Hot Docs Fest Artistic Director, Programmers Exit Amid Financial Crunch

The Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival has been plunged into chaos a month before its 2024 edition.

The opening press conference in Toronto on Tuesday was overshadowed by news that the Hot Docs artistic director, Hussain Currimbhoy, and 10 programmers had left the festival organizing team ahead of the 2024 edition kicking off on April 25.

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Hot Docs in a festival statement confirmed Currimbhoy’s departure as artistic director on March 20, “due to personal reasons.” “Regrettably, some members of the programming team have decided not to participate in this year’s festival. We thank them for their contributions,” the documentary festival added.

Their departure forced Hot Docs president Marie Nelson — the former ABC News and Disney exec who took the helm at the Canadian festival in June 2023 — onto the back foot when she stepped forward to unveil the lineup for the 2024 edition.

“We understand that our union is far from perfect, but I also know that the only way we can create a more perfect union is if we do it together, and so I will continue to work to try to earn that trust and hope that they will come back, and if they don’t come back this year that they’ll come back next year,” Nelson told a somber industry gathering at the Hot Docs Theater in downtown Toronto.

Festival director Heather Haynes will lead the programming team ahead of Hot Docs’ upcoming April 25 to May 5 edition and echoed Nelson in holding out an olive branch to departing programmers. “I’m very pleased to be returning to my role to celebrate the films and the filmmakers in this year’s festival and also to hold the door open for the programmers that will be returning this year and for those that will be returning for our next festival,” Haynes told the press conference.

The programmer exodus at Hot Docs followed a March 8 statement by Nelson indicating the organization faced a widening cash crunch as it struggled to regain its footing after the pandemic.

“We are currently facing a significant operational deficit that threatens our long-term sustainability. While we’re already seeing positive signs of recovery as audiences both old and new are returning to the cinema, and while we’ve taken steps to reduce our overhead without impacting our core programming, we are quickly losing runway and urgently need direct support to ensure our future viability,” Nelson said at the time.

“You know in America, our country is experiencing so much strife and conflict and division. And so I was really excited to come to Canada where there’d be no drama,” Dawn Porter, director of the opening night film at Hot Docs, Luther: Never Too Much, told the festival unveiling in Toronto with ironic humor.

Luther: Never Too Much will get an international premiere in Toronto after debuting at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival and nearly 20 years after Vandross, the eight-time Grammy winner, died in 2005 at the age of 54, after suffering from a stroke in 2003.

Financial woes like the ones facing Hot Docs as the COVID-19 pandemic ebbs has spread to rival Canadian festivals, including Montreal’s Just For Laughs annual comedy event. The Just For Laughs parent company, Groupe Juste Pour Rire Inc., recently announced plans to file for bankruptcy protection as that organization also tries to recover from pandemic-era in-person event closures and disruption.

And the Toronto Film Festival has faced its own cost cutting after Canadian phone giant Bell, the lead sponsor since 1995 and with its name on the event’s year-round home Bell Lightbox, said it will stop its financial support. No replacement sponsor has yet been announced by TIFF.

For Hot Docs’ 2024 edition, 168 films from 64 countries were unveiled on Tuesday. That includes world bows for Neil Diamond’s Red Fever, which explores global fascination with Native Americans; American Cats: The Good, the Bad, and the Cuddly, with Full Frontal With Samantha Bee correspondent Amy Hoggart looking at the practice of declawing cats; and Le Mans 55: The Unauthorized Investigation, about the tragic Le Mans race in 1955 where 80 spectators died.

There’s also world premieres for two National Film Board of Canada films: Laurie Townshend’s A Mother Apart, and Eisha Marjara’s Am I the skinniest person you’ve ever seen?, a film about two sisters dieting and their project taking a dark turn.

And there’s a first look at Hot Docs for Ari’s Theme, a documentary about Ari Kinarthy, a 34 year-old music composer with a rare genetic condition, who looks at the meaning of his musical legacy.

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