This week, Hot Docs up in Toronto kicks off. The festival, the largest documentary festival in North America, goes from April 28 to May 8, and there’ll be the usual stunning mass of nonfiction fare. What’s different this year is the captain who’ll be steering the ship. Director of Programming, Charlotte Cook, stepped down last year to work at Field of Vision, and in her shoes steps Shane Smith. No, not Shane Smith, he of the grey beard, biceps and tats who cofounded Vice; this is the originally Australian Shane Smith who has programmed for the Toronto International Film Festival, Sundance Film Festival and the Inside Out Festival. He’s got some of the grey beard (as do I, so I’m not fronting) and during our conversation, he exuded an enthusiasm, humor and knowledge that makes me hopeful for things to come.
I asked Shane to answer some questions that I emailed to him. I’ll just highlight that Hot Docs is without parallel in how it bridges the industry aspect of a festival, being a place where filmmakers can get financing and make key business partnerships, and also being an audience festival, where films connect with fans. But you can hear that from Shane…
Tom Roston: Could you name a couple of your favorite discoveries (filmmakers or films) or experiences from past Hot Docs?
Shane Smith: I’ve been coming to Hot Docs since the late 90s as an industry delegate, so seeing the evolution and growth of the festival, and the deeply engaged audience that has grown alongside the festival has been inspiring. There’s nothing more exciting as a programmer than to see an audience embrace a film, and to witness the impact that has on the filmmaker, and I’ve seen that happen over and over again at Hot Docs. Whether it be the passionate audience response to Blackfish in 2013 (and seeing my 11 year old nephew turn into an activist thanks to the film), or the eye-opening insights into Indian culture in The World Before Her in 2012, the alchemy that happens when an audience falls in love with a film and the filmmaker is there to experience that, is something I first saw happen at Hot Docs and is a moment I’m constantly striving to recreate with every film in the festival.
Roston: Did Charlotte Cook give you any parting words of wisdom?
Smith: Charlotte has been a great sounding board and source of advice, which has been incredibly helpful in my first year. It’s invaluable to have the insights of the person who was doing the job before you, and that doesn’t often happen, so I’ve lucked out there!
Roston: What’s been the most surprising challenge in putting together your first Hot Docs?
Smith: Literally, having so many diverse, interesting films vying for slots in the festival. The variety in form, content and number of countries that we’ve seen has been both inspiring and daunting, but I work with an exceptionally talented, deeply passionate programming team, and I’ve definitely benefited from their depth of knowledge and range of experience. So many difficult choices have to be made when shaping a well-rounded, diverse program and it’s always tough to say no to films we really, really like.
Roston: Is there any particular theme or ethos that you want to instill at Hot Docs?
Smith: I don’t want to impose a theme or ethos on the festival, I’d rather let the work and ideas filmmakers are interested in exploring help to guide us. At the same time, we play an important role in facilitating the conversation around evolving modes of documentary storytelling and production, whether that be new opportunities for short docs, the growth of VR and interactive doc projects, the evolution of creative nonfiction, or the rise in long form and prestige TV documentary. If anything, Hot Docs, being both a huge public and industry festival is able to bridge those audiences in ways that benefit filmmakers, and ultimately that’s why we’re here — to showcase and support the work of documentary filmmakers, to get audiences excited about and inspired by their films, and to stimulate and facilitate the funding and production of new work. That’s core to Hot Docs’ DNA and isn’t going to change.
Roston: Could you help highlight some films or filmmakers or trends for folks to look for this year?
Smith: We’re increasingly seeing nuanced, formally inventive approaches to familiar topics, whether that be the environment, refugees, art or transgender subjects. Filmmakers are tackling these and other subjects from unique angles, with fresh new voices, while pushing at the boundaries of the documentary form. I see that this year in films like The Pearl of Africa, The Age of Consequences, No Man Is an Island, Where is Rocky II?, FRAUD and Aim for the Roses. Whatever you thought you knew about these subjects is upended by fresh perspectives and new techniques. This not only makes for intelligent, engaging films, it showcases the diversity and shape-shifting possibilities of documentary as a genre. I’m inspired by the work being made today, and excited by the enormous potential of new approaches to documentary storytelling.
Hot Docs runs from April 28 to May 8. Find out more information on the festival here.