If you’re a fan of documentary films then you’ll want to keep these Hot Docs films on your radar. The Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival takes place in Toronto from April 25 to May 5, 2024. This year’s festival offers 168 films from 64 countries. It is considered North America’s largest documentary film festival.

Here are just a few films at Hot Docs we can’t wait to see at this year’s Festival…

BORN HUNGRY: directed by Barry Avrich (Canada) Canadian Premiere

Sash, a fine-dining establishment in an upscale Toronto neighbourhood, is a world away from its well-known chef’s humble beginnings on the streets of Chennai as a seven-year-old street kid hustling for survival. Sash Simpson’s journey of working his way through the ranks of North 44 while fostering dreams of opening his own restaurant is nothing short of astonishing. Now, on his return to India for the first time since he was adopted into a Toronto family with 31 siblings (a remarkable tale of its own), Simpson embarks on a culinary tasting tour with adventurous local chefs. Memories are stirred by the vibrant smells and sights of bustling metropolises where Simpson looks for clues about his early days, including finding the movie theatre he used to clean in exchange for a place to sleep. The contrast between his present and past is stark but provides a chance for closure to questions he’s harboured about his origins for so long.

NEVER LOOK AWAY: directed by Lucy Lawless (New Zealand) Canadian Premiere

CNN camerawoman Margaret Moth made the wars in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Lebanon, and Operation Desert Storm in Iraq, real for North American television audiences. While her fellow journalists took cover, Moth ran towards danger, camera in hand, to get the shots. Colleagues including Christiane Amanpour attest to her bravery but it is Moth’s friends and lovers who reveal the self-destructive nature of the artist behind the lens. Innovative reconstructions of her near-lethal assignment in Sarajevo’s Sniper Alley, which turned Moth into headline news, are paired with unsettling interviews with witnesses to her daredevilry, forming the grit of this unconventional portrait. In her directorial debut, actor Lucy Lawless reveals the fearlessness of a fellow Kiwi woman-turned-groundbreaker, one who immortalized war-reporting history.

Never Look Away

LUTHER: NEVER TOO MUCH: directed by Dawn Porter (USA) International Premiere

Luther Vandross was always destined to be a star, but he went well beyond that, becoming one of the most venerated and beloved singer-songwriters of his generation with hits like “Dance with My Father,” “Here and Now” and, of course, “Never Too Much.” Here, award-winning director Dawn Porter explores Vandross’s rise from background singer to icon through his relationships and collaborations with legendary recording artists like David Bowie, Mariah Carey and Dionne Warwick, to name a few. Beyond his battles with the music industry and his desire to escape being pigeon-holed as an R&B artist emerges a portrait of a spiritual man with a voice from the heavens whose ambition and work ethic simmer around a heart wracked by personal battles with weight and the pursuit of love. Letting the music guide the way, Luther: Never Too Much is a well-overdue ode to a trailblazer whose music will live in popular culture forever.

LOVE MACHINA: directed by Pete Sullen (USA) International Premiere

Can love last forever? Married for over forty years, Martine and Bina Rothblatt are deeply inspired by Octavia Butler’s book series Earthseed and her concept of “two bodies, one soul, forever in love.” As one of the world’s highest-paid female CEOs and founder of SiriusXM Satellite Radio, Martine is no stranger to reaching for the stars and has unlimited resources to make her bond with Bina everlasting. The Rothblatts commission Bina48, the first AI robot based on a living human being, using an “AI mindfile” of Bina’s consciousness. Housed inside a robotic bust, Bina48 represents the future and that future is Black and female (based on code written by white men). What does it mean when representation and code come from different sources? Love Machina asks big questions about essence and embodiment, gender and race, human connection and love, and places unexpected and much-needed emphasis on empathy, understanding and benevolence while exploring the future applications of cryopreservation, digital consciousness, xenotransplantation and space settlement.

THE CLICK TRAP: directed by Peter Porta (Spain/France) World Premiere

Ever feel like an ad for running shoes or a podcast about vegan living pops up in your feed just when you started thinking about joining a gym? Highly engineered algorithms curate ads with acute precision for any given user of any given system. This selling point of this model of digital advertising ensures that certain content is selected and delivered to some but not all viewers. But when does digital marketing become digital mind-control? Google, Meta and Apple claim to restrict the appearance of disinformation, extremist hate and criminal material on their platforms, but that doesn’t stop such content from existing in these spaces, nor does it prevent it from generating multi-billion-dollar corporate returns. Are safer, more ethical ways to do business online even possible? Expert testimony and prescient evidence inform this alarming tech-sposé into the social impact of digital advertising, which asks a difficult question: Is global democracy the collateral damage of online capitalism?

FLY: directed by Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau (USA) International Premiere

Equal parts love story and wild ride into the human psyche, they’ll delve into the human need for independence, connection and risking it all to feel free. About the film: Standing on a mountain precipice, staring out at a drop of hundreds of metres, a band of thrill-seekers takes the plunge. BASE jumping has become an enthralling spectacle with a world-wide fan base, but the psyche of its devotees has never been filmed like this. Shot over seven years in some of the world’s most breathtaking landscapes, Fly is an intimate, adrenaline-fuelled portrait of three couples who live life to the hilt while participating in one of the world’s most dangerous sports and navigating personal demons that pushes them to their limits. Fly is an exhilarating look into human questions that reveal the deeper truth that, to do what we love, we must be willing to lose everything—which could mean the love of our life, or the life we love.

ARI’S THEME: directed by Nathan Drillot and Jeff Lee Petry (Canada) World Premiere

Childhood came easily to Ari Kinarthy, growing up as he did in a loving family environment that made him feel like time was limitless—until he was diagnosed with type-2 spinal muscular atrophy. Now, at 31, Kinarthy is a hugely accomplished music composer living with a condition that continues to weaken his muscles progressively, making him acutely aware of his own mortality. But what scares him most is not being able to tell his story before he’s gone. In an effort to leave an impactful legacy, he ambitiously undertakes a new composition inspired by his life’s most treasured moments. The task is daunting, but with Kinarthy’s singular musical abilities and the gift of articulating his life story with vulnerability and creativity, the project unfolds as a profound example of true collaboration and the extraordinary beauty that emerges when we are driven to connect with people on a deep, human, emotional level through art.

Ari’s Theme

AGENT OF HAPPINESS: directed by Arun Bhattarai and Dorottya Zurbó (Bhutan/Hungary) Canadian Premiere

In the captivating country of Bhutan, Amber, an agent of Gross National Happiness, goes from house to house checking the levels of people’s well-being. While he is efficient at measuring others’ emotions, he is abandoning his own. At age 40, he lives with his mother and tries to find love but, as a minority Nepali, he has had difficulty finding a wife. Follow Amber on his inner journey alongside people hailing from various tribes of Bhutan—farmers, monks, city dwellers and nomads, all making new acquaintances and reflecting on their lives every now and then. Eventually, Amber comes to doubt the meaning of joy and the priceless nature of a fulfilling life. Agent of Happiness revolves around the universal human struggle to find happiness and fulfillment. This aesthetic emphasizes warmth, joy and glory.

THE DAY ICELAND STOOD STILL: directed by Pamela Hogan (Iceland/USA) World Premiere

On the morning of October 24, 1975, 90 per cent of Iceland’s women walked off their jobs and out of their homes. Fed up with the gaping inequity between the value of women’s labour and women’s wages, female employees, wives and mothers just stopped—stopped working, cooking, cleaning and looking after their children—together on that fall morning. The country came to an abrupt standstill, but a revolution had begun. Fascinating archives and inspiring animation accompany new interviews with the women and activists who were there that day. Nearly 50 years later, director Pamela Hogan and producer Hrafnhildur Gunnarsdóttir reconstruct the dramatic 12 hours that reimagined what was possible for women in Iceland—and, in fact, the world. Relive the moment—or cheer along for the first time—as these gender-equity sheroes share what it was like to throw one of the most effective and dramatic protest wrenches into the patriarchal machine.

ANY OTHER WAY: THE JACKIE SHANE STORY: directed by Michael Mabbott and Lucah Rosenberg-Lee (Canada) Canadian Premiere

Once you’ve heard Jackie Shane sing, you’ll never forget it. Yet, after shattering barriers as one of pop music’s first Black trans performers, this trail-blazing icon vanished from the spotlight at the height of her fame. From modest beginnings in Nashville, Shane soon recognized her talents and, in her late teens, made her way to Boston and Montreal, working the nightclub circuit while taking the stage with Frank Motley, a musician known for playing two trumpets at once. Her arrival in Toronto during its 1960s music explosion made her a highly sought-after headlining act who seemed destined to take her place among the R&B stars of the era. Blending her music with never-released phone conversations and soulful animated re-enactments, Any Other Way:?The Jackie Shane Story brings Shane back to life in her own words, finally providing the recognition she so rightly deserves and introducing her to a generation fighting for their right to be their true selves.

Standing Above The Clouds

Standing Above The Clouds

STANDING ABOVE THE CLOUDS: directed by Jalena Keene-Lee (USA) World Premiere

Jalena Keane-Lee’s newest doc is a witness to history, poised at the centre of the global movement to protect Mauna Kea, the famed Hawaiian mountain, as it faces the proposal of having another telescope built on it. Standing Above the Clouds connects to the detrimental environmental and cultural impact telescopes have had on the sacred mountain and on Native Hawaiians. Pua Case and her daughters, Hawane Rios and Kapulei Flores, are joined by Mehana Kihoi and Leina’ala Sleightholm, all of whom put their bodies on the line in protest. In the process, they reveal that, while victory is not assured, the perseverance of a movement and the intergenerational healing of this sisterhood is a vital result. Told through direct-action footage and archival material, this is an inspiring adventure delivered with passion and integrity that offers vital lessons in the art of protest.

CHRISTMAS, EVERY DAY: directed by Faye Tsakas (USA) International Premiere – Short

In a series of highly composed, locked-off takes, pre-teen influencers Peyton and Lyla Wesson perform for their online fans and market fashion and beauty products to their followers, all under their mother’s watchful guidance. As the girls shift between on- and off-camera reality, ideas of self-presentation as empowerment, female confidence and self-branding come to the fore.

LIMITS OF EUROPE: directed by Apolena Rychlíková (Czech Republic, France, Slovenia) North American Premiere

Cheap labour toiling at unskilled and essential work is the open secret of all highly developed European economies. But when celebrated Czech journalist Saša Uhlová goes undercover for two years as an itinerant worker, the human cost of late-stage capitalism comes into stark view. Wired with a hidden camera, Uhlová picks asparagus in Germany, cleans hotel rooms in Ireland and provides personal health care for the elderly in France. But she doesn’t just simulate the unlivable conditions of labour; she endures the emotional damage inflicted by sporadic phone calls and non-existent visits home to her husband, children and ailing father. Exhausted, isolated and completely vulnerable to external forces, Uhlová personifies the paradoxical social value of the migrant worker. Shockingly immersive and deeply personal, this original exposé reveals the unsustainability and inhumanity of middle-class European life.

NICE LADIES: directed by Mariia Ponomarova (Netherlands/Ukraine) International Premiere

When Russia began bombing the city of Kharkiv, Ukraine, in 2022, every resident had to decide whether to stay or evacuate. For the members of the Nice Ladies—the ages 50-and-up women’s cheerleading squad—those decisions also had consequences for the team: Sveta fled to the Netherlands with her family; captain Valia and coach Nadia stayed behind. Relying on their individual training routines and sporadic phone calls to cope with daily traumas, each of these women fights to stay sane. But as the ladies press onwards to survive at home and abroad, war’s inevitable and more insidious twin weapons—resentment and survivor’s guilt—unleash unexpected, personal wounds. Witness a remarkable battle for sisterhood emerge in this uniquely inspiring, ongoing war story.

American Cats - documentary - hot docs

American Cats

American Cats: The Good, The Bad, The Cuddly: directed by Todd Bieber (USA) World Premiere

“Do you really love your ottoman more than your cat!?” Amy Hoggart, the hilarious correspondent from Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, wants to know. Ontario is currently the only province in Canada that does not have a ban on cat declawing, so this comedic confrontation about the normalization of animal torture and denaturing carries particular urgency. Using a disarmingly light touch, Hoggart cracks jokes, cuddles kittens and attacks this controversial practice using sarcasm to expose a heart-rending catspiracy. On its surface, declawing appears to be a simple and harmless procedure for the convenience of pet owners, but is in fact a huge industry, protected by a powerful lobby, that not only promotes but profits from this inhumane procedure that generates “one billion dollars a year for a quick 11-minute surgery.” Through devastating interviews with veterinarians, activists and pet owners, Hoggart navigates through a maze of misinformation and discovers the profound physical and psychological effects declawing has on our feline friends.

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Let us know if there are any other films that have caught your eye! The complete line up of films including schedules of screenings and ticket availability can be found on the Hot Docs Official Festival Site. 

*Film descriptions from 2024 Hot Docs Festival