HOT DOCS 2024: Feminist Wrap – Emma Badame reports

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Over the past few months, Toronto’s Hot Docs International Film Festival has been making headlines for all of the wrong reasons. Major resignations, accusations of mismanagement and toxic work environments, anger over a lack of response to the conflict in the Middle East, and serious financial mismanagement captured the spotlight ahead of the kick-off of the 2024 edition of the prestigious documentary showcase. Unfortunately, that meant there was considerably less focus on this year’s slate of films and filmmakers. But like any other year, there were a huge number of highly-anticipated titles to choose from, and many curated programmes filled with female helmed and focused stories, like Art of Resistence, Persister, Land|Sky|Sea, and the Changing Face of Europe.

This year’s Hot Docs also devoted one of their spotlights to celebrated Canadian cinematographer Iris Ng. Known for shining a critical lens on social justice issues and marginalised people and communities, Ng is known for her work on Oscar-shortlisted docs Stories We Tell (2012) and Shirkers (2018), along with One of Ours (2021), Toxic Beauty (2019), Migrant Dreams (2017), and the Emmy-Award winning Making A Murderer (2015 & 2018)

Though the spotlight had audiences looking back at great work, festival-goers also had a plethora of new, women-centric stories to explore. Some, like 7 Beats per Minute, a gripping, award-winning Canadian doc about the near-death experience of freediver Jessea Lu, were making their home-town debut, while others, like The Day Iceland Stood Still, a powerful and rousing film about the country’s historic 1975 gender strike, hit the festival for their world premieres.

Of this year’s slate of 168 films, 54% of them featured women behind the camera. Many focussed in on lived experiences of those they admire (Helen and the Bear) or intriguing names both big and small (A Photographic Memory); others shone the spotlight on the oppressed or inspired (Nice Ladies), LGBTQ+ trailblazers (Any Other Way: The Jackie Shane Story), the people fighting for justice (The Sharp End of Peace) or just a better world (Once Upon a Time in a Forest), or just the consistently curious (Synchrony).


Whether part of the Persister or Art of Resistance programmes or not, many of this year’s cinematic selection seemed to have one particular thread in common: strong, resilient women elevating themselves and their communities in the face of conflict and rebellion. Audiences had a chance to learn about the many subjects and causes championed by these women, and to dig into the history these feminist changemakers are making (or, indeed, have made) worldwide. Devi, directed by Subina Shrestha, is an immersive vérité doc that takes a deep and harrowing look at the trauma inflicted on a 17-year-old girl during Nepal’s civil war, her defiance in the wake of her subsequent social stigma and isolation, and her odds-defying rise within the country’s government after the war’s end. Diaries from Lebanon chronicles the lives of three people amid an interrupted revolution, the pandemic, a financial crisis, and the awful explosion that devastated the capital of Beirut. Two of the dissenters, feminist politician Joumana Haddad and activist Perla Joe Maalouli, become the faces of a present and future society desperate for change from within the face of decades of corruption.

Then, as it does every year, the festival wrapped with the announcement of this year’s cohort of award winners. 15 prizes were handed out in recognition of outstanding Canadian and International contribution to the documentary field, nine of which went to female filmmakers.

Eisha Marjara took home The Betty Youson Award for Best Canadian Short Documentary for Am I the Skinniest Person You’ve Ever Seen? The Best International Short Documentary Award went to Janet Harbord for Autism Plays Itself, while the Best Mid-Length prize was given to Kumjana Novakova and Silence of Reason. Director Nishta Jain won the Best International Feature Documentary Award for her film Farming the Revolution, and the Special Jury Prize – International Feature Documentary was handed to Patricia Bbaale Bandak for the incredibly personal and moving Death of a Saint. Hot Docs also announced on Saturday that Taiwanese director and producer Fan Wu would be the 2024 recipient of the Emerging International Filmmaker Award for her doc debut XiXi–a look at womanhood, individuality and self-expression through personal diaries and archive footage.

The final, and biggest, award of the festival–the Rogers Audience Award for Best Canadian Documentary–went to YINTAH. Directed by Jennifer Wickham, Brenda Michell, and Michael Toledano, the film follows leaders from the Wet’suwet’en First Nation and their growing resistance to the continual violation of their land and sovereignty by both the country’s government and big business, all in the name of greed and profit. It’s an impressive showcase of solidarity, a stinging indictment of further broken bureaucratic promises to First Nations, and a rousing call for action–both on the climate crisis and on the continued mistreatment of Indigenous communities within Canada.

Still from YINTAH

All in all, despite the furor behind the scenes, the 2024 Hot Docs Festival offered movie-goers another impressive and memorable slate of films to discover. And year-over-year, Toronto’s non-fiction programmers seem to provide more and more quality fare from women both in front-of-and-behind-the-camera. The future of this particular festival is far from assured, but Hot Docs–and events like it–act as an essential cog in the creative process. Most importantly it gives a platform to filmmakers and issues that would be lost in many of the bigger cinematic exhibitions, and allows the public to explore a deeper connection between life and art. Here’s hoping this prestigious deep-dive into documentaries finds a way to hang around for many years to come.

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Emma Badame

Aside from garnering for herself a one-time Jeopardy win, Toronto-based Emma Badame has parlayed her passion for film into a life-long career. Her work has been featured on, eTalk, The Mary Sue, Cineplex, CTV's PopLife, The Canadian Press and more. She is also a programmer with the Rendezvous With Madness Film Festival.