Photo of the exterior of Hot Docs cinema on Bloor Street in Toronto.
Hot Docs cinema on Bloor is closed for the summer. Photo: David Gray-Donald.

What’s Next for Hot Docs?

Eighteen films were shown at the first Hot Docs in 1994. The festival was started by filmmakers fiercely protective of their editorial independence, who wanted to share their documentaries with each other and with Toronto audiences. This was at a time when documentaries were not highly regarded, and the form was mostly dominated by dry informational docs on TV.

At its best, the Hot Docs Festival provides a space for filmmakers to share urgent and under-told stories with audiences without censorship, connecting us to the world around us more deeply than is possible through the daily news. This year, several films did just that.

The Strike

Hot Docs hosted the world premiere of JoeBill Muñoz and Lucas Guilkey’s The Strike. The film follows California prisoners held arbitrarily n solitary confinement for years — a form of torture — as they organized a massive hunger strike in the 2010s. One hunger striker, Billy Sell, died and the strike successfully led to the state ending nearly all solitary confinement.

Remarkably, the filmmakers were able to find and show footage of negotiations held between the prisoners’ negotiating team and prison authorities.

Many U.S. states still hold prisoners in solitary. While Canada officially ended the practice in 2019, it still continues here in various forms.


There was a packed house at TIFF for the opening of (Torontonian) Brett Story and Stephen Maing’s Union, about the group of current and former Amazon workers in Staten Island who, against the odds, became the first in the world to unionize an Amazon workplace.

A number of Amazon workplaces in Canada have been trying to unionize so they can collectively advocate for improvements to what workers describe as horrendous work conditions. Just after Hot Docs, workers at a warehouse in Laval, QC, won union certification.

One of the people involved in Amazon unionization efforts in Quebec, Mostafa Henaway, spoke on stage after Union with the filmmakers and the star of the film, Chris Smalls of the Amazon Labour Union.


The next day, another TIFF theatre was packed for the opening of Jennifer Wickham, Brenda Michell and (Torontonian) Michael Toledano’s Yintah, the story of Wet’suwet’en resistance to the Coastal GasLink Pipeline. The film, which follows the community for over 10 years, ended up winning the Hot Docs Audience Award — not a big surprise after seeing the standing ovation that lasted several minutes.

Many Wet’suwet’en people came to the screenings and spoke afterward about their ongoing efforts to defend their lands. As with
The Strike, family plays a lead role in Yintah, showing the long-term, intergenerational aspect of these struggles.

When introducing Union and Yintah, the filmmakers called out festival sponsor Scotiabank for its investments in Israeli weapons-maker Elbit Systems and, in the case of Yintah, Scotiabank’s investments in TC Energy, the company behind the Coastal GasLink pipeline.

This was, for the filmmakers, a natural extension of what they do: observing the world and bringing attention to how power is shaping it.

Several other filmmakers also called out Scotiabank at their screenings, refusing to let their films be used to distract from the bank’s actions.

Chaos and let-downs

The day after Union opened, The Globe & Mail reported that two people had recently resigned from the Hot Docs board: filmmaker Barry Avrich and Scotiabank’s chief marketing officer, Laura Curtis Ferrera. While the board’s co-chair said they resigned for “personal reasons,” external pressure on Scotiabank at Hot Docs, which began in March with the launch of the
No Arms In The Arts campaign, almost certainly played a role in Ferrera’s departure, and Scotiabank’s funding of Hot Docs is very likely over.

Internally, it was only after continued pressure from Hot Docs staff that the organization made a statement about Israel’s war on Gaza on April 19.

Supposedly unrelated to Palestine, 10 Hot Docs programmers also quit their positions just before the festival, citing a toxic, unsupportive work environment. The artistic director, who they had problems with, quit soon after.

The entire experimental film program was cut from the festival this year.

There was a noticeable lack of films about Israel-Palestine at the festival. There was one feature, Life Is Beautiful, about Norway-based Palestinian filmmaker Mohamed Jabaly’s life after being exiled by Israel from Gaza in 2014, and one illustrated short, Lyd, about the former Palestinian town, which was taken by Israel in 1948 and is now known as Lod.

Many wondered why No Other Land, a new award-winning Palestinian film about resisting Israel’s land grabs in the West Bank, wasn’t at the festival. It may have been a programming decision by the festival to avoid controversy, but could also have been the choice of the filmmakers, who are premiering it in North America in the fall.

Three other festivals in Toronto this spring showed Palestinian films, recent and archival: the Images Festival, the new No Arms in
the Arts Festival which ran as a popular counter-program to Hot Docs, and the Mayworks Festival of Working People and the Arts.

Attending Hot Docs, I witnessed both the power of filmmakers connecting deeply with audiences, and also the limitations of a festival that has gotten too big and too afraid of itself.

Management is scared of funders, filmmakers are scared of management, management and staff don’t trust each other, many staff may never have met each other, and audiences don’t know what to think of the organization any more.

Something has to give.

The closing of the Hot Docs Cinema for the summer to save money is part of it. It is also hard to imagine executive director Marie Nelson, who lives in Washington, D.C., staying on after these multiple debacles and a disastrous interview in The Globe & Mail right before the festival.

As veteran festival organizer Scott Miller Berry recently wrote for The Grind: “Now is the time for arts organizations to refocus, resize, and honestly evaluate where our money is coming from, for the sake of artists themselves. We won’t have a thriving arts community by doing the same things that got us into this mess.”

This article appeared in the 2024 Summer issue.