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Screenings and Meanings

By Gerald Schmitz


Focus on documentary highlights from Toronto festival

Gerald Schmitz


The Final Year (U.S.)
The China Hustle (U.S.)
Makala (France)
Jane (U.S.)

Although documentaries have not been TIFF’s strongest suit, the 2017 slate delivered some high-quality features that bear noting even if I didn’t manage to see Faces, Places (Villages, Visages) by renowned French veteran Agnès Varda, which took the audience award for documentary, runner-up Long Time Running about the iconic last tour of the Canadian rock band The Tragically Hip, or several other Canadian docs on indigenous themes — master filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin’s Our People Will Be Healed and Alan Zweig’s There is a House Here.

One year ago Hillary Clinton, President Obama’s former Secretary of State, was still the odds-on favourite to win the White House. No one in the foreign-policy echelons wanted to imagine how a repulsive renegade Trump regime would go about dismantling the Obama legacy and wrecking what remains of America’s reputation abroad. (More on what lies behind the Trump phenomenon in power in my next columns.) That unexpected turn adds a timely and troubling significance to Greg Barker’s The Final Year, a revealing behind-the-scenes look at Obama administration internal debates over international issues during its last year in office. “There was going to be this friendly handoff of power,” says Barker of the intention as filming started, “and then we’d see more of the accomplishments solidified.” Well we know what happened with the result that, as the Los Angeles Times puts it, the finished film “offers an urgent ideological rebuttal to Trump’s presidency.”

Barker’s candid camera follows three figures in particular: Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, a former scholar and human rights activist; Secretary of State John Kerry; and Deputy National Security Adviser and go-to speechwriter Ben Rhodes, whom National Security Adviser Susan Rice describes as being in a “mind meld” with Obama. One of his best lines: “The last thing the world needs is more walls.” Rhodes shunned the spotlight and was uncomfortable when a lengthy profile of him ran in the New York Times Magazine.

We follow these principals as they accompany the president on major foreign travels, often involving difficult contexts and sensitivities as in Vietnam, Hiroshima, and Cuba; engaging on complex contentious issues — climate change, terrorism, the refugee crisis. We go behind closed doors where the most challenging questions are debated, such as how to respond to Syria’s escalating civil war where Power’s argument for earlier and stronger action against the Assad dictatorship did not prevail over Obama’s and Rhodes’ cautions.

What impresses is the deep seriousness and thoughtfulness that characterizes these deliberations. As compelling is the human side of that diplomacy and the revealing personal moments — from home to office to in the field. These are people who poured their heart and soul into their work and their palpable dismay over Trump’s election last November is understandable as they contemplate years of effort being undermined or undone.

At the TIFF world premiere where Rhodes and Power received a standing ovation, she said what she found most distressing was the uncaring and careless approach of the new administration. The dedicated officials who remain must try to hold on as best they can.

That’s not to say that Obama’s foreign policies were without flaws and weak spots in articulation and execution. There’s nothing on the ramping up of drone warfare, the aggressive prosecution of whistle blowers, the failure to close Guantanamo and the like; nothing indeed on Hillary Clinton’s tenure at the State Department or stances on foreign affairs during her ill-fated campaign. The film is not a critical appraisal, but an attempt to peer behind the curtain at how at the highest level a responsible global superpower formulates international policy and conducts diplomacy. In that respect it succeeds admirably.

There were many losers and victims in the 2007-2008 financial meltdown, but also conditions that provided opportunities for gain by financial tricksters and brazen opportunists as explored in documentaries like Inside Job, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, and fictional dramas like Margin Call and The Big Short. Director Jed Rothstein exposes another layer of financial manipulation and malfeasance in The China Hustle, which draws on information put together by a financial participant observer, Dan David, vice-president of Geo Investing based in the small town of Skippack, Pennsylvania. David, who was present at the world premiere, candidly admits: “There are no good guys in this story, including me.”

David’s firm specializes in short selling, which the film describes in a neat animated sequence “the short on shorts.” Dan Glassman’s review in POV magazine gives a succinct description of how it’s done: “investors figure out that stocks are overvalued: they borrow shares in the company in question, sell them at the current rate, release a report showing that the company is overvalued, watch as the company’s value plummets, and pay for the shares they’d borrowed at the newly tanked cost, pocketing almost all the money they made in the initial sale as profit.”

China became the big play because it could still be promoted to investors as an attractive high-growth market. Dubious Chinese operations were able to get listed on U.S. stock markets through “reverse mergers” with defunct but still registered U.S. firms, giving them a veneer of legitimacy and audit oversight. Many of these were shell games with companies boasting huge dollar evaluations that were discovered by on-site investigations in China to be corporate frauds. To project respectability, such companies might recruit figurehead VIPs to their boards (for example, in the film the case of high-ranking former army general and presidential aspirant Wesley Clark, who reacts with obvious unease and chagrin). While the Chinese government turned a blind eye, in the U.S. ratings agencies and regulatory bodies dropped the ball.

David proves a compelling witness as he spills the goods on the short sellers, brokers, lawyers and other market dealers profiting from the transactions related to these scams in which unwitting buyers would be enticed by rising share prices only to be taken for suckers when the house of cards collapsed. What is perhaps most worrying are the warnings from a range of experts interviewed about the vulnerabilities that persist in the financial system. As expressed by Alex Gibney, who directed Enron and is an executive producer: “The biggest lie on Wall Street is, this time it’s different.” The China Hustle sounds a timely alarm given Trump’s promises of financial deregulation that can only make matters worse.

Emmanuel Gras’ Makala, which received the Critics’ Week Grand Prize at Cannes, depicts the back-breaking labour and struggle for subsistence that is the lot of so many in the Global South. Accompanied by a Congolese journalist, Gras’ camera followed 28-year-old Kabwita Kasongo as he chops a huge tree into logs to begin an arduous process of making charcoal, an oversized load of which he will then strap to a bicycle and transport day and night some 50 kilometers along crowded dusty roads to try to sell in the city. He hopes to earn enough to support his wife and obtain medicine for his sick child.

The journey is full of hazards: a transport truck that knocks over his ramshackle load; police extortion to let him pass; customers demanding steep discounts. An exhausted Kasongo finds brief respite at a sister-in-law’s place and seeks another kind of relief at a makeshift evangelical service at which he prays: “Father, come rescue me.” Discussing the film, the images from which are as agonizing as they are astonishing and deeply moving, Gras emphasized the deep religious faith of the Congolese people notwithstanding the daily ordeal many face. The contract with Kasongo to allow such an intimate filming was to help him build a house. In showing a poor man’s reality so starkly, beyond the value of empathetic awareness, it’s good to know that the subject of it has benefited directly.

The National Geographic Studio’s production of Jane, directed by Brett Morgen, goes into deepest Africa, but has nothing to do with any companion of Tarzan. The Jane of the title is of course Jane Goodall who was a 26-year-old secretary with no academic science credentials when in 1957 Dr. Louis Leakey chose her to accompany him on groundbreaking field research in the Gombe region of British-controlled Tanganyika (renamed Tanzania in 1964 after achieving independence in 1964). What Goodall had was a passion for animals, a sense of adventure and a determined spirit. She would also go on to earn a doctorate from Cambridge in 1966.

At the time very little was known about primate behaviour in the wild. Her pioneering work with chimpanzees from the early 1960s yielded fascinating details on how chimps communicate with each other and express emotion, on their habits, family and community relationships, hierarchies and sometimes aggressive clashes. Goodall got closer to them than any other human had, and as empathetic as were these remarkable interactions — captured on film by ace photographer Hugo van Lawick whom she would marry — their purpose was rigorously to advance our understanding of our closest relatives in the animal kingdom; nothing Disneyfied about it. Goodall’s work became world renowned, but not without her share of professional and personal trials. She and Hugo had a son, Grub, born in 1967. In 1971 the couple separated, but remained close until Hugo’s death in 2002.

Morgan’s film became possible when over 100 hours of historical footage thought lost was recovered in 2014. He has mined it for rare insights enriched by contemporary interviews with his subject. I found the swelling score by the maestro Philip Glass over-loud, but that is a minor quibble. With so many species threatened, there’s never been a better time to draw attention to Goodall’s contribution that includes her globetrotting advocacy as a UN Messenger of Peace and the work of the Institute ( that bears her name.