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Even Super Serious Documentaries Deserve an Afterparty

We went to some fun afterparties for some very serious movies at Hot Docs.
May 4, 2015, 7:26pm

Having a blast with the guy who kidnaps and "deprograms" kids: from right, Bob Moore, Ted Patrick, and Mia Donovan. Photos by the author

Over the past ten years, the Toronto-based Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival has expanded from its humble beginnings as a small, local event to one of the premiere documentary festivals in the world, and with that increased prestige came parties. Sure, Hot Docs may be hosting films about trailer parks full of sex offenders, addiction and homelessness, or the militarization of American police departments, but it's also a place for filmmakers to get together, share a few drinks, celebrate their accomplishments and (most importantly) get their film seen by as many people as possible.

Of course, it makes sense for the producers of Tig Notaro's new doc to throw a party—she's a very funny lady and the film is going to appeal to a lot of her fans—but we wondered what the afterparties might be like for less crowd-pleasing documentaries, where the idea of drinking and dancing might clash with the serious topics explored in the film themselves. So we explored the Hot Docs party scene to find out how filmmakers feel about throwing a big ol' shindig right after they've depressed the public with their essential story about the plight of refugees in the EU or the neo-Nazi scourge of a small town in North Dakota?

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The first party we checked out was the Blue Ice Party at SPiN, which served as a de facto host party for a number of documentaries. SPiN is "that ping pong bar co-owned by Susan Sarandon" in Toronto's bougie King West district. Given that you probably won't escape the place without getting hit in the head by at least half a dozen (mercifully painless) ping pong balls, it's hardly the kind of place where you want to think about the need to de-radicalize young people from dangerous cults and extremist organizations, but here we were, talking to Mia Donovan and Ted Patrick, the director and star of Deprogrammed, a doc about Patrick's controversial practices of kidnapping and confining young people in order to save them from themselves.

"This is my first party with ping pong, but I think it totally fits," says Donovan, "especially if it's a very serious topic, you want to loosen up." The 85-year-old Ted Patrick was flown in from San Diego for the festival, but after 40-odd years of "deprogramming" kids, he's gotten used to the parties that tend to follow: "I've been to many of them, many, around the world," he says, "when [people are] deprogrammed, they always have some kind of celebration."

After that, we ran into Sophie Deraspe and Sandra Bagaria, the director and subject of The Amina Profile, who were engaged in a fierce game of ping pong. The film documents Bagaria's online relationship with a blogger in Syria, the so-called "Gay Girl in Damascus," and a major twist that develops when Bagaria gets involved in an attempt to rescue her new friend from a supposed "abduction." Despite the geo-political weight of their film, both women seemed to be in good spirits. "If there's no party, then how can you dramatize a serious situation?" asks Bagaria, "you can go to the poorest neighbourhoods in Haiti and they still have small games they create on their own, so I guess you need to [have an] escape no matter your situation."

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A couple days later, I inquired about the party for The Shore Break, a South African doc about a traditional Pondo community that's threatened by a planned mining town on their homeland. One of the directors, Ryley Grunenwald, informed us beforehand that "the South African party… is quite famous (or infamous) at doc festivals—mostly because it's a real dance party." Held at Revival Bar on College Street, the party got crowded pretty quickly with filmmakers and industry delegates while the DJ played South African dance music.

We met up with Odette Geldenhuys, Grunenwald's co-director, at the party, who suggested that showing up to a party was a great way for filmmakers to celebrate all the hard work they've put into their projects. "It's a fantastic chance to celebrate and it's also a release of lots of tension from waiting to hear if you've been accepted [into the festival] our not," Geldenhuys says about the party, but concedes that she might have felt weird about celebrating like this if she were younger. "Maybe, because I'm older I understand contradictions in life. If I was 20-years-old I think it would be harder for me."

The last afterparty we went to was for the premiere of Fractured Land, a doc about First Nations environmental lawyer and activist Caleb Behn and his struggle to inform people about the dangers of fracking in northern British Columbia, because nothing says "good times" quite like fracking.

"[Parties] are generally pretty safe. They stick to a pretty similar formula, which is throw out a bit of free food and give out a couple drink tickets," says co-director Damien Gillis. "We're like, why can't you have an actually really cool party and something that actually celebrates the film?" So they turned the party into a concert, and enlisted the services of several First Nations performers, including rapper JB the First Lady, hip-hop group Mob Bounce, and spoken word artist Whisper Kish.

According to Behn, who suggested Mob Bounce for the party, "they're going to be bigger Tribe Called Red, guaranteed! These homies are legit!" For Behn, the party is the culmination of four and a half years work on the film "The tension that exists, such as it is, between getting intoxicated and dancing around and having a good night versus the seriousness that comes with ceremony and protocol," he explains. "It's the modern manifestation of an older tradition of celebration and coming to together in a good way." The party isn't just a chance to network and promote the film for Behn, but can also be good way to celebrate indigenous culture, "and as long as it doesn't get too rowdy tonight and someone gets shanked up, it should be all right!"

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