Western Canadian Filmmakers, Industry Professionals Up Their Game at Hot Docs

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With Hot Docs’ marquee market event the Forum and its sidebar operations back to live action, and the festival’s 30th anniversary adding a layer of buzzy excitement, docmakers and industry pros from Western Canada are hauling out a bumper crop of adventurous docs for audiences and buyers, and chatting in the real world about new projects with potential Canadian and international partners and funders.

Nine Western Canada-made doc features span Hot Docs’ programs, with stories that go deeper into landscapes and beyond cultural stereotypes.

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Kathleen Jayme’s and Asia Youngman’s “I’m Just Here for the Riot” (ESPN 30 for 30), about violence that erupted after the Vancouver Canucks’ loss of the Stanley Cup final in 2011, is one of three titles world-premiering in the Canadian Spectrum competition.

“The riot was a story that no one had ever really talked about,” said Youngman, who’s currently working on a film about the first Indigenous woman to compete in Japan for professional wrestling. “We found out Vancouver was the only city in North America that rioted because of a loss of a game—it was like a black cloud and I think people were ashamed.”

“Silvicola”
“Silvicola”

“It’s known as the ‘first smartphone riot’ and for a while it was the most documented riot in history,” added Jayme, whose “The Grizzlie Truth” had a theatrical run earlier this year. “So a really big part of the development phase was sourcing archival footage from people who were there, and then later we interviewed 24 people.”

Also world-premiering in Canadian Spectrum, Jean-Philippe Marquis’ “Silvicola” frontlines the voices and cinematic surroundings of forestry workers in Canada’s Pacific Northwest, and Francois-Xavier De Ruydts’ “Subterraneans” follows hobbyist cavers striving to break records for the longest and deepest caves in Canada.

In “The Lebanese Burger Mafia,” world-premiering in World Showcase, director and award-winning journo Omar Mouallem navigates rural Alberta to track the origins of the rogue burger chain that he grew up in. Back Road Productions has worldwide sales and distribution rights.

“The Lebanese Burger Mafia”
“The Lebanese Burger Mafia”

Cam Christiansen’s “Echo of Everything,” world-premiering in Artscapes, mingles animation, dance, archive and interviews in a boundary-busting exploration of his personal relationship with music.

SXSW buzz film “Satan Wants You,” from Sean Horlor and Steve J. Adams (their “Someone Like Me” won Hot Docs’ 2021 audience award), explores the truths and lasting legacy of the bestselling memoir by a Victoria psychiatrist and his former patient that ignited the 1980s Satanic Panic. International sales agent is Cargo Film & Releasing.

Banchi Hanuse’s “Aitamaako’tamisskapi Natosi: Before the Sun,” winner of the Big Sky Award at Montana’s 2023 Big Sky Documentary Festival, follows a Siksika woman preparing to make history by riding in the men’s Indian relay competition at the Calgary Stampede.

Terra Long’s “Feet in Water, Head on Fire,” which screened at the True/False and First Look festivals, is an experimental portrait of the people who tend to the indigenous palm trees that grow along the San Andreas Fault.

On the industry side, the British Columbia branch of the Canadian Media Producers’ Association brought an official delegation of seven doc producers to Hot Docs. “It’s a great year to re-engage,” the branch’s managing vice-president Tracey Friesen told Variety last week. “The B.C. documentary community is tight and collaborative, especially with the active presence of the Documentary Organization of Canada’s British Columbia, Yukon, and Northwest Territories chapter.”

Friesen added that the appointment in February of Knowledge Network’s new president and CEO Michelle van Beusekom — a former executive director of the National Film Board’s (NFB) English language production studios — and the B.C. government’s April 11 announcement of a three-year Can. $15.9 million injection into Creative BC’s domestic motion picture fund are welcome boosts. “This will translate into more development and production investment for B.C.’s documentary producers.”

Like its neighbor to the West, Alberta is a popular destination for U.S. film and TV production (HBO’s “The Last of Us” being the largest to date), and its service production community has a “symbiotic relationship” with the documentary, Indigenous, and other film networks, bolstering the Alberta industry as a whole, Edmonton producer and 2023 Don Haig Award winner Bonnie Thompson, recently told Variety.

The province’s recently released budget increases the no-cap Film and Television Tax Credit by $100 million, bringing the total to $335 million over the next three years, and doubles funding of the Alberta Made Screen Industries Program, which offers grants to productions with budgets of up to $499,999.

“We’re hoping it will grow,” said Thompson, who serves on the board of the Alberta Media Production Industry Association. “Alberta’s small budget grant is limited and a huge competition because many documentaries are in the 250,000 to 500,000 range.” Thompson has a long association with Tasha Hubbard, whose latest doc, “Singing Back the Buffalo,” is now in post, and whose “We Will Stand Up” opened Hot Docs, and won its Best Canadian Feature award in 2019. Thompson also produced “Echo of Everything.”

Both filmmakers and producers say telecommunications technology company Telus has become the most important incubator of new talent in Western Canada. Run by a four-person team, the Telus Originals program has been supporting local social-impact documentary productions in 15 British Columbia and Alberta communities since 2014. To fulfill its CRTC conditions of license, Telus, which is not a broadcaster, provides funding from $30,000 to $250,000, depending on project scope, and allows creators to retain copyright and sell their docs after they’re uploaded to Telus’ SVOD platform.

“It is critical to have this type of funding for emerging, beginner, and mid-level creators,” said Michael Grand, who will producing Haida filmmaker Patrick Shannon’s basketball doc “Saints & Warriors,” one of five projects recently selected for Hot Docs Incubator, and is here with B.C. delegate as a producer on both “Satan” and “Riot.”

“Telus found a niche that wasn’t being served and developed a way to fund a lot more projects,” Grand explained. “Kat (Jayme) gave me a shot to produce her 2018 film ‘Finding Big Country’ after she got Telus funding, which started me on this track. This kind of support is a stepladder that allows you to make your proof of concept and get it to a really good place so you will be taken seriously in those bigger rooms.”

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