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POV interviews Hot Docs Canadian Programmer Lynne Fernie

Hot Docs International Documentary Film Festival Senior Canadian Programmer Lynne Fernie talks with Point of View’s Nick Gergesha about her role at North America's largest film festival, which runs from April 26 to May 3 in Toronto. Find out more about Point of View's new special Hot Docs Issue here.

Nick Gergesha: How did you become the Senior Canadian Programmer at Hot Docs?

Lynne Fernie: I was brought onboard about ten or eleven years ago by a really wonderful senior programmer named David McIntosh. He mentored me for a number of years through the process. I was sort of hired by Chris McDonald and, at the time, Karen Tisch, who was the general manager. They brought me onboard and that's how I began.

NG: I do know that you yourself are an artist, and you have accomplished a lot. Did you know the Hot Docs people before going in?

LF: I knew some very briefly, but not as close friends. I had of course seen David around; Toronto has a small cultural scene, really. I have made documentary films that have won Genies, and I think he wanted to bring someone onboard who would have that compassion for filmmakers. I had done extensive reading on the documentary form, and thought I would just try it out for a year. I really appreciated David. I think he is one of the most intelligent programmers.

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: So it's almost like a catered board meeting.

LF: Yeah! You can take a little break, but it stays very much like I imagine most of us work as independent documentary filmmakers. You have formal meetings sometimes, but very often you get together and have a snack and a coffee because you want that kind of energy and spirit to stay [in the programming room].

NG: I would imagine you also want it to remain a kind of community thing too.

LF: Yes, and it's not a life insurance company. So we get down to that shortlist. It all depends on what our deadlines are: we look at films, we may ask to see a film that we saw at a rough cut stage to see what has happened with it, and some films get second looks. We then have this hideous position where we have to choose the relatively few films to put in the festival. By this point we are really thinking of the shape of the programme.

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.

NG: What if something qualifies for multiple categories? For instance, what if a Canadian filmmaker shot everything in Italy and received grants from their funding bodies?

LF: We have to do that on a call-by-call basis. We tend to program our Canadian Spectrum according to the creators, in other words by the director or creative team. I could see, if we were doing it by the producer or funder, having a Canadian Spectrum with no Canadian directors up there. This is my worst nightmare. It isn't likely to happen, but what if an Italian filmmaker gets Canadian funding and shoots a film in Edmonton? Or what if ten new American filmmakers came and shot something in Toronto, and somehow managed to get Toronto money? We try to focus on the creative, but occasionally there is a film where the director, cinematographer, or the editor are Canadian amongst a group of foreign creators. Sometimes we will pass a Canadian film onto the international programmers, and other times the opposite happens.

NG: I ask this because Ontario especially has such a complex network of co-producing.

LF: It does, and it gets more and more so. The more money gets scarce here, the more filmmakers have gone out to France and Germany and other broadcasters. This is all fabulous, but the festival has always invited the director. Television is very producer-oriented, where a director will direct an episode and won't see it again until it airs on TV, whereas festivals have looked at one-off films instead of series and focus on the art of storytelling…[We want films that] tell stories about ourselves and our world, and as Bill Nichols would say, our "historical reality."

This year, up until our second final deadline of January 13th, we did not have very many films in. We had maybe 80 submissions, and I was wondering if everything finally hit the fan. We kept expecting our submissions to be a bit lower. When I started we got around 200 submissions, but there is a terrible funding situation in Canada. On January 13th, however, in came close to 200 submissions and it was a nightmare. I would encourage people, if their film is finished, not to just wait until that deadline date before they remember to bring it down. Suddenly we only have three weeks to watch 200 films. If the film is unfinished before this date then it's completely understandable, but if it is finished and it has shown elsewhere…please bring it in earlier.
Hot Docs runs from April 26 to May 6 at various theatres in Toronto. The festival will open with the Canadian Premiere of Alison Klayman’s AI WEIWEI: NEVER SORRY. For tickets visit