My Trip to the Documentary Mecca: HotDocs, Toronto

I recently made the ultimate doco-lover pilgrimage to HotDocs festival in Toronto. HotDocs is one of, if not the, largest documentary film festivals in the world, and it’s right at home Canada. In my five years at EFFA, I’ve witnessed the palpable excitement that bookends our sold-out screenings, the inspiring conversations beyond the cinema. But held up against my own experience, Canada’s love for the documentary form remains unmatched.

It’s a cultural thing. In fact documentary might be considered the cultural backbone of Canada, and Canadian documentary-makers are lauded some of the best in the world. Marc Glassman says, “Canadian documentary techniques and interests have been at the vanguard of the form for decades”.

Canada’s love affair with the documentary began with the release of Nanook of the North in 1922. The film follows the life story of Indigenous Canadian Nanook, his wife Nyla and their extended family who hunt animals for their livelihood. I was introduced to this film in my undergraduate years, and it was the first environmental film that captivated me. Seeing documentaries in the very place that my adoration for them stemmed from was all too real.

Every screening I went to was packed, if not full, of engaged and appreciative audiences, and every filmmaker in the Q&As commented on how receptive Canadian audiences were. It was an enthusiasm I wanted to pack into my suitcase and haul home.

Further, Indigenous stories are prioritized at Hotdocs, with The Road Forward the central focus of this year’s festival. The musical documentary explores the histories and plight of Canadian Indigenous people, spanning the rise of Indian nationalism in the 1930s to First Nations activism today. It quickly became clear that indigenous stories are not only prioritized in the programming, but there is significant demand for them. I was reminded of the importance of supporting and celebrating Australian stories, of using film to uncover the truth about our cultures, people and places.

I was most inspired by Chasing Coral, which uses high-tech underwater photography to juxtapose thriving reef environments against reefs undergoing bleaching.

The film quite literally sunk me into another world – exposing the rapid deterioration of a natural masterpiece that often feels so distant from us. Action is required now to prevent full collapse of global reef systems, and it’s the physical evidence of that that will bind support in communities.

HotDocs’s theme this year was OUTSPOKEN. OUTSTANDING – and I think that’s both true to the films screened and the festival experience. The gathering of some of the best minds in documentary and an ever-receptive audience is something special – but it was cemented by the connection between the two. The audiences at HotDocs are given arms length access to filmmaker and on-screen talent, and this is something I strive for with EFFA.

Further, seeing the prowess and impact of this festival validated all of the efforts made by our team of volunteers in Australia. The volunteer support at HotDocs was incredible, and I want to make sure our volunteer program continues to grow and be a fulfilling experience for all involved at EFFA.

I have always admired documentary for its inclusivity – it’s ability to expand the world views of people from all backgrounds, and connect communities. It’s a bold role to fill. That’s why documentaries, and film festivals, should never fall short of outspoken or outstanding. On the back of experiencing HotDocs in the documentary mecca, I hope for EFFA 2017 to be more outstanding and outspoken than ever.

I would like to formally thank the High Commission of Canada in Australia for their generous support of EFFA and for the opportunity to travel to and be a part of HotDocs 2017.

Chris Gerbing

Festival Director, EFFA.