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Every year the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival brings us films that educate us, enrage us, inspire us and move us. There is something about documentary filmmaking that compels us to take time off work, buy tickets packs (of full festival passes) and spend every waking moment digesting these films.

Is it because Hot Docs connects us to other places and people in a way that the average fiction film can simply never do? Is it because we come out changed, for better or for worse?

This question is simply unanswerable, but it seems that Hot Docs inspires a kind of devotion in its patrons that few other festivals can even hope to compel.

And no matter how many films we see, it always feels like we missed something. How can we possibly choose?!

This year Hot Docs boasts 205 feature-length and short films, and Toronto Film Scene has seen 68 of them so far. While not all our reviews are up and available yet (subscribe to TFS to make sure you don’t miss even one!), we wanted to make sure we recommended a few gems you will definitely want to get tickets to before the festival starts.

Here are our top 15 recommended films playing at Hot Docs 2013. (In alphabetical order, because we couldn’t choose!)

15 Reasons to Live


Alan Zweig’s latest film takes an episodic look at a neighbour’s list of reasons to live. Deeply funny and moving, this is a must-see, especially if you’re Canadian.

Screening: April 29, May 1, May 4




In 1991, Anita Hill’s life changed forever when she was called to testify to allegations of sexual harassment by her boss, Clarence Thomas, a Supreme Court nominee. This film handles both the defense Hill never got to put on, while also answering the question, “Is Anita okay?” Read our review here.

Screening: April 26, April 27, May 4


Blood Brother


Filmmaker Steve Hoover documents what he thinks is a friend’s selfish and stupid decision: to move to India to work in an HIV care centre. Blood Brother is a beautiful film about how passion can be channeled into good and how people can be transformed by giving.

Screening: April 30, May 1, May 2


Buying Sex


This Canadian doc looks at both sides of the issue of prostitution: is it oppression or is it liberation? Women who work in the sex industry speak passionately about their experiences and opinions on this contentious topic.

Screening: May 1, May 3, May 5




Everyone thinks they know the story behind Napster, but they simply don’t. Downloaded looks at the story of the world-changing technology that took down the music industry and changed the internet forever from the perspective of those who made it. Not a surprising recommendation, but one you shouldn’t ignore nonetheless.

Screening: April 27, April 28, May 3




With a record number of pet owners in the world right now, it seems fitting that an industry would spring up to help them handle the loss of a pet. Furever looks at the myriad ways in which a pet owner can memorialize their animal, as well as some of the science surrounding why they would want to. Touching and funny, you should try to see this if you can.

Screening: April 27, April 29, May 5


Good ‘Ol Freda


This first-time insider look at the life of Freda Kelly, manager of The Beatles’ fan club from the time they formed until they broke up, Good ‘Ol Freda offers the kind of access to the band that fans (or anyone even remotely interested) could ask for. Get your tickets now. This one’s going to be hot.

Screening: April 27, April 28, May 4


The Great Hip Hop Hoax


When two talented kids from Scotland can’t get a recording contract (or even a meeting) because no one thinks the Scottish can rap, Gavin Bain and Billy Boyd put on fake accents and pretend to be from the US – where they are magically offered a recording contract almost instantly. The resulting film is what happens when they have to live the lie.

Screening: May 1, May 3, May 4


I Am Breathing


After the birth of a healthy baby boy, Neil Platt is diagnosed with ALS. Knowing that he only has a few months to live, he embarks on a journey to encompass everything he is in a letter to his one-year-old son. Don’t skip this one just because you think it will make you sad.

Screening: April 26, April 27, May 5


The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne


Doris Payne has everyone fooled: when you look at her, you see an elderly lady with great taste and style. In reality, however, she is an international jewel thief with a 60-year career that has netted her about $2 million. On trial for her latest heist (stealing a diamond ring from Macy’s), the film unravels the mystery behind the woman.

Screening: April 26, April 28, May 1


Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer


Possibly the most important film at the festival this year, Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer looks at the group of Russian guerilla punk rockers and follows the trial of three members who quickly become political prisoners and beacons of just how terrible human rights are in Russian right now. Read our review here.

Screening: April 26, April 28, May 4


The Punk Singer


The Punk Singer is the story of Kathleen Hanna, founder of the Riot Grrrl movement in the ‘90s and her decision to stop performing in 2005. A great look at an often forgotten musician, this film will touch you and energize you at the same time.

Screening: April 29, May 1, May 3


Shooting Bigfoot


Do you think Bigfoot exists? Doesn’t matter, these guys do. Filmmaker Morgan Matthews follows a group of amateur cryptozoologists determined to find proof that Bigfoot exists. The result is pretty much what you would expect, only way, way more entertaining.

Screening: April 30, May 1, May 4


This Ain’t No Mouse Music


Chris Strachwitz, founder of Arhoolie Records, fled Germany in 1947 only to find fame and notoriety in America. This is the story of a man who found some of the best in jazz, soul and blues and shared it with the world because it touched him. This is one of the best films of the festival, so absolutely do not miss it.

Screening: May 2, May 3

We can’t wait for the festival to start, and we would love to hear what you think of our picks or anything you see!

TFS loves Hot Docs