The Hot Docs film festival in Toronto, which kicks off today, is the paradise where good documentary lovers go to die. There is so much to see. There are so many world premieres. The range of subject matter and filmmaker pedigree is so wide. The theaters are so comfortable and their audio-visual technology is without parallel. You might think you didn’t miss anything if you didn’t absorb any of the outpouring of nonfiction fare from the previous three months at the other primo documentary festivals, Sundance, True/False, South by Southwest, Full Frame and Tribeca.

Each festival has its own flavor, so if the past three months were an indulgent doc buffet, Hot Docs would be the crab legs. I guess metaphors won’t work for everyone—especially lame ones—so I’ll stop, but with 210 films and 47 world premieres under the watchful curatorial eye of festival head Charlotte Cook and her team, let’s just say that Hot Docs looks to be awesome. I’m pleased to see that the festival is including some of my favorite docs of the year to come, including big splashes (Montage of Heck, Peace Officer) and little-known gems (The Cult of JT Leroy). I spoke with Cook about the documentaries I haven’t seen, and am most excited to sink my teeth into. (Sorry!)

In Sinner in Mecca, director Parvez Sharma goes beyond the mere notion of being gay and Muslim as he documented in Jihad for Love, to turning the camera on himself as he journeys to Mecca, where he could be imprisoned or worse for who he is. “Every year, there is at least one film that requires special care,” Cook says. When the festival is on high alert about a documentary, then that means there’s a dangerous film that needs to be seen.

When family members turn the camera on the brilliance or dysfunction that was bred at home, that close intimacy can cloud or reveal incredible things. I’m hoping for the latter with Pinocchio, in which director Andre-Line Beauparlant made a film to reach an understanding of her devious, con-artist brother. “Some stories, you could only get from within a family,” Cook says.

Hadwins Judgement is about a man of the deep woods who went on the deep end and committed the terrible crime of chopping down an ancient, sacred tree. Sounds like Heart of Darkness meets If A Tree Falls, doesn’t it? Speaking of the unhinged, Deprogrammed is about a cult deprogrammer. “There’s always been this interest in documentary about extreme communities,” says Cook. I’m thinking of this as a companion piece to Alex Gibney’s Going Clear.

For something completely different, there’s A Woman Like Me, in which actress Lili Taylor takes on the role of terminally ill director Alex Sichel, who processes her illness through verite nonfiction filmmaking and performance. It’s a self-aware representation of reality, like Robert Greene’s Actress, but with higher stakes. “Death is something that we all must deal with,” Cooke says. “It’s something we are all fascinated by.”

She notes that the theme of dealing with death and grief also pertains to Thank You for Playing, another documentary I’m dreading/wanting to see. It’s about a couple with a terminally ill child, and how they create a video game to communicate his diagnosis and the family’s struggle. I hear that when this played at Tribeca, the audience was beside itself. It reminds me of Dear Zachary, another audience-scorching experience. The notion of a film that pushes you toward such a bald confrontation with suffering is probably best left to deeper reflection. So I’ll save that for another post. Not sure I have the stamina to see this film, but I’ll try.

If I remain brave, there are three films on the fringe that I hope to catch. First, there’s Stand Up for Tape Back-up, a film in which director Ross Sutherland projects his thoughts and dreams on an old VHS tape, inspired by “Dark Side of the Rainbow,” a mashup of Pink Floyd and The Wizard of Oz. There’s also Above and Below, a series of interconnected stories that illuminate reality through different perspectives, going from the desert to tunnels.

Last, there’s The Nightmare, a “real life horror film,” from Rodney Ascher, who made the cult-favorite Room 237, about The Shining obsessives. I didn’t like his previous film so much—much ado about not much, I thought—but I recognize that Ascher has a style and sensibility that could portend great things. Nightmare follows the phenomenon of sleep paralysis. “It’s terrifying,” says Cook. “Horror fans will want to see it.” Could this be the first genuine documentary that breaks out as a genre hit, the way Blair Witch did from the other side of the fiction divide?

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen