York U film talent shines at Hot Docs 2016

With more than 200 films lighting up screens all over Toronto, Hot Docs is North America’s largest documentary festival. This year’s edition, running April 28 to May 8, is expected to draw more than 200,000 appreciative film fans.

From festival openers to adventurous works for non-traditional screens, York University talent makes a big impact on the fest. Here’s an overview of some of the stories Cinema & Media Arts students, faculty and alumni are sharing at Hot Docs this year.

Operation Avalanche

A still from Operation Avalanche
A still from Operation Avalanche

Its hugely successful debut at the Sundance Film Festival in January set up  Operation Avalanche, by alumnus Matt Johnson (BFA ’06, MFA ’16), to be one of the most highly-anticipated Canadian premieres at Hot Docs. Hailed by the Toronto Star as an “audacious thriller”, the film blends fiction and found footage in a clever, comedic conspiracy “mockumentary”, set in the late 1960s at the height of the Cold War. Young CIA agents are sent undercover to NASA as documentary filmmakers to expose a Russian spy, but instead they uncover a shocking secret about the moon mission that has the power to change history.

Operation Avalanche reunites some of the York U team from Johnson’s critically acclaimed breakout success The Dirties, including producer Matthew Miller (BFA ’03, MFA ‘16), cinematographer Jared Raab (BFA ‘08) and writer Josh Boles (BFA ‘08), and once again stars Johnson and his Dirties co-star Owen Williams. Tickets and schedule.

Random Acts of Legacy

York U Professor Ali Kazimi, chair of York’s Department of Cinema & Media Arts, uses found footage to make a compelling case for the importance of film documentation and preservation with Random Acts of Legacy. His compilation of salvaged home movies of a middle-class Chinese-American family earned a 5-star rating from NOW Magazine, which calls it a “gorgeous, multi-layered … haunting, essential document”.

Making its world premiere with three screenings at the festival, the feature-length production comprises footage originally shot by commercial artist Silas Fung, tracing his family history from the Great Depression to postwar America. Combining the archival films with interviews with some of Fung’s descendants, Kazimi’s documentary is both a touching memoir and a rare, intimate glimpse into the life of a family of colour living in the American Midwest in the first half of the 20th century. Tickets and schedule.


Professor Brenda Longfellow created her interactive documentary OFFSHORE VR in collaboration with former York Visual Arts student Mike Robbins, creative technologist at Helios Design Labs. Part mystery and part creepy horror show, the project examines the peril and potential of deep water oil extraction. With a game-like navigation that allows the viewer to explore digital locations, view video clips and see sample documents and reports, OFFSHORE VR is online and accessible at any time, free of charge. It’s included in HotDocs’ DocX lineup, which celebrates documentary work that lives outside the traditional format, and can also be experienced at Hot Docs House (610 Markham Street), free and open to the public April 29 to May 7 from 11am to 6pm.

Between You and Me 

Making its world premiere, PhD candidate Chase Joynt’s Between You and Me asks: How do you continue to love someone who has done terrible things? In 2002, Michael Skoor was convicted of more than 20 counts of child sexual abuse, and sentenced to 29 years in a California state prison. That same year, Joynt met Skoor’s daughter Rebekah. This short doc follows the two friends en route to visit her father in prison. Cutting between home video footage of Michael Skoor provided by his family, and conversations between the filmmaker and Rebekah, Between You and Me foregrounds her conflicted feelings about her father’s duplicitous life. More information, tickets and schedule.

League of Exotique Dancers

Alumna Iris Ng (BFA ‘01) is the cinematographer behind the Hot Docs opening night gala feature: the world premiere screening of League of Exotique Dancers directed by Rama Rau. A dazzling, daring group of women from the heyday of burlesque come out of retirement to give a live performance at the Legends of Burlesque Hall of Fame in Las Vegas. The feisty women share their backstories, fraught with poverty, racism and sexism, and yet they all managed to find independence, freedom and strength through the work they did on stage. Tickets and schedule.

Michael Shannon Michael Shannon John

What would it be like to find out you had secret siblings on the other side of the world – and then to meet them? When alumna Chelsea McMullan (BFA ’07) heard the dramatic family story of her York classmate Shannon Hanmer (BFA ’07), she knew it would make a riveting movie. Having earned critical accolades at film festivals in Vancouver, Calgary and Columbus, Missouri, McMullan’s investigative documentary Michael Shannon Michael Shannon John, associate produced by Shannon Hanmer and shot by cinematographer Maya Bankovic (BFA ’07), makes its Toronto debut at Hot Docs.

Shannon’s father, John Hanmer, once an upstanding police officer in Hamilton, Ontario, met an untimely and mysterious end as a criminal, ambushed by gunmen in the Philippines. Reconstructing his shadowy past, Shannon and her brother Michael were shocked to discover they have half-siblings in Thailand, also named Michael and Shannon, and also abandoned by their father. The film interrogates ideas of identity, legacy and family as John’s children wade into the emotional detritus left in his turbulent wake. Tickets and schedule.

With files from Hot Docs