Hot Docs, Canada’s annual International Documentary Festival, is now officially underway and the good folks at Point of View Magazine have graciously shared with us this exclusive interview with Hot Docs Senior Canadian Programmer, Lynne Fernie.
Hot Docs‘ Senior Canadian Programmer Lynne Fernie talks with Point of View’s Nick Gergesha about her role at North America’s largest film festival, including some great tips for filmmakers.
NG: As the Senior Canadian Programmer, what are your responsibilities? Can you give me a rundown of the selection process?
LF: I work with a team. The Canadian programming is very different from the international programming in that it deals with our home country. We are going to be seeing filmmakers, whether we invite their films or aren’t able to invite them. There is a layer of communication involved and also a layer of terror! It is very difficult. I think that is one of the reasons why the senior [programmer] is someone who has a level of experience in working within the Canadian sector, getting to know who filmmakers are, who the producing companies are, and what the history is. I try to treat this with some sensitivity.
How it works for us, and I’m glad you’re asking because people don’t really always know, is that we start screening films in the middle of December. However, we don’t have too many submitted at that point because the early deadline is in the middle of September. I wish that we would get more submissions at that time. I have Alex Rogalski, a collaborator and Canadian programmer, and Michelle Latimer. I have been working with Alex and Michelle for three years, and we eventually get about 350 films. Every film is looked at twice. Two separate programmers look at every single film, and we discuss it in weekly meetings. So nothing really gets tossed off. You can be very tired if you’re watching ten films a day for eight weeks, so we set up this process. We discuss each film and basically ask, “Is this really a possibility for the festival,” or “are we going to pass?” We then start making our shortlist as the weeks go by, and we are very generous with this shortlist.
We are very generous at the beginning, particularly. We are much tougher towards the end. Once we’ve seen everything, we start to hone from that shortlist. It’s not like ‘Alex chooses a film, I choose a film,’ but rather the selection process is 90% consensual. They’re just great films: they deal with challenging issues, they have an interesting approach, and they should be in the festival. We have very big debates about films, and that’s what makes it worthwhile for a programmer. These discussions are very intellectual; there are disagreements, and we go quite in-depth with some of the films. That makes us hone our own way of being in the world as well as influencing the way we are seeing in the world.
NG: So it affects you just as much as it affected the filmmakers and will affect their audience.
LF: Absolutely. I think we really take that position because, as a Canadian team, we don’t see 1800 films like the international programmers. We have great meetings, and I like to really talk about the films instead of just going, “forget it, forget it, forget it, yes,” or anything like that. We also have snacks.
NG: Are there any specific criteria that you follow when selecting Canadian documentaries?
LF: Make a good film! We look for a range of approaches and structures, from the very personal to the experimental, and from the observational to almost the ‘classic’ expository or participatory modes. We are looking for a range so that we don’t have all verité films one year, or that nothing gets knocked out because of the approach that the filmmaker takes. It’s just, “can you make that unique?” What kind of a story are you telling? So it’s the structure and the approach, and of course the craft. Sometimes an issue or a subject is so unknown that the craft doesn’t have to be what would be approved by the [most professional] cinematographers and such. As long as it is staying engaging and the filmmaker is really telling something or they have really gotten into a character in a way that is unusual, it doesn’t have to be the most prettily shot film…[to have us decide that it] should be seen regardless.
NG: I remember seeing The Pirate Tapes last year, and that seemed to approach a unique subject rather unusually.
LF: It was really interesting. There were parts of it that were slick and high craft, and others that were very shaky. Our process cannot be hard and fast. We look for a range of subjects that engage us, whether it’s the issues of ecology or a deeply personal portrait. Every year this changes because we are not commissioning films, but rather just getting [them]. We especially look for the director’s voice. I don’t mean voice in the sense of voiceover or narration, but I mean that you can see a film like Three Walls from last year and you can see the director’s hand in the storytelling and cinematography. In that sense, the content lived up to the approach. The mandate is to look at filmmaking across Canada, and we don’t say that we have to have something from one area and a different film from another. Instead, if we find more Toronto films and not as many from Montreal, or if we have more from the Prairies, we allow the programme to change year by year. I think everything is changing–more so now because of digital technology.
NG: How do you receive most of your submissions? Do you get a lot of Vimeo links now?
LF: We get some Vimeo links. Though it will probably go more that way in the future, we mostly receive DVDs. If we start getting more online links, I’ll have to connect my computer to my television because I like to see the films as large as I can. This way I get a better sense of the cinema. Some films are fabulous on the small screen, but others are glorious on a big screen.
There are always heartbreaking films that we cannot get into the festival. There are always more good films than you can put in one single festival. I remember them, year after year, and I wish that we could have gotten certain films in. I feel somewhat badly about it, but I think that is the nature of running a festival. For example, we will get six fantastic portraits of an inner city, but you just can’t choose six fantastic portraits. This would be knocking out everyone else’s approach. I would say that we try and balance it: one year there will be more of one thing than another, and in the same way that you would look at a filmmaker’s body of work, we look at the programme’s body of selections over time.
I do know that on the Canadian team everyone has been involved in making films. They may not be doing it right now, but they have made them. Every one of us has had the experience of hoping to get into the festival. People might think that programmers don’t really care, but we actually care a little too much. At the end of the process we have a number of films that we would like to select, then we consult with the programming director, and we see what is in the international spectrum. Are there a lot of films with a certain approach or subject matter that they have selected? This is but one of the factors that will affect our decision…[but certainly we] take the international programmers’ list and use it to help our own decision making process.
I have turned down and not selected films of close friends before, and these filmmakers would not talk to me for a time afterward. You have to be able to handle something like that. They take it this way because they cared about their film so much. They put their heart, their soul, and their Visa card on the line, and then the film doesn’t get in. They love their subjects and it can be very hurtful when their film is not selected to screen. I would suggest to filmmakers to wait to fire off a letter if they are declined entrance into the program. Wait before you tell us how hateful, horrid, and wretched we are. You should wait a few days! And yes, we do make mistakes. You lose films that you wish you’d programmed. I think the best that can be asked is that you do it with a sense of aesthetics, politics, and the importance of issues.
READ THE FULL INTERVIEW ON DOCSPACE.CA and read more about Canadian films screening at Hot Docs in POV’s Summer issue.
Hot Docs runs from April 26 to May 6 at various theatres in Toronto. For tickets visit www.hotdocs.ca.