Credit: Amber Bracken
by Zachary Goldkind Essays Featured Film

There is No Future, There is Only the Past: A Critical Survey of the 2024 Hot Docs Film Festival

May 23, 2024

On the introductory page of Israeli weapons manufacturer Elbit Systems’ UAS (Unmanned Aircraft System) page, it states: 

“The design of our UAS is based on decades of operational experience… The UAS are the backbone of the Israel Defense Forces [IDF] UAS force. Elbit Systems’ extensive experience and innovative approach to all aspects of UAS development, production, fielding and support result in outstanding UAS performance and highly-effective operational yields around the globe.”  

A first instinct, when met by this brief introduction, is to respond to and consider the initial frame: “based on decades of operational experience…”  This is, invariably, unabashed marketing material realized via decades of killings, thousands of Palestinians murdered by this technology since the company’s founding in 1966. But surely such violence also extends into the larger Arab context, where Lebanese and Syrian villages are rocked with Israeli missiles on the regular, as testing grounds for this global surveillance and technocratic warfare has been organized around the orientalizing and dehumanization of an Arab populace who refuses and resists the prospect of normalization, rebuking the hegemony whose violent assurances of indignity and disenfranchisement are an affront to the progressive ethical responsibilities of historical study, writ large. Canada’s Scotiabank’s (or the Bank of Nova Scotia’s) asset management arm, 1832 Asset Management, a subsidiary of Scotia Global Asset Management, and more specifically a subdivision entitled Dynamic Funds, holds approximately $237.6 million invested in Elbit Systems. This number is based on extremely recent U.S. security exchange filings determined on March 31 — which represents a 2.5% holding, more than halved from that reported at the end of 2023 — broadcast by Reuters on May 14, 2024. This comes after 1832’s fourth-quarter announcement declaring a decrease from a 5.1% holding in the third quarter to 4.3%. While this maintains Scotiabank’s position as Elbit’s largest foreign shareholder, it is clear that the persistent protest campaigns are working, the shares owned now being only 100K from the next largest international holder, Boston-based Fidelity Investments. 

Further scrutinizing Scotiabank’s complicity with colonial violence, we look to TC Energy, a North American energy company whose extractive and international campaigns have wreaked havoc across Indigenous territories over the years. Still very openly available on TC Energy’s website are their schemes for the Coastal GasLink Pipeline, which flagrantly and without regard cuts straight through unceded, sovereign Wet’suwet’en territory. This is territory that even the colonial government recognized as under the governance of indigenous leadership. According to an August 4, 2022 press release, available on TC Energy’s website, Scotiabank, in collaboration with RBC Capital Markets, had entered into an agreement with a syndicate led by the named banks to “purchase 28.5 million common shares of [TC Energy] at a price of $63.50 per Common share, for gross proceeds of approximately $1.8 billion.”  These dealings organize millions of profit initiatives, which will ferment a substrata of bureaucratic financial exchanges atop which policing is given the go-ahead to enact repressive and assaultive behaviors onto private citizens abiding by the right to protest, most especially on unceded territory.

This context provides some semblance of the historical context and political tension that would lead into the 2024 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, an annual film festival whose institution’s “presenting platinum partner,”  listed at the very top of their Sponsors & Partners page, is Scotia Wealth Management, a label of Scotiabank consisting of “a range of financial services provided by The Bank of Nova Scotia (Scotiabank)…”  Consistent with this, Scotiabank additionally has its hands in multiple major Canadian arts institutions, themselves also the presenting partner of the Giller Prize literary award, formally the Scotiabank Giller Prize. Art-washing, a common practice across banks in Canada — it would be difficult to open the programme or sponsorship page of any single keystone arts institution and not find a bank listed at the very top of the page — begs a collection of questions. What do we want from our arts institutions? How do they represent us as a functioning political body of workers? Can the arts institutions we aspire to, the cultural capital we invest in, reflect our ethical and social responsibilities as artists back onto us? These are questions asked by multiple collectives and arts organizations located in Toronto and elsewhere, through whom a counter-programming festival had announced itself just weeks prior to Hot Docs’ commencement. The No Arms in the Arts Festival — an initiative brought to the fore by Toronto Writers Against The War on Gaza, Filmworkers For Palestine, the Toronto Palestine Film Festival, Wave Form Projects curatorial collective, the Regards Palestiniens collective, and the Reassemblage collective —was a 12-day programme of politically heightened screenings, roundtable discussions, open forums, and organized actions, simultaneous with Hot Docs. It was an answer to the increasingly unstable ground atop which Toronto’s major arts institutions wobble, in financial precarity and neoliberal opacity.

Prior to Hot Docs’ programme announcement, a slew of scandals and admissions seethed to the top of news headlines and social media timelines. The festival announced its lack of confidence in their financial capacity to upkeep themselves past this year’s festival; they failed to release or articulate any intentions they had to approach the ongoing genocide in Gaza perpetrated by Israel — a political position that the organization had no issues of responding to in both curatorial and moral measures regarding the Russian invasion of Ukraine — and the day before this announcement, 10 of the festival’s programmers stepped down from their positions in solidarity, responding to administrative failures in addressing their months-long internal campaign of managing a toxic and contemptuous workplace as facilitated by its higher-ups. 

Credit: No Arms in the Arts Festival

Attending this year’s festival, my curiosity led to seeking out filmmakers whose political subjects might bring them into a position of contradiction, stepping up onto the stage as they introduce their works. How do artists who surround themselves with the political struggles of others, its violence, and repression, respond to authenticated accusations of complicity and the very loud call for divestment from a body that makes millions over the dead bodies of Palestinian children, the incarceration and expropriation of land defenders across Turtle Island? How do artists who walk across the stages sponsored with this blood money respond? Asking around while attending many screenings myself, I was able to confirm 13 filmmakers who took to the stage with prepared statements.  Sometimes, these were statements in solidarity with the Palestinian people against the genocide they face at the hands of Israel. Others were more specific, broadcasting the messaging No Arms in the Arts articulates: that Hot Docs must take responsibility, by either using their platform to encourage Scotiabank divest from the investments specified in the above opening paragraphs, or cease relations with Scotiabank altogether, not allowing the filmmakers they host and their own institution to be enveloped in these ethical contradictions that further corrupt our cultural industries, presently complicit in genocide.

Union’s co-director’s Stephen T. Maing and Brett Story; The Strike’s JoeBill Muñoz and Lucas Guilkey; Standing Above the Clouds’ director Jalena Keane-Lee; Adrianne & The Castle’s Shannon Walsh; Teaches of Peaches’ Philipp Fusseneggar; Yance Ford of Power; Life is Beautiful’s Mohamed Jabaly; and Alix Blair, director of Helen and the Bear — these are just some of the filmmakers who stepped onto the stage and rejected their complicity before audiences and programmers, refusing to allow silence the space it often demands within institutional environments. For Alix, unfortunately, the very weight of that permeating silence sought to rise against her. In video captured of her statement, she declares absolutely that she “is a U.S tax payer, and [she] is broken-hearted by [her] government’s complicity in arming Israel and the indiscriminate harm they are causing to the Palestinian people.” As she begins to account her pride in organizing alongside collectives of filmmakers in support for Palestinian liberation, the audience begins to heckle: a mumbling rebuke of her statements that swells into an inchoate uproar of reductive and decontextualizing sentiments. From “Then why are you playing in this theatre?” to “Pull your film, then!” to “What about October 7?” — the snowball of confidence the audience demonstrated in accosting the filmmaker as Hot Docs officials stood by and did nothing was apparent and abhorrent. One statement, echoed by another patron quickly afterwards, heard quietly under Alix’s sustained reading of her prepared words, refusing to concede ground, defines, I think, the essential problem here. “This is not a political forum.” And again, “This is not a political forum!” What does this mean? 

The larger environment Hot Docs plays into is one indisputably of industrialism and aspiring careerism. Corporate sponsorships and international systems of documentary financing organize around the annual festival each and every year. Its fundraising methodology revolves around internal programmes such as the Founders Circle,  a programme for those wealthy philanthropists (the minimum buy-in is $1,500 CAD) who seek to invest in culture without seemingly understanding what that encompasses. I noticed the now infamous Canadian MP Melissa Lantsman, a conservative representative and outspoken Zionist, who purposefully misrepresents organized protests against the illegal selling of occupied territories in the West Bank, upon the Founders Circle list during the pre-show before each Hot Docs screening. A few minutes of further investigation leads one to learn that she was once a member of Hot Docs’ board.  These associations, these histories, where stakeholders can perform the political roles that trickle down into their spheres of interrelation — this is the crux of the matter, the inherent politicization before we even begin speaking about politics. Why do the institutions with the most robust economic support also defang and liberalize their positionality? It would be ignorant to not suggest that money has almost everything to do with it — money, aspiration, and the up-keeping of certain top-down power structures. 

But then we return to those words: “This is not a political forum.” Hot Docs hosted an entire programme dedicated to the films of Ukrainian documentarians in their 2023 edition, responding to Russia’s invasion. They host documentaries surrounding subjects of authoritarian resurgences, Indigenous resistance, historical activist movements, precarity as a political refugee, diasporic alienation, colonial violence, ecological collapse, labor rights, and this list can continue on and on, getting ever-increasingly specific and heterogeneously political. Documentaries are the confrontation of political discourses, on micro, macro, and interlaced scales: the personal as a landscape through which the conditions of their context course. There are some films that annex their surrounding circumstances as to impose character-driven narratives across a topography of turmoil, and there are films entirely dedicated to the tide of reformation that comes out of collective struggle. Regardless, these are representations of the political fabric our realities are woven across. And so when these words, “this is not a political forum,” echo through the cinema that was built atop a genealogy of politics, one must question where that disconnect occurred. Where did the messaging abstract itself into reduction and erasure? Further, who is responsible for this? In my eyes, this can only be the failure of Hot Docs, indicative of their financial relationships to bodies that represent and perpetuate the very violence that filmmakers capture, that the filmmakers’ subject is subjected to. Thankfully, while this systemic issue seeps into the liberal apoliticism of certain audiences, audiences that must be confronted and corrected regarding the space they enter into, that frame cannot be used to define the entirety of the festival’s demographics.

Credit: Amber Bracken

The highlight of this year’s festival, winner of the Roger’s Audience Award for Best Canadian Documentary and the Hot Docs audience Award, is Yintah, directed by Jennifer Wickham, Brenda Michell, and Michael Toledano. Yintah means “land,” a word that encompasses, too, those who lay down their livelihoods to protect it. Over a decade of escalation by the RCMP at the behest of Canadian governmental bodies and TC Energy, we watch Wet’suwet’en land defenders stake their claim on unneeded territory, captured by journalists who have put their bodies on the exact same line, in solidarity and upholding the responsibility of their ethics in approaching these communities to capture their fight. This film showcases a decentralized method of representation and power, collective bodies organizing across various camps throughout the Yintah. It’s impossible not to see reverberations of Alanis Obomsawin’s shattering 1993 document of the Oka crisis here: Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance often displays identical methods of community protection and police engagement that’s observed over these last years in Yintah, inferring to those analyzing an intertextual read that the treatment of Indigenous populations in so-called Canada hasn’t remotely changed, with state violence persisting to encroach and transgress the sovereign rights of native communities. In 2023, CBC reported that only 13 of 94 calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation commission have been completed in the eight years since its establishment (2015), and in 2023 exactly zero were accomplished.  The performative promises of a federal government become a veil under which the actions of their police arm can go untempered, even as thousands march into the streets in protest across the country. 

Yintah’s exceptional proximity and montage, its resolute duty to confront the violation and expropriation ongoing, is reflected in the filmmakers’ unwavering ideology. During each screening, the filmmakers and subjects expressed complete and unquestionable solidarity with Palestinians facing genocide, expressly demanding that Hot Docs take responsibility for their contradiction. How dare they enthusiastically host this film while cozying up with an integral economic node in TC Energy’s infrastructure, enabling the Coastal Gasoline Pipeline, which represents an environmental and mortal threat to the peoples they now invite up onto their stage. The makers and subjects of Yintah call out Hot Docs with the central tenets and demands made by the No Arms in the Arts counter festival, where cross-pollination was a common occurrence, artists and patrons alike articulating and confronting the political tensions that ultimately determine the ethical fiber of our community as a whole. 

Over 10 days of counter-programming, community gathers in notably smaller venues to share in discourse and grieving, to engage in counter-narratives that rebuke the apoliticized politics that negate art as a “political forum.” Discussions that investigate the material of solidarity, the experiences of activists and their multi-hyphenated roles as organizers-citizens-workers-artists-academics-et al, the systemic inhospitableness of our cultural industries, the tasks we must take on as an actor within the social, to cultivate and erect public spheres that reflect our moral stake. The No Arms in the Arts festival was a spur of the moment experiment in articulating protest outside of commodified space, outside of the matrix of institutionalization. There’s been nothing quite like it in the many years I’ve been a part of Toronto’s film circle, and it operates, I believe, as a model going forward: a recognition of possibility and an affirmation of collective strife. When the University of Toronto encampment occupied the King’s College circle, utilizing the very fencing put up by the university to keep them out as a controlled perimeter ensuring the safety of campers and comrades, it was the fourth day of both Hot Docs and No Arms in the Arts. The latter, as a part of its programming, projected a series of short films within the encampment to a crowd of hundreds. What existed as organized fringe demonstration against our cultural bodies that see fit to dictate a landscape they even begin to fall victim to, in one gesture expands to encompass and signify a movement being witnessed across our world. Students courageous enough to threaten their capacity for future mobility, they bring in our political articulation in acknowledgement of solidarity, in a display of bottom-up inauguration. The failures of Hot Docs are most explicitly rendered in the grassroots nature of deinstitutionalized composition, where ideological faculties are enunciated and transparent, where people gather to engage in political objects, rather than objects that merely speak about politics.

This finally brings me to a throughline I discerned in those decidedly political films whose makers chose not to use their platform to take note of the incredible and consequential moment we find ourselves in. The artists who took heed of the silence, rather than use their position to push against it. To those filmmakers, I ask, what do you stand for? What is the future you wish to be a part of? Unsurprisingly, but notably, these same filmmakers could not articulate a perspective on the very subjects their films centred on when directly asked about the political landscapes their lens gazed upon, opting instead for generalized egalitarian deflections or even shifting focus solely onto the aesthetic qualities of their work, how these autonomous tenets in fact express the politics at play. Such hyper-insulated attitudes render films that reflect a distance and ideological apathy, inevitably hurting the project’s ability to confront its own concerns in this misguided roundabout manner of incoherent and contradictory positionality. If artists need not stand for something, if they cannot speak outside of their work to the contexts it was made and exhibited in, then of what use to their community can they be? Do we not see in them a mere reflection of that hollowed-out corpus of the dying festival infrastructure which they fail to challenge? The most important conceit I was able to take away from this was actually incommensurably simple and intensely pointed to an unpredictable degree: those artists and audiences who sought politics, who seek counter-hegemonic potential, whether that be in divestment or alternative structures altogether — those artists and audiences talk about the future, imagine and give expression to a future. For the others, there is no future, there is only the past: the decisions that could have been made, the history that we can only reflect upon. It’s a temporal schism, emblematic of everything we believe, and everything we’ll put on the line to crystallize those values.