If the documentary industry is built on the maxim that truth is stranger than fiction, it feels appropriate that this year’s hybrid Hot Docs film festival arrives at a time that could never have been imagined three years ago: surreal, discombobulating and stranger than a thousand disposable true-crime Netflix docuseries.
For its first in-person festival since 2019 – but with just as robust a virtual component as its 2020 and 2021 go-rounds – the 29th edition of Hot Docs is both familiar and new, comforting and invigorating. But with 226 titles to choose from – each of which will receive a physical premiere, plus an online screening window starting the following day – the one giant conundrum of Hot Docs remains constant: How can you possibly narrow down your selection to a manageable watchlist?
To help, here are The Globe and Mail’s 10 best Hot Docs 2022 bets, gleaned from advance viewing, industry buzz, filmmaker reputation and intriguing subject matter.
The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales
Perhaps the only time that “Hot Docs” and “Disney” will be uttered in the same breath, the premiere of The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales is bound to stir controversy. Co-directed by Abigail Disney, the granddaughter of the Walt Disney Company co-founder Roy O. Disney, the new doc explores America’s widening inequality crisis, using the Happiest Place on Earth as a prime example of what happens when corporations put profits over people. Long a thorn in the Walt Disney Company’s side – her 2021 Atlantic essay “I Was Taught from a Young Age to Protect My Dynastic Wealth” is a fiery read – Abigail is loud, passionate, and with a last name that commands attention. After earning strong reviews at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, The American Dream (co-directed by Kathleen Hughes) shows corporate America that the call is coming from inside the (mouse) house.
Fire of Love
Another hit from Sundance, where it was snapped up by National Geographic Documentary Films (a subsidiary of, um, Disney; see above), Fire of Love follows husband-and-wife scientists Maurice and Katia Krafft, who happen to be two of the world’s foremost volcano experts. An oft-unbelievable blend of on-the-ground footage (shot by its subjects) and poetic narration from multidisciplinary artist Miranda July, director Sara Dosa’s film is destined to be one of this year’s most talked-about docs.
Telefilm Canada’s microbudget Talent to Watch program gained a certain amount of respect in feature-narrative film circles with the recent release of Scarborough. But the scrappy initiative has yet to produce a documentary superstar … until now. Framing Agnes is Canadian director Chase Joynt’s form-breaking look at a landmark UCLA study on transgender individuals in the 1950s and 60s. An inventive, passionate and perspective-rearranging film that took home Sundance’s NEXT Audience Award and NEXT Innovator Award, Framing Agnes cements Joynt’s name as a documentarian worth watching.
Geographies of Solitude
On an island off the coast of Nova Scotia, Zoe Lucas spends her days studying the land’s flora and fauna, completely alone. Or, rather, almost completely alone: Though Lucas has spent a decade as Sable Island’s sole full-time resident, she has now been joined by Montreal-based filmmaker Jacquelyn Mills, who is there to chronicle Lucas’s life as the world’s most isolated amateur scientist. Shot on 16mm film to underline the antiquated intimacy of the situation, Mills’s tender doc won hearts and minds when it premiered at the Berlinale earlier this year, and should make long-lasting friends with its Hot Docs premiere, too.
Into the Weeds
Even before a frame of her new movie is screened at Hot Docs, Canadian director Jennifer Baichwal has already made history: She’s the first filmmaker to open the festival more than once, following the 2009 premiere of Act of God. But Into the Weeds should notch at least one or two more records, as the project – whose existence has been kept under tight wraps until now – follows a juicy David versus Goliath legal battle between American groundskeeper Dewayne (Lee) Johnson and an international agrochemical corporation whose end result might define the environmental landscape of planet Earth (no hyperbole).
The Kids in the Hall: Comedy Punks
Ahead of their new long-awaited reboot/sequel/whatever series on Prime Video, the Kids in the Hall reveal all (or, mostly all) in this SXSW-approved doc from Reg Harkema (one of Canadian film’s most prolific editors). Promising archival footage, behind-the-scenes clips from the Toronto sketch-comedy troupe’s most-loved sketches and fresh in-depth interviews with all the Kids (Dave Foley, Bruce McCulloch, Kevin McDonald, Mark McKinney and Scott Thompson), their collaborators (Lorne Michaels) and admirers (Mike Myers, Janeane Garofalo, Fred Armisen), Comedy Punks is required viewing for head-crushers everywhere.
As in comedy, timing is everything for documentaries. And this year, Toronto director Daniel Roher scored the scheduling jackpot with Navalny, his nervy, electric documentary on the Russian opposition leader, which made a surprise world premiere at Sundance this January just as Putin was pushing ahead his reign of terror in Ukraine. Built around an extensive sit-down interview with Navalny after the anti-corruption activist was poisoned by Kremlin agents – but just before he was imprisoned upon returning to his home country – Roher’s film is the kind of lightning-in-a-bottle doc that only comes around once in an era.
How do you take a photo while the world around you is breaking into pieces? That is the central question asked of conflict photojournalists each and every time they step into war zones to do their jobs, and it is the question at the heart of this new documentary produced by The Globe and Mail. Directed by Patrick Dell, a member of the Globe’s visual journalism team, Shooting War asks nine of the world’s most renowned photojournalists – Ron Haviv, Carol Guzy, Goran Tomasevic, Corinne Dufka, David Guttenfelder, Santiago Lyon, Joao Silva, Laurence Geai and Tim Page – to recount their most memorable stories, and how they balance the journalistic importance of their work with their own personal and psychological well-being.
The Talented Mr. Rosenberg
Between The Dropout, Super Pumped, Inventing Anna and WeCrashed, the season of the scammer is in full effect. Hoping to join the zeitgeist fray, with a Cancon twist, is this look at Albert Rosenberg, the so-called “Yorkville Swindler” who left a trail of heartbreak and financial woes in his dapper wake. Directed by seasoned scam-spotter Barry Avrich (Made You Look: A True Story About Fake Art) and co-written and co-produced by Courtney Shea – who adapts her own gripping 2015 Toronto Life feature – the film promises all manner of head-shaking schadenfreude set against Toronto’s toniest set.
Ignore its aggravating title for a moment – one that I cannot help but associate with last year’s Lin-Manuel Miranda/Andrew Garfield musical Tick, Tick … Boom! – and instead focus on what director Shalini Kantayya is uncovering here: the origin story of the social-media app that has taken the world (and your free time) by storm. If this doc, which garnered strong reviews after its Sundance premiere, can at least give me back those 20 minutes that I spend at the end of every night mindlessly scrolling through cooking/meme/”marriage comedy” TikTok videos, then it will be worth it.
Hot Docs runs April 28 through May 8 (hotdocs.ca)
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