry dominated by fragile male egos in the 1950s and 60s. Once the space race kicked off and NASA became desperate to compete with the Russians, there was a scramble to find worthy pilots physically, mentally, and technically capable of travelling into space. Part of this search for the best and brightest of the aviation world included a sizable number of female pilots, many of whom were either competing in air shows, honing their craft on the racing circuit, or working in the military in non-combat capacities. But once test results started showing that many of these female pilots were testing better than their male counterparts, powers that be at the highest levels of government began to scuttle the results of these hard working and deserving women who were essentially screwed out of their shot at historical recognition. Told through the perspective of many who went through the program, who hold both love in their hearts for those who supported them along the way and rightful disdain for those who held them down, Mercury 13 finally gives these women their rightful due.

Screens

Friday, April 27 – 6:30 pm – Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema

Saturday, April 28 – 10:45 am – TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

Saturday, May 5 – 6:30 pm – Isabel Bader Theatre

Sunday, May 6 – 5:45 pm – TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

Transformer

An intimate and insightful look into a manly powerlifter, former U.S. Marine, and father of three transitioning into womanhood, Transformer never shies away from big emotions and the questions faced by many transgender people going through similar life changes. As Matt “Kroc” Kroczaleski embarks on a journey to living a better life as Janae, she’s forced to confront hard questions about her past and future. Janae and filmmaker Michael Del Monte offer viewers an unprecedented, warts and all look at the transitioning process and the deep, sometimes conflicted feelings that someone uncomfortable in their birth skin experiences along the way. Janae is a welcome, open, and kind guide to this world, and watching her struggle through the process is more inspirational and valuable to society than any number of benchpresses or squats. This should be required viewing for anyone trying to better understand the sometimes crippling emotional weight of body dysmorphia.

Screens

Friday, April 27 – 6:00 pm – Scotiabank 3

Sunday, April 29 – 12:30 pm – Scotiabank 3

Thursday, May 3 – 8:15 pm – Scotiabank 13

Don’t Be Nice

Moving and swaggering like an inspirational sports flick, director Max Powers’ Don’t Be Nice might be the most entertaining, uplifting, and timely film about poetry ever made. The film follows the Bowery Slam Poetry Team, a group of five poets (all of whom are people of colour or queer) and their equally passionate coach, as they try to make a name for themselves and produce material that passionately and sometimes confrontationally speaks to their personal experiences. Eloquently and artfully showcasing the hard work these poets put into their pursuits while also remaining thoroughly rousing and engaging throughout, it’s proof positive that great poetry doesn’t have to hold anyone’s hand or tap dance around difficult subject matter to make a mark on the listener.

Screens

Friday, April 27 – 9:15 pm – Isabel Bader Theare

Saturday, April 28 – 12:30 pm – Hart House Theatre

Friday, May 1 – 3:30 pm – TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

Saturday, May 5 – 10:00 am – TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

Alt-Right: Age of Rage

A well rounded primer on the current extremes of American political culture, director Adam Bhala Lough’s Alt-Right: Age of Rage looks at the rising of extreme conservative factions, their leaders, and those seeking to righteously oppose them. Lough predominantly follows far-right blogger and blowhard Richard Spencer and anti-fascist leader Daryle Lamont Jenkins, with both functioning as open guides to their markedly different ideologies. Clearly not on Spencer’s side (and really, what rational thinking person should be?), Lough is careful enough to spell out the far right point of view before analyzing and picking it apart. Showing why people like Spencer need to be confronted and refuted before their gospel of white superiority spreads, it takes a look at American divisiveness head-on and without fear, building to an on-the-ground look at the deadly and violent 2017 clash between the Alt-Right, antifa, and largely uncaring police in Charlottesville. One gets the sense that Lough might have been hoping for different results and confrontations than the ones he ultimately captured through his footage and interviews, but that doesn’t make the final results any less potent to behold.

Screens

Friday, April 27 – 9:30 pm – Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema

Saturday, April 28 – 1:15 pm – Isabel Bader Theatre

Friday, May 4 – 3:45 pm – Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema

1999

Sixteen years removed from a rash of teen suicides that rocked a small, close knit community just outside Moncton, New Brunswick, filmmaker Samara Grace Chadwick returns to her hometown to look at the healing process in the stunningly visual and deeply cathartic 1999. While there were always clues and warning signs (all in hindsight) that something was troubling teens in the local high school, mismanagement from school officials further distanced those who might have needed genuine help from possibly coming forward to get it. Sitting down and talking with those who lived through the tragedies and ensuing media circus – both in one-on-one settings and groups – Chadwick offers those still alive and viewers alike with a healing look at unspeakable loss and the power that comes from remembering that no one person is ever truly alone in the world.

Screens

Saturday, April 28 – 3:15 pm – TIFF Bell Lightbox 3

Sunday, April 29 – 8:30 pm – Scotiabank Theatre 3

Friday, May 4 – 4:00 pm – TIFF Bell Lightbox 3

Chef Flynn

A world renowned chef from the age of ten, teenager Flynn McGarry has been profiled more in The New York Times and covered more by culinary tastemakers than most cooks (and definitely many teenagers) will be in their lives. Director Cameron Yates follows along with Flynn as he struggles to deal with critics who suggest he’s a gimmick who bought his way into a notoriously snobbish industry without paying any professional dues and observes the pressure of trying to take his culinary game to the next level. Chef Flynn has a fascinating and somewhat controversial figurehead at the centre of everything: a passionate, knowledgeable young man pushing his dreams as far as possible. But the real backbone of Yates’ work comes from watching the supportive, but sometimes contentious relationship Flynn has with his mother-slash-manager, a former filmmaker who seems to sometimes want the spotlight more than her low-key son does. It’s an undercurrent of familial tension that adds a considerable amount of spice to an already admirably constructed dish.

Screens

Saturday, April 28 – 6:45 pm – Isabel Bader Theatre

Sunday, April 29  – 10:45 am – TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

Saturday, May 5 – 1:15 pm – Isabel Bader Theatre

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Possibly the documentary with a bigger mainstream buzz than any other seeing a release this year, it’s a pleasure to report that award winning filmmaker Morgan Neville’s look behind the scenes of former ordained minister turned beloved television personality Fred Roger’s educational and game changing public television series. Sure to elicit more than a few tears from just the inclusion of the first tinkling notes of the Mr. Roger’s Neigborhood theme song alone, Neville’s warm, insightful, and never overly nostalgic or bogged down in minutiae Won’t You By My Neighbor brings Rogers’ good hearted personality to roaring life. When he left television for good and after he passed away, Rogers’ memory left a void of goodness, charity, equity, and understanding in the world, but Neville’s film is powerful enough to stand as a testament to the man for decades to come.

Screens

Saturday, April 28 – 6:30 pm – Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema

Sunday, April 29 – 1:00 pm – Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema

Sunday, May 6 – 12:45 pm – Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema

Love, Scott

A work of pure, unabashed love and kindness in the face of a violent act, Laura Marie Wayne’s look at her wheelchair bound best friend in Love, Scott will leave some purposefully enraged, but also filled with hope for the future. Scott Jones, a gay musician from New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, lost the use of his legs following a brutal stabbing and attack outside a club. While the perpetrator of the crime was convicted and sentenced to prison (although the stabbing was never prosecuted as the hate crime it obviously was), the road to physical and mental recovery for Scott and his friends and family remains long and emotionally taxing. Although Scott seems to be faring somewhat better considering what he’s been through, Wayne is able to get to the emotional root of her friend’s life by simply letting her subject tell his own story in unbroken, unwavering, gorgeously photographed takes that allows catharsis to come naturally and patiently instead of forcing something or editing around it. Scott’s story is a vital and inspiring one for all Canadians to hear, but the way Wayne has allowed her subject to tell it is just as revolutionary and noteworthy.

Screens

Saturday, April 8 – 6:30 pm – TIFF Bell Lightbox 1

Sunday, April 29 – 10:15 am – Isabel Bader Theatre

Thursday, May 3 – 9:15 pm – TIFF Bell Lightbox 2

United We Fan

Canadian filmmaker Michael Sparaga takes a deep dive into the world of dedicated fans in the disarmingly insightful documentary United We Fan. Sparaga looks across the history of television and seeks out the intrepid men and women behind campaigns to save their beloved series from cancellation. From Star Trek and Cagney & Lacey to Chuck and Veronica Mars, Sparaga hits upon every major series to mount an unlikely fan driven comeback, but instead of just resting on a bunch of pop culture high notes, his film functions as a plea for more inclusivity and representation on television. When Sparaga follows a young, queer women trying to save the show Person of Interest – a series that featured a gay character in a positive light – and the betrayal she feels when they show takes an unexpected turn, the message comes home wonderfully. But the most fascinating bit of pop culture scholarship contained within Sparaga’s film is an oral history of the often overlooked Viewers for Quality Television, a group of television buffs that banded together under the guidance of a school teacher from Michigan to keep quality shows on the air. It’s a fun film to watch, but also one that makes us question how far we’re all willing to go to save our favourite series from extinction, and where the future of such fan campaigns might be going from here.

Screens

Saturday, April 28 – 5:30 pm – Scotiabank 4

Monday, April 30 – 3:00 pm – Hart House Theatre

Thursday, May 3 – 12:15 pm – Hart House Theatre

For a full list of films screening, showtimes, tickets, and more information, please visit hotdocs.ca.

 

Andrew Parker
Andrew Parker fell in love with film growing up across the street from a movie theatre. He began writing professionally about film at the age of fourteen, and has been following his passions ever since. His writing has been showcased at various online outlets, as well as in The Globe and Mail, BeatRoute, and NOW Magazine. If he's not watching something or reading something, he's probably sleeping.

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