Hot Docs Film Festival Flexes Its Muscles

Dish: Women, Waitressing And The Art Of Service

Toronto’s 17th annual documentary showcase will screen 170 films over 11 days when it opens Thursday

Hot Docs, Toronto’s annual documentary film festival and a major circuit stop for doc producers and directors, launches Thursday night with a gala premier party screening of Babies , the highly acclaimed first film by director Thomas Balmès. Hot Docs then runs for another 11 days, screening more than 170 films from 40 countries around the world.

Given the other more riveting – and crucial – titles being screened, some question whether the rather light-hearted and somewhat frothy Babies is the best choice for opening the 17th annual festival.

With Hot Docs’ selected films focusing on everything from the often-harshly criticised practice of female circumcision in some non-Western cultures to the almost unseen role waitresses play in serving many people’s daily lives to the horrors of war, it’s may be simply what one source close to the festival admits is giving in to reality.

“It’s a thin line to tread,” we were told. They asked that their name not be used due to their relationship with Hot Docs although they weren’t involved in the choice. “The fact is that the opening night reception, screening and party are big money-makers for us. But I can see why somebody who loves pure documentaries as art might question our judgement.”

Still, it’s only one night. Purists may bristle at the festival needing to support itself at the expense of risking some auteurs’ overly-narrow view of propriety, but the fact is that the opening gala is intended to be fun – and Babies is described in its advance billing as asking only “one thing of the viewer: Joyful observation.”

Besides, for nearly two weeks, there’s plenty to observe at Hot Docs that isn’t nearly as blissful.

Service or Servitude
One of the more probing topics at Hot Docs involves a number of entries centered on unusual themes about women.

If feminism is about choice, then Dish: Women, Waitressing And The Art Of Service is about a choice some women make – whether because of enjoying what they do, financial necessity or if they lack the skills or smarts to work at anything more challenging.

Award winning director Maya Gallus, a former waitress, explores Toronto’s diners, Montreal’s so-called “sexy resto’s,” haute eateries in Paris and Tokyo’s fantasy maid bars with a former insider’s look at gender, power and the serving of both men and women in a clearly defined yet – many feminists insist – inherently degrading sexual-political position.

Gallus examines the relationships between service, servitude and feminism in all types of relationships in a subtle yet telling manner. Her production company, Red Queen, produces provocative, cutting-edge documentaries about social issues, culture and the arts, and Gallus’ films have been shown at numerous international festivals. Along with her partner and producer, Justine Pimlott, she’s delved into women’s roles in earlier films including Erotica: A Journey Into Female Sexuality in 1997 about male-to-female transgendered people, Punch Like A Girl in 2002 about amateur female boxers and Fag Hags in 2005 about women who love gay men.

Fag Hags

Coming from a totally different place is The Day I Will Never Forget, where director Kim Longinottotackles female circumcision head-on, a practice still common in many African and some Middle Eastern cultures and enormously controversial in the West. Her film leaves viewers seeing the horror of the practice when it’s done brutally to young girls outside of a hospital but also wondering whether Westerners have a right to impose their view of what constitutes accepted practices and modern values on cultures and people who still live today as their ancestors did eons ago.

Other Voices
Although technically still a teen, Hot Docs is starting to flex its muscles as one of the most mature, all-documentary festivals in North America. It’s become a major clearing house and debut forum for both accomplished and first-time filmmakers, and an increasingly important venue for the voices of less-mainstream directors.

From Gasland, about the growing, not always for the good, political influence of the natural gas industry to Au Chic Resto Pop that looks at a group of fading hippies who prepare and serve healthy food to the homeless, or Human Terrain about the US military’s painful self-analysis to understand “why they hate us” that’s produced a new cultural awareness strategy targets the hearts and minds of Iraqis and Afghans that tried unravelling what happens when war becomes academic and academics go to war, Hot Docs 2010 offers a promising tableaux of timely, controversial and thought-provoking films.

charley james lulu demaineMore telling, perhaps, is that while the first Hot Docs had trouble finding films to screen and audiences to buy tickets, it’s become nearly impossible to beg, borrow or buy your way into many of the movies. It’s become almost as difficult for filmmakers to find a spot on the programme.

Charley James and Lulu Demaine

Charley James is a regular contributor. Lulu Demaine is the pen name of a Toronto-based cultural anthropologist who earned two BA’s, a Master’s degree anthropology and has almost completed her PhD. She’s lived in both North America and Europe and now makes Toronto her home where she is a progressive observer of, and commentator on, social, sexual and gender mores and issues.They will be reviewing Hot Docs films for us.

The Progressive Curmudgeon


  1. Charley James and Lulu Demaine says

    Judy … Thanks for reading the article and taking time to comment. While feminism and service or servitude are not synonymous, feminism was a response to a patriarchal system which placed women in roles subordinate to men. Those subordinate roles often involved service to men.

    Lulu and Charley

  2. Judy Proctor says

    The “Babies” buzz among docfans has been pretty good so I hope you review it. But “servitude”? Feminism has nothing to do with servitude or service for that matter and I resent you implying that it does.

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