Hot Docs experiences crime wave

'Dear Zachary' features high-profile murder

TORONTO -- You've seen the headlines. Now see the true-crime documentary.

The market at Hot Docs, the Canadian International Documentary Festival, screened a slew of films this week that put viewers through an emotional wringer while probing horrific murders.

Among the crowd favorites is Kurt Kuenne's "Dear Zachary," a portrait of the California filmmaker's best friend, who was murdered in 2001 by a jealous ex-girlfriend, who subsequently murdered her one-year-old child and herself while out on bail.

Both murders dominated Canadian headlines between 2001 and 2003, so it's a challenge to get broadcasters and distributors to see "Dear Zachary" cold for its dramatic impact.

"We're talking about the film to promote it, without destroying the experience," Kuenne said.

Jan Rofekamp, president of documentary distributor Films Transit International, said that local crime docus don't travel well, except if they are well-made and catch a wave on the festival circuit.

U.S. filmmaker Susan Gray hopes to do just that as "Killer Poet," a portrait of a convicted Massachusetts killer who served 25 years in jail before escaping to Chicago and becoming a local poet until his re-arrest in 2005.

The film's emotional crux is whether the sentencing judge sends Porter back to jail, likely to die there, or returns his freedom.

A spoiler tag also is required for "An Island Calling," where New Zealand filmmaker Anne Goldson explores a 2001 double gay murder in Fiji, set against the backdrop of local tribal, class and ethnic tensions.

"The facts are known about the case. So it isn't an investigation," Goldson said. Her film instead goes behind events to reveal hidden contexts.

Hot Docs continues in Toronto until Sunday.