Ain't No Mountain High Enough: The Heights of Documentary Filmmaking at the 2018 Toronto Film Festival

Cameras turned toward the right, the sky, and everywhere in between in the TIFF Docs and Wavelengths programs.

Free Solo 1
National Geographic Documentary Films

After sifting through nearly 1000 documentary submissions to this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, the TIFF Docs programming team — Nataleah Hunter-Young, Sarah Li-Lun MacArthur, and Dorota Lech, led by Thom Powers — pared the program down to just 28 films. Of these, I managed to see 20 features and a handful of shorts from the more experimentally oriented Wavelengths programs. This year’s documentary slate included premieres from some of the biggest (male) names in nonfiction, including Michael Moore, Frederick Wiseman, Errol Morris, Billy Corben, Rithy Panh, and Werner Herzog, and of these, only one was an outright miss: Wiseman’s Monrovia, Indiana.

Wiseman’s valiant attempt to encapsulate the small-town political dynamics of Midwestern living in the wake of the 2016 elections feels shallow at best. The elder filmmaker has always thrived in rich cultural centers and amidst heated debates, but in Monrovia he’s confronted with little more than awkward Masonic ceremonies and town council meetings where donated benches and the locale of fire hydrants are the hot topics of conversation. More often than not, he edits inward from repeated establishing shots of cornfields or the community’s only main street, bringing us into shops and restaurants where little is happening and almost no one is speaking, giving him little to work with. His stoic observational style does indeed paint an accurate portrait of small-town America where gun ownership and a firm belief in Christianity is expected, but in this instance, it doesn’t necessarily make for compelling cinema.

Several other docs at the festival this year wrestled with the political dichotomy of America, but none more directly than Moore’s Fahrenheit 11/9, a sort of pseudo-sequel to his 2004 blockbusting Palme d’Or winner Fahrenheit 9/11. The film begins with its darkly satirical narrator outlining the evening of the 2016 presidential election and finally asking a simple question: “What the fuck happened?” The answer isn’t so easy to unfurl, but Moore begins his wild and wooly yarn with an off-kilter but well-argued explanation that feels ripped straight from the playbook of Adam Curtis: “Gwen Stefani.” Utilizing his tried and true collage of archival material and candid conversations with folks on the ground, he weaves through how Donald Trump came to power, to Moore’s own surprising connections to right-wing political figures, the Flint water crisis, the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, and the subsequent student-led March for Our Lives protest in Washington, D.C. Following his somewhat lackluster Where to Invade Next and his one-man show production Michael Moore in TrumpLand, the film sees Moore back to his fiery self. Fahrenheit 11/9 is both a deeply moving, darkly funny state-of-the-nation address and a brash rallying cry that looks to young activists like David Hogg and Emma González for hope in a world currently ruled with astonishing apathy.

Taking the bull by the horns, American Dharma sees Morris facing his fears in an extensive interview with Steve Bannon, former head of Breitbart News and former White House Chief Strategist under Trump. A devout fan of Morris’ work, Bannon pitched the idea to the filmmaker, and Morris dutifully accepted the challenge. Though many would argue that Morris’ approach to reckoning with the right by giving Bannon an outlet to spread his rhetoric is a misguided mistake, I see it as Morris seems to, as an opportunity to try to understand one’s enemy as a means of self-defense. Like an animal under scientific observation, Bannon is not given the privilege of direct eye contact with his audience via Morris’ signature interrotron apparatus. Instead, he sits across a desk from his interrogator as they discuss face-to-face how he ended up in the White House, his background in online gaming currencies, and his love of classic conservative Hollywood films in which bitter leaders face their destiny by sacrificing themselves for the greater cause. But what Bannon’s cause is is unclear, besides wanting to cause political chaos. Morris sees Bannon as the Wellesian Falstaff, an intelligent man of questionable morals, used and abused by an immature tyrant, but his subject sees it differently — it is his dharma. While the conversation, direct and unguarded, is immensely insightful, Morris’s tendency to visually supplement it with overblown theatrics of Bannon walking through a Hollywood style street of shell buildings is a bit much. Will American Dharma help or harm the left-leaning cause Morris tends to favor? It’s up for debate, but I found it enlightening, and like a car crash, alluringly watchable.

More empathetic than Wiseman, more concise than Moore, and more grounded in reality than Morris, Roberto Minervini’s What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? follows the Italian filmmaker’s hard-edged look at middle America found in his The Other Side with a deeply humanistic portrait of Black Americans just trying to scrape by in New Orleans and Jackson County, Mississippi. Minervini’s film revolves around a quartet of narratives: one involves a woman named Judy Hill, who runs a local bar and effortlessly projects empathy for everyone she encounters despite her own personal travails; Ronaldo and Titus, a pair of young brothers who struggle with school and wander the neighborhoods near their home wholly unsupervised much like the kids at the center of Bill and Turner Ross’s Tchoupitoulas, but with substantially less bombast; members of the New Black Panther Party, who practice self-discipline, provide food to the poor, and investigate a gruesome local murder suspected to be committed by the modern KKK; and a man named Kevin, the Big Chief of the Indian tradition of Mardi Gras, who spends much of the film singing traditional songs and beadworking. Stunningly shot in black and white in a quietly mobile observational style, the film conjures a heartrending sense of community while depicting a heartbreaking lack of opportunity and equality by embedding with these folks and giving them what they’ve been denied for much, much too long: a voice. What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? is not just one of the festival’s best, it’s also one of this year’s best.

Here I veer away from the political as a means of highlighting some worthy if more aesthetically challenging work. This year’s edition of the festival was my first opportunity to witness the durational landscape work of James Benning on the big screen as his Cinéma du Réel Grand Prize winning L. COHEN screened at TIFF as part of Wavelengths. The film runs 48 minutes in length and contains but a single, immobile shot of a dusty field and mountain range in Oregon and documents without effect the total solar eclipse that took place on August 21, 2017. The effect of looking at something for such a long period of time, especially within the context of the image overload of a film festival, is always a soothing, cleansing experience for me, with the image posing more and more questions as you stare at the unchanging or slowly morphing forms. With L. COHEN, Benning seems to be merely attempting to document his personal experience of witnessing such a miraculous natural event, and miraculous it is indeed.

Benning’s film wasn’t the only one to point its camera at the eclipse last year and turn up at TIFF with the footage. Kevin Jerome Everson pieced together Polly One, a quick six-minute short shot on 16mm with an unconventional lens that turns the eclipse into a haze of swirling color centered around a boiling sliver of sunlight. Meanwhile, Malena Szlam’s ALTIPLANO utilizes the volcanic deserts and lakes of Northern Chile and Northwest Argentina to create a pulsating, kaleidoscopic work that feels like a hyperactive distant cousin of Benning’s work, or the next of kin to André Lehmann’s below-above, which was one of my favorites from last year’s edition of the festival. Also shown as part of Wavelengths was Jodie Mack’s subtly comedic and visually mesmerizing stop-motion documentation of the gem collection of mineralogist Mary Johnson, Hoarders Without Borders.

Mack also premiered her first feature The Grand Bizarre, which represents a sort of overarching capstone of all the techniques she has been experimenting with as she explores the global circulation of textiles with animated frames of 16mm. Towards the end of the film you can feel her creative energy running low, but the film is vibrating with life, and the first five or so minutes is one of the most dynamic, exciting sequences I witnessed all week in Toronto. Paired with The Grand Bizarre was Elena López Riera’s wholly odd and darkly funny short, Those Who Desire, which documents Valencia’s “paloma” competitions in which vibrantly painted pigeons are thrust into sexual competition by a crowd of onlooking trainers.

While I wholly enjoyed a great many of the other docs on offer this year, especially Corben’ Screwball, Tom Volf’s Maria By Callas, Maxim Pozdorovkin’s The Truth About Killer Robots and especially Astra Taylor’s deeply contemplative What is Democracy?, it was surprisingly the People’s Choice Documentary Award winner Free Solo that most affected me. E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s second climbing collaboration following Meru, their latest had me physically shaken, sweating for several hours following my IMAX screening as they followed the preparation and attempt by renowned rock climber Alex Honnold to become the first person to free climb up the 3,000-foot cliff of El Capitan in California’s Yosemite National Park without the safeguard of ropes. Regardless of the fact that Free Solo follows a fairly standard dramatic structure, there is a substantial existential crisis at the center of the film: Chin, a climber himself, appears on screen alongside Honnold and the other film crew members, deeply conflicted about whether or not the attempt should be filmed at all, and if they were to go through with it, how they would technically do so without interfering with the climb, as well as if they would be able to live with themselves if Honnold were to fall during his attempt.

Most often than not, mission-based sports docs do not win me over, but I was rocked by Free Solo. Stunningly filmed and filled with compelling personalities, Free Solo is centered around a monumental act of unfathomable strength and will that even existentially obsessed Werner Herzog would be proud of (though he would probably disapprove of the maps deployed throughout to contextualize the technicality of the climb). My only complaint: the dopey Tim McGraw song that plays over the credits — the Oscar bait original song is one of the silliest trends in documentary filmmaking.