Hot Docs 2016: 13 documentaries to see this year

O.J Simpson in 'O.J. Simpson: Made in America.'. Hot Docs

Over the 23 years of its existence, Toronto’s Hot Docs has grown from the biggest documentary film festival in Canada to become the largest documentary film festival in North America.

From 2,735 film submissions, this year’s slate will present 232 titles from 51 countries in 12 screening programs, with work by female filmmakers representing close to 40 per cent of the 2016 festival.

Topics range from biopics about O.J. Simpson and wellness guru Tony Robbins to a close-up analysis of what the internet has done to our society at large, and whether or not it’s ethically right to manufacture your baby’s looks, sex and genetic makeup before birth.

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The stories presented at Hot Docs this year are very engaging; in fact, it’s difficult to choose what to see. In order to help make your decision easier, here are some top docs from this year’s fest.

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League of Exotique Dancers
Everybody loves burlesque. It’s impossible not to smile at the dancing, the boas, the makeup, the flair. This year’s Hot Docs opener is no exception, as we meet and follow burlesque dancers from its Golden Age as they’re inducted into the Burlesque Hall of Fame. Yes, that exists, and these women haven’t lost one iota of their magic.

Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru
Tony Robbins, the motivational-speaking superstar who was all over your TV for years, is still somewhat of a mystery. His methods are also clandestine. While this movie doesn’t necessarily dig very deeply in a critical fashion, it’s still fascinating to see what Robbins’ life was like in the height of his heyday.

[No trailer available for this title yet]
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Hip-Hop Evolution
From Canuck music documentary filmmakers Scot Macfadyen and Sam Dunn (along with another director Darby Wheeler), this engrossing doc is narrated by CBC’s Shad, who walks us through the streets of New York City — the birthplace of hip-hop — to discover its roots and beginnings. Bonus: great music throughout.

[No trailer available for this title yet]

Southwest of Salem
Many people are calling this the new Making a Murderer, but it’s not quite the same. Yes, it deals with four wrongly imprisoned women (sent to jail for being lesbians, essentially), but the story is more insidious, and it’s abundantly clear that the women were committed before being proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

O.J. Simpson: Made in America
There has been much fascination with O.J. lately, and it’s easy to see why. Taking a look at the life of Simpson, who went from the ultimate success of his football career and Hollywood life to the darkness of murder suspicion and his eventual incarceration, it’s impossible to look away.

Spirit Unforgettable
Bring the tissues for this one. This doc focuses on the lead singer of B.C. band Spirit of the West, John Mann, who was recently diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. We follow the band (as well as Mann and his wife, Jill) as it preps for its final Toronto show at Massey Hall.

Future Baby
Technologies in fertility and human reproduction are rapidly advancing. These days, it’s not unusual to hear about international surrogates, in-vitro fertilization or “designing” children. So imagine, not too far into the future, how likely it is that people will be literally constructing their children before they’re even conceived.

New York Times fans, this is your documentary. You’d think the life of an obituary writer would be all about death and sadness, but instead, it’s actually a profession that uncovers the lives of interesting, diverse people. Watch as this rare breed researches and composes little masterpieces about the dearly departed.

[No trailer available for this title yet]
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Off the Rails
If you don’t know the story of Darius McCollum, you will soon. The New York City man has Asperger syndrome and is obsessed with trains, so much so that he’s been arrested more than 30 times for impersonating drivers and stealing transit vehicles. A spellbinding look into mental illness and fixation.

Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World
The latest from director Werner Herzog, this close-up examination of the internet is as wonderful as it is scary. While the interconnectedness computers have given us is a valuable thing for humanity, it also has its detrimental qualities too. Told in chapters, this isn’t a doc for tech and futurism nuts to miss.

Life, Animated
This doc focuses on an autistic man who had difficulty communicating while growing up … at least, until he was exposed to Disney films. He began to memorize characters and their speeches, and he and his family would sing the songs to one another, establishing a deeper connection via Disney music. A film about the power of art.

[No trailer available for this title yet]
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Check It
Life in Washington, D.C., is tough, especially for those folks stuck in the cycle of poverty. It’s even harder for gay and trans black youth, who’ve banded together to combat bullies in the first-ever gay “gang.” The gang, called Check It, protects its members as they try to navigate their way to a better life.

After Circus
Where does one go after they “retire” from circus life? You find out in this heartwarming-yet-heartbreaking doc, which looks at a vibrant community of ex-circus performers in Sarasota, Florida.

Hot Docs runs from April 28 – May 8 in Toronto. Visit the Hot Docs website for tickets and showtimes.

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