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Cinema, Toronto | © Canadian Film Centre/Flickr
Cinema, Toronto | © Canadian Film Centre/Flickr
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Best Documentary Films At The 2016 Toronto Hot Docs Festival

Picture of Katie Hill
Updated: 12 April 2017
Toronto’s annual Hot Docs Festival has become the largest international documentary film festival in North America. The festival, founded in 1993, features more than 200 films from Canada, the United States and abroad. The 2016 festival, which ran from April 28 to May 8, draws thousands of delegates and industry personnel from all over the world as well as audiences of over 200,000 people. Here are 10 documentaries featured at this year’s festival.

League of Exotique Dancers (2016)

Canada | World Premiere

Selected as the 2016 opening night’s film, League of Exotique Dancers pays tribute to the pioneering women of burlesque dancing. Directed by Toronto based filmmaker Rama Rau, this fascinating look behind the curtain explores the lives and hardships of these women as they prepare to return for one final performance at the Legends of Burlesque Hall of Fame in Las Vegas.

Thank You Del: The Story of the Del Close Marathon (2015)

United States | International Premiere

This documentary on the evolution of improv examines the legacy of the late Del Close of the Upright Citizens Brigade, who coached some of the biggest names in comedy, including Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Bill Murray. Featuring interviews with some of Close’s students, Thank You Del is a hilarious and moving tribute to a talented man and the genre of comedy he pioneered.

Thank You Del | Courtesy of Hot Docs
Thank You Del | Courtesy of Hot Docs

The Slippers (2016)

Canada | Canadian Premiere

Written, directed and produced by Toronto’s own Morgan White, The Slippers documents the history of the iconic ruby red slippers from The Wizard of Oz (1939), one of the most beloved films of all time. Sure to delight film lovers and Wizard of Oz fans alike, White explores the journey of the famous footwear, their value in film and cultural history, and their impact on the business of film memorabilia.

The Slippers | Courtesy of Hot Docs
The Slippers | Courtesy of Hot Docs

Cameraperson (2016)

United States | International Premiere

In this gripping behind-the-scenes look at documentary filmmaking, veteran cinematographer Kirsten Johnson points the camera at her most personal subject yet: herself. Johnson has been the cinematographer for dozens of acclaimed documentaries, including Oscar winner Citizenfour (2014), and the Oscar nominated The Invisible War (2012). Now, in Cameraperson she documents her own thrilling, and often dangerous experiences while filming the rest of the world, reflecting on the complicated relationship between the subject and observer.

Cameraperson | Courtesy of Hot Docs
Cameraperson | Courtesy of Hot Docs

Spirit Unforgettable (2016)

Canada | World Premiere

You’d be hard pressed to find a Canadian who hasn’t danced their heart out to Home for a Rest by Canadian Celtic rock group Spirit of the West. In Spirit Unforgettable, viewers are given a closer look at the men behind Canada’s unofficial wedding anthem, as the band’s lead singer John Mann deals with early onset Alzheimer’s at the age of 52. Directed by Canadian Pete McCormack, this documentary reflects on the past as Mann, his wife and loyal bandmates deal with their trying present, and work towards a farewell performance at Toronto’s Massey Hall. This inspiring music doc depicting Mann’s fight to hold onto the music and the life he knows was co-presented with Canadian Music Week and Alzheimer Society Toronto.

Wizard Mode (2016)

Canada | World Premiere

Wizard Mode follows Robert Gagno, a young man with autism who is one of the world’s best pinball players. This informative documentary follows the talented and determined Gagno who, along with the support of his parents and the gaming community in which he thrives, seeks to gain greater independence and employment as he enters adulthood – all the while beating both society’s expectations and pinball high scores. This film was co-presented by Autism Ontario.

Random Acts of Legacy (2016)

Canada | World Premiere

Arguably the ultimate home movie, Random Acts of Legacy is a compilation of salvaged home videos of a Chinese-American family, which chronicles their history from the Great Depression to postwar America. Canadian filmmaker Ali Kazimi rescued and preserved these old home movies originally filmed by Silas Fung. Combining the archival footage with interviews with some of Fung’s descendants, Kazimi’s documentary functions as both a family memoir as well as a powerful endorsement for the importance of film documentation and preservation.

De Palma (2015)

United States | Canadian Premiere

De Palma is a close up on director Brian De Palma, who in a nearly six decades-long career has directed such iconic films as Carrie (1976), Scarface (1983), The Untouchables (1987) and Mission: Impossible (1996). This fascinating documentary is directed by filmmakers Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow. In it, the two engage in a conversation with De Palma that surveys his personal life, his storied career, and his unique approach to filmmaking.

De Palma | Courtesy of Hot Docs
De Palma | Courtesy of Hot Docs

Life, Animated (2015)

United States | International Premiere

Another inspiring documentary on autism, Life, Animated is about Owen Suskind, a young man with autism who at one time couldn’t communicate at all, but eventually learned to do so through watching Disney animated films. As Suskind memorized lines from countless classics, his family began to use the films’ scripts and songs in order to better connect with him. Directed by Academy Award winner Roger Ross Williams, this doc is a moving and insightful look at the power of art, particularly film, and its ability to aid, heal and connect people.

Life, Animated | Courtesy of Hot Docs
Life, Animated | Courtesy of Hot Docs

The Last Laugh (2016)

United States | International Premiere

Fittingly saved as the last official entry on the list, The Last Laugh addresses the longstanding debate in comedy as to whether it is ethical to joke about the Holocaust. Bound to bring both laughs and controversy, filmmaker Ferne Pearlstein interviews comedians on both sides of the debate, including icons such as Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, as well as more contemporary kings and queens of comedy such as Sarah Silverman. Funny and thought provoking, The Last Laugh boldly asks when does a joke cross the line, or whether there is even a line at all. Is humor an appropriate way to deal with past horrors?

The Last Laugh | Courtesy of Hot Docs
The Last Laugh | Courtesy of Hot Docs

Bonus Entry…

Ireland UK | World Premiere

Bobby Sands: 66 Days chronicles the 66 days long hunger strike led by Irish Republican Bobby Sands while imprisoned, which drew international attention to the then decades long conflict in Northern Ireland. While this documentary may not be about film specifically, its story is no stranger to the medium. Some may already be familiar with it thanks to the critically acclaimed Irish biopic Hunger (2008), which starred Michael Fassbender as Sands, and was the debut feature film of Academy Award winning director Steve McQueen.