Torontonians have their pick of the litter when it comes to diverse, specialized and big-buzz film festivals. There are literally dozens to attend every year, from the Inside-Out Film Festival to the Toronto Jewish Film Festival. September, of course, is reserved for the behemoth that is the Toronto International Film Festival, along with the inevitable onslaught of Hollywood stars. But every April the cameras turn away from the celebs to focus on someone totally different: You.
Documentaries are our stories. They carry all the drama, comedy and zest of a big blockbuster or an award-winning feature film, but the twist is that they're real. The Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival is back, and bigger than ever for 2012. Running from April 26 to May 6, there is a refreshed team handling the curation (189 documentaries in total), and a classic theatre has been completely renovated for the purpose of Hot Docs all year round. The beautifully re-imagined Bloor Cinema will house many of the docs screened at this year's festival.
Arguably, no organization in the world can showcase documentaries the way the Hot Docs Festival does -- some of the most important documentaries produced over the last 20 years have enjoyed the Hot Docs seal of approval: Werner Herzog's fascinating study of a man escaping reality and living with bears in "Grizzly Man," the revealing look at Chastity Bono's transition into a man in "Being Chaz" and the damning evidence revealed about dolphin hunting presented in Oscar-winning "The Cove."
This year ranges from serious to silly, from the political to pop culture. Real stories about us. Real stories about you. Here are five documentaries worth checking out. (These are just a handful -- check out the full Hot Docs programming schedule.)
"Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry"
This year's opening night film is also one of the best offerings from the festival. Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has been called the most powerful artist on the planet. After time spent in the west, an underground career as a contemporary artist and global notoriety thanks to his visionary work on the Bird's Nest Olympic Stadium in Beijing, Ai Weiwei is a household name in his native land. He is also a great political agitator and an activist for the Chinese working class. "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry" already won at Sundance, and now Hot Docs will present this compelling tale as its opening feature. It is a tale of inspiration, as well as a damning portrait of the Chinese political climate.
"We Are Legion: The Story of the Hactivists"
Remember that weird video of Tom Cruise talking Scientology that went viral? Ever wonder how big sites like VISA or PayPal get shut down? Who are the players, activists and anarchists who play these high-stakes games online? One of the most notorious groups manipulating the internet is a collective known as Anonymous, and "We Are Legion" is your ticket to their cyber party. Discover the lineage, the characters and the consequences of online 'hactivism' in this enlightening doc. It will have you second-guessing everything you see and do on your computer.
"The Final Member"
Who would have guessed that telling the story of an Icelandic penis museum would glean one of the best docs from this year's crop? For aging curator Siggy, collecting male genitalia from all areas of the animal kingdom is more than a hobby: it's a vocation. With health issues looming, Siggy needs the final addition for his phallic fantasy -- the human specimen. The men offering donations are as colourful as the museum is odd, and the end result is a highly enjoyable and bizarrely heartwarming experience.
Those with a love for shifty and dangerous activity in the name of exposing the truth will get a charge out of "The Ambassador." Director and star Mads Brügger is part ambitious reporter, part danger-seeker and the Danish version of Gonzo reporter Hunter S. Thompson. He is a Sundance award-winner with grit, gumption and guts to spare. In what seems like a complete act of crazy, Brügger goes undercover as a businessman looking to obtain diplomatic cred in the Central African Republic. Once he shakes enough hands (or greases them), he makes his way to the belly of African/Euro corruption, and then exploits it on camera. His plan is to set-up a matchstick factory that will be used as a front for his actual intentions -- getting his hands on cheap uncut diamonds. We get to watch every meeting, spirited phone call and odd encounter with the locals. It's bottled anxiety in a movie, and it's great.
"Beware of Mr. Baker"
Music will once again play an important part in this year's glut of docs. Toronto band The Fifth Column, soul sensation Charles Bradley and indie rock favorites LCD Soundsystem all have biopics screening during the 2012 fest.
"Beware of Mr. Baker" is not only a great doc about music, it's one of the best docs at this year's festival. Ginger Baker was, and is, the drummer for the legendary classic rock act Cream. Alongside Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce, Baker turned a 24-month experiment in psychedelic blues into the prototype for all heavy metal that followed. The film begins in present times as Baker breaks the nose of the film's director. That act of violence works as a metaphor for a truly wild, inspired and often reckless life. Baker makes no apologies for his truth, and backs-up every life decision with his raw talent for drumming. His story will have you reflecting on your own.