Behind the Glitz & Glam: The Top Documentaries at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival

Toronto International Film Festival

Features and shorts brought more women filmmakers, a lot of familiar favorites, and a number of new nonfiction gems.

Frederick Wiseman’s ‘Ex Libris — The New York Public Library’

Mixed among the glitz and glam of Toronto’s premiere film festival were the likes of Grace Jones, Jim Carrey, Jane Goodall, and Lady Gaga, all of whom shared something in common this year: they each appear at the center of a solid documentary. Celebrity sightings aside, much of the early esteem for this year’s edition of the Toronto International Film Festival was due to one-third of its lineup of films having been directed by women, with the TIFF Docs program nearing 50 percent. Certainly, this is a welcome change, with worthy films like Sara Driver’s BOOM FOR REAL The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Violeta Ayala’s Cocaine Prison, Sophie Fiennes’s Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami, and Lili Fini Zanuck’s Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars each adding artistic, political, and cultural depth to a truly robust documentary program. But for me it was not so much the shift in gender representation so much as the sheer number of returning TIFF alums and exciting new voices that truly shaped the nonfiction program this year.

It should come as no surprise that a pair of old masters made a lasting impression with new works this year. Forever on a quest to encapsulate human experience via institutional exploration, the 87-year-old Frederick Wiseman has this time decided to document the shifting landscape of public libraries with Ex Libris — The New York Public Library. Utilizing his tried and true observational style and free flowing durational scope, Wiseman demonstrates just how pivotal libraries remain as cultural touchstones and access points for all human knowledge, whether this means a venue for a live conversation with Ta-Nehisi Coates, a place to access one’s personal email, a meeting space for adult learning classes, or a reference facility for the history of printed images. As a public librarian myself, I was deeply moved by Wiseman’s grand depiction of the socially mindful scope of what libraries strive for. The man remains a singular institutionally minded virtuoso among nonfiction filmmakers, and with Ex Libris, he shows no signs of slowing down.

Agnès Varda & JR’s ‘Faces, Places’

The elder stateswoman among this year’s lineup was of course Agnès Varda, who, along with the shades sporting French photographer JR, patched together the L’Œil d’or and TIFF Audience Award-winning Faces, Places, and winning it certainly is. Feeling like a spiritual mashup of Varda’s late period essayistic masterstrokes The Gleaners and I or The Beaches of Agnès, and her lesser known Mur Murs, which playfully explored the murals that colored L.A. during the 80s, her latest sees the directorial duo bond over their shared love of photography and respect for the working class as they drive around the French countryside with a truck set up for large format portrait printing. Happening upon dock workers, retired miners, mailmen and more, they celebrate the well-lived lives and unadorned beauty of rural faces by pasting their portraits in massive scale upon the weather-beaten exteriors of homes, barns, shipping containers, and even a toppled German bunker, all the while articulating their hopes about and reactions to their excursion in voiceover and memory linked photographic inserts to delightful and melancholic effect. At once a youthful cine-collage and a road movie mapped out like origami folding out in all directions and then back in on itself in search of something new and old at once, Faces, Places is a masterwork of sublime simplicity.

Working once again with precious archival material, Brett Morgen has followed the massive success of Cobain: Montage of Heck with an intimate portrait of Jane Goodall at the beginning of her groundbreaking study of wild chimpanzees in Tanzania during the early ’60s. Jane takes full advantage of still pristine recently rediscovered 16mm footage shot by the then-unknown nature photographer Hugo van Lawick, who was assigned to document Goodall’s research by National Geographic and would soon became not only her partner in research, but also her partner in life. With the help of one of Philip Glass’s most romantic original scores of his career, Morgen reinvigorates and repurposes the gorgeous footage, converting what was once a stale scientific study into a deeply heartfelt story of love, loss and the value of passion for one’s work. Goodall herself became the narrator of her own story, giving greater intimacy to the project and allowing us to further embed with the family of apes she came to so love while living in the jungles of Gombe, each individual with its own Disney-like personality and particularities that comes across effortlessly, thanks to Morgen and his editors’ careful eye for physical detail.

Another familiar name in this year’s lineup was Chris Smith, whose American Movie, The Yes Men, and Collapse have all screened at TIFF in years past. With the help of producer Spike Jonze, Smith returned this year with the Twitter-unfriendly title Jim & Andy: the Great Beyond — the story of Jim Carrey & Andy Kaufman with a very special, contractually obligated mention of Tony Clifton, which makes use of behind-the-scenes footage shot while Carrey was method acting his dual role as the cult comedian Andy Kaufman and his belligerent alter-ego Tony Clifton for Miloš Forman’s biopic Man on the Moon. Carrey ended up winning a Golden Globe for his performance, but during production he began to cross lines of reality as the film’s cast and crew were forced to interact with Carrey as though he really was Kaufman or Clifton, causing hilarious and infuriating mischief on set throughout the film’s production. In a contemporary interview by Smith that centers the film, Carrey sits raw and open-hearted, admitting how the experience has affected his sense of self and that of those with whom he worked with on the project. What at first seems like a comedic look behind the curtain of Hollywood history builds to become a mesmerizing live-wire examination of the boundaries between artistic expression and sanity à la Jeff Feuerzeig’s incredible works on the same subject, The Devil and Daniel Johnston and Author: The JT LeRoy Story.

Jason Kohn’s ‘Love Means Zero’

Jason Kohn’s ingenious sophomore effort, Love Means Zero, also deals with one’s sense of self, more specifically that of famed tennis instructor Nick Bollettieri, whose high-profile career as coach to stars like Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, Venus and Serena Williams, and Boris Becker and beyond has come at a steep emotional price. Riffing on the all-day interrogation approach of his mentor Errol Morris, Kohn faces off against the infamously unsentimental Bollettieri. Grand slam style, questions are fired off and Bollettieri, with customary thoughtlessness, simply reacts, as he recalls doing countless times prior at critical moments in his career, relationships be damned — that is, until Kohn cracks the surface of that smarmy exterior, baby. So much more than just an archival-heavy career spanning retrospective of the coach’s continuously alienating habit of cutting all emotional cords and merely moving on when new potential offers itself up, Love Means Zero becomes an exercise in exploratory nonfiction filmmaking where, as Eric Hynes recently described in Film Comment in reference to Laura Poitras’ Risk and Mark Grieco’s A River Below, “both mutual trust and mutual exploitation” between filmmaker and subject is on full display, in this case, as Bollettieri’s own sense of self shifts before our very eyes. If Kohn’s 2007 debut, Manda Bala (Send a Bullet) is a true crime masterpiece, its follow-up is something much more slippery and moving.

Last year, co-directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady returned to TIFF with the playful bio-doc Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You, while this year they went back to their Jesus Camp roots as they penetrate the insular religious world of New York’s Hasidic community in One of Us. The film follows 29-year-old Etty, a mother of seven trying to escape the abusive clutches of her controlling husband, Luzer, a working actor in his late 20s who cut ties with his family to pursue his dream career, and 18-year-old Ari, whose teenage spiritual crisis stems from being sexually abused as a child. Like their even-handed depiction of religious extremity in Jesus Camp, here Ewing and Grady impart no judgement, but rather allow their subjects to reveal a self composed critique of the Hasidic community in which they were raised via an anxiously tailing camera that acts as both fly on the wall and confessional. Pitched as a sort of escape thriller, One of Us was one of the most gripping films of the fest.

While seeing familiar, trusted names amidst a lineup is sure to please us doc lovers, one of the joys of attending film festivals is the raw shock and awe that comes with discovering something undeniably new. This is often where TIFF’s Wavelengths program comes in handy. This year’s lineup included well known international sensations in Wang Bing’s Locarno Golden Leopard winner Mrs. Fang, and Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel’s Venice Orizzonti Special Jury Prize winner Caniba, both of which take morally questionable stances on how they approach their subjects — Mrs. Fang documenting the slow decimation of an old woman at the hands of Alzheimer’s disease over the course of her final 10 days, and Caniba profiling the 68 years old and mentally foggy convicted Japanese cannibal Issei Sagawa and his complicit brother Jun, who serves as his caretaker. The former film unflinchingly eyes death and allows the awkward family dynamics that play out in anticipation of its arrival to cascade in flowering long takes, while the latter dwells almost exclusively in extreme close-ups on the frequently out of focus face of a cannibal, forcing us to question our own consumption of his flesh via filmgoing. Both films are a slog to endure, but put forth worthy questions to mull for months to come.

Pacho Velez and Yoni Brook’s ‘Mr. Yellow Sweatshirt’

The real documentary gems were to be found in the quartet of Wavelengths shorts programs. Unsurprisingly, a pair of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab alums turned up in Pacho Velez (of Manakamana fame) and relative newcomer Laura Huertas Millán. With his co-director Yoni Brook, Velez put forth the impeccably simple, curiously funny Mr. Yellow Sweatshirt, which comprises just a single overhead shot of an NYC subway gate where countless passersby slide their metro cards with ease, except a patient guy in a bright yellow sweatshirt. With La Libertad, Millán follows a group of Mexican weavers who continue to employ the use of back-strap looms to tell their cultural stories in fabric and texture, yielding an up close observational portrait of work and creativity. Continuing in this culturally exploratory vein, Sky Hopinka’s moving Dislocation Blues is an on-the-ground representation of the 2016 Standing Rock protests in South Dakota that buckles down, settles in, and merely listens to individuals willing to share their stories of dissent. One voice, that of trans demonstrator Cleo Keahna, cuts through via Skype reflections to bring a deeply heartfelt and empowering intonation to the project.

One brilliant doc-hybrid also deserves mention: Jorge Jácome’s semi-sci-fi work Flores. Shot on glorious Super 16mm and tinted slightly purple, Flores unfolds on the Portuguese owned Azores, an archipelago composed of nine volcanic islands in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean, where hydrangeas have literally taken over and made them inhospitable for humans. Two young soldiers guide us through the abandoned floral roughage, reflecting on their lonely tasks as caretakers to a land they can’t truly call home. Visually stunning, factually dubious, emotionally tender, and completely engrossing, Flores quietly wrestles with ideas of imperialism, commercialization, and collective bonding.

Possibly my favorite of the bunch is the short Turtles Are Always Home by Lebanese filmmaker Rawane Nassif, which explores The Pearl-Qatar in Doha, Qatar, an artificial island where luxury apartments and theme park-like commercialism awkwardly intermingle. As a resident herself, Nassif has intimately explored the facility and memorized its smoothed over angles, somber rhythms and seemingly every single revealing reflection possible. Using the simplicity of just a tripod and focus pull, she reveals the soulless empty shell behind The Pearl’s pastel façades that market its dreamy, western image. Understated, yet effortlessly effective in its minimalist approach, Turtles Are Always Home suggests that one’s home is not the makings of a capitalist enterprise, but the dwelling of a restless creative heart. It’s the sort of movie I can wholly get behind.