Bigger than ever, the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival returns to Toronto from April 17 - 27, 2008.

From playful to poignant this year's entries offer a visual feast for documentary film lovers. Viewers will find tributes to Canadian documentary filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal, a riveting spotlight on works from the Middle East and vibrant docs from Mexico. The search for spirituality also emerges as a big film trend.

"We have 173 entries from 1,800 submissions this year - that's more films than ever before for Hot Docs," says Director of Programming Sean Farnel.

Founded in 1993, North America's largest documentary festival features a diverse mix of international documentaries that reflect the social, cultural and political mood of the times. Short or long, light-hearted or horrific, these cutting-edge entries put the real world in all its grit and glory at Torontonians' feet.

This globally culled gold also lures hundreds of documentary professionals to Toronto. In 2007 alone, Hot Docs attracted more than 1,800 delegates from around the world, including documentary filmmakers, buyers, programmers, broadcasters and commissioning editors.

"What's unique about Hot Docs is that it is a large public film festival with industry components that run alongside it," says Farnel. For example, the Toronto Documentary Forum, which runs during Hot Docs, is a pitching and financing networking forum. Delegates also attend the Festival's Doc Shop to buy and sell documentaries.

That combination of art and industry sets Hot Docs apart from its competition. "No other festival in North America blends these components to the extent that we do," says Farnel. "We've become a powerful gateway for filmmakers, buyers and documentaries lovers to exchange films and ideas between North America, Asia and Europe."

Hot Docs' vision

As Farnel says, "Choosing films for the festival is never easy. What we do show reflects the relevant issues of our day. These films also walk that fine line between engaging content and outstanding craftsmanship."

"Anvil! The Story of Anvil," by screenwriter Sacha Gervasi, is one notable entry that will open this year's festival. "It's a playful look at some heavy metal rockers who are still pounding away at their music even into their 50s," says Farnel. "It's a great story about perseverance, passion and the reality of the music business. Audiences will find a lot to enjoy in it."

"Air India 182," by Sturla Gunnarsson, also shares the opening night bill. "This documentary reconstructs the story of the bombing of Air India flight 182 more than 20 years ago," says Farnel. "It's a far more serious film than "Anvil!" but so worth watching."

James Marsh's "Man on Wire" is another entry generating buzz. "This is an incredibly engaging story about a man who tried to walk between New York's newly constructed World Trade Center towers in 1974 on a tightrope," says Farnel. "There's certainly a post 9/11 resonance to this film because the Twin Towers are no longer there. But it's such an inspirational story. It's sure to do well as a theatrical release."

Spotlight on spirituality

Documentaries like "Three Miles North of Molkom," by directors Corinna Villari-McFarlane and Robert Cannan, also reflect a trend towards spirituality seen in many of this year's entries.

Set in a Swedish New Age retreat, several characters are followed over two weeks as they search for spiritual fulfillment. "Some characters think this retreat is going to be a real party, but it's not," says Farnel. "It's a great look at contemporary spirituality."

Reflecting the times as they do, these films' exploration into the question of faith isn't surprising. "There are many political ramifications to religion and faith in today's world," says Farnel. "This documentary trend definitely does jumps out, largely because it reflects a sense of people looking for something more in a very troubled world."