I don’t see nearly as many documentary films as I would like.
Typically, I ask very little of myself when selecting a movie to watch, happily giving myself over to the least challenging (and most immediately rewarding) option available. Given the choice between an award winning documentary about the Vietnam War (something like The Fog of War, for instance, which turned out to be brilliant),
or some slickly packaged promise from Hollywood, well, nine times out of ten, I will choose the movie that’s more likely to have some celebrity nudity in it.
Who am I kidding?
I’ll watch the Hollywood film ten times out of ten, and I hate myself for this.
And so, each year when the Hot Docs Festival rolls into Toronto, I tell myself that this is my opportunity to change. I will watch all sorts of inspiring and fascinating documentaries and then dazzle all of my friends with the newly found evidence of my unquenchable intellectual curiosity.
Hot Docs, by the way, is the irritating brand name given to the International Documentary Film Festival, the largest such event in North America and one that takes place each spring in Toronto.
I don’t know if it’s fair to say that Hot Docs is the pale, flat-chested sister of the star-studded Toronto International Film Festival— you know, the bright, socially awkward girl who hates everybody else because they all seem to be happy and getting laid— but it sure feels that way sometimes.
No matter, the city loves having the festival, just not in exactly the same exuberantly ironic and giddy way that people love having that other festival. The movie star festival is ridiculous and over the top, and the public always feigns a big-city weariness for all the pomp and excitement it causes. “Can you believe that there was a traffic jam for Shia LeBeouf? I was late for yoga! For Shia Fucking LeBeouf! I can’t wait for this evil festival to be over!!” That festival allows people the opportunity to talk about movie stars without sounding like they actually care about the movie stars.
Well, at Hot Docs there are no traffic jams, shorter-than-you-would-have-thought movie stars on the streets, or really all that much else to complain about. There are about 150 films, made by earnest people for an audience of earnest people that are screened throughout the city. It’s actually an excellent festival, full of excellent films, but still, whenever a tribe gets together to celebrate and promote their own accomplishments, it gets kind of weird.
Like all festivals, Hot Docs naturally wants to bring as much attention to itself as possible, and so they always try to create a buzz, but they really don’t have the tools (movie stars) to generate a sincere groundswell of interest. People will line the streets and wait in the rain to see Clive Owen or Natalie Portman,
but to see an average person who isn’t playing an extraordinary role? And so the sensation of an eager crowd must be engineered, and this is done by an army of volunteers, who carry out their tasks with the zealous glint of Green Peace warriors.
Attempting to create a climate of exclusion and privilege around the films being screened, the volunteers, all armed with clipboards and those heads sets that people who work in the Gap wear, patrol the sidewalks in front of the theaters like Storm Troopers, and they do not make going to see a movie an easy experience.
At one screening I was told to go to a line-up where I would be given a ticket that would allow me to eventually go to another line-up in order to buy an actual admission ticket. They had managed to create a Byzantine structure that contained five separate lines of people, all of whom where entering into some stage of getting in to see the movie, while a fluster of volunteers spoke with one another through their headsets, in spite of the fact that they were standing next to one another. Obviously, the overseers were making work so that the multitude of volunteers would have something to do, but I think it was also an intentional strategy to create an aura of exclusivity and industry. They were making it difficult for the people who wanted to see the movie, so that the people who didn’t want to see the movie would feel that they were missing out on an important happening.
They were marketing.
Later, I attended a festival function in which I was to meet with the director of one of the films that was being screened. I always feel like an outsider at these sorts of things and until the guy arrived, I stood there like a knob, sharing clumsy smiles with strangers while taking quick sips from my glass of wine and pretending to check non-existent messages on my phone. It was awkward, alienating, and just a little bit lonely.
Eventually, I spoke to the director, and as I was doing so I realized that this was likely the part of his job that he liked the least. He made the movie, and now he had to sell it to the media, and the media—who had been given free drinks, t-shirts, and tote bags—were now expected to write enthusiastic promotions for that movie. Everybody, I think, felt like a whore.
As high-minded and uncelebrated as documentaries generally tend to be, the dog and pony show that the film makers, and all the attendant hanger’s-on (the media, the volunteers) participate in is as nakedly manipulative and cynical, if not more, than that accompanying the great Hollywood beast. In the end, I guess, a festival, any festival, is about selling, and whether it’s about selling a product or a cause, it still must pass through the same oily machinery.
Michael Murray is a freelance writer. For the last three and a half years he’s written a weekly column for the Ottawa Citizen about watching television. He presently lives in Toronto. You can find more of his musings on his blog, or check out his Facebook page.