Fact is not only stranger than fiction, it often makes for a far better yarn, as the record number of fans and delegates who flocked to the annual Toronto Hot Docs festival will attest. Now in its 12th year, Toronto's Hot Docs - which closed on May 1 - is among the world's top two festivals of its kind, along with Amsterdam's prestigious documentary film and video fest. Considered a must-see event in international film circles, it's the festival favoured by the serious cultural consumers who prefer gritty story-telling to the pomp and bull of Toronto's more illustrious, celebrity-studded International Film Festival. Despite taking a hit through the Sars scare in 2003, Hot Docs weathered on last year, featuring at least two documentaries that went on to wide distribution and acclaim throughout North America. Super Size Me - which documented filmmaker Morgan Spurlock as he ate nothing but McDonald's food for a month to counter the company's claim that its food is nutritious - became a modest commercial hit, although he says he nearly died of liver failure to make it. Jehane Noujaim's Control Room, a behind-the-scenes look at the Al-Jazeera network, also attracted international attention. This year, the festival boasted a record attendance of 41,000 and double the number of sold-out screenings, where lines of disappointed fans clogged the streets for hours for some features - a turnout no doubt envied by other festivals running concurrently such as Inside Out (The Gay and Lesbian Film Fest) and the Jewish Film Festival. With forums by day and parties by night, about 1,700 industry delegates and 300 accredited media wheeled, dealed and celebrated brave, new films from around the world. Woody Allen once observed there's more drama in a baseball game than in any play on Broadway, a statement played out by the opening night selection, Murderball, by Henry Alex Rubin and former SPIN magazine editor, Dana Adam Shapiro. The film about quad rugby - a game played by wheelchair-bound quadriplegics with much the same aggression as the able-bodied - won a prize at the Sundance Festival earlier and follows the well-trodden success track of past sports features. Basketball movie Hardwood by Canadian filmmaker Hugh Davies, which featured at last year's Hot Docs, was nominated for an Oscar. Marshall Curry's Street Fight, which made its world premiere at Hot Docs, was the darling of viewers, winning the audience award. Curry's directorial debut, which was also named best international documentary by the festival jury, is a gripping David and Goliath tale of the 2002 mayoral race in Newark, New Jersey. Subjects from Asian countries made several appearances, including No More Tears Sister: An Anatomy of Hope and Betrayal by Helene Klowdawsky, which also made its world premiere. A tribute to Sri Lankan human rights activist and doctor Rajani Thiranagama, the film also brings to light the chaos of the country's 20-year civil war. A Decent Factory, by Finland's Thomas Balmes, follows two ethics consultants hired by Nokia to a supplier's Shenzhen factory, documenting conditions that are an accepted fact of life in the region. It's uncharacteristically light-hearted and not preachy - the only disturbing scenes are of naked Nokia executives at a retreat. Bleak and provocative, Bunso - the Youngest, by Ditsi Carolino and Nana Buxani, looks at a handful of the 52,000 children who jostle with adult criminals in Philippine jails. Filmed by the two-women crew, it follows the stories of three likeable young inmates, and makes a plea for the formation of a separate, juvenile legal system. Death in the Garden of Paradise, Nurjahan Akhlaq's haunting debut, is as personal and strangely beautiful as a dream, at once a travelogue and an elegy for the unsolved murders of her painter father and dancer sister in Lahore, Pakistan. The slow-motion, stilted and faded-colour images of old photos, landscape and architecture remind of us of the illusiveness of memory and the random cruelty of life. Contributions from other parts of the world give unexpected moments of laughter and hope, such as Eyal Avneri's A Little Peace of Mine, about an Israeli 12-year-old's heroic ambition to form a peace foundation to bring Arab and Jewish kids together after he witnesses a terrorist attack that leaves a bus full of children dead. At times painfully honest, but deftly gracious throughout, it's as enlightening as it is entertaining, without getting bogged down with a grocery list of political grudges. It's a beautiful celebration of what children can do. A more austere, meditative piece about Israel's controversial 640km security fence, Wall is told through the voices of Palestinian and Israeli locals who live along its arbitrary border. Although plodding, it gives a rare glimpse of unexpected, human stories amid historic landscapes. Whether it's the Jewish kibbutz director who laments that Jews have gone mad, or the Arab labourers working on the fence and grateful for work, director Simone Bitton mines her dual Arab-Jewish heritage to give an even-handed treatment of a tragic and tense situation. In Vendetta Song, the story that's told is as important as who does the telling. Haunted by the decades-old murder of an aunt she never knew, Montreal filmmaker Eylem Kaftan returns to her roots in eastern Turkey to find the murderer, confronting instead the traditions that caused her death. The Education of Shelby Knox leaves liberal viewers hopeful for the US in its time of right-wing conservatism and war. The title heroine is an anomaly: a liberal and a feminist in the conservative town of Lubbock, Texas. But before she gets there, the teen - a devout Christian who has pledged to save herself for marriage - must confront her family and pastor, and her Southern Baptist upbringing when she joins a political campaign for better sex education in high schools. A harrowing and delightful coming of age story, it's also an unflinching study of how political identities are born. The popularity of documentaries in recent years speaks volumes about our troubled times: surreal conditions that lead us to seek entertainment and hope in the real-life stories of those who have survived them.