Ripping Reality

I Work For Documentary

by seafar

A nagging effect of being raised in a mining town, where most of my friends take their showers after work, is that I’ve always felt suspect when describing my profession. “You watch movies all day?” Of course, there’s much more to film festival programming than screenings, but that’s what it usually gets hammered down to. And, indeed, I’ve watched over 4000 documentaries over the past twelve years. I still have notes on most of them. That’s a lot of reality. Another reality is that there comes a time to change course.

After six wonderful festivals as its Director of Programming I am taking my leave from Hot Docs. I like the synchronicity of it, having also programmed the docs at the Toronto International Film Festival for six years prior to being recruited to Hot Docs. Five years is usually enough to get the job done (give or take a bonus year). As at tiff, I depart with pride, having significantly advanced the programmes on which I worked. It seems unlikely that we could’ve put together a better festival than we did with this past Hot Docs.

As Hot Docs’ first Director of Programming my primary goals were to develop and instill a programming culture within the organization (having come from the world’s best at tiff) and to work with the team there to take a well-regarded regional event to the next level, in terms of both public and industry profile. Few, if any, international film festivals have enjoyed more growth than Hot Docs since 2005. Having just announced another record event, with over 150,000 admissions and a 24 per cent increase in earned revenues, the Festival has more than tripled its audience over the past six years. With that, Hot Docs is now a close second to IDFA as the world’s largest documentary film festival. The Festival has become one of Toronto’s most significant and beloved cultural events.

My relationship with Hot Docs actually goes back to 2001, when we partnered to launch Doc Soup, a series I created to fill a local void for documentary between the annual tiff and Hot Docs events in Toronto. At the time few documentaries were being acquired by Canadian distributors, and most of the terrific films that came through the festivals never had a chance to be seen again. This past season Doc Soup had more than 1200 subscribers for its two monthly screenings at the Bloor Cinema. Hot Docs also now runs Doc Soup events in four Canadian cities.

Developing and expanding audiences for documentary is one thing, but there is no point in doing so if the conditions for producing these vital works does not make economic sense. The prospect of creating and managing production funds was one of my primary motivators for joining Hot Docs. In 2008 we launched the Shaw Media-Hot Docs Funds (initially the Canwest-Hot Docs Funds), a $3-million completion fund and a $1-million development fund.

Having spent most of my career making judgements on finished films, the opportunity to assess productions in development or production has been an incredibly enriching experience. More importantly, it was helping to get documentaries funded, even if only placing a patch on an increasingly tattered funding net for creative documentary. We were delighted that the Shaw Fund had its first “Cannes film” this year with AT NIGHT, THEY DANCE, exactly the kind of filmmaking I felt these funds were intended to support. That my departure means I won’t be able to work on the more recently announced Hot Docs- Blue Ice Film Documentary Fund, a fund for supporting filmmakers in developing African countries, certainly makes this departure bittersweet.

Just plain sad is that I will deeply miss working with the incredibly talented Programming team we had built at Hot Docs. While I can point to many personal highlights -  an onstage interview with Werner Herzog; becoming friends with some of my filmmaking heroes, including Heddy Honigmann and Kim Longinotto; a rowdy Doc Soup presentation of BIGGIE AND TUPAC with Nick Broomfield (800 hip-hop fans heckled us off-stage at the intro….but sat transfixed for the film and Q&A); and this year presenting Ally Derks with the Doc Mogul Award – it will be the day-to-day honesty and hilarity of talking about films with this particular group of Programmers that will be impossible to replace. We worked and played very hard, had grown rather close, particularly over the past few years, and produced a world-class programme and event. I’ve learned so much from them, gave as much of myself as I could, and truly loved working with each and every one of my friends and colleagues.

It’s been a great ride, personally and professionally. I depart with immense gratitude to the Hot Docs Board and management team for allowing me to serve the organization. The staff there is a lovely, smart and committed group.

Festivals sit at the nexus of the art and industry of film culture. We see it all. This is a time of transvaluation in all aspects of how we make, distribute, broadcast and consume moving images. As the poet wrote: “Surely some revelation is at hand.” So I proceed, assuredly and with genuine excitement. My professional life has been devoted to sharing my passion for film, and particularly documentary. I remain inspired by the fact that the stories, people, issues, and emotions we experience in watching documentary could not be communicated, as potently, in any other form. It’s been a gift…not just earning a living, but a life in itself.

And so I embrace the notion of having some room to roam, to being a professional omnivore, a free agent, and at some point to taking your calls to persuade me to settle down. But, for now, when my friends back home ask me what I’m doing, how will I respond? Well, I’m putting my work boots and coveralls on, sharpening my tools and packing a big lunch.

I work for documentary.









50 comments on ‘I Work For Documentary’

Rooting Nexus 4 — 03 June 2014 08:59
Unfortunately, Apple has not applied this update to the MacBook Air with a Retina display, something many people were hoping for. The 13-inch version still has a 13.3 inch screen with a resolution of 1440 x 900 pixels. When this screen was introduced in 2010, it was a fine screen, now we are spoiled with ultrabooks with full HD or higher resolution screen, and we find this little thin. The color reproduction and viewing angles are good.
????? ?????? — 10 December 2012 15:14
Sean, you are a hero to documentarians and I look forward to seeing what your next move will be. Thanks for everything you've done for our community so far!
tfc mod loader — 08 October 2012 17:10
entary.” HotDocs Director Of Programming Sean Farnel Takes His Leave After Six Years
Wot — 08 October 2012 17:09
Bittersweet news, indeed, Sean. You did a fantastic job at Hot Docs during your reign and we'll all miss you. But very excited for you on a personal level and wish you all the best. Hope you'll spend more time with us on The D-Word now that you actually have some time on your hands.
Sierra111 — 09 July 2012 02:23
Good luck with whatever you do. Best, MT
Paige111 — 09 July 2012 02:22
thanks for everything you've done for all of us!
Agnes — 09 July 2012 02:18
Thanks for everything you've done for our community so far!
Ian Oliveri — 06 July 2011 12:52
Great job, Sean! Hot Docs has become a beacon in the documentary field. Thank you for all your work and commitment as well as your crew's. So long!
Elena Fortes — 28 June 2011 23:42
Dear Sean, You work for documentary, we work for documentary, but we also work for Sean Farnel (or because of Sean Farnel). You've been an inspiration to all of us in the documentary world, with your relentlessly creative endeavors, and unparalleled magnetism. What you've achieved in your past six year sessions is absolutely remarkable. I'm certain that whatever comes next from you will be equally brilliant. I also truly appreciate your support and advice, and hold dearly all the conversations we've shared. It has been a great pleasure and privilege to meet you. I also hope you accept our invitation to roam as a free agent with Ambulante next February (since at least it doesn't imply settling down). You may want to bring the work boots. Thank you Sean. For your humanity, for your vision, and your work. Elena
Peter Wintonick — 25 June 2011 10:09
Hey sean Just chiming with a note of appreciation and congratulations, from some far flung outpost in docworld on my own docUlyssesian journey, in the docland tidal margin between friction and faction, between factivism and fact, between docmedia and documentary. You are one hell of a programmer, Sean, and one hell of a swell guy. As insightful proslytizer, instigator, collectivizer, vibration, leader, curator, team player. All in a generous, gentlemanly, relaxed, concerned and commited fashion. You are a lover of all things doc and beyond. And you’ve helped take audiences and industry beyond the yawn of oldstyle doc as medicine that’s good for you. I am sure you will contribute much more to this field, should you want to, but wherever your quest takes you, I’ll be out there to share a beer with you on the road to reality.
Heddy Honigmann — 24 June 2011 19:13
Dear Sean, I got the news from Claudia Landsberger, so here I am to give you a big hug and tell you that I'll miss you (we, filmmakers, will miss your intelligence, big knowledge of the rich documentary cinema and your enormous curiosity). Are you comming to next IDFA? Then we could chat a bit and I could give you the first almost complete dvd-box of my work, including my fictions. And we still need to discuss further about that one film which made me so angry -you know- with a glass of good wine. Let us know where the river will bring you, okay? Warmest, Heddy Honigmann
Fleur Knopperts — 24 June 2011 06:55
congratulations on a job well done at hot docs, and good luck with all your future adventures!!
Alan Maher — 21 June 2011 13:03
Sean, thenk you supporting our films over the past couple of years. Looking forward to hearing about your future plans.
Margarita Martinez — 21 June 2011 13:00
Dear Sean, Thanks for your wonderful work. Even in Bogotá, Colombia, we have felt the love and dedication to your work, Margarita Martínez
ally derks — 21 June 2011 11:12
dear sean thanks for e'thing. I will miss you. Let's drink a caiparinna in the near future, big hug, ally derks
Rick Minnich — 21 June 2011 09:57
Sean, I wish you a good, long rest and the best of luck with all your future endeavors. Hot Docs has felt like a second home to me. Thank you very much for all your support over the years and for championing so many fantastic films!
Raffaele — 21 June 2011 06:40
thank you Sean. I loved screening my films at Hot Docs, the best audience in the world. I loved watching films at Hot Docs. I loved having you as an IDS guest. a presto! ciao Raffaele
Kerstin Ûbelacker — 21 June 2011 04:58
Thanks Sean for making me feel at home at Hot Docs. Your hard work is appreciated and thanks for a great festival. Hope to see you again somewhere in the doc circuit. Kerstin Doc Lounge
Paolo & Line — 21 June 2011 04:55
Ciao Sean!!! Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery.... today is a gift. Enjoy your work boots and coverall on,thinking about the great things you've done at Hot Docs and being open to the new surprises soon to arrive. In the meantime if you pass through Italy don't hesitate to come by. Hugs from Paolo & Line.
Jane Williams — 21 June 2011 04:41
Dear Sean it has been a pleasure working with you, thank you for your all support at DIFF and I look forward to meeting up with you again soon. Best wishes for your future plans, Jane
Monica Rorvik — 21 June 2011 04:35
Hi Sean It was great to see HOT DOCS under your amazing eye. Thank you for the invitation and programming such wonderful films. Hope to see you at DIFF one year. All best in whatever project you do next. Monica Rorvik
Monica Rorvik — 21 June 2011 04:33
Hi Sean HOTDOCS was amazing, thank you for bringing the DIFF to see it working so well under your fantastic eye. Hope to see you in Durban one of these years. And I look forward to seeing where you pop up. warmest thanks Monica Rorvik
Sara Rüster — 21 June 2011 03:16
Thanks Sean for six great years! Hope to see you in the festival circuit somewhere in the world. Good luck!!
Marja Pallassalo — 21 June 2011 02:35
Sean, all the best for the future and thank you for all your efforts. I was moved by your farewell words.
Thom Powers — 20 June 2011 21:16
Sean, there's no doc festival programmer in North America who matches your depth of experience and international scope. I look forward to seeing where you land up long as it's not in one of my jobs.
Shirley — 20 June 2011 19:33
Sean, you will be dearly missed both during the spring festival and at the monthly Doc Soup screenings. You have been amazing and I have such admiration for what you have achieved. I also want to publicly thank you for the years you have supported emerging filmmakers - both at TIFF, in creating the Student Film Showcase with the Film School Consortium, and then at Hot Docs, in creating the Doc U program for filmmakers from post secondary film schools across Canada. You have been a pillar. I envy you this time of re-energizing and focus. And I am confident in knowing that great things will lie ahead. Thank you.
Liesl — 20 June 2011 18:57
Sean- your articulate and humble leadership will be sorely missed. I hope whatever you are doing, someone is making a documentary about it!!! Knock 'em dead! - Liesl
Pawel — 20 June 2011 18:06
Sean. 2011 was my first Hot Docs. Truly fantastic. Thank you very much!!! I hope to see you soon. Pawel Kloc
aliona van der Horst — 20 June 2011 17:28
Thank you for all you did for us, the documentary-makers.look forward to know where life will bring you to now...!
kim longinotto — 20 June 2011 17:18
A big hug coming to you from London. You certainly deserve a break - I hope you'll have lots of adventures xxx kim
Pietra Brettkelly — 20 June 2011 16:43
Hey Sean, thank you for supporting my particular career. You have done so much for us all.... looking forward to hearing what happens next for you.
Neil Tabatznik — 20 June 2011 16:06
Sean, It's been a real pleasure working with you during my time at Hot Docs. You have done a hell'va job and leave a real legacy. You will be missed. Wishing you the very best in whatever you decide to do after lunch. Good luck!! Neil
Andre Bennett — 20 June 2011 14:53
Dear Sean, Thank you for all of your efforts: Film Circuit, TIFF, Doc Shop & Hot Docs; not to mention your various efforts to establish financing options for the making of documentaries. Your commitment and vision have made a qualitative positive difference to both the Canadian and international film industries. Have loads of fun roaming for a while and my very best wishes for all of your future undertakings. All the best, Andre
Mark Landsman — 20 June 2011 14:51
You do work for it man, few've worked harder, and you do it with great style. Hot Docs was one of the highlights of our festival run. Even better still was coming back for Doc Soup and getting to spend some good time with you offline over a few pints. No doubt whatever you go on to do it'll be meaningful. All the best and post a picture of that lunch box...
Kristina McLaughlin (Primitive Entertainment Inc.) — 20 June 2011 14:38
Sean, thanks for all of your generous support over the past 6 years for our films, our company and the Doc community at large. You will be missed!
Riccardo Neri — 20 June 2011 14:14
Dear Sean, a great way to say goodbye. We never met, but you probably watched 2 of my docs submitted at HotDocs. I came for two years and for this I want to thank you for making my life there funny, interesting, busy, amazing etc etc. Keep us posted on your next project. All the best Riccardo
Elizabeth Klinck — 20 June 2011 14:00
All best wishes for your next adventure, Sean. Thanks for all the great work you did at Hot Docs !
Naki — 20 June 2011 13:56
You are a true leader, Sean. Congratulations on all you have accomplished over the past six and six years. May the next six been even more fruitful.
Victor Kossakovsky — 20 June 2011 13:51
Thank you, Sean! Good luck in a new life!
Barri Cohen — 20 June 2011 12:56
Thank you for everything Sean! You write that "five years is usually enough to get the job done". What a gracious and wise attitude -- and one that I wish was more widely held by folks in our cultural industries as a whole. Best of luck, and I look forward to our paths crossing again. Barri Cohen & Chair - Editorial Board, POV Magazine
Barbara Schroeder — 20 June 2011 12:43
superb writing, thank you for being such an eloquent champion of the genre!
Michael Tucker — 20 June 2011 12:36
Sean Thanks for all the risks you've taken and the films you've championed. Toronto is where we feel most at home as filmmakers and you've been a huge part of building that audience. Good luck with whatever you do. Best, MT
Sonja — 20 June 2011 12:30
Sean, you did an amazing job, and we can't wait to hear what's next in store for you. We'll miss you, but trust to still be seeing you around, working for documentary! Sonja & all at Scottish Documentary Institute
Doug Block — 20 June 2011 11:41
Bittersweet news, indeed, Sean. You did a fantastic job at Hot Docs during your reign and we'll all miss you. But very excited for you on a personal level and wish you all the best. Hope you'll spend more time with us on The D-Word now that you actually have some time on your hands.
Sean Farnel Moving On From Hot Docs — Toronto Screen Shots — 20 June 2011 11:35
[...] six years at the helm, Hot Docs Director of Programming Sean Farnel is moving on. In an elo­quent blog post, he reveals that he’s not sure what’s next: I embrace the notion of having some room to roam, [...]
James McNally — 20 June 2011 11:22
Sean, you should be very proud indeed of the work you have done for Hot Docs and for documentary film in general. You've been my professional hero, mentor and (I hope) friend and I wish you more success and fulfillment in whatever you choose to do with the next part of your life. Onward and upward!
Pat Aufderheide — 20 June 2011 11:06
Sean, thanks for everything you've done for all of us! Can't wait to find out what you'll introduce us to next!
“I Work For Documentary”: Sean Farnel Leaves Hot Docs After 6 Years « Movie City News — 20 June 2011 00:48
[...] Sean Farnel doesn’t offer a roadmap to what comes next, his blog entry about leaving Hot Docs offers much about what’s come before: “I’ve watched over 4000 documentaries over the [...]
Laure — 20 June 2011 00:00
Sean, you are a hero to documentarians and I look forward to seeing what your next move will be. Thanks for everything you've done for our community so far!
HotDocs Director Of Programming Sean Farnel Takes His Leave After Six Years « Movie City News — 19 June 2011 23:35
[...] “I work for documentary.” HotDocs Director Of Programming Sean Farnel Takes His Leave After Six Years [...]