It's been a little over a week since I returned home to Los Angeles after this year's edition of Hot Docs. I'm a big fan of Hot Docs - it's my fourth year running at the Toronto festival - and I think it might have been my best experience yet.
Part of this is due to the opening of the TIFF Bell Lightbox. I wasn't at TIFF last year (in fact, cost and timing has combined to make it impossible for me to attend since my own ABOUT A SON premiered there in 2006), so this was my first opportunity to view the new space. Let me add my voice to the chorus of those who find the new(ish) building remarkable. In spite of the fact that the gleaming cinema complex is a bit of a hike from the central action of the Hot Docs festival (which remains the Rogers Industry Center on the Victoria College Campus) and seems completely removed from any industry hobnobbing, I was more than content to hunker down in the space for a full day, taking time to get great food and wine in the midst of screenings in the building's technically top-notch theaters.
In fact, being completely removed from industry hobnobbing was actually a selling point.
One of the things that I've found at festivals, and I only have myself to blame here, is that when I actually tuck myself into back-to-back-to back screenings, I have some of my best experiences. I'm as guilty as anyone of being attracted to the shiny allure of the undiscovered mixer or meal or moment to rest. But my day at the Lightbox and away from the industry element of the festival helped crystalize this for me.
It didn't hurt that I saw some terrific films. In fact, I've been pretty lucky this year in that I was asked to serve on juries for the Miami and Ashland Film Festivals and that afforded me the opportunity to see a number of this year's most talked-about films - particularly a majority of this year's Sundance crop. The two juries I was on gave awards to THE INTERRUPTERS (Grand Jury) and IF A TREE FALLS (Special Jury) at Miami and to HOW TO DIE IN OREGON (Grand Jury) at Ashland. From these fests, I was also a big fan of James Marsh's latest, PROJECT NIM. All four were on the docket at Hot Docs as well.
But in Toronto, my great favorites were two terrific portrait films: Asif Kapadia's SENNA, about the Formula One champion racer Ayrton Senna, and Cindy Meehl's BUCK, the audience favorite about Buck Brannaman, the "real life horse whisperer".
If there's a frame of original footage in SENNA, I missed it (although it wouldn't surprise me if there were). The film seems entirely culled from television footage of Senna during his career (he was at the top of Formula One in the late '80s and early '90s). But it's as if someone was shooting a documentary while Senna was at his peak - there are cameras inside strategy meetings, cameras capturing contentious exchanges between Senna and race officials, cameras inside his car as it races. The quality of the archival material recalls the Oscar winning WHEN WE WERE KINGS.
And while credit is surely due to director Asif Kapadia, who picked up a couple of BAFTAs for his 2003 narratve film THE WARRIOR, the film is a stunning achievement for editors Gregers Sall and Chris King (who was a Cinema Eye winner for his work on EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP) as well as the team of researchers and archivists who worked on the film (IMDb credits Paul Bell as "Archive Producer"). Among those I talked to who'd seen the film, there was universal wonder on how SENNA did not pick up the Editing Award for World Documentary at Sundance this year. In fact, the jury (fairly shockingly) overlooked SENNA completely (it picked up the Audience Award in any case). It's one of my favorites of the year, by a fairly wide margin.
BUCK also picked up an Audience Award (in the US Documentary competition, where the jury also overlooked the film) and taken together, that strikes me as kind of miraculous. Neither BUCK nor SENNA features the type of leftist tear-tugging that sometimes masquerades as good filmmaking and often makes audiences weak in the knees. And while it's true that a lot of people are going to leave theaters feeling like both Brannaman and Senna are wonderful film heroes, it has a lot more to do with the craft involved: how the filmmakers unfold the stories of both men, leaving room for complications in both (Buck's a loner who's away from his family for the great majority of the year, Senna's a controversial, sometimes hot-tempered driver with deeply-held views on religion and a rotation of beautiful women at his side.)
For his part, Brannaman is such a compelling figure that BUCK could have been plenty charming with a film that was only half as good, and that may lead some to underestimate the skill involved here. But like last year's JOAN RIVERS film, the director and editor Toby Shimin strike a great balance between back story and current day footage. More importantly, they get the tone exactly right - light, almost slapstick humor at times, which makes the emotional, personal drama that unfolds much more potent (and it's the kind of stuff that could be really underlined, bolded and italicized to lesser impact, but is given such a sure hand here). Credit is surely due to veteran producer Julie Goldman and executive producer Andrea Meditch for helping novice director Meehl bring such a terrific film to fruition.
In addition to the Lightbox, which one has to remind is a TIFF facility and one that Hot Docs has just taken full advantage of, Hot Docs improved on itself this year with its usual happy hour, which was traditionally held inside the admin bldg.-like Industry Center but which has now moved around the corner to a beautiful, Oxford-like space on the Victoria campus. Each day featured wine, alcohol and a long table of food and offered a great opportunity for the film festival and the pitching forum to reconvene under one roof after being separate entities all day long.
The fest also reconfigured their annual awards presentation - changing the event from a sit-down affair at the Isabel Bader Theater to a breezy stand-up thing at the Windsor Arms Hotel. It was there that DRAGONSLAYER, the documentary that triumphed with the jury at its SXSW premiere, took home top honors in the International Documentary category. Awards also went to the much-buzzed about AT THE EDGE OF RUSSIA (International Emerging Artist) and FAMILY PORTRAIT IN BLACK AND WHITE (Canadian Feature Jury Prize).
DRAGONSLAYER, RUSSIA and Sundance Directing champ RESURRECT DEAD are on my shortlist of 2011 films that I still need to check out.