With Hot Docs at Palace Cinemas currently playing in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra theatres, We stole a few minutes with Shane Smith, the Australian-born Director of Programming for the acclaimed Canadian Hot Docs festival, who was instrumental in bringing it to our shores.
What’s your background?
I was born and raised in Australia (proud Lake Macquarie boy!), and I moved to Canada in late 1996, where I started working in film festivals in earnest. I fell in love with cinema at the Sydney Film Festival when I was a student at Macquarie University (remember when Mass Communications was a thing? Probably not…), but didn’t think of film festivals as a career until I moved to Toronto and started working at several there. I started at the Inside Out Queer Film Festival, and moved on to run the Worldwide Short Film Festival, which led to opportunities programming for Sundance and for both TV and airlines. I was hired by TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) as Director of Public Programmes just before they opened their new building in 2010, and oversaw a bunch of really interesting initiatives there (the Film Reference Library, TIFF Kids International Film Festival, touring digital exhibitions, adult learning, shorts programming, etc) before transitioning into the role of Director of Special Projects. It was an incredible experience to work for one of the most important film festivals in the world and to be part of the team that shaped their transition into a year-round arts organization.
How did you come to be working for Hot Docs?
I’ve been a big fan of Hot Docs since I moved to Toronto, and attended every year as an industry delegate. I had front row seats to watch the organization grow and evolve and really become a key event in the documentary world. When the Director of Programming role came up, I knew I wanted to throw my hat into the ring, and luckily for me I got the job.
What philosophy do you bring to the program? What assumptions drive your choices?
My approach to the programming at Hot Docs is really informed by exploration- wanting to program not only the best documentaries being made in the world today, but exploring new forms of documentary and showcasing work that pushes at the boundaries of what’s considered “traditional” documentary. I work with a very experienced programming team who are well-versed in the history and art of documentary, so they’re very attuned to trends and developments in the form, and we’re able to shape a provocative, interesting, well-rounded program. This year for example, we expanded our DocX section, for work that expands the definition of documentary, including VR and interactive docs, live performed docs, and even a fiction film that was constructed (both on screen and behind-the-scenes) utilizing documentary techniques. The only assumption I make is that Hot Docs audience is as interested in exploring the range of what can be considered documentary as we are in bringing unique, boundary-pushing work to them.
What is the programming process like on a day-to-day level for you?
Every day is different in this job, and that’s what I love about it. For months it’s non-stop film watching, shaping the program, writing notes and negotiating for films, culminating in the 11 days of the Hot Docs Festival- my favourite 11 days of the year! Then at other times, there are budgets, planning and admin issues to address. And travel to other festivals is a great part of the job- meeting colleagues and filmmakers, seeing new work, hearing about what’s coming up, checking out how other festivals differ from Hot Docs both operationally and culturally. Through documentary the world opens up to me in new ways all the time, and I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to learn all the time, and to be stimulated, infuriated and fascinated by the stories told by doc filmmakers.
What are the must-see films on the current slate, in your opinion?
Hot Docs At Palace Cinemas offers a really great encapsulation of what’s going on in the documentary filmmaking at the moment. There’s an incredible range of stories being told, in a remarkable variety of ways, and the program includes creative gems like Ukrainian Sheriffs, Gulistan Land of Roses and Gun Runners. Then there are the profile pieces, which deep dive into a subject in beautifully insightful ways, like League of Exotique Dancers, Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You, I am the Blues and Fassbinder. And for brilliant takes on life in China and Afghanistan today, you must see The Road and What Tomorrow Brings.
What are you looking forward to in the near future?
I’m really excited by the way filmmakers are taking the documentary form and turning it inside out – exploring new ways to tell stories, and utilizing new stylistic and technical devices to do so. The rise of creative non-fiction as a doc style is very interesting and somewhat controversial, as filmmakers incorporate “artifice” into the telling of “truth”. And the evolution of virtual reality technology and storytelling is at a really important moment in terms of documentary, and I’m looking forward to seeing how that plays out in the development of audience engagement in the coming years.
For info, tickets and session times for hot Docs, shoot over to the Palace Cinemas site.