After the madness that is the opening weekend of the Toronto International Film Festival, I always love settling in at the Isabel Bader on Monday or Tuesday to soak in works of non-fiction that are void of plot. Free of the usual romance or action narratives, a good doc is the most direct form of empathy that a film can create in its audience, taking us all over the world to tell stories that deepen our common existence.
The big secret is that the documentary lineup is always the strongest one at any festival. Every fiction film lineup will end up with a turkey or two or five, but if you were to schedule only docs into your personal lineup, you’re guaranteed to see something interesting, eye-opening and very good. And this year, TIFF adds the revamped, renamed Bloor Hot Docs Cinema at Bloor and Bathurst for our cinematic pleasure.
The Hot List
9.79* UK director Daniel Gordon brings his first feature to TIFF, about Ben Johnson‘s amazing world-record 100 metre sprint at the Seoul Olympics in 1988 and the scandal that ensued as a result of his positive drug test. Gordon is obviously a fan of sports docs, having made the incisive The John Akii Bua Story: An African Tragedy (2008), about the famed Ugandan sprinter who was the first African to win gold in a race under 800 metres. Amazingly, his new doc has accessed all 8 sprinters in the ’88 race, getting their takes on the proceedings. It’s about time we hear the full story on this one.
The Act of Killing This looks interesting. Errol Morris is on board as exec producer to this story that details Indonesian paramilitary leader Anwar Congo and his death squads of the 60′s after the country’s President was overthrown. He is said to have been responsible for the killing of over one million civilians who were billed as communists, ethnic Chinese and intellectuals. But this isn’t just another talking head account of the rise and fall of the death squads. Joshua Oppenheimer and Christine Cynn bring over a decade of first-hand knowledge and experience with following death squads and their victims. In the recounting of their rise to power, he has Anwar and his cronies recreate some of their more brutal accounts as though they’re scenes for a fiction movie, a process that begins with a braggart and ends with a more regretful tone. Can’t wait.
Artifact Jared Leto–a.k.a. Bartholomew Cubbins–brings us an intimate account of the struggle with his indie-prog-metal band Thirty Seconds to Mars and their legal fight with record label Virgin/EMI. After their second album went platinum and they still weren’t seeing any royalties, they tried to get out of their contract and were slapped with a $30 million lawsuit. The backdrop is the making of their third record, This Is War, which launched what is still the longest world tour by a rock band in history, at 309 performances in two years. The music industry, art and money, personal integrity, and a sound that I like add up to a must-see for this meaty music doc.
As If We Were Catching a Cobra I love it, this can only happen with docs: Syrian filmmaker Hala Alabdalla meant to direct a simple story about the art of caricature drawing in Egypt and Syria. But then the Arab spring happened and despotic leaders faced off against the moral authority of their civilians and armed insurgents. An account into the century-old art of caricature blossoms into the fight of Arab artists for freedom and social justice. Yet another inspired-looking film coming from the deep unrest in the Middle East, and another one I hope to catch at TIFF.
Camp 14: Total Control Zone Footage of Shin Dong-Huyk from YouTube is inspiring to behold. At the age of 23, the North Korean man escaped a life born and raised inside a prison camp. Perhaps with the hunger of freedom as his survival guide, he trekked across a great deal of his country to get out. Director Mark Wiese uses interviews he did with Dong-Huyk, as well as two former prison guards, and uses delicious-looking monochrome animation to help illustrate his life and struggle. This has got to be one of the early favorites for an Oscar nomination for feature doc.
The Central Park Five One-of-a-kind epic documentary hero Ken Burns is known for his highly popular series’ The War, Jazz, Baseball, and Prohibition. He returns to TIFF with a stand-alone feature for the first time since his 2004 boxing doc Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson. His new one, with longtime producer David McMahon and daughter Sarah Burns co-directing, follows the 1989 case of five African American and Latino teens who were wrongly convicted of the brutal assault and rape of a woman better known as the Central Park Jogger.
London: The Modern Babylon Julien Temple made two of the best music docs of the previous decade with The Filth and the Fury (2000) about the Sex Pistols, and The Clash doc Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten (2007). Here he focuses his attention on his hometown of London as the film follows bohemians, activists and immigrants to weave a portrait of a changing London in modern times. One of my favorite actors, Michael Gambon, narrates. This goes straight to the “can’t wait” list.
Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God Oscar-winner for his powerful Afghan War pic Taxi to the Dark Side (2007), Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Gonzo: The Life and Work Dr. Hunter S. Thompson) is the hottest director of docs at the moment. His latest is a hard-hitting look at pedophilia and its big cover-up among the ranks in the Catholic Church, from parish priests in America to the highest levels of the Vatican.
Reincarnated You may have recently heard that legendary hip hop artist Snoop Dogg changed his name to Snoop Lion (shouldn’t it be Snoop Liony Lion first?). You can decide for yourself if his conversion as a Rastafarian is a gimmick, but his new record isn’t, as Snoop went off to Jamaica, immersed himself in the culture, and came out the other side swearing off the bling and often misogynistic rap lyrics for a pure, straightforward reggae album. A new name, a new sound, a more grown-up Snoop. This goes straight to the can’t wait.
Revolution Toronto native Rob Stewart follows up his huge festival hit Sharkwater with another personal, impassioned take on his love for marine life and callous disregard for our environment from world governments. He travels to international conferences and rallies, where much is said but no action is ever taken. Formerly a wildlife photographer, Stewart bathes us once again in aquatic life and finds hope in a younger generation that understands that taking care of our planet is a moral imperative.
Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story (Brad Bernstein) details the life of the popular children’s author (Moon Man, Crictor) and social satirist (nerd note: he designed the poster for Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove); El Hadi, a 70 yr-old veteran of the Algerian War of Independence recounts his story for the first time in Fidai, another topical Middle East story; First Comes Love sees Nina Davenport (Operation Filmmaker) turn the camera on herself as she records her adventure in fatherless child-rearing; 6 former heads of Israel’s secret service agency the Shin Bet share their stories in the insightful The Gatekeepers; The Girl from the South follows the “Flower of Reunification” Lim Sukyung, who as a student protester defiantly walked across the border from North to South Korea in 1989.
With subjects ranging from Eminem, 50 Cent and Susan Sarandon to drug kingpin “Freeway” Ricky Ross, How to Make Money Selling Drugs covers all sides of America’s fruitless “War on Drugs”; meanwhile, Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp features Chris Rock, Ice-T and Quincy Jones in this account of the life of the reformed pimp and American author of street-lit and urban fiction;
Lunarcy! is York Grad Simon Ennis‘ doc about devotees to all things having to do with the moon; Men at Lunch uncovers the secrets behind the famous black & white photo Lunch atop a Skyscraper from 1932, with those 11 construction guys sitting together on that beam, 850 feet high; More Than Honey uses state-of-the-art technology to follow bees up-close on three different continents in another topical study on colony collapse disorder (the disappearance of bees); No Place on Earth follows the remarkable story of cave explorer Chris Nicola, who on a journey to map out a Ukraine cave discovers that Jewish families hid in the dark for well over a year to avoid the Nazis; Roman Polanski: Odd Man Out is Marina Zenovich‘s follow-up to her 2008 doc Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, this time following his 2009 arrest and detention, focusing on legal manipulation and the oddities of celebrity justice.
The Secret Disco Revolution goes behind the love-it-or-hate-it music genre and finds that it was the soundtrack to the liberation of women, African Americans and gays; the unique friendship between playwright-actor Sam Shepard and lifelong friend Johnny Dark is detailed through hundreds of letters between the two in Shepard & Dark; Barry Avrich loves telling stories of the moguls behind the scenes, and this time he takes on the legendary Canadian founder of Cineplex and Live Ent in Show Stopper: The Theatrical Life of Garth Drabinsky; Palestinian National Authority PM Salam Fayyad‘s efforts to have the UN declare his country an independent one is the basis of State 194; Storm Surfers 3D promises a wicked adventure as it follows two-time World Champ Tom Carroll and legend Ross Clarke-Jones as they hit the waves, with cameras on their boards.
At the Conference
Fight Like a Soldier, Die Like a Child (Patrick Reed) is the work-in-progress doc picked up by TIFF Docs Conference based on the book by bonafide Canadian icon, retired Lieutenant General, senator and humanitarian Romeo Dallaire. Reed and Dallaire will be here in conversation and to show off segments of the film. The Fruit Hunters brings Montreal native Yung Chang (Up the Yangtze) to the Conference, showing sections of his new film, following the international trade of rare fruit.
The Last White Knight features the autobiographical account of Torontonian Paul Saltzman, who traveled to Mississippi as a 21 yr-old in 1965 to join up as a civil rights worker with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee; The Walls of Dakar finds graffiti artists, painters and rappers expressing subversive ideas and warnings of upcoming strife; and A World Not Ours plays the Conference, with its autobiographical account by director Mahdi Fleifel of three generations of an exiled Lebanese family in a refugee camp. Those three films will be presented in full.
I was actually looking forward to seeing Inescapable when it was announced as the one of the films in the Special Presentations Programme for the Toronto International Film Festival. Being a huge fan of its star Alexander Siddig, it definitely got my attention. The rest of the cast is pretty great led by Marisa Tomei and Joshua Jackson and it is with this excitement that I was eager to check out the trailer that recently dropped.
Man does this look bad. It looks like the movie is basically a made-for-TV retread of the Liam Neeson starring Taken. I feel so bad for Siddig as it seems that he is putting in a valiant effort.
On the bright side, Alliance Films is distributing it up here so the chance of a lot of folks seeing it is low. That is great for the people involved in the film because this just looks really bad.
About the Film One afternoon, on a typical day at work, Adib (Alexander Siddig) is confronted with devastating news: His eldest daughter, Muna, has gone missing in Damascus. Now Adib, who has not been back in over 30 years, must return to Syria and deal with his secret past in order to find her. Inescapable is a thriller about a father’s desperate search for his daughter and the chaos of the Middle East he left behind. Marisa Tomei and Joshua Jackson in the film written and directed by Rubba Nadda (Cairo Time) which debuts at TIFF next month and opens in Toronto theaters September 14th.
We hope you are enjoying them as much as we have been bringing them to you.
The Waiting Room World Showcase
Director Peter Nicks is yet another filmmaker being featured at Hot Docs whose previous credits include TV work exclusively, but who makes a big splash with his first feature doc detailing 24 hours in the life of an overflowing waiting room at a public hospital in Oakland’s Alameda County.
There are no title cards informing us of these people’s names, and that doesn’t matter because we know people just like this. There is no message and no big political points it wants to score. What it is however, is one of the most absorbing pure documents of how public hospital life is like in a major urban center. It is a human drama where Nicks’ camera does an amazing job through his cinema verite style to give us a generous, lived-in feeling of the lives of the patients as well as the caretakers we meet.
“The Waiting Room” provides amazing inside access to emergency rooms and nurse stations beyond the waiting room where we see teams of doctors trying to save gunshot wound victims, where care is given to a homeless man who simply can’t be released back out into the cold and an in another unfolding human drama, we meet a concerned father and his daughter who has a tonsil infection. The man has been out of work for about a year and while his daughter is simply trying to deal with a high fever and a really sore throat, we feel the hopelessness in the father’s face while getting a nifty glimpse inside a poll that says that American women are most concerned about health-care. When mom enters the picture , she is immediately able to answer all of the questions the nurse needs that the father simply wasn’t aware of.
In a country where its health insurance lobby has just finished recording their best decade profit-wise in American history, “The Waiting Room” does not force any big questions on us and gives no easy answers, but it does force us to see how the system is working on the front lines, and in there the questions are profound.
Soldier/Citizen Special Presentation
Sun, Apr 29 6:00 PM Bloor Hot Docs Cinema Mon, Apr 30 2:00 PM TIFF Bell Lightbox 2 Sat, May 5 9:00 PM The ROM Theatre buy tickets This is no ordinary classroom drama. It follows a crash course in civics for Israeli soldiers in order for them to achieve their high school equivalencies. It is a 3-week course that examines the notions of freedom, liberty, pluralism, discrimination and whether trading liberty for security can really get the job done in the long run for the Israeli people.
The questions it poses for the audience are profound one. Early on the class learns about how up until 1966, Arab Israelis needed special permission to move around Israel and to own businesses or homes. Never mind that they were promised equality under the constitution, one student/soldier quips. If he wants to rent an apartment he owns to a fellow Jew, he doesn’t see that kind of discrimination as a negative thing. It’s simply his prerogative to rent it to who he likes and feels comfortable with.
The moderate tone of the teachers is viewed as bleeding heart liberalism to the young soldiers, who have been brought up to be suspicious of Arabs. The prejudice is thick among these students, and we eventually get the sense that they’re being run through this mill as a means of giving them an easy credit. Their minds have already been cemented with fear, prejudice and hate, and although we find ourselves captivated by the questions and the discussion that makes up the entire experience of this film, we fear that it comes too late in the process. Where was the education about tolerance and cultural understanding before the state decided to make everyone a warrior against outsiders?
Silvina Landesman, the director, does a great job of turning the camera on and simply listening to class discussion in a movie that should be required viewing for anyone interested in the Middle East peace process focusing on the aspect of the education of young people and how that meets up with familial and cultural prejudices.
The Great Liberty International Spectrum
Sat, Apr 28 6:30 PM The ROM Theatre Mon, Apr 30 4:30 PM TIFF Bell Lightbox 2 Sun, May 6 9:15 PM Isabel Bader Theatre buy tickets
“The Great Liberty” finds a son piecing together who is father is after he has been found murdered in his home in Germany. His old man was born in Sweden, split from his wife and son when he was younger, but corresponded with him with journals of his travels and his quest for personal and sexual freedom.
The movie is like a puzzle, as the grown son sifts through a glorious amount of archival footage collected by his old man through a life that is well-documented in journals and audio recordings, and serves as a reminder of the times we live in that it is more possible now to put a real picture together of a person beyond only still photos or letters.
The old man was murdered by his young male lover and possible that guy’s mother, too. The investigating team scoured the house and they along with the media helped to paint a picture of what they saw to be a loner who was perhaps mixed up in drug abuse and sadist activities.
“The Great Liberty” is not only riveting for the straightforward job of the estranged son trying to come to a deeper understanding of his father, but it’s an equally evocative study in how he must do so confronted within a framework where his father has been judged unfairly by both the authorities and the media for the provocative details of his personal life and their discomfort with those things. What we’re left with is the searching for greater truths not only within the spirit of the dead father, but within the living son, in this absorbing character study that fascinates us with all of its old footage while it also allows us time for contemplation throughout as well.
The backdrop is WWII, where a group of British covert-ops stationed in the Middle East are handed a last-minute assignment behind enemy lines to raid one of Nazi Field Marshal Rommel’s headquarters in Benghazi, Libya to obtain valuable German documents. But this story, like so much of director Nicholas Ray‘s canon, is itself just a backdrop for essentially a melodrama in the desert involving two rival officers, Captain Leith (Richard Burton) and Major David Brand (Curt Jurgens).
The film opens as General Patterson (Anthony Bushell) is sent the order to choose one of his men to lead the operation, and upon interviewing a field of candidates, he’s disdainful of the timetable he’s been given, “I can’t be expected to find the right man for this at twenty minutes notice.” He admires Major Brand and chooses him for the mission, despite the fact that Brand has been working at a desk for the last decade, not having seen any on-field action.
Meanwhile, at a lounge on the base enters Brand’s wife, Jane (Ruth Roman) for a visit with her husband, and they sit, talk and drink for awhile with Leith, where it is revealed to us but not to Brand that before they were married, she carried on an affair with Leith. The details of their affair are murky, but what is for certain is that Leith could not commit to the romance, and it has left Jane with the security she has found with her marriage to Brand, but without the emotion or the passion she had with Leith. After the get-together, a jealous Brand confronts his wife, “You called him Jimmy”, referencing how it is that not even he calls Leith by his first name. Brand understands that there is something between his wife and Leith, or maybe it’s that he’s so ridden with jealousy that he would like to believe there is something. In any case, the men will be off on their mission in the morning, with Leith playing second fiddle to Brand.
The unit is dropped in the North African desert, where they prepare further for the raid, camouflaging themselves as Arabs as they find their way into Benghazi. The raid itself takes only a few precious minutes, and it begins when a Nazi officer discovers the men, with a shot of a nerve-wracking Brand baring a knife while his hand shakes. In Brand’s moment of hesitation, Leith apprehends and stabs the Nazi officer dead, adding tension to an already uneasy relationship between the two men. The insinuation is clear: Brand is an unfit leader in Leith’s eyes because of his hesitation. Leith smells a coward.
Later, as the film follows the officers on their four day journey through the desert, the two engage in a philosophical debate about war and courage, with Brand admitting that killing in war is fine, but not cold-blooded murder, which is why he couldn’t kill the Nazi officer. But he admits to Leith that he hasn’t actually killed anyone at war yet, and in an interesting exchange between the two as Leith smells fear in Brand, Brand holds steadfast that he is not afraid while Leith admits that he was.
Overnight, the men are found out by a small group of Nazis, and they engage in a firefight that leaves all the Nazis dead safe for one Colonel. Brand decides to carry forward with his men, but not before leaving Leith behind to wait with the two British officers who’ve been shot and wounded. “You stay behind with these men”, orders Brand. “Yes…”, replies Leith. “Yes, what?!” barks Brand. “Yes, I’ll stay behind…”. It’s a terse exchange and the subtext is clear: Leith understands that he and the two wounded officers are being left to face an almost certain death in the middle of the Libyan desert.
Bitter Victory was a commercial and critical flop in America upon it’s initial release. Unlike so many other war films of the time, it was not a film filled with bravado or with dazzling battles, but is instead a meditation about the nature of war, sacrifice, murder, courage and valor. The film depends upon creating real tension from the inside out, and studies both Brand and Leith with a level gaze as it ponders what makes a man a man. By it’s bitter conclusion, we’re not so sure of the answer. As Brand, Curt Jurgens (The Enemy Below) is a strong-looking type, with barriers covering his humanity. As Leith, Richard Burton, in a role before he was a huge mega-star, plays him as an intellectual who is battle-ready and willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good. Both men give us moments where we think, yes, that is what it takes to be a man, but even with Leith there is the fascination at the center of his character in how his fear of love kept him from being with Jane.
Bitter Victory may not stack up with the best war films of all time. The melodrama in the film between Burton and Jurgens dates the film in a negative way which sometimes approaches unintended laughs as we half expect the poetic-sounding Burton to break into some Shakespeare-in-the-desert. The other major release at the time was the David Lean masterpiece Bridge On the River Kwai, but where that film was an outward expression and a major epic film, Bitter Victory is a more inward affair that could play on a small stage without props, and the questions it asks make it a worthwhile experience.