By Gerald Schmitz

Finding documentary excellence at the Toronto festival

TIFF is nothing if not schizophrenic. It wants to be different things to all people — basking in the celebrity glow of big-money names and releases while also holding on to its festival cred as a serious artistic endeavour. Cinematic pretension and populist vibes abound. The critically reviled Hector and the Search for Happiness was presented in the vast ornate Elgin Theatre. Yet hometown veteran Atom Egoyan’s The Captive was shunned after a critical battering at Cannes (though Robbie Collin of the London Telegraph loved it). Although the movie is too eerily, creepily detached, fractured and convoluted to be considered successful, it draws a fine performance from Canadian Ryan Reynolds. I’ll take it over Hollywood dreck and melodramatic excess, however star-studded, like This Where I Leave You or The Judge, which Drew McWeeny of HitFlix nails as “nearly impossible to defend.” TIFF gave both of those fawning “gala” presentations.

Fortunately, as my previous columns surveyed, TIFF offers much else in the way of international and independent productions. And it is getting stronger at showcasing a selection of documentaries which are often the most impressive programming at festivals like Sundance and Tribeca. Toronto also hosts the huge HotDocs festival in the spring, so perhaps this is not a fair comparison. Still it is a welcome and encouraging development.

The documentary genre has literally exploded in recent years, becoming increasingly competitive as well as cinematically innovative and engaging. Frankly, the best docs can be as or more dramatically compelling than the best fiction features. For exceptional impactful stories, real life can be hard to beat.

This year’s TIFF also brought back Michael Moore’s seminal agit-prop doc Roger and Me (1989) on the 25th anniversary of it winning the fest’s “people’s choice” award, which not incidentally gave the upstart Moore a big boost into the bigtime. Moore, now a celebrity in his own right, didn’t have any new anti-establishment work to show. But he did give a rousing keynote to TIFF’s Doc Conference, which included a provocative “13-Point Manifesto for Documentary Filmmaking.” I think it’s worth noting them: “(1) Laughter is a way to alleviate the pain of what you know to be true; (2) Don’t tell me what I already know; (3) The modern documentary has morphed into a college lecture; (4) Too many documentaries feel like medicine; (5) The left is boring — we lost our sense of humour; (6) Go after the real villains; (7) Make your films personal; (8) Point your cameras at the cameras (in our “social media” age of ubiquitous lenses and screens); (9) The American public (presumably Canadian too) loves non-fiction; (10) Only film people that disagree with you; (11) While filming a scene, are you getting mad? Are you crying? Are you cracking up? (12) Less is more (edit to the bone); (13) Sound is more important than picture.”

Of course, Moore is a special case, never far from being on camera and with the luxury of box-office hits to push his next project. There are masterful documentaries (think those of Werner Herzog) that violate more than a few of these baker’s dozen of commandments. Still he has a point about documentaries needing to be held to striving for high filmmaking standards that are audience-inviting, i.e., capable of attracting and holding attention leading to critical awareness. It isn’t enough to be “educational” and it is possible to be both intelligent and entertaining in a larger sense.

With that let me turn to five TIFF documentaries that deserve to be highlighted, several of which merit longer future reviews. (I should add that there are others in this category I was unable to see, notably Robert Kenner’s Merchants of Doubt and Ethan Hawke’s Seymour: An Introduction.)

The Look of Silence (Denmark/Indonesia/Norway/Finland/U.K.)

Even if it breaks Moore’s rules, Joshua Oppenheimer’s followup to The Act of Killing — my best documentary of 2012 — isn’t only the year’s finest (awarded the grand jury prize at the Venice festival), it’s among the best ever made. The director, working with some necessarily anonymous associates, returns to the present-day aftermath of the monstrous crimes committed against staggering numbers of “Communist” dissidents tortured and slaughtered during Indonesia’s 1965-66 purges leading to the military overthrow of the Suharto government. There are some more chilling re-enactments by former perpetrators, living with impunity alongside victims’ families. But the focus this time is on the latter, notably through the eyes of a remarkable guide, an ophthalmologist caring for elderly parents, whose older brother was among those murdered so savagely. Find out more at:

The Yes Men Are Revolting (U.S.)

I’ve loved the dynamic duo of the “yes men” — guerilla-style activist filmmakers Mike Bonanno and Andy Bichlbaum (not their real names) — ever since I met them at the 2009 Sundance film festival, eagerly awaiting an encore. They’re back, with co-director and producer Laura Nix, aiming zany attention-getting theatrical protest actions, including notorious impersonations, against the inviting targets of climate change deniers, corporate and state elites, sundry hacks and enablers among the powers with clay feet. This time the Moore-style antics are mixed with candid moments revealing the sometimes rocky backstory of their nearly two-decade partnership and the different personal challenges facing each. Two guys can’t fix the world but their inspired tactics and struggles stir hope for social change.

Filmmakers of The Yes Men Are Revolting are joined by Gitz Crazyboy, a member of Alberta’s Athabascan Chippewyan First Nation whose anti-tarsands environmental activism features prominently in the documentary. This was taken at the Sept. 6 world premiere at TIFF. From left: Andy Bichlbaum, Laura Nix, Gitz Crazyboy, Mike Bonanno. (Schmitz photo)

This is My Land (France/Israel)

Director Tamara Erde is a young Israeli, now living in France, who grew up a Jewish patriot never doubting the one-sided history she was taught — an official censored version replete with deceptions, disinformation and omissions designed to uphold the virtuous narrative of the Jewish state and instil fear in the Arab, especially Palestinian, other. Her questioning led her to undertake the daunting task of examining the public school systems in both Israel and the occupied territories. She also visits a mixed Jewish-Arab school in Israel that attempts to bridge the mutual prejudices and divisions. The result is a penetrating look at how the next generation is being taught to regard the endlessly fought-over land that all claim as their birthright.

Iraqi Odyssey (Iraq/Switzerland/Germany/United Arab Emirates)

The rare documentary presented in 3D, Baghdad-born but Swiss-raised filmmaker Samir takes the viewer on an absorbing journey that interweaves his extended family’s stories — many forming a disparate inter-generational diaspora dispersed around the globe — with the turbulent and often bloody past century of Iraqi history. Over those decades millions have had to flee their homeland. Those who stayed have often suffered terribly. Western interventions have played a contributing role. With Canada committing combat forces to confront “Islamic State” terrorism in Iraq, we need to put a human face on the conflict. It’s an open question whether the embattled Iraqi state can remain intact, but Samir’s moving odyssey is testament to the endurance of an Iraqi people who deserve better.

Silvered Water/Syria Self Portrait (Syria/Iraq)

We’ve all seen the news reports of Syria’s ongoing agonies that have made millions refugees and killed more than 200,000 of its citizens. But nothing can quite prepare one for the sensual onslaught of this provocative collaboration between expatriate Syrian filmmaker Ossama Mohammed (his 1988 film Stars in Broad Daylight, shown at Cannes, is still banned in Syria) and intrepid Kurdish co-director Wiam Simav (“silvered water” in Kurdish) Bedirxan, a female activist and dedicated secular pacifist who still manages to live in the shattered city of Homs.

To the extent possible, they have fashioned an artistic montage composed mostly of extremely disturbing digital images of the conflict tearing the country apart (e.g. from cellphones and other social media). “For the regime a camera is a weapon,” explains the narration. It’s an unsettling, almost dizzying stream-of-consciousness viewing experience — the flow of images jerky, fractured, non-linear, frequently grainy and out-of-focus, as if the worst evidence of crimes against humanity has to be pixilated or otherwise blurred in order to be shown at all. I have a mixed reaction to this approach, which also offers little in the way of expository context (there is no identification of the factions fighting the regime and no mention of the extremist front — “Islamic State” or “ISIS” — which now controls about a third of Syria. And despite the visual techniques, some may still find it unwatchable (there were walkouts at the screening). There are images so graphic and horrifying that I can’t see this film ever being broadcast on mainstream television, limiting its potential reach and impact.

It’s a documentary approach that runs completely contrary to Michael Moore’s advice. But I doubt that even he could make what’s happening in these darkest corners of the Middle East a laughing matter.

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