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Hot Docs Lineup: ‘Luther: Never Too Much’ to Open Toronto Nonfiction Fest Amid Mass Programmer Exit

Dawn Porter’s “Luther: Never Too Much” will open the 31st edition of Hot Docs, which on Tuesday announced its full slate of 168 films — including 120 features — from 64 countries, screening across an array of returning and new programming configurations from April 25 to May 5.

“Luther,” which also launches Hot Docs’ Pop / Life sidebar of films about music and musicians, is a bio-doc about singer Luther Vandross. Warmly received at its Sundance premiere this year, the film “exposes some uneasy truths about the music industry and the media we may now know,” according to Variety’s review.

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Excitement around Hot Docs’ official lineup announcement was dampened by the hot revelation Sunday evening on the social media feed of Myrocia Watamaniuk that she and nine other festival programmers had decided as a group “to exit the 2024 Hot Docs Festival.” No specific reasons for the exit were given in the post nor were they forthcoming.

On Monday, the Toronto doc community was buzzing with shock, concern and speculation.

That evening, Hot Docs released a short media statement (also posted on one of its X feeds) that Hussain Currimbhoy, who was appointed artistic director in November 2023, had stepped down from his role on March 20 for personal reasons. The festival also confirmed that some members of the programming team were, indeed, not participating in the 2024 festival, and noted that festival director Heather Haynes will lead the remaining programmers as they prep for this year’s fest.

All this comes on the heels of Hot Docs president Marie Nelson’s comments earlier this month to Canada’s The Globe and Mail and CBC Radio that the festival is still struggling financially post-pandemic and might need to make tough choices if greater funding support, from government to private sector to individuals, is not secured.

At a press conference Tuesday, Nelson addressed the staff issues: “There are times when you are trying to bring change, and sometimes you don’t get it right. But we can’t be afraid to fail. We have to be afraid to try. And so I guess the message that I want to deliver to myself is take care of your people and all of the rest will fall into place. That is a lesson that I am continuing to learn in my own leadership. Take care of your people and the rest will fall into place. There are times when we have not taken care of our people. There are times when we have been more concerned with change than making sure that our people are taken care of and when you do that, you end up in the situation that we’re in right now.”

While the film total has dropped from last year’s 214 titles to 168, the number of features is similar. North America’s largest documentary festival, conference and market also continues its commitment to gender parity in 2024 with 54% female directors in the official selection.

The international and Canadian competitions — both packed with world premieres — and globe-trotting World Showcase centerpiece programs are bolstered by the seventh edition of The Changing Face of Europe (presented in partnership with European Film Promotion); a spotlight on new work (including three world premieres) from Spain in the Made in program, presented in collaboration with ICEX Spain Trade and Investment; and the popular returning sidebars Nightvision (future cult classics) and Persister (stories of inspirational women).

“Creating new themed programs each year gives us the flexibility to respond to the submissions and the issues that arise during our programming time,” festival director and longtime programmer Haynes told Variety early Monday. (On Sunday evening, Variety was advised Haynes would not be answering questions about staffing or related matters.)

New sidebars The Art of Resistance (a tight pack of premiering U.S. and international films connecting creativity and protest); Emergence (technology docs, heavy on AI); and competition strand Land | Sky | Sea (screening Jennifer MacArthur’s “Family Tree,” Virpi Suutari’s “Once Upon a Time in a Forest,” Cree filmmaker Dr. Tasha Hubbard’s “Singing Back the Buffalo” and four others) are dedicated focus points, but their themes are explored across the festival.

Haynes points to Jalena Keane-Lee’s “Standing Above the Clouds,” one of seven world premieres in the 10-title International Competition, the juried program of global doc cinema formerly known as International Spectrum. “These are young emerging woman filmmakers — the producer has roots that are native Hawaiian — who made this film, and it has a strong stance of women and protest and Indigenous rights to preserve land,” Haynes said.

As expected, Hot Docs delivers a strong program of Canadian features across its programming. The 13-title Canadian Spectrum Competition includes the world premieres of Josephine Anderson’s “Curl Power,”  Tova Krentzman’s “Fire Tower,” Jérémie Battaglia’s “A French Youth,”  Miguel Araoz Cartagena and Stephanie Boyd’s “ Karuara, People of the River,” Nicolas Tremblay and Régis Coussot’s “Me, Michael and I” and Kurtis Watson’s “My Dad’s Tapes.”

Earlier this month, Hot Docs announced the lineups for Special Presentations, films about renowned individuals or offering unique perspectives on urgent international and Canadian issues. Titles in Festival Favourites — recent hits from the circuit — were announced earlier this month.

Feature lineups of the Canadian Spectrum Competition and International Competition and the world-premiering features in the remaining festival programs are detailed below.

Canadian Spectrum Competition

“7 Beats Per Minute”

D: Yuqi Kang | Canada | 100 min

In her harrowing pursuit of the freediving descent of a lifetime, champion Jessea Lu returns to the site of her near-death experience in the Bahamas to face past traumas and learn to trust herself and others.

“Adrianne & the Castle”

D: Shannon Walsh | Canada | 86 min

Alan and Adrianne built an ornate castle as a representation of their other-worldly love for each other. Now, Alan faces a future alone and grapples with his grief through creative musical re-enactments, transporting him back to the fantasy world they created together.

“Any Other Way: The Jackie Shane Story”

D: Michael Mabbott, Lucah Rosenberg-Lee | Canada | 99 min

Outshining artists like Little Richard and Etta James, ’60s soul singer Jackie Shane shattered barriers as one of music’s first Black trans performers. Why did this trailblazing icon vanish from the spotlight at the height of her fame?

“Curl Power”

D: Josephine Anderson | Canada | 85 min, World Premiere

Five best friends pursue their dreams of becoming Canadian National Curling Champions. Follow these girls through their high school years in British Columbia as they navigate the perils of modern teenage life on and off the ice.

“Fire Tower”

D: Tova Krentzman | Canada | 47 min, World Premiere

Gazing from 100 feet above the boreal forest, “Fire Tower” draws us into the lookouts’ world: a critical line of defense in wildfire detection; inviting us to contemplate how solitude inspires a different connection with nature, community and our creativity.

“A French Youth”

D: Jérémie Battaglia | Canada, France | 84 min, World Premiere

In the south of France, two young North African men seek a new life through Camargue races,  a traditional sport where you survive by literally trying to take a bull by the horns.

“Karuara, People of the River”

D: Miguel Araoz Cartagena, Stephanie Boyd | Peru, Canada | 77 min, World Premiere

Facing cultural genocide, a group of Indigenous women from Peru file a groundbreaking lawsuit demanding the government recognize the Marañón River, which flows into the Amazon,  as a person with rights in order to protect  the world of powerful spirits led by the Karuara (people of the river).

“Me, Michael and I”

D: Nicolas Tremblay, Régis Coussot | Canada  | 75 min,  World Premiere

An ambitious young Quebecois man sacrifices everything in his obsession to resurrect the King of Pop, Michael Jackson. As he transforms physically to emulate his hero, dance moves and all, the lines between dreams and reality blur.

“My Dad’s Tapes”

D: Kurtis Watson | Canada | 82 min, World Premiere

A trove of home video tapes spurs a filmmaker  to investigate repressed parts of his past  and come to terms with his own identity. An investigation into his father’s sudden suicide turns into a cathartic journey of reconnection  and healing.

“Okurimono”

D: Laurence Lévesque | Canada | 96 min, North American Premiere

Reconstructing the past culminates in a poetic observation on the process of letting go as a Japanese Canadian woman returns to empty her childhood home, reviving the memories of her mother, a survivor of the Nagasaki atomic bomb.

“Seguridad”

D: Tamara Segura | Canada | 76 min

Exploring the life of her father, a former youth member of the Communist Party of Cuba, director Tamara Segura reveals how a gifted, well-intentioned young man became an abusive alcoholic, drawing revealing parallels between her broken home and her country’s fractured political system.

“The Soldier’s Lagoon”

D: Pablo Álvarez-Mesa | Canada | 76 min, North American Premiere

Reflecting on the construction of oral history  and its relation to the land, The Soldier’s  Lagoon dives into the misty Páramo region  and offers an elusive living archive that  navigates the dense fog separating Simón Bolívar’s past and Colombia’s present

“Wilfred Buck”

D: Lisa Jackson | Canada | 92 min, North American Premiere

A hybrid, time-traveling road trip takes us into the harrowing life of charismatic Cree elder, star expert and ceremonial leader Wilfred Buck. Adapted from his memoir, this hybrid film charts his journey back to his people’s ways of coming to knowledge.

International Competition

“Death of a Saint”

D: Patricia Bbaale Bandak | Denmark | 91 min, International Premiere

Filmmaker Patricia Bbaale Bandak gives birth  on Christmas Eve, the same day her mother  was killed by two gunmen in their Ugandan home decades earlier. Yearning to know her mother, she returns to her birthplace to reclaim what was stolen from her.

“Devi”

D: Subina Shrestha | Nepal | 80 min, World Premiere

Devi is a mother, a rebel warrior and sexual violence survivor of Nepal’s civil war. Inspiring and courageous to her core, she battles personal demons in her campaign against rape’s erasure from the narrative of war.

“The Fabulous Gold Harvesting Machine”

D: Alfredo Pourailly De La Plaza | Chile, Netherlands | 77 min, World Premiere

After 40 years working in the mine at Tierra del Fuego, Toto doesn’t qualify for the social security that would allow him to retire. So his son Jorge attempts to build a gold harvesting machine to bring them a better future.

“Farming the Revolution”

D. Nishtha Jain | India | 100 min

Amidst COVID lockdowns, India’s farmers  rise up on an unprecedented scale against  unjust new laws. Over half a million protesters —men and women from all generations, religions, classes and castes—gather and reinvent co-existence while winning a rare victory over the state.

“Fragments of a Life Loved”

D: Chloé Barreau | Italy | 95 min, International Premiere

From age 16, the filmmaker has recorded each of her male and female lovers. Using only these early videos and present-day interviews with each partner, she assembles her fluid lusts, loves, rejections and growth into a history of her heart.

“Porcelain War”

D: Brendan Bellomo, Slava Leontyev | Ukraine, USA, Australia | 87 min, International Premiere

Why would anyone craft fragile ceramics in an active war zone? Three Ukrainians, fighting as both soldiers and artists, offer up an unexpected dispatch from the front lines. Creativity combats destruction in this gorgeous Sundance Best US Documentary award-winner.

“Standing Above the Clouds”

D: Jalena Keane-Lee | USA | 85 min, World Premiere

When the Thirty Meter Telescope is set to  be built on Mauna Kea, three Native Hawaiian families risk it all to defend their sacred mountain. Standing Above the Clouds explores intergenerational healing and the struggle to retain ancient ceremonies.

“Streets Loud With Echoes”

D: Katerina Suvorova | Kazakhstan | 95 min, World Premiere

When a young Olympic skater is murdered,  it galvanizes Kazakhstanis. Tracing the steps  of a young journalist and a strong-willed  political scientist, the camera observes a society learning to raise its voice, despite decades of  fear and oppression.

“The Weavers’ Songs”

D: Ismael Vásquez Bernabé | Mexico | 78 min, World Premiere

In San Pedro Amuzgos, Oaxaca, where  weaving is not only a way of life but the main economic export, the importance of tradition and the responsibility of legacy are explored  in this reflective debut feature by Ismael Vásquez Bernabé.

“XIXI”

D: Fan Wu | Taiwan, Philippines, South Korea  | 100 min, World Premiere

An unexpected and joyous exploration of womanhood, autonomy and self-reinvention, told through the video diaries and personal archive of the free-spirited XiXi and the evolution of the friendship between her and the filmmaker.

World Showcase

“Breaking the Cycle”

D: Aekaphong Saransate, Thanakrit Duangmaneeporn | Thailand | 117 min, World Premiere

A group of young politicians campaigning against an authoritarian constitution speak up, spark hope and ignite a once-in-a-generation movement in this energetic exploration of the recent elections in Thailand.

“Helen and the Bear”

D: Alix Blair | USA | 81 min, World Premiere

Helen was a rebellious young hippie when she met and married US Congressman Pete McCloskey, a Republican star known for opposing his own party. Forty years later, anticipating Pete’s death, she reflects on marriage, sex and the astounding complexity of true love.

“The Sharp Edge of Peace”

D: Roya Sadat | Afghanistan, Qatar, USA, Belgium | 95 min, World Premiere

Sitting at the negotiating table with the Taliban, four extraordinary women navigate the harsh reality of Afghanistan’s new chapter and the political impact on women’s rights, proving their unyielding commitment to the people of their country.

Made in Spain

“The Click Trap”

D: Peter Porta | Spain, France | 90 min, World Premiere

How can pop-up ads used to sell shoes also undermine global democracy? Digital advertising no longer only markets products, but increasingly disinformation. Investigative journalists and online activists reveal the unsettling reach of an unregulated industry in this alarming tech-sposé.

“Flying Hands”

D: Marta Gómez, Paula Iglesias | Spain | 78 min, World Premiere

After giving birth to a deaf daughter, a Pakistani mother questions the custom that would have her hide her child out of family shame and builds a community that uplifts deaf children through education and respect.

“Wild Gleaming Space”

D: Mauro Colombo | Panama, Spain | 90 min, World Premiere

The death of a father and a chilling encounter deep in Panama’s untamed jungle trigger a personal exploration of life and death through encounters with a diverse collection of people who face mortality’s physical and symbolic borders in their life and work.

The Changing Face of Europe

“Kelly — Someone Else’s Dream”

D: Helen Lõhmus, Leana Jalukse | Estonia, France | 93 min Freestyle skier Kelly Sildaru was just 13 when she won gold at the 2016 Winter X Games. After breaking countless records, she broke her silence when she accused her coach, and father, of abuse, setting a new standard for sports bravery.

Emergence

“Ari’s Theme”

D: Nathan Drillot, Jeff Lee Petry | Canada | 99 min., World Premiere

Ari Kinarthy is an award-winning composer with type-2 spinal muscular atrophy. This aural and cinematic legacy of his memories through a kaleidoscopic creative process leads him to question the meaning of legacy and the relationship between himself and the audience.

The Art of Resistance

“Impasse”

D: Rahmaneh Rabani, Bahman Kiarostami | Iran  | 89 min, World Premiere

As the Women, Life, Freedom protests rage  in Tehran, a woman from a conservative  family engages in intimate conversations with her family, struggling to maintain their bonds across three generations under the pressures  of a shifting society.

“The Strike”

D: JoeBill Muñoz, Lucas Guilkey | USA | 86 min, World Premiere

Follow the psychological and emotional journeys of California prisoners as they organize the largest hunger strike in US history. Intimate interviews and never-before-seen footage recount their struggle to regain their freedom from decades of solitary confinement.

Persister

“The Day Iceland Stood Still”

D: Pamela Hogan | Iceland, USA | 70 min, World Premiere

In 1975, 90% of Iceland’s women walked off their jobs and out of their homes. The nation stopped. Unexpectedly funny and laced with evocative animation, this is the true story of how Iceland became a world leader in gender equality.

“A Mother Apart”

D: Laurie Townshend | Canada | 89 min, World Premiere

In this emotional, sweeping tale of healing  and forgiveness, powerhouse Jamaican American poet and LGBTQ+ activist Staceyann Chin embarks on an international journey to re-imagine the art of mothering—having been abandoned by her own mother as a young child.

“Synchrony”

D: Caro Bloj | Chile | 75 min, World Premiere

Isolated on an island, an elderly woman embraces freedom by open-sea swimming  with sea lions, while a champion swimmer tests her endurance in the world’s iciest of waters. Stunning cinematography captures their pristine but charged aquatic landscapes, which are both tender and brutal.

Land Sky Sea Competition

“The Here Now Project”

D: Greg Jacobs, Jon Siskel | USA | 75 min, World Premiere

An international diary of the impact of climate change is constructed from thousands of hours of in-the-moment footage. Through the process, we witness the deep human resilience, resourcefulness and courage necessary to confront the world’s most pressing challenge.

Pop / Life

“Beethoven’s Nine”

D: Larry Weinstein | Germany, Canada | 90 min, World Premiere

On the 200th anniversary of Beethoven’s final completed symphony, does it still inspire  as a symbol of joy and hope during tumultuous times? From Peanuts to Leonard Bernstein,  see how this masterpiece continues to resonate around the world.

“Disco’s Revenge”

D: Omar Majeed, Peter Mishara | Canada | 100 min, World Premiere

Born underground and taken on a wild ride into the mainstream, disco was co-opted, exploited and then tossed aside to the fringes. This is the true story of disco music and the communities who hustled for their freedom on the dance floor.

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