t’s the closing weekend of Hot Docs and a roomful of documentarians are awaiting the announcement of festival prizes. There’s a buzz about Steve James being in the crowd to receive his lifetime achievement award. But it’s Lynne Fernie who receives the only standing ovation of the night. The much-loved Canadian Spectrum film programmer announced this spring she’s stepping back from Hot Docs after 14 years.
“It breaks our hearts that you’re leaving us, Lynne,” said festival executive director Brett Hendrie from the stage of the Isabel Bader theatre. “When I started working at Hot Docs the festival had just graduated from cafes and church basements to a dozen cinemas across Toronto. This festival wouldn’t be what it is now without you here.”
During her time at Hot Docs, Fernie watched nearly 6,000 documentaries (programming about 600), introduced and wrote about her film choices and welcomed hundreds of filmmakers to the festival each year. “Her passion is as deep as her knowledge, and her championing of Canadian documentaries and the people who make them has never wavered,” says lead programmer Shane Smith. “She fights for filmmakers, advocates for their films and tirelessly works to ensure they have the best possible experience at Hot Docs. And she can drink me, an Australian, under the table.”
She is also exceptionally humble and graceful.
“I wanted to leave the festival but you Canadians kept sending films so I couldn’t bear to leave,” says Fernie holding a bouquet of flowers from the stage. “Whether we were able to choose it, whether we agonized or recommended it to other programmers, it was a pleasure to be in the theatre celebrating with you.”
The agonizing was one of the most difficult parts of the gig. “When you phone filmmakers up and invite their films, those 40 or 50 films, you’re really beloved by people. And then when the letters of regret go out you’re hated by 350 people,” says Fernie, who once turned down her best friend’s film.
Fernie dreams about the films she watches for months afterwards, creating a sort of “post-traumatic stress by proxy,” she says. “My banker says I’m afraid to invest because I’ve seen too many dystopic economic films where everything comes crashing down.”