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This year’s Hot Docs festival flaunts near-gender parity

The media features prominently in the list of 2017 Hot Doc selections, including Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press, a deep look at the courtroom war between Gawker and Hulk Hogan. (John Pendygraft/Getty Images)

"Fair and balanced.” That might be a term more closely associated with cable stalwart Fox News (in either a sincere or cynical fashion) – but it can also be applied to this year’s Hot Docs film festival, with organizers touting near-gender parity among 2017’s selections.

Of the 230 titles to play this year’s edition of the documentary extravaganza, almost 48 per cent of the programming will be courtesy of female filmmakers. They include Lana Slezic, whose debut doc Bee Nation will act as the festival’s opening night film. Chronicling a group of students in Saskatchewan who compete in the province’s first First Nations Spelling Bee, Slezic’s work promises to resonate with current headlines – which makes it par for the course with Hot Docs’ 2017 lineup, a fact that the festival is eager to trumpet.

“The Hot Docs programming team has scoured the globe to bring the finest documentaries to Toronto audiences for a festival-high of 58 countries,” said Shane Smith, director of programming for the festival, in a statement. “As our world shifts in startling new ways, Hot Docs is committed to showcasing those films that tackle topics of global importance: from environmental issues and human rights, to international conflict.”

On that latter note, this year’s festival offers coverage in spades across all 13 of its programs. The devastating war in Syria, for instance, will be highlighted by such films as 69 Minutes of 86 Days, which follows a three-year-old Syrian refugee and her family as they struggle to make their way through Europe; Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS, by noted documentarian Sebastian Junger; A Memory in Khaki, which promises a more poetic take on the conflict; and City of Ghosts, Matthew Heineman’s look at reporters covering a country under siege, which screened to great acclaim at Sundance earlier this winter. (All these films will screen under the “Syria 360°” label.)

Other topical projects riding their own unique waves of buzz include Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press, a deep dive into the surreal courtroom war between Gawker and Hulk Hogan; the environmental doc Chasing Coral; Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower, which looks at the unlikely young man who inspired Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution; and The Last Animals, an investigation into the last days of the northern white rhinoceros.

While this year’s festival does not feature a selection as radical a departure as last year’s Operation Avalanche – a fictional film from Canadian director Matt Johnson, though one produced with a mockumentary conceit – it will mark the return of the DocX program, a selection designed to twist the definition of the medium by offering live performances and interactive installations alongside traditional screenings. Highlights of 2017’s DocX include Africville in Black and White, which is billed as a “collaborative live documentary”; The Maribor Uprisings: A Live Participatory Film, which looks at street-level protests; and Canadaland’s Guide to Canada, a multimedia stage show hosted by media critic Jesse Brown that promises “video” and “vulgarity” to “spoil Canada’s sesquicentennial.”

Although this year’s Hot Docs features slightly fewer films than the 2016 edition – which offered a massive 232 films – it still represents a significant bump from previous editions, including 2015 (210 titles), 2014 (197) and 2013 (205). The sizable lineup is also notable in light of the announcement last month that the 2017 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival will show 20 per cent fewer movies this year, and cancel two of its 16 curated programs.

This year’s Hot Docs will run April 27 through May 7.