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.