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May 22, 2010

Hot Docs 2010 Requires Strategy and Stamina

In early May, I attended Hot Docs 2010 in Toronto, which is North America’s largest documentary film festival. It runs for 11 days with over 170 films from 35 countries. Imagine 80 hrs. of sitting in the dark and 600 minutes of waiting over a 9 day period. This is someone’s idea of a great vacation – mine, actually! My film fest foolishness began, April 30th, on the flight from Vancouver to Toronto.

Screening Marathon
Armed with a premium festival pass for $140, I intended to get my money’s worth! I was in Toronto for 9 days of the festival, and by the end, my cost per screening (which was sometimes actually more than one film) was down to $3.33. Forty-two screenings in 9 days at six different theatres for $140 equals $3.33 per screening!” You’d be challenged to find that deal anywhere else, except maybe Honest Ed’s (a Toronto institution/landmark, but more about that another time).

Personalized Screening Strategy
My strategy for figuring out what films to see has been developed over many years and began when I was a grad student with thesis-avoidance-time on my hands (and attended the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF) every fall). Getting it right takes several hours of planning.

Here’s how I figure out my viewing schedule:
1) Read through descriptions of films and circle films of interest.

I quickly read the descriptions of the films and circle the films that interest me, also checking to see if the film already has a distributor, and noting if it is done by a famous director, has famous actors, etc. Such films are more likely to come to a mainstream theatre or be released on DVD after the festival. I want to use my precious screening time slots to see films that I will not have an opportunity to see again – which are often just as good, but perhaps will never be picked up by a distributor as the topic doesn’t appeal to the masses. I avoid films that are shown in gala opening or closing nights – these films will definitely end up in a mainstream theatre, sometimes even only a day or two after the festival closes.

2) Write out names of films of interest on a separate sheet in random order.
I write out all the films I’ve circled in the original guide onto a separate piece of paper. I don’t filter or eliminate at this point. There will usually be over 100 films listed, and no possible way to see them all in a 10 or 11 day festival.

In most festivals (Hot Docs or VIFF), the maximum number of screenings you can fit into a single day is four or five. Films usually start at about 11:00 am with the last screening beginning at about 9:30 pm. If you allow 2 hours per screening + 0.5 hours for Q&A with the filmmakers (who may be in attendance) plus time to change theatres, squishing in five films each day is almost a cinematic accomplishment of its own. Don’t forget to leave time for the Q&A after the screenings!

3) Using overall film schedule, which will show in a bar chart format all the films playing each day for each theatre, start to map films from interest list to actual schedule.

This is the part where, given my computing background, I could probably write a computer program to automatically take my list of films and match it to the overall schedule to come up with a personalized schedule that maximizes the number of films from my list, minimizes shifting between theatres, and avoids major time gaps. I resist that urge however and just do it by hand, constantly shifting between my list of interesting films and the master schedule to create my personal viewing schedule.

Bodily Considerations
Occasionally, I am forced to choose between two films being shown at exactly the same time. I may also choose one film over another if I know the theatre’s more comfortable. In the Hot Docs festival, the Isabel Bader Theatre (that is part of Victoria College at University of Toronto) has the most comfortable seats and arm rests. It’s beautiful and used for lectures for undergraduate classes at the University of Toronto – lucky students! A mediocre film there might just win out if I have spent 6 hours that day in a theatre with poor seats (like the Cumberland 2 and 3 cinemas). After some butt-numbing experiences in Hot Docs 2008, I payed attention to venues this year.

My average for Hot Docs 2010 ran around four to five films per day. I made it to 42 screenings proving that while I may no longer have the endurance for long bike rides; my attention-span for documentaries has not diminished.

A Typical Film Fest Day
Up at 8:00 am. I was staying in a cheap hostel near King/Church and there was road construction starting at 7 am. – sigh. Shower, eat bagel or yogurt from my supplies in the hostel kitchen. Check email on hostel computer. Get coffee, perhaps a little window shopping or go to grocery store or St. Lawrence Market to get some snacks. Take subway to theatre for 10:00 or 10:30 in time for box office opening. Show festival pass to pick up tickets for films I will see at that theatre, and perhaps walk or take subway to another theatre to pick up tickets there as well. If a film is really popular, it’s possible that there won’t be tickets available later in the day. Ticket holders line up outside the theatre for a screening, but I try to avoid this. I know that there will be a guaranteed seat for me as long as I show up with ticket in hand at least 15 minutes prior to the screening start time.

Time Management
I’ve become an expert at taking off to go sit in a park and read, or go hop on the subway and run an errand somewhere, making it back to theatre at about 16 minutes before the show starts. The first film of the day begins at 11:00 or 11:30 am., and I would see films all the way through until 11 pm. at night. I would usually have max 1 hr. between films – time for bathroom breaks, get to next venue, maybe grab a coffee or snack from some take-out place on the way. I’d get back to the hostel at about midnight and finally tiptoe back into my dorm-style room, trying not to wake the other women sound asleep.

Repeat that eight more times! On paper it may sound monotonous but I was able to fit in a lot between films. I visited my sister-in-law in the little Italy neighbourhood where she lives, dropped in to see my nephew in a store on Queen St. where he works, ate out at various restaurants, walked around quite a bit at the University of Toronto campus, read an entire 600-page book while on transit/waiting in line, went to St. Lawrence Market twice (fantastic food market – great bagel place there and too many (is that possible?) cheese vendors – yum!), drank a lot of coffee in Starbucks, Tim Horton’s and Second Cup, discovered a great sandwich place, went to an internet cafe to finish up a few things for my job, and ate way too many times in the hot food section of Whole Foods. Many of the theatres for Hot Docs were centred around Bloor & Avenue Rd. (Yorkville – expensive area), so Whole Foods was the most reasonably-priced food option around.

Then, of course, you’re wondering what about the films??!!! I enjoyed most of them. The topics ranged from storage of nuclear waste, to men who were men then women then men again, to climate change and environmental issues, political conflicts, family problems, social issues, candy inventors, abortion, surrogacy, art, music, and the list goes on.

Film Triggers
Do I remember any of them? Yes. Or at least something about all of them, even if I can’t remember the title. Last night I tested myself and tried to write out as many as I could remember without looking at the website or program guide. I remembered 34. And then today I remembered the other eight. Someone mentioned Singapore at work today and that made me remember the film “Complaint Choir” as one part takes place in Singapore. It turns out that I have little memory triggers for each film and I am fascinated with my own brain and how it has stored things. Complaint Choir was filed under Singapore. The Absence of Mr. & Mrs. B was filed under confrontation and arguments during the Q&A. Ryszard Kuklinski was filed under Ryszard Kapuscinski (a Polish journalist whose works I read recently).

Stay Tuned for Film Reviews
For those film-fest geeks like me (that have likely skimmed this entire article just to find the list of documentary film titles in hopes of finding a gem that they haven’t heard of before), my next guest post will share the list of films I saw with quick comments about each one. Stay tuned, or maybe I should say, keep watching...

Gwen Litchfield, my first guest blogger, is a film geek with a Masters in Computer Science. She works as the Program Manager for the Science & Environment Co-op Program at SFU which just may explain her need to escape into dark places and other realities – documentary style - for extended periods of time.


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