Member Survey: Hot Docs Best of the Fest

May 10, 2021

Collage of documentaries

Ten days and over 200 documentaries later, another year is in the can for Hot Docs. The Toronto documentary festival delivered in its second all-virtual edition. The TFCA polled its membership to determine the best of the fest and the survey reflects the buzz this year. Hot Docs didn’t necessarily define itself with one standout doc. Instead, there were many great options and too little time to stream them all, even for the busiest doc fans. The critics’ favourites illustrated how the Hot Docs’ line-up was especially notable for introducing fresh perspectives that engaged with questions of representation and belonging in new ways that moved the art form forward.


Several of these films will be coming soon to theatrical or digital release, while others will travel the festival circuit. With many festivals now available nationwide in their digital editions, audiences can catch festival favourites they missed, like the Canadian doc One of Ours, which is currently streaming via Vancouver’s DOXA Documentary Festival for audiences who weren’t able to see it during Hot Docs.


Here are the TFCA members’ picks for the best films of Hot Docs 2021


Susan G. Cole: Life of Ivanna It’s hard to choose between this and the much flashier Love It was Not, Maya Sarfaty’s exceptional account of the love (maybe) relationship between an Auschwitz prisoner and an SS commander. But Life of Ivanna stuck with me for longer. Director Renato Borrayo Serranospent four years with Ivanna and her five pre-teen children, first, while Ivanna is a single mother eking out a living in the Russian tundra while tending to her herd of reindeer. When the herd is too depleted to continue, she returns to the city to try to connect with her abusive ex-husband Gena. Serrano’s camera acts as a classic fly on the wall, capturing eerie images as Ivanna’s struggles with her rambunctious kids and with drunken Gena, who’s the worst possible role model for her children. Chain-smoking, charismatic Ivanna is fierce and defiant and looks to have the upper hand. But the subtle though devastating denouement tells a harder truth.


Marc Glassman: Gallant Indies  – Who wouldn’t want to support a film called Gallant Indies? Like a lot of what one sees in this arts documentary, there’s more to the title than what you first see. Philippe Béziat’s feature doc is an engrossing behind the scenes look at the creation of a streetwise adaptation of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s baroque opera ballet “Les indes galantes,” which was a huge hit during the reign of Louis XV in the 1730s. Rameau’s epic celebrated love throughout the world: in the Ottoman Empire, Peru, Persia and a forest in North America. After the French Revolution, Rameau’s astonishing body of work was buried until the mid-20th century, when it began to achieve a renewed popularity brought on by an upsurge of interest in baroque music…Gallant Indies shows that love and creativity are forces of incalculable value in our contemporary fight towards racial and economic equality.


Jason Gorber: Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) – “How rare and wonderful is it to watch a documentary and witness it immediately change the accepted history of a subject? Summer of Soul, Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson’s ecstatic debut, digs up never-before-seen footage from the Harlem Cultural Festival held during the summer of weekends of 1969… Summer of Soul is an absolute triumph. It uncovers a holy grail of soul, Latin, and jazz music that quite literally reshapes the story of what took place musically in the summer of 1969. Thompson and his team have performed a magic trick of the highest order. Forevermore, that historic summer that continues to shape contemporary music will have a long-forgotten setlist added to the top of its running order.”


Peter Howell: Best Hot Docs ’21 Movie Seen at Hot Docs ’21 – I’m WanitaThis shambolic road chronicle of country singer Wanita, known as “Australia’s Queen of Honky Tonk,” unfolds at first like a one-woman take on This Is Spinal Tap. Flame-haired Wanita, still battling for recognition after 25 years in the game, is determined to make an album in Nashville that will give her the stardom she craves. She has the pipes — Loretta Lynn is her vocal inspiration — but also a booze problem and a yen for self-sabotage. Yet her essential dignity rises to the fore; ultimately Sinatra’s “My Way” seems the better comparison.


and Best Hot Docs ’21 Movie Seen Prior to Hot Docs ’21 – Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s embrace of music history is as strong as his playing chops as drummer/co-frontman of the Roots hip-hop band. He spectacularly showcases his know-how and makes his feature directing debut, with this “Black Woodstock” reclaimed treasure: the Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969. The multi-weekend event drew 300,000 people in that Woodstock summer to see electrifying shows by such soul, blues and gospel greats as Sly and the Family Stone, Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone and B.B. King, caught on film that sat ignored for 50 years. A big prize winner at Sundance ’21.


Pat Mullen: Any Given Day – Margaret Byrne’s difficult but necessary study of mental health is the best of the fest for me. Any Given Day is a film that “goes there.” It refuses to hide aspects of our lives that social norms tell us to ignore. Byrne forces a conversation about mental illness by taking the audiences through highs and lows, by sharing aspects of the system that are working alongside those that are not, and by using specific human faces and stories. In the film’s strongest moments, Any Given Day invites comparison to Hoop Dreams and Time — films with very different subjects, which benefit from the filmmakers’ impulse to ask tough questions that hold society to higher standards. This film is an example of the magic that happens when the camera keeps rolling, offering an unfiltered view of reality, and sticking with a subject for the long haul. It’s a deeply empathetic documentary. (Honourable mentions to Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America, Archipelago, and Sundance favourites Misha and the Wolves and Summer of Soul.)


Gilbert Seah: Raise the Bar  – The film is centred on a young (around 8 to 9 years of age) girls basketball team trained by an over-enthusiastic coach, Brynjar who ends up stirring up trouble with the country’s Basketball Association. The film’s first half goes about showing the talented and hard-working girls in training under Brynjar with his unconventional methods. Being young girls, their parents object to some of the coach’s practices such as his fondness of swearing. Brynjar argues that he is training the girls to survive in the real world and his coaching also involves building the character of the girls to be empowered young women. In order to raise the bar on the training, Brynjar gets the girls to play against older and stronger girls but runs into trouble when the federation disallows the girls to play against a boys’ team. Emotions run wild and Brnjar coaches the girls to rebel. The doc turns controversial here and what seems to be a harmless doc about girls training for basketball turns into one of rights and principles. Director Ragnarsson cleverly pulls off the stunt.


Radheyan Simonpillai: One of Ours – “One of Ours is arriving at a time when the Indigenous film community is engaged in conversations around defining identity and ‘pretendians.’ Wilson’s story shows us what a complicated minefield that conversation can be. In this case, the rash exclusionary decision ends up being a traumatic blow to community and allyship. In her stellar debut feature, director Yasmine Mathurin gently wades into the aftermath of the messy conflict with no easy answers. She takes a personal approach to the debate, focusing on Wilson and his family, and the emotions they work through, while a conversation that goes beyond skin colour versus status card happens around them.”