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Screenings and Meanings

By Gerald Schmitz


Documentary excellence shines at Toronto film festival



Gerald Schmitz

Toronto hosts one of the world’s largest documentary film festivals, HotDocs, which takes place in spring, and it boasts a cinema on Bloor St. dedicated to this expanding genre. TIFF too has been strengthening its documentary offerings which can be counted on to deliver some of the best festival experiences, a number of which received standing ovations.

This year’s highlight was a free screening of the restored Marcel Ophüls 1976 epic work The Memory of Justice, which has rarely been seen since. Never less than absorbing over nearly five hours, it is a penetrating exploration of the scales of justice in regard to war crimes and crimes against humanity focusing on the Nuremberg trials of top Nazis, America’s actions in Vietnam and France’s in Algeria. The themes of who bears responsibility for atrocities still have a powerful resonance and Ophüls, best known for The Sorrow and the Pity (1969) which probed Vichy France’s collaboration with Nazi Germany, was present to reflect on the making of the film and its meaning for today.

In terms of new work the following made an impression:

He Named Me Malala (U.S.)

Director Davis Guggenheim presents an intimate, deeply affecting profile of Malala Yousafzai who at age 15 was shot in the head by the Taliban for speaking up for girls’ education in the Swat valley of her native Pakistan. Named after a 19th-century Pashtun folk heroine by her father Ziauddin who had established a school, we see her with the loving support of family now living in Birmingham, England, including a shy traditional mother and two impish younger brothers. Malala is both the typical teenager in the context of that home life and the exceptional exemplar whose courageous choices have made her a global champion of the rights of girls and the youngest-ever recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014.

The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble (U.S.)

Director Morgan Neville is no stranger to films about musicians. His 20 Feet From Stardom won the Oscar in 2014 and he was also at TIFF with a profile of Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards: Under the Influence. Four years in the making, this movie follows the global journey of the multi-talented Silk Road Ensemble created by Chinese-American cello prodigy Yo-Yo Ma which since 2000 has recorded six albums and played to more than 2 million people in 33 countries. In addition to Ma, Neville focuses on several of the ensemble’s master musicians from varied traditions, including those in exile from countries like Iran and Syria. In bridging cultures through music the project has a humanistic inspiration that reaches from the concert hall to refugee camps.

This Changes Everything (Canada/U.S.)

The screen version of Naomi Klein’s eponymous manifesto directed by her husband Avi Lewis is actually superior to the book (which I reviewed in the April 29 issue). It is both less ideologically categorical than the book’s “capitalism vs. the climate” dictums and more positively engaging about the struggles of individuals and local communities, notably indigenous peoples, for ecological justice. The film puts faces and compelling personal stories to these struggles and its appeal for radical systemic socio-economic change as outlined in the recent “Leap Manifesto” signed by many prominent Canadians (; see also links to a political process of people taking control of their future. Ultimately that is a hopeful message.

The Pearl Button (Chile/France/Spain)

Master filmmaker Patricio Guzmán (Nostalgia for the Light) recounts the history of the nomadic Kaweskar “water people” who arrived in the fiords of western Patagonia some 10,000 years ago. In their complex cosmology they become stars after death. That world collapsed in the 19th century when they were hunted like animals by white settlers, sold or traded for pearl buttons. Only a handful of survivors remain who speak the native language. During the Pinochet dictatorship political prisoners were brought here. Thousands were dropped into the sea whose waters are a graveyard memorial. This stunning expanse of land and sea bears witness to a story of disappearance and extermination.

A Flickering Truth (Afghanistan/New Zealand)

Afghanistan’s cultural heritage suffered greatly during the Taliban era. That included the state Afghan Film organization established in 1965. But there were those who took risks to protect what they could, notably the now elderly Isaaq Yousif who has lived on the premises for over three decades. In recent years a team of dedicated archivists led by a take-charge expatriate Ibrehim Arif has worked to retrieve and restore as much as possible of many thousands of hours of film footage dating back to the 1920s. Intrepid director Pietra Brettkelly follows their efforts and the dangers involved in bringing those surviving moving images to the countryside.

Miss Sharon Jones! (U.S.)

Master documentarian Barbara Kopple provides an intimate and poignant portrait of dynamic singer Sharon Jones, who has been called a “female James Brown,” and who has had to overcome many challenges in her career — the biggest being a diagnosis of stage two pancreatic cancer in 2013. Kopple goes behind the scenes with Jones and her backup band the Dap Kings as the emotional rollercoaster of illness and financial worries test her spirit and theirs. Jones proves to be an inspiring “soul survivor” who returns to the performance stage with brio, earning a first Grammy nomination for Give the People What They Want. No wonder she and the Dap Kings received an enthusiastic welcome after the Toronto premiere.

Guantanamo’s Child: Omar Khadr (Canada)

Most Canadians have formed an impression of Khadr, the 15-year-old accused of killing a U.S. soldier in an Afghanistan firefight in 2002. Imprisoned for 12 years, including being subjected to torture in the notorious Guantanamo facility, he was released on bail several months ago into the custody of his Edmonton lawyer Dennis Edney and wife Patricia. For the Harper crowd Khadr isn’t an abused child soldier but a convicted “terrorist” who should stay in jail. Directors Patrick Reed and journalist Michelle Shephard reveal a more complex story in which Khadr speaks for himself and emerges as an introspective young man who, despite those terrible years, hopes to be allowed the possibility of a normal life.

Where to Invade Next (U.S.)

The first-ever screening of provocateur Michael Moore’s first film since 2009’s Capitalism: A Love Story got the royal treatment and delighted fans but its title is a misdirection for anyone expecting a hard-hitting critique of American military interventions. Instead, after a comic opening sketch in which Uncle Sam’s befuddled top soldiers summon Moore for advice, “Mike’s happy movie” consists of the portly shaggy filmmaker touring various European countries, and an Arab one Tunisia, to find out how much better they are doing on a range of quality of life issues — vacation time (Italy), educational performance (France, Finland), free university tuition (Slovenia), the teaching of history (Germany), prisoner rehabilitation (Norway), worker representation in company boardrooms (Germany), drug policy (Portugal), women in leadership positions (Iceland), women’s health (Tunisia). Everywhere he lands Moore plants an American flag and claims the ideas (sometimes inspired by American thinkers) to take back to the good old USA. It’s highly selective and maybe naïve. But it does present an optimistic challenge to the world’s most powerful and richest nation to do better.

Nasser (France/South Africa)

With Egypt once again firmly in the grip of the military “deep state,” writer-director and narrator Jihan El-Tahri provides a fascinating insight into its origins in 1952 when 33-year-old army colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser incited a revolution against the monarchy and British rule. Nasser out-manoeuvred the first military figurehead president, the Muslim Brotherhood and other social forces to become an unchallenged dictator and respected Third World leader who turned toward the Soviet Union when rebuffed by the U.S. There were great achievements — control of Suez, the Aswan dam — but also defeats, especially the disastrous Six-Day War with Israel when the Sinai was lost. What remained was a modern “pharaonic” system of top-down military-state control that the “Arab spring” disrupted but did not replace.

Women He’s Undressed (Australia)

Veteran director Gillian Armstrong tells the fascinating story of how small-town Australian Orry George Kelly came to America, became involved in the theatre scene, and involved with the future Cary Grant, going on to become, as Orry-Kelly, the designer of choice for a parade of Hollywood’s biggest female stars. Alongside that rise to fame was the secret life of a closeted gay man whose memoir would never be published.

Several other films with documentary elements deserve mention. In Francophonia (France/Germany/Netherlands) Russian director Alexander Sokurov, who amazed with his single-take “Russian Ark” set amid the glories of St. Petersburg’s Winter Palace and Hermitage, dramatizes the story of another great museum, the Louvre, at the centre of France’s centuries of cultural heritage. A focal point is how the Louvre managed to survive during the occupation of Paris by Nazi Germany.

The People vs. Fritz Bauer (Germany), directed by Lars Kraume, includes some archival footage in its true story of the risks taken by Fritz Bauer, attorney general of a German state, in the late 1950s in order to apprehend and bring to justice the notorious Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann. It’s a complex account that recalls the 2014 TIFF selection Labyrinth of Lies now receiving limited theatrical distribution. Kilo Two Bravo (U.K.) by Paul Katis is a graphic retelling of an actual incident from 2006 in which a group of British soldiers stumbled into a minefield while guarding a dam in Afghanistan’s Helmand province. More about it in a future column on new Afghanistan-themed movies.