It was another great year for documentaries at the Toronto International Film Festival, with a wide range of films spanning politics, culture, personal stories and global tragedies. It was also focussed more than usual on music, including the long awaited Aretha Franklin doc Amazing Grace that was pulled out at the last minute.
Programmer Thom Powers and his associates always manage to entertain and surprise with their selections, crafting a broad slate that works for general audiences and nonfic nerds alike. Here are some of my faves from this year’s slate:
I called Alan Zweig’s film a masterpiece when I saw it just before the festival, and weeks later I stand by that claim, buttressed by the fact that the Platform Jury (Claire Denis, Jia Zhang-ke and Agnieszka Holland) seem to have agreed with me by awarding it their top prize.
Far more than simply a “sports doc” or a mere biopic, Zweig’s film manages to be intensely cinematic and breathtakingly effective. It will be revelatory for international viewers who know even less about Steve Fonyo than Canadians do. It’s an internationally accessible work that examines deep issues, from addiction to the culpability of the audience when they burn their fallen heroes at the stake or, worse, forget them all together.
Thru You Princess
Ido Haar’s film is perhaps the most fun of the fest, tracing two musicians from opposite sides of the globe as they are joined in a seemingly preposterous way. Kutiman sits in his cramped Kibutz room in Israel, trolling the internet looking for pieces of music on YouTube that he uses to assemble his extraordinary compositions. Princess Shaw is in New Orleans working in a home for the aged, singing a capella to her dozens of followers into her camera and telling the world of her life and yearnings.
When Kutiman’s millions of followers learn of her contribution to his latest track her life changes, if briefly, and one can see the power of music to unite. Yet this isn’t some American Idol type silliness, life does go on after the lights go down. It’s this balance, and engaging filmmaking, that sets the film apart.
A Flickering Truth
A very different take on the ravages of the Taliban on Afghani culture, this film by Pietra Brettkelly follows the staff and management of the national film group in Kabul as they seek to rescue spool after spool of films that survived destruction over the last few decades of war. We meet the old men who are living repositories of memory for the institute, as well as head bureaucrats used to a much more efficient Germany, decrying the inefficiencies and pettiness exhibited by some of his countrymen who do not share his same sense of drive. A unique look into a unique circumstance, where the lives of the past are being saved on film as the spectre of reverting to the bad times looms over all.
Al Purdy Was Here
Director Brian Johnson is a colleague and friend, president of the Toronto Film Critics Association, so I’d heard about this project for some time now. But I had never heard of, before he started, famed Canadian poet Al Purdy and the effect he has had on generations of writers including Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje and Denis Lee. As a primer on Purdy’s influence, combined with concert footage from a benefit show to rescue his A-frame cottage in order to be used as a writers retreat, the film does well to have a new audience appreciate the words of this unique talent.
To Johnson’s credit, the film is far more than a by-the-numbers checkbox of events. Poetry is never easy to convey at the best of times, let alone cinematically, but after the heavy lifting of the first act the film manages to soar, taking audiences along for the ride into the images and locations of Purdy’s works. A runner-up for the documentary program audience award, it’s a film that’s well worth seeking out.
Keith Richards: Under the Influence
Janis: Little Girl Blue
Miss Sharon Jones!
Morgan Neville, Amy Berg and Barbara Kopple are no strangers to doc success, but these three films in their own ways showcase their talent at bringing musical legends to the fore.
Neville’s take on Keith Richards is terrific, getting past our image of the drunken lout mumbling away and seeing the man behind the façade. As we watch him work in studio on a new recording we can feel that Neville cuts through the usual mask and gets at the heart of this musician who still passionately cares about the music that first moved him. Add Tom Waits into the mix providing his usual droll commentary and you’ve got a real winner.
Berg’s take on Janis Joplin is more straightforward, but the film does a lovely job in tracing the era unfamiliar to many of the chanteuse’s early career in Texas. With some rare footage that includes a particularly tragic high school reunion, along with loads of clips from the extraordinary film Festival Express, the life and death of this great singer is well documented for a general audience.
Finally, Kopple’s take on the less famous Sharon Jones may do much to help celebrate this tremendous talent, particularly as it has the added element of the singer battling cancer. Her story told with sensitivity and humor, this firecracker of a performer is brought down by her illness but never loses her spark. It’s the affect her heath struggles have on the musicians and management around her that gives the film even more weight, showcasing not only the realities of life and death but the changing landscape of the industry itself. Where Richards and Joplin’s struggles were mostly self-inflicted, it’s powerful to see how Jones copes with her own travails as she tries to once again find her strength.
It’s not supremely effective as a cinematic doc, likely working just as well on the small screen, but I found Jihal El-Tahri’s examination of the rise of Gamal Abdel Nasser completely fascinating. The way her film ties historical events to the contemporary is quite stunning, including the incorporation of various fiction films from the era that echo certain historical events. This is the first of a three-part examination of modern Egyptian pharaohs and is required viewing for anyone wanting to know more about this tumultuous region.
Rabin: The Last Day
Not a documentary per-se, but this astonishing work by Amos Gitai needs mention. This is the anti-version of Oliver Stone’s JFK, showing through a series of raw footage, documentary interviews and recreations how insidious incompetence and ignorance can be far more deadly, and plausible, than any grand conspiracy. A film with a clear political bent, it nonetheless manages to avoid being a polemic, instead showcasing in this case the very culture of hyperbole and intolerance that could lead to such an event. It would be foolish to see this docudrama as simply a left-wing response to right-wing rhetoric — the work at its best illustrates how fanaticism in all its flavors leads to consequences not exactly unpredictable, and that to surround oneself with such ideologues for political expediency comes at a moral cost, if not an electoral one.