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“Best Audience” Award goes to…

If we had an award for “best audience” it would go to the city of Toronto. Every single screening at Hotdocs was packed with a crowd, which gave themselves over to the story on screen and lived through the roller coaster of emotions, laughter and tears. It was palpable.

There was a ritual:

Every screening started with a humoristic advert to celebrate and thank all the volunteers who make the festival happen. Everyone applauded.

Every screening finished with a Q&A. Nothing unusual here, but what is unusual is the quality of the Q&A facilitators. They are the best I have ever come across. Armed with the full information about the director, the team, the film, they are able to engage an intelligent and emotive dialogue between the audience and the filmmaker.  On The Bully Project I sat next to a 12-year-old girl who managed to overcome her tears and ask the filmmaker and an audience of 600 people if one should denounce bullies?

After the screening of James Marsh’s new film Project Nim we were surprised by the presence of three of the main characters, who talked very candidly and emotionally about their relationship to Nim, the chimp, twenty years on. Never mind they mildly shocked us with their 70s hippie-ish attitude;  one of them, Nim’s “adoptive mother” breast-fed him alongside her own children…

After The Bengali Detective, the main character (the detective) received a standing ovation of loud applause for several minutes as recognition of the humor demonstrated in his life against all odds.

When I talked to Sean Farnel, director of Hotdocs, about Toronto’s incredible audiences, he said that both audience and Q&A facilitators get plenty of practice all year round, with a rich exposure to a vibrant documentary culture in Toronto. A model to be up held!

Every commissioning editor complains that there is no audience for one off documentary films proposed by indies, but again and again, hundreds of people were queuing in the cold and rain in order to catch another international documentary and the chance to share the viewing with the filmmaker.



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The Perfect Sneeze: On the Hotdocs Soap Box

For the last two years Hotdocs has been experimenting with ad lib sessions and one of them is The Soap Box where you can rant, shout or just wonder aloud. This year was again hosted by filmmaker & blogger AJ Schnack and I was selected with a few other speakers, including Peter Wintonick to speak from the “pulpit” of the documentary church.

moratorium on about
Peter Wintonick asks for a moratorium on “about”

Peter did a very eloquent plead to ban the word “about” at festivals and documentary forums. What a challenge! How can we talk about our films without that magical word? Why should we even consider banning it?  Well, he had a good argument: “about” leads us straight into content of the film and makes us forget  that we are storytellers selling stories, not social workers outlining sets of problems.

It was a wonderful way to remind us that stories, structure, aesthetics, images, sound is the core of our art; but in the process he did mention “about”  58 times – but, hey, who’s counting!

Lynn took us on a personal journey, we’d all like to walk: the meeting of millionaire philanthropists desperate to invest in documentaries with a good cause. It all started with the miracle of Facebook when one day an Indian millionaire got in touch with her, requesting to be a friend and would she accept his invitation to come over to India to stay in a magnificent villa with a private chauffeur in exchange of giving a life inspiring talk to a bunch of girls in Rajasthan. An offer a girl cannot turn down. It all went so well that he is now financing her film and other projects. This is the first strong argument I have heard to convince me that I should join Facebook.

And then it was my turn.  I had planned to talk seriously about my love and respect for short documentaries but quickly realized that AJ was expecting a lighter mood  on this platform. So I started talking about my love for sneezing (shared with my audience after a quick survey around the room). I love the physical sensation that leads to the inevitable sneeze, the attempt to stop it and then, Wham! it happens:  the sensation of relief  is next to none.  And more often than not you get a “bless you” from your neighbour, acknowledging that shared relief.

Well, for me, short docs are the perfect sneeze of the documentary world: something small, perfectly intense which leads to nothing else.  I resent short docs being perceived as either a calling card if you are new talent, or as a filler if you are a broadcaster. Scottish Documentary Institute dedicates a lot of its time producing shorts in order to remind the documentary community for the need to be playful and adventurous.  We live in a world that is constantly looking for harmony and resolution – well, short documentaries are a unique space to wrestle contradictions. Short documentaries are a unique form alongside poetry to refute this tyranny of the resolution and explore the power of suggestion of something that is way beyond.

Filmmakers of any age and status should give in more frequently to letting out the perfect sneeze.


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