A Hot Docs Redux

Last week I attended the Hot Docs Canadian and International Documentary Festival, the largest documentary film festival in North America. Hot Docs has become a major cultural institution over the years and has grown bigger and better with every festival. This year’s festival screened 197 documentaries from around the world over the course of eleven days across 452 screens in Toronto.

I have been to the odd Hot Docs screening here and there over the years, but I never really had the chance to float around Toronto for multiple days during the festival until this year. I won passes from the kind folks over at Scene and was able to check out six incredible documentaries: Meet the PatelsFed UpBronx ObamaI Am Big Bird: The Carol Spinney Story, Harmontown and Advanced Style. I loved all of them for different reasons and while I do intend on posting full reviews for a couple of these titles, I thought I would share a quick recap of some of my experiences at this year’s Hot Docs festival.

I kicked off my three day documentary extravaganza with a morning screening of Meet the Patels, which received its world premiere at this year’s Hot Docs festival. Meet the Patels follows thirty year old Ravi Patel, an actor based out of Los Angeles who has recently broken up with his red headed, all-American girlfriend. His parents, who are completely unaware that their son is even in a relationship, urge him to seriously consider settling down and marrying a nice Indian girl, preferably of the Patel variety. Side note: Patel is a very common last name in India. More specifically, most people who carry that last name are from the Gujurat state in India. They’ve formed their own sub-community of sorts over the years.

So Ravi makes an agreement with his parents: for one year, he will seriously pursue an arranged marriage. This is a huge undertaking when you are doing it Indian-style, but Ravi tries every method with an open mind and an open heart, while his sister Gita films the entire experience. While this film does a great job at uncovering some of the misconceptions associated with Indian arranged marriages, I think its resonance goes far beyond cultural borders. I think audiences really identified with the deep-rooted love that the Patel family has for one another, from both the parents’ and children’s perspectives. Gita and Ravi also did a fantastic job at assembling footage that was insightful but also simultaneously light and comedic. This tone is reinforced by animated bits of conversation and certain events, which I really enjoyed. I am sure these are just some of the reasons that Meet the Patels is the runner-up for the Audience Award at this year’s festival and I would highly recommend it for just about everyone.

Two out of my three days at Hot Docs were spent under grey skies and an umbrella. Well, when I had one that was working. I accidentally dropped one of my umbrellas in the gap between the subway and platform, and my other one kept malfunctioning because of the wind. All the trouble and traveling was totally worth it though, because I got to see some of the beautiful architecture at The University of Toronto’s St.George campus while checking out a few documentaries. I especially loved Hart House, which is where I watched Bronx Obama. “Bronx Obama” is the nickname for Louis Ortiz, a man who has made a career out of impersonating Barack Obama. Bronx Obama recounts Ortiz’s journey into this unconventional profession during the days of the 2008 election, Obama’s first term and the 2012 election. I was pleasantly surprised at how much heart there is in the film, which solely came from Ortiz, as a father, actor, and an American citizen. I also found that there is an interesting contrast between Obama and Ortiz’s pursuit of the American dream. They are obviously much different in scope, but Ortiz unexpectedly handles the same backlash that Obama does during his career, tying these two individuals in more ways than Ortiz may have ever intended.

One of the coolest parts of Hot Docs is that the filmmakers and stars of these documentaries stick around for a question and answer period following screenings. At the Bronx Obama screening I attended, one audience member asked Ortiz a question regarding the longevity of his career now that Obama is half-way through his second term as president. His response was optimistic and poignant, as he commented that while Obama’s time in the White House is coming to a close, his story is a monumental part of American history, and he believed that he will be a part of retelling that history in the years to come.

Q+As gave audience members a lot of additional insights into the stories that they got to see unfold on the big screen and the people who lived through these actual stories. I attended a special Scene screening of Advanced Style, which is based on the blog of the same title by Ari Seth Cohen. Advanced Style teaches audiences about how to embrace aging and how to feel beautiful when doing so through the profiles of New York women all over the age of sixty. While some of the stories introduced on screen felt incomplete and had a lot of loose ends by the end of the film, I really loved the spirit and approach that the documentary promoted. When director Lina Plioplyte spoke about how inspiring these women are in both their acceptance of age and how they live during her Q+A session, I couldn’t help but think of my own grandmother, who is well into her 80s. She loves pulling an outfit together, going out, and socializing with her friends. She engages in conversation, she continues to learn from the people around her and loves more and more every single day.  I think there’s a certain grace that women, like my grandmother and the women in Advanced Style, possess and it’s something I would love to strive for as I get older.

As simple and obvious as it may seem, what makes Hot Docs great, especially when you are experiencing its offerings back-to-back, is how much your brain starts churning with ideas. I loved how intellectually and, at times, emotionally stimulated I felt during those few days around the city. Harmontown did that for me. While watching the film (in a chapel at U of T, with free popcorn, and Gregory Smith sitting two rows in front of me), I recalled conversations in my Pop Culture class about Dan Harmon’s genius and meta-ways and began to think of the doc in that context. Dan Harmon is the creator of NBC sitcom Community, a half hour comedy about a group of students at a community college. NBC hasn’t always been satisfied with the ratings the show pulled in, but its extremely passionate following quite literally demanded that the show remained in production, and NBC actually listened. Unfortunately, NBC fired Dan Harmon over creative and managerial differences right before production began on the fourth season.

Instead of going to work on his own television show, Dan Harmon took his podcast Harmontown on the road. He traveled across the United States with his girlfriend Erin, cohost Jeff Davis, and Dungeons and Dragons master/Harmon fan/podcast participant, Spencer and put on shows, none of which actually had any script or plan or narrative other than whatever the team felt like talking about while on stage. I couldn’t help but draw parallels between the show Community, Dan Harmon’s team as a community, and the community he was trying to create during his live performances. I don’t want to go too much into the actual conclusions of the documentary, but I was surprised by how much Dan Harmon contemplated his identity and his place in these varying communities. His self-awareness and willingness to comment on what he believed were his personal inadequacies ended up being an incredibly raw, introspective look into fundamental human emotions. Yes, Harmontown is a must-see for Dan Harmon/Community fans, but I also think there are a few good takeaways for the people who have never been to Greendale Community College.

My one regret is that all of the documentaries I saw were American. I loved all of them, but I missed out on the opportunity to check out features from Canadian filmmakers and from other parts of the world. I will have to make a more conscious choice to see these types of documentaries at next year’s festival, but in the meanwhile, I will try to find opportunities to check out such works at other festivals.

I had an amazing time at Hot Docs and cannot wait for next year’s festival. Make sure to stay tuned for my reviews of Fed Up and I Am Big Bird: The Carol Spinney Story!

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