What’s Up, Doc?

Jason Anderson at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival

Michal Marczak, Fuck for Forest, 2012, color, sound, 90 minutes.

NO SUCCESS STORY comes without some wrinkles. Over the course of its two-decade existence, Hot Docs built a reputation among Toronto festivalgoers as a more audience-friendly alternative to the overwhelming, all-consuming behemoth that is the Toronto International Film Festival.

But now that it too has been supersized—it’s become the continent’s largest showcase for nonfiction filmmaking—Hot Docs has inherited some of the issues that go along with any increase in girth and prestige, like fast-disappearing tickets for screenings with big-star guests. To be fair, Hot Docs’ notion of a visiting A-lister is less likely to be Hollywood royalty than Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss, the zealot-baiting scientist celebs featured in The Unbelievers, an admiring lecture-tour doc that premiered at the festival. But with 205 titles on offer during its eleven-day run (it ends May 5), the bounty can be daunting.

Along with international premieres of recent Sundance doc-competition highlights like After Tiller—Martha Shane and Lana Wilson’s sensitively rendered portrait of the last four American doctors performing late-term abortions—the program bursts at the seams with new works by Canadian filmmakers and contemporaries from elsewhere in the world. Any viewer who dares take a broad sampling of Hot Docs’ array of polemics and exposés on every conceivable cause and crisis—as well as the innumerable personal narratives and profiles with inspirational intentions—risks catching a case of compassion fatigue. That may be why the least classifiable titles often prove to be Hot Docs’ most memorable.

When it comes to displays of exuberance and eccentricity, few of the new finds can match the oddball wonders contained in the retrospective on Les Blank. Hot Docs had already named the veteran chronicler of all-American weirdness as the recipient of its annual achievement award before his passing at the age of seventy-seven in April. The three programs of short and mid-length works teem with the joie de vivre that he brought to his portraits of musicians both famous (like the titular subject of Dizzy Gillespie) and undeservedly obscure (bluesman Mance Lipscomb in A Well Spent Life). Indeed, despite the fame Blank earned for his account of Werner Herzog’s grueling trials in Burden of Dreams (1982), the title of an earlier celebration of New Orleans serves as a better indication of the filmmaker’s modus operandi: Always for Pleasure.

Peter Mettler, another filmmaker receiving special attention at the festival’s twentieth anniversary edition, displays a similar degree of dedication to his own pursuits, which typically involve globe-spanning quests not so much for Herzog’s fabled “ecstatic truth” but for transcendence itself. Gambling, Gods and LSD (2002), a three-hour essay film that examines some of the ways our species seeks out higher states, represents an apex for Mettler’s intellectually adventurous and visually sumptuous reworking of nonfiction tropes.

A combined quest for sexual liberation and ecological salvation is what drives the idealistic young libertines in Fuck for Forest, the most confounding and compelling new entry. Michal Marczak’s film shares its name with its subject, a Berlin-based “eco-porn” collective whose online fund-raising activities are of a distinctly polyamorous nature. They’ve managed to raise nearly half a million euros via their pay porn site, and their big problem now is trying to find a recipient willing to accept their unconventional form of help.

Mo’ money mo’ problems is an apt refrain for other Hot Docs subjects. Mika Mattila’s Chimeras juxtaposes the careers of two figures in China’s contemporary art scene: a young photographer named Liu Gang and the far more established Wang Guangyi. As a founder of the political Pop art movement that emerged in the wake of Tiananmen, Wang seems understandably conflicted at having become a symbol of the wealth and glamour associated with the current boom. Challenging matters of art and commerce are equally pertinent to the lives of the Americans in We Always Lie to Strangers. Eschewing the condescension typically directed at the Bible Belt showbiz town, directors A. J. Schnack and David Wilson have fashioned a surprisingly empathetic study of Branson, Missouri, and the people who provide its patriotic brand of family-friendly entertainment. Alas, not even the haven of the Osmonds and Yakov Smirnoff has been immune to the effects of the recession. Having spent five years working on the film, Schnack and Wilson are able to chart many of the socioeconomic and cultural shifts that threaten to tarnish the town’s reputation for razzle-dazzle. It’s a good thing these folks have so many sequins at the ready.

The Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival runs through May 5, 2013, in Toronto.