Rogers family donates $5 million to Hot Docs
By Annemarie Brissenden
Ninety years after John Grierson — who would go on to become the first commissioner of the National Film Board of Canada — coined the term documentary, Toronto’s burgeoning narrative feature industry has secured a permanent home.
Late last month, Hot Docs received a $5-million gift from the Rogers Foundation, enabling the organization to purchase the historic Bloor Street theatre and rename it the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema. The donation also includes $1 million for the establishment of the Hot Docs Ted Rogers fund, which will provide production grants for feature-length documentaries to Canadian filmmakers.
“We need documentary films to share stories”—Martha Rogers, chair, Rogers Foundation
“Having a home is an important step in an organization’s evolution and growth,” said Chris McDonald, president of Hot Docs, the only independent cinema in the world dedicated to documentaries and host of the international film festival of the same name.
Or as Martha Rogers, chair of the Rogers Foundation, said, “This allows Hot Docs to own the building and protect the future. It’s a cultural asset for this city.”
It’s also a way to honour Ted Rogers, who was one of the original sponsors of Hot Docs.
“We’re just a little in love with documentary film,” admitted the foundation chair.
And she’s not the only one.
According to McDonald, Toronto has the third largest cinema-going audience in the world, and is home to more film festivals than anywhere else.
“Canadians by nature of our national character are really good at [documentaries],” said documentarian Jennifer Baichwal, director of Watermark and Manufacturing Landscapes. “We don’t have an agenda to push, and are served by looking at things from different angles, not just the dominant perspective.”
That multi-dimensional perspective is one that appealed to Tiffany Hsiung, first as a viewer, and then as a producer.
Hot Docs ignited her love for documentaries, and Hsiung recently made her filmmaking debut at this year’s festival, where she was the runner-up audience favourite for The Apology. The film, seven years in the making, follows three grandmothers in their fight for justice after the Japanese Imperial Army made them sex slaves during the Second World War.
For Hsiung, these are the kinds of important stories best served by feature-length documentaries.
“I learned about these ‘comfort women’ and was meeting these female survivors from across Asia,” she said, “but no one knew what I was talking about and that enraged me. That sparked the need to be able to tell the story.”
“We need documentary films to share stories,” said Rogers. “It’s one of the most important mediums we have out there.”
McDonald — who pointed out that documentary is an inclusive medium that suits everything from serious stories about human rights to very personal narratives to subjects as silly as a competitive endurance tickling organization — said that in documentaries “we learn more about each other, ourselves, and we also learn more about the world”.
“We are incredibly lucky to have two world-class festivals in our city,” said Baichwal. “It brings the world to us, and it allows us to showcase Canadian filmmakers to the world.”
Just as important as the purchase of the cinema — “a huge boon to the filmmaking community and an incredible vote of confidence for the documentary community” — is the creation of the production fund, added the filmmaker.
“Being a documentarian is not a cushy or lucrative job; even though we are as established as we are ever going to be, it is still a dicey situation for making a living,” explained Baichwal. Providing a production fund — which adds to the support that the organization has always given to filmmakers at critical stages — “fills out the support Hot Docs gives to the community”.
That community spirit is something the organizers take very seriously, whether it is the filmmakers they support or the neighbourhood they call home.
“The cinema is very much the heart and soul of the Annex and the community. It could have been redeveloped into condos, but it survived for a reason: there is a great community all around it,” said McDonald. “We’re going to be friendly and responsible neighbours.”
Other than putting up a new marquee and making some small changes to the front, McDonald said he doesn’t anticipate making any major changes to the building.
“Our goal is to continue running a great cinema and a great community cinema.”