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Screenings and Meanings

By Gerald Schmitz

10/26/2016

Gerald SchmitzDocumentaries in the spotlight at Toronto festival

Toronto’s festival doesn’t highlight documentaries as much as Sundance but it earns marks for an expanding and high quality non-fiction program that this year presented over 35 features. Of course I missed some including Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, which took the “people’s choice” documentary award, and Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea about Syrian refugees arriving on European shores, winner of the Berlin film festival’s top jury prize. Among those seen here are those that most impressed.

Voyage of Time: Life’s Journey (Germany)

Ordinary terms don’t do justice to describe reclusive Texan master filmmaker Terrence Malick’s first decades-in-the-making documentary — which the festival also presented in a shorter 40-minute IMAX version. The subject is nothing less than the mystery of the creation of the universe, earth and humanity; of time and eternity; of the source and meaning of life. What is the mother of all this? Where has it gone? asks the narration voiced by Cate Blanchett. Juxtaposed with extraordinary incandescent images of nature in flux are jarring scenes of human civilization — of the forces of light, life and love and of darkness and death. This is pure cinema experienced as quasi-religious inquiry without comforting answers. It will be dismissed by some as baffling and overwrought. For me it was enthralling, that rarity that actually deserves the overused word awesome.

Into the Inferno (U.K./Austria)

Werner Herzog’s second documentary of the year (Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World was reviewed in the Sept. 21 PM), a Netflix production which airs globally on Oct. 28, is a wondrous collaboration with Cambridge University volcanologist and co-director Clive Oppenheimer whom Herzog met a decade ago at Antarctica’s Mount Erebus during the making of Encounters at the End of the World. The active Erebus volcano is one of only three in the world where one can look directly into the earth’s molten magma. As Herzog and Oppenheimer visit volcanic sites around the world, Herzog also delves into the history of major eruptions, the myths and sacred rituals that have grown up around them (including in strange places like North Korea), posing questions about the meaning of these infernos that lie below the crust of human civilization, heedless of its struggles and vain ambitions.

Before the Flood (U.S.)

Directed by Fisher Stevens, produced and narrated by Leonardo DiCaprio, this call to action on climate change (https://www.beforetheflood.com/) will be broadcast Oct. 30 on the National Geographic Channel in 45 languages in 171 countries. That deliberate timing, a week before the U.S. elections, makes explicit the clear and present danger of the climate crisis as an urgent political challenge. At the Toronto world premiere DiCaprio, a passionate environmental activist and United Nations Messenger of Peace, appealed for citizens to “use your vote to empower political leaders to make a change.” In addition to presenting the overwhelming global evidence and expert views, the film directly calls out and shames deniers that include Donald Trump. It also goes beyond the statistics with allusions to the iconic Hieronymus Bosch painting “The Garden of Earthly Delights” that hung above DiCaprio’s crib. Does humanity risk destroying the God-given creation that is our common heritage? A meeting with Pope Francis underscores the moral choice. I just hope that the legions of Leonardo fans who mobbed the Toronto world premiere are as ardent in heeding his message.

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail (U.S. http://www.kartemquin.com/films/abacus)

A major grievance of the anti-Wall St. Occupy protests was that none of the “too big to fail” culprits behind the 2008 financial crisis (estimated to have made $4.9 trillion in fraudulent loans) ever faced criminal penalties. While they got taxpayer-funded bailouts, the only American bank to be prosecuted was the small obscure Abacus Federal Savings Bank, founded and run by the Sungs, a close-knit Chinese immigrant family focused on the needs of New York’s Chinese-speaking community. Drawing on the 2014 book The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap by Rolling Stone contributor Matt Taibbi, director Steve James provides an intimate and telling account of the trials faced by Abacus, and of how the family fought back and was found innocent of all the several hundred charges brought against it. The film is a production of the PBS program Frontline.

Karl Marx City (Germany/U.S.)

Writer-directors Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker, the filmmakers of a trilogy of documentaries on the Iraq war that started with Gunner Palace, turn the lens on what has become of the communist German Democratic Republic where Epperlein grew up, specifically her industrial hometown of Karl Marx City (renamed Chemnitz). Ever since she’s been haunted by her father’s suicide at age 57 a decade after the wall fell, unsure of what to make of a short enigmatic 1998 letter addressed to her in America where she had gone to work in film. In the GDR’s Orwellian surveillance society — employing 92,000 Stasi agents and over 200,000 informers — everyone was suspect. The search for truth takes her back to that homeland where her mother and twin brothers still live, and to the Stasi Archive with its 41 million index cards to 111kms of files on over 17 million people. Epperlein’s personal journey and its emotional catharsis also serve as a warning against the surveillance state’s assault on privacy. As she says: “In Karl Marx City they couldn’t see the prison because they lived in one.”

All Governments Lie: Truth, Deception, and the Spirit if I.F. Stone (Canada, https://www.allgovernmentslie.com/)

While festival media attention focused on Oliver Stone’s underwhelming drama Snowden about the world’s most famous surveillance-state whistle-blower, another Stone, the legendary independent journalist and gadfly socio-political critic I.F. Stone is recalled in director and former television producer Fred Peabody’s powerful case for the role of free and fearless journalistic truth diggers and truth tellers. Having read I.F. Stone’s Weekly as a young aspiring journalist, Peabody was re-inspired by Myra MacPherson’s 2006 biography of “Izzy” Stone, All Governments Lie. (In a famous quote he warned: “All governments are run by liars and nothing they say should be believed.”) MacPherson appeared on a panel following the world premiere with several of the investigative journalists profiled in the film (see photo). Others include Jeremy Scahill, author of Dirty Wars and co-founder of The Intercept with Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald, John Carlos Frey who has reported on deadly conditions facing Mexican migrants, and Cairo-born Sharif Abdel Kouddous. In a media landscape threatened not only by official propaganda but also by what The Economist magazine calls “post-truth politics” — as exemplified in the U.S. by the rise of Trumpism — having that critical lens is more essential than ever. The film is having a limited theatrical release on Nov. 4 (New York and Los Angeles) and will hopefully come to television. (Super Channel and Radio-Canada supported the production by White Pine Pictures.)

Politics, Instructions Manual (Spain)

It’s been a long and sobering eight years since Obama’s “hope and change” agenda with its rallying cry of “Yes we can!” Obama now warns against a “populist” mood that has turned to anger. But something similar had occurred in parts of Europe as a reaction to the painful austerity imposed by a deep socio-economic crisis that is also a crisis of democracy. Many millions of citizens, not just the unemployed and under-employed youth, have lost faith in the traditional “establishment” political parties. In 2011, the year of the ill-fated “Arab spring,” the “Podemos” movement arose in Spain (its cry of “si se puede” translates as “yes we can”). Led by left-wing activists and academics — notably two radical political scientists, Pablo Iglesias and Íñigo Errejón — Podemos emerged as a real threat to the old order’s hold on power. Drawn from 500 hours of raw close-up and behind-the-scenes footage, director Fernando León de Aranoa has fashioned an electric account of Podemos, its genesis and internal processes, its troubled transformation into a party able to contest elections, its initial regional setbacks and its comeback (the “remontada”) in the December 2015 national parliamentary elections when it finished with the third highest total of seats. What comes next in this fraught politics of popular protest bears watching.

The Ivory Game (Austria/U.S.)

In this gripping Netflix production by directors Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani, it’s quickly apparent that the making of it was “very dangerous” as they go undercover to document the rampant poaching of African elephants for ivory tusks to be turned into luxury items. The profits mainly go to Chinese criminal syndicates controlling the lucrative illegal trade. The war to stop the slaughter (150,000 elephants lost in the last five years) has cost the lives of over 1,000 park rangers and conservation officers in the past decade. Controversies are explored over how best to stop a black market that could lead to extinction. Among the courageous anti-poaching efforts profiled are those of Tanzanian task force head Elisifa Ngowi, founder of “WildLeaks” Andrea Crosta, and Chinese activist Hongxiang Huang.

The War Show (Denmark/Finland/Syria)

As atrocities in Syria’s long-running civil wars make daily headlines the danger is that we become numbed by and inured to the mounting toll. Working with Danish co-director Andreas Dalsgaard, Syrian radio host Obaidah Zytoon has assembled a montage of images shot by her, and by colleagues, artists and activist friends, that puts human faces on a conflict that has moved from hope to hellish tragedy. It’s an evolution subtitled “From Revolution to War in Seven Steps” involving suppression, siege, memories, frontlines, and extremism. How do people cope when everyday life is disrupted, armed groups proliferate, terror spreads, and millions are forced to flee? Most of the footage is from 2011-2013 during which the Assad regime’s monstrous behaviour helped create conditions for the savagery of the so-called “Islamic State.” This isn’t an analysis that answers the question posed: “what is going to end the show at the theatre of war?” It is a reminder that even in the most dire circumstances the seeds of peace lie with people not bombs.