Journalism (and crowdfunding) take the spotlight at Hot Docs

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The Globe and Mail | SIMON HOUPT | March 18, 2014

Hot Docs Crowdfunding for filmmakersCall it Hot Docs: The Up-to-the-Minute Edition.

Viewers of this year’s celebration of documentary excellence may feel they’ve tuned in to a 24-hour news channel, as programmers announced a number of films at a press conference on Tuesday that are so current they are still in post-production.

Ukraine protesters, government surveillance, the Keystone XL pipeline, and anti-LGBT laws in Russia are all on the agenda at the 21st edition of the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, unspooling April 24 to May 4 in Toronto.

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The festival will begin with the Canadian premiere of The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz, a tribute to the 26-year-old Internet activist who killed himself in January, 2013 as U.S. federal prosecutors tightened their grip on him for downloading millions of articles from an academic database without authorization. When the film played at the Sundance Film Festival in January, Variety suggested it “may be the most emotionally devastating movie ever made about hacking and freedom of information.”

Director Brian Knappenberger was already well-known among the Internet freedom community for his portrait of Anonymous, We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists, which played at Hot Docs 2012.

Like many films at this year’s festival, The Internet’s Own Boy got off the ground with crowdfunding, after Knappenberger raised more than $93,000 (U.S.) on Kickstarter. “Aaron had such a community around him that just wanted to help get this film made,” noted Hot Docs director of programming Charlotte Cook, in an interview. “I don’t want to speak on the filmmaker’s behalf, but I think it was as much a way to utilize that community to feel part of making that film, as it was to raise the money.”

She added that “documentary thrives on people who want to get these films made.”

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Other crowdfunded films at Hot Docs 2014 include the world premiere of Children 404 (Indiegogo), Askold Kurov and Pavel Loparev’s first-person account of LGBT life in Russia after the passage of the country’s anti-gay laws last year; The Starfish Throwers (Kickstarter), a heart-tugging look at programs that feed homeless people in Minnesota, North Carolina, and India; Rich Hill, a Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning portrait of life in a small, no-expectation Missouri town; and Above All Else (Kickstarter), a chronicle of an East Texas man who stages a sit-in at the top of the tree canopy on his property, through which the Keystone XL pipeline is slated to pass.

Cook suggested doc makers are more likely these days to jump on such breaking stories, helped along by new technology and techniques. “Filmmakers are able to react in a way that perhaps they haven’t been historically, and the ability to just collate the amount of footage they’d need, is much better,” she said.

“There’s more support and funding for more journalistic films these days. We really need a lot more, especially since some of these filmmakers are very much independent, very much going it alone – which is a very tricky thing.”

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Another crowdfunded beneficiary is first-time filmmaker Amar Wala, a Toronto director whose The Secret Trial 5 got a boost from Hot Docs’s Doc Ignite program. And while it has taken almost five years to reach audiences, its story remains depressingly contemporary, looking at five Muslim men imprisoned without charges under controversial security certificates approved by the government of Canada.

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