An entire culture in Cairo has, for the last century, made a living off of garbage.

A plastic surgeon specializes in re-attaching dozens of human ears each year, which were cut off by kidnappers for ransom.

50,000 children perform gymnastics perfectly in unison, for one guest, who never shows up.

Do these statements sound unbelievable? Perhaps even fictitious? Far from it. These fantastic ideas are a cross-section of the stories being told as part of a celebrated group of documentaries known as Doc Soup. The monthly series is created by the programmers at Toronto's Hot Docs Documentary Film Festival, and is as close to a fool-proof, bang for your film buck as you will find anywhere. Doc Soup is perhaps even more trustworthy in quality assurance than the actual 11-day festival in April, and has become wildly popular because of it.

An entire culture in Cairo has, for the last century, made a living off of garbage.

A plastic surgeon specializes in re-attaching dozens of human ears each year, which were cut off by kidnappers for ransom.

50,000 children perform gymnastics perfectly in unison, for one guest, who never shows up.

Do these statements sound unbelievable? Perhaps even fictitious? Far from it. These fantastic ideas are a cross-section of the stories being told as part of a celebrated group of documentaries known as Doc Soup. The monthly series is created by the programmers at Toronto's Hot Docs Documentary Film Festival, and is as close to a fool-proof, bang for your film buck as you will find anywhere. Doc Soup is perhaps even more trustworthy in quality assurance than the actual 11-day festival in April, and has become wildly popular because of it.

"It's been wonderful for us," explains Chris MacDonald from his Toronto office. As the Executive Director of Hot Docs, he has watched the attendance for Doc Soup explode over the last decade. "We started 9 years ago and we had 75 members, now we have over 1300. We have also launched Doc Soup in Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver. We make sure that we get the filmmaker to each of the screenings, so there is that great engagement that takes place between the audience and the filmmaker."

Where Doc Soup succeeds is in its limitations. Because there is only one night of screenings per month, it works as a curated series, desperate to bring the very best stories from around the world to an audience of doc lovers who know, and expect they are seeing something few others will. Originally created to draw in single ticket buyers in hopes they would become core festival-goers, it now serves a generation of film lovers hungry for more than the April festival can nourish.

The most recent Doc Soup screening was the March offering of 'Garbage Dreams,' a heartbreaking and brilliantly frustrating tale of a city-class known as the Zaballeen, Arabic for 'Garbage People'. For 100 years this group has scraped a living collecting and recycling the city of Cairo's masses of waste, recycling long before it came into social fashion. When European companies encroach upon the territory, an entire way of life is put in jeopardy as landfills are created and recycling reduced from 80 percent in the hands of the Zaballeen, to 20 or 30 percent with the new game in town. While this seems completely backwards in the name of progress, hundreds suffer with the news and scramble to compete with the foreign multinationals.

'Garbage Dreams' Trailer



'Garbage Dreams' spotlights specific characters caught in the waves of change. The Zaballeen are one of the planet's unknown societies, and a reminder of how fragile a socioeconomic system can be in the face of politics, the mood of the public and the greasy buck.

MacDonald attributes the success of 'Garbage Dreams' to its traditional elements of storytelling that engage the audience. "It succeeds because it's a personal story, three great characters, and a connection the filmmaker makes with the subjects. It's an important issue and a hopeful twist on what is a pretty grim lifestyle these people are living. Ecology and environment are hot topics right now in documentary filmmaking."

One final Doc Soup screening will take place ahead of the Hot Docs 2010 festival, a straggler that will get its due regardless of the fact that it won't be a part of the international event. It is assured to find an audience and be of high quality. "We try and have a nice mix. We do extensive surveying with our audience to see which films they are responding to and which they are enjoying."

As for Hot Docs, many call it Toronto's greatest film festival, citing variety, programming, access and spirit as its greatest achievements. It is Toronto's second largest film fest, and the second largest documentary film festival in the world; but it has risks. Two thousand submissions have arrived and 170 films will be screened. Some stories are from the dark fringes of subject matter, and unlike Doc Soup, are more likely to get lost in the mania than they ever would during a guaranteed well-attended monthly screening.

MacDonald has watched the festival's growth intently. "Eleven years ago we had an audience of 4000 people, and last year there were 122,000. In 2009 we had a 40 percent increase in attendance, so it's been exponential. You have to manage that growth; you don't want to be big just for the sake of being big. You still have to remember things that made people like your festival to begin with."

His mantra of sustainability rings true; other major festivals have been accused of mismanaging their fame, while some haven't been bold enough. MacDonald knows how many factors make up a successful event, from technical sound to audience spirit. While he admits the fest has helped many filmmakers do business, especially Canadian documentarians, he equates most of the credit with the times.

"Technology has had a huge impact, just in the democratization of this genre. Cameras got smaller and editing equipment got cheaper, which allowed more people to make film, so there's been a real growth in that. Specialty channels and online opportunities have created more exhibition opportunities for filmmakers, and far more films are enjoying theatrical distribution than ever before. This is really a golden age as far as that's concerned. There's been a renaissance – we were in the right place at the right time."

Doc Soup screens monthly in Toronto, Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver. The Hot Docs Documentary Film Festival runs April 29th through May 9th, 2010.