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Desi Dhamaka at Toronto’s ‘Hot Docs Festival’ This Year

North America’s largest documentary film festival is back in Toronto, check out what’s on offer

5 min read
Desi Dhamaka at Toronto’s ‘Hot Docs Festival’ This Year
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North America’s largest documentary film festival Hot Docs returns to Toronto this month with a line-up of over 230 films from 51 countries, including India. But while participation from India is minimal this year, it will make its presence felt indirectly in outsize fashion on opening night.

The festival kicks off on April 28 with the world premiere of League of Exotique Dancers, a feature-length documentary by Indo-Canadian director Rama Rau. The film builds up to the Burlesque Hall of Fame gala in Las Vegas, where past stars of the industry are honored.
Poster of Rama Rau’s League of Exotique Dancers

Rau, who was born in Chennai and moved to Canada fifteen years ago after working in the advertising industry in Bangalore and Mumbai, has created a visually rich film with a score of catchy swing music. League follows some of the former burlesque dancers, now in their 60s or beyond, as they prepare once more for their turn on the stage. Rau traveled to several cities in the US and Canada to shoot with the spirited women, capturing their memories of an earlier era when burlesque striptease was elegant, feminine and close to an art form, and their present day lives. Archival footage adds perspective and visual interest to the story.

It took Rau and her team nearly three years to finish the film. “A documentary is not like a news story that you just film for two hours,” she says. “We are with them for days, for weeks. I think a lot of the women were really happy that they were back in the spotlight. We loved it.”
A still from Rama Rau’s League of Exotique Dancers

The screening will provide the Indo-Canadian director with one of the most high-profile platforms in the world available to documentary filmmakers.

But it was an easy choice, says Shane Smith, Director of Programming at Hot Docs:

It has a really strong female story. It has a really celebratory tone that works well for an opening night film. But it’s got lots of layers, lots of depth too, exploring the stories, important stories of women who were pioneers at the time in burlesque.
Shane Smith
Filmmaker Nimisha Mukerji

Hot Docs also features other films by Indo-Canadian filmmakers. In Tempest Storm, named after its 87-year-old protagonist, Nimisha Mukerji profiles the woman described as “America’s oldest living sex icon”.

Coincidentally, Tempest Storm also belonged to the world of burlesque, being one of the best known dancers of the 1950s through the 1970s. Mukerji’s film tells the story of her stardom and ill-fated affairs with world-famous personalities like Elvis Presley and JFK.
Tempest Storm

The Indian-born, Toronto-based Ali Kazimi will premiere Random Acts of Legacy, in which the life of a Depression-era Chinese American family in Chicago is recreated through their home movies, which were discovered by a collector in search of the family’s descendants.

Hot Docs will also premiere Gun Runners, a film directed by Anjali Nayar, who was born in Montreal and is based in Nairobi. Shot over eight years, the film tracks two Kenyan warriors who swap their guns for sneakers as part of a government program, to pursue their dream of becoming marathon runners.

A still from Gun Runners (Photo: Georgina Goodwin)
The number of entries from India is down sharply from last year, when the “Made In” section featured the country. The only Indian films at Hot Docs this year will be Fireflies in the Abyss directed by Chandrasekhar Reddy, and Famous in Ahmedabad, a short film by Hardik Mehta. Another Indian film, Proposition for a Revolution, was initially selected to premiere at Hot Docs, but could not be completed in time.

“Countries have different production cycles. In some years there are a lot of great films that we want to program and in other years they don’t speak to us as much. So it’s all about the work that’s being made in a given country in a given year,” says Smith.

Reddy’s Fireflies exposes the dangerous lives led by coal miners in the “rat-hole” mines of Meghalaya’s Jaintia Hills, and the determination of 11-year-old Suraj to escape this brutal world and go to school. The award-winning short Famous in Ahmedabad or Amdavad Ma Famous follows the 11-year-old boy Zaid, who is obsessed with finding the best vantage point for flying kites.

A still from Fireflies in the Abyss

Other films from or about the subcontinent feature subjects as varied as Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in Canada (Brothers in the Kitchen), gangs of young boys in Afghanistan who move in as US troops leave (The Land of the Enlightened), and in contrast, a film capturing the hope and excitement at an all-girls school in a remote Afghan village (What Tomorrow Brings), a young Nepali sex-trafficking victim-turned-anti-slavery activist (Urmila: My Memory is My Power), and an elderly Pakistani refugee who longs for his past home that may not survive the fight against the Taliban (Walnut Tree).

Hot Docs will host a record number of world and international premieres this year. Among them are films about Irish activist Bobby Sands, American filmmaker Brian de Palma, Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, and disgraced New York politician Anthony Weiner.

A still from Weiner
The eclectic offering also includes Obit, in which the New York Times’ obituary writers talk about the challenges of encapsulating rich lives in 500 words, and Sour Grapes, the humorous tale of a young con man who hoodwinked the elite world of fine wines by flooding the American market with fake vintages on the eve of the 2008 financial crisis.

The annual event is also an important industry platform and market for documentary films, with over 2,000 industry delegates set to attend this year. It also typically sees strong local audience participation, and drew a record-breaking crowd of over 200,000 last year. Hot Docs will run from April 28 to May 8.

HOT DOCS 2016: April 28 – May 8

Films from India:

Fireflies in the Abyss: Director – Chandrasekhar Reddy

Famous in Ahmedabad: Director – Hardik Mehta

Films by Indo-Canadian directors:

League of Exotique Dancers (Opening night film) – Rama Rau

Tempest Storm – Nimisha Mukerji

Random Acts of Legacy – Ali Kazimi

Gun Runners – Anjali Nayar

Films From/ About the Subcontinent:

Brothers in the Kitchen – Live Performance

The Land of the Enlightened – Pieter-Jan De Pue

What Tomorrow Brings – Beth Murphy

Urmila: My Memory is My Power – Susan Gluth

Walnut Tree – Ammar Aziz

(Indira Kannan is a senior journalist currently based in Toronto)

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