TORONTO — Entourage star Adrian Grenier’s look at a teenage paparazzo, Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh’s profile of the late theatre artist Spalding Gray and a piece on homegrown rockers Rush are among the offerings at this year’s Hot Docs festival.
A total of 166 films from 41 countries will unspool at the 17th annual Toronto event, which kicks off April 29 and is billed as North America’s largest documentary festival.
Organizers say the audience has more than doubled over the last five years. The increase is a reflection of a desire by audiences to see genuine expression in cinema, said Sean Farnel, the festival’s director of programming.
“Documentary filmmakers, in the fluid forms they work with, they allow their stories to really breathe and the people in their stories to express themselves in their own voices with their own passions.”
The festival will open with Thomas Balmes’ highly anticipated French documentary Babies, which follows four infants from around the world.
Screening later that day is Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage from Canadian filmmakers Scot McFadyen and Sam Dunn, who have examined rock music with several docs including last year’s Iron Maiden: Flight 666.
Grenier’s film, Teenage Paparazzo, focuses on 13-year-old shutterbug Austin Visschedyk and features socialite Paris Hilton and actors Alec Baldwin and Matt Damon.
Also examining celebrity culture is Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg’s Joan Rivers — A Piece of Work, about her efforts to get work in a youth-obsessed business.
And Everything is Going Fine is the title of Soderbergh’s intimate biography of his long-time friend and collaborator Gray, whose body was pulled from the East River in New York in 2004.
Other Canadian pieces in the lineup include The Story of Furious Pete, about Mississauga, Ont., native Pete Czerwinski, who was anorexic as a teen and travels to take part in eating competitions.
“It’s a documentary about many things: it’s bizarre, gross, inspiring and heartwarming,” said director-producer George Tsioutsioulas.
Hot Docs executive director Chris McDonald says he’s impressed with the calibre of submissions this year, particularly given the funding cutbacks the genre is facing.
“What’s happened recently is there are less advertising dollars that broadcasters have, there’ve been mergers and acquisitions within the broadcast community, which means there are fewer outlets for filmmakers, Canadian in this case, to find financing for their films so they’ve had to be creative,” he explained.
“At the same time, opportunities have emerged for filmmakers: technology, small cameras, people are able to edit films on laptops, so it’s become much more of a democratic process.”
Canadian Maya Gallus, director of Dish — Women, Waitressing and the Art of Service, which is screening at this year’s festival, said she’s felt the pinch.
“These are tough times to be a documentary maker — to be I think any kind of filmmaker really — and budgets are shrinking, it’s harder to get financing,” she said. “We were very, very lucky and grateful to be able to get the financing together for this film.”
But Canadian director-producer John Walker — who is returning to Hot Docs for the fourth time with A Drummer’s Dream, about a big jam session with seven internationally renowned drummers — is optimistic.
“The traditional structures of funding are shifting so we’re in a period of transition and that always is a difficult period for any industry, but there’s always ups and downs,” said Walker, who was one of the founding members of the Documentary Organization of Canada, which helped birth Hot Docs.
“We’ve been through it, we’ve been low before and we’ll come back up again, so we have to just reorganize.”