Given the enormity of the festival, with all its glitz and glamour and galas, it’s sometimes easy to forget that the Toronto International Film Festival is one of the premier destinations for the top documentaries of the year. Curated by Thom Powers and his team, the selection here definitely leans towards the cinematic, where a compelling narrative and well-assembled, cohesive film is often as important as any journalistic intent of the work.
With dozens of films to choose from, along several nonfiction titles that play outside the already impressive TIFF Docs slate, this year once again reestablishes the festival as the place to see some of the finest documentaries from around the world.
Of the dozen-and-a-half selections I screened this year, here are the six best documentaries of TIFF ‘14:
The Look of Silence
This quiet, contemplative film at times belies the sheer enormity of its accomplishment. Joshua Oppenheimer and his team of collaborators (often simply cited as “Anonymous”) follow on the work done for The Act of Killing with a penetrating examination of the ramifications of war. It follows Adi, an ophthalmologist who helps his clients see, both literally and metaphorically, as he gently but persistently quizzes several of them about the death of his brother. Tying together footage shot over almost a decade, the film confronts the very act of memory and the stories we tell about ourselves and our past.
Much of its power comes from the contrast to the previous film — the brash and colorful extravagance of The Act of Killing gives way here to poetic closeup views of faces engaged in contemplation — and in many ways this one actually does something nearly magical; it’s a sequel that actually helps improve the film that precedes it. Combined, the pair of docs represent the pinnacle of nonfiction filmmaking in the 21st century. [Read Jason’s full review at Twitch]
The Price We Pay
There were a couple advocacy films on this year’s slate (fitting given the prominence placed this year on a special presentation of Michael Moore’s Roger and Me) One of these, Merchants of Doubt, has all the gloss to make for a popular hit among those for whom it reiterates what they already know and believe. But it’s a little film about taxation that strikes the best balance between having a strong point of view and giving the requisite amount of contest and competing voices to make it far more than just another advertisement for a given cause.
Harold Crooks’s The Price We Pay delves into the surreal world of offshoring, tracing its roots back to strange treaty laws that granted the City of London unique powers regarding the flow of money. With a series of talking head interviews, Crooks’s editing is flawless, pitting different ideas against one another and allowing even the most cynical on either side to gain something from watching this film. Making tax laws engaging for a general audience is near miraculous, so a film this entertaining and educational is to be applauded. [Read Jason’s full review at Twitch]
It’s not such a stretch to believe that a film about Soviet hockey would play well in Canada (Wayne Gretzky showed up for the premiere, just to add to the pandemonium), yet to call this simply a sports doc would do it an injustice.
Gabe Polsky has crafted one of the most remarkable time capsules detailing the enormous political and social changes that Russia has gone through over the last few decades, using sport as a lens to view far bigger insights into the post-Soviet mindset. Slava Fetisov is one of the great characters of contemporary documentary, and the way he plays with a hapless Polsky is highly entertaining. A hockey film that works equally well for both those that don’t give a damn about sports and those obsessed with the game, Red Army shows that a doc can be funny and entertaining without losing anything in the way of being informative and insightful. [Read Jason’s full review at Twitch]
Beats of the Antonov
Director Hajooj Kuka delves directly into the people and culture of rural Sudan, showcasing the music, dance and ideas of the people of the Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains. Overhead the government planes bombard the camps (the title refers to the blasts caused by a type of Soviet-era aircraft), while the populace hold on to their indigenous culture against a tide of hatred and conflict that sets Arabic culture against African, lighter-skinned people against those with darker complexions.
This is a film about identity, how music sustains humanity in the face of conflict, and how their indigenous expressions differ from the narrative that emerges from the capital. One also hears laughter after these bombs, for as one person puts it, “laughter is like a new birth,” and they are celebrating still being alive. The doc, which won an audience award at TIFF, acts like a kind of cross-continental sibling to the fiction film Timbuktu by Abderrahmane Sissako, showcasing how even in the most dire of moments humanity clings on. Kuka provides supreme journalistic insight, and while a larger project that perhaps contextualizes the conflict would be welcome, the precision and concision of this film is a testament to some remarkable filmmaking and reportage.
Tales of the Grim Sleeper
I’m mildly ashamed to admit it, but this was my first Nick Broomfield film, and I’ve become, like many, completely hooked and wish to watch many, many more. With a quiet but persistent tenacity, we watch as Broomfield and his cameraman (his son, Barney Broomfield) work their way through the community of South Central L.A. detailing the so-called “Grim Sleeper” serial killer.
If a great doc can give voice to the voiceless, than this film is a textbook example of that lofty goal. The people encountered here all have stories to tell, and from their remarkably cinematic faces to their wonderful, conversational articulation of the events surrounding the case, they make for a truly remarkable film. Broomfield’s gentle hand and open-mindedness lets the film develop, and you can feel the sense of discovery in almost every frame. This feels, in the best way, like it’s finding things out as it follows the leads, and it’s an exhilarating ride to see just how complicated and nuanced it all becomes. While the participation of a few obvious interviewees would have made this work even more astonishing, it’s in its current form a vital documentation of both this case and those living in and around the community where the events took place. [Read our full review by Christopher Campbell]
While it may be debatable that this is Wiseman’s best work, I’d argue it’s the most perfect combination between his form and the subject at hand. If broadly his shtick is to allow the viewer to linger on the imagery and stories from a given location, to overhear conversations that in turn emphasize some of the visual elements, than where better to set one of his films than in the National Gallery of London?
At a mere 173 minutes, the film allows us to stare at works that were designed to be stared at. We’re granted access to board meetings that make us bored, we hear docents that could easily be describing the intricacies of the very film we’re watching rather than the artwork that they’re helping to be communicated to a group. In some ways National Gallery is the culmination of Wiseman’s talents, and if you’re not going to be moved by this one, you’re likely to struggle with any of his other films.
Honorable Mentions: Alanis Obomsawin’s Trick or Treaty? continues her decades-long run of providing the world with a look at the issues that Aboriginal Canadians are struggling with on a daily basis; Sturla Gunarsson’s Monsoon provides a quirky, visually stunning look at the rains that annually befall India and the role this plays on the people and culture of that area; Roger Waters The Wall is a concert doc that displays the narcissism, pomposity and grandeur of Pink Floyd’s The Wall in a way that’s unique and powerful.