October 10, 2017

TIFF '17: The Docs and the Conference

From Brett Morgen's 'Jane.'

The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) has a deserved reputation as one of the best in the world. There had been much criticism in the past few years about the large quantity of films screened, which led to a reduction this year; of course, that resulted in critics pointing out that the box office was lower, which was to be expected, with 60 fewer features being shown. While TIFF's organizers had to deal with people sniping away at the festival at large, the documentary component sailed on with nary a complaint.

Thom Powers handled the Doc Conference and the majority of the documentaries in his usual professional manner. He was aided by Dorota Lech, who added her curatorial and organizational skills to the mix. Other curators, including artistic director Cameron Bailey and associate Canadian programmer Magali Simard, added some docs, but the biggest input came from Wavelengths, the avant-garde section led by Andrea Picard.

The result was a rich diversity, with films ranging from Agnès Varda’s Faces Places to terrific works by the other octogenarian filmmakers at the festival—Frederick Wiseman's Ex Libris, about the New York Public Library, in his typically detailed style; and Indigenous director Alanis Obomsawin's surprisingly positive Our People Will Be Healed. Other highlights included Morgan Spurlock's sprightly return to his greatest hit, Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken!; One of Us, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's look at Hasidim in Brooklyn (which felt like a "thriller" to Powers); and the improbably titled Jim and Andy: The Great Beyond—the story of Jim Carrey and Andy Kaufman with a very special contractually obligated mention of Tony Clifton, which charted the thin edge between insanity and comedy during the making of Milos Forman's Man on the Moon.

Although Tony Clifton (or at least someone claiming to be him) showed up at TIFF, he didn't come to the Doc Conference. But Ewing, Grady and Spurlock participated in the sessions, which mainly consisted of a series of fine interviews, generally conducted by Powers. One exception was a lecture by noted consultant and industry pro Peter Broderick on being strategic in a world that is hard to negotiate for neophyte documentarians. Broderick's advice was simple but hard to execute: know yourself and your product and figure out an audience that can help make and then distribute the work. His major theme can be summed up in one word: unstoppability, a quality that every artist should have.

Another Conference highlight was a panel discussion on Cultureshock, the new A&E series on pop culture, which is produced by Spurlock and his Warrior Poets partners Jeremy Chilnick and Matthew Galkin and executive-produced by Time Inc.'s Entertainment Weekly and A&E. Appearing on stage to talk about the show were all three of the Warrior Poets as well as director Brent Hodge, and an executive producer from both A&E and Entertainment Weekly. Powers showed excerpts from three of the eight films in the series: one on Chris Rock's breakthrough 1996 comedy hit Bring the Pain; another, directed by Hodge, on the cult classic series Freaks and Geeks; and the third, a funny, abrasive look at tabloid talk shows like Jerry Springer and Geraldo, made by Spurlock. As could be expected, the panel was pretty chaotic, but it was made clear that if this pop doc series works, A&E and Time, Inc. will be interested in more.

The Conference opened with Ewing and Grady in conversation with Powers. The pair emphasized that, for all its investigative elements, documentary filmmaking isn't just long-form journalism. This was especially apparent to them as they negotiated the ethical quandaries that arose during pre-production on One of Us, as they were trying to figure out how to gain access to a community that did not want them or their film. For them, the way forward meant following their gut and doing what felt right: spending months and months hanging out in the lobby of Footsteps, an organization for people trying to get out of the Hasidic community; going to community events and talking with everybody who would talk to them; and respecting their participants' need for privacy and secrecy—particularly urgent, in cases where violence is a real threat.

Powers conducted fine interviews with Brett Morgen, on his brilliant archival piece Jane, and with Spike Lee veteran Sam Pollard, on his personal project about Sammy Davis Jr. But the most charming discussion was the last of the afternoon. Dorota Lech interviewed Denis Côté, the quirky Quebec director, who loves making films that fall in that grey area between fiction and documentary. A Skin So Soft, his latest, is about bodybuilders, but typically for Côté, there is no big contest, nor any revelations about the people in his film. He explained to an amused and charmed Lech that he "never likes the core of events. I prefer the periphery."

Côté has a refreshing attitude towards budgets: he makes films on whatever he can raise. He's made films for $2M and others for $70,000. There seems to be no trajectory to his career; low-budget docs are followed by bigger budgeted semi-fictional works—and then projects move downwards again. As Côté says, "I work seven days a week, writing letters to festival programmers or to funders. I know—it sounds geeky." After a conference, which was earnestly engaged in how directors raise funds and make their work, it was oddly refreshing to hear a lively and warm discussion about making films out of love, without much thought to career aspirations. Côté is not for everyone, but it's wonderful that he's also a voice in the international documentary community.

The Docs at TIFF

From Emmanuel Gras' 'Makala.''

By Daniel Glassman

Documentary and the avant-garde have long cross-pollinated. Even as each mode has its own internal variations and historical trajectories, a fertile zone that is neither the one nor the other has persisted for about as long as cinema has existed.

There were around 50 documentaries at TIFF this year. I saw 20 of them—impressive, but probably not a representative sample either. Trying to be comprehensive at TIFF is a fool's errand; I prefer to follow my whims wherever they lead me. The documentaries I saw were not the best-known ones, the most-hyped ones or the best reviewed. They were the ones that struck my fancy.

That said, I am focusing my reflections on a small subset of the doc programming at TIFF that negotiates documentary and avant-garde prerogatives and is as attentive to aesthetics as it is to ethics.

As it happens, the films I saw covered a wide aesthetic range, bridging the worlds of documentary and the avant-garde (as represented by the TIFF Docs section and Wavelengths, respectively). At the extreme end was the relentless claustrophobia of Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel's Caniba, a film about the Japanese cannibal Issei Sagawa, shot almost entirely in fleshy close-ups of his more or less expressionless face. It's not the revelation that the directors' previous feature, the Sensory Ethnography Lab-produced Leviathan (2012), was (and is), but it's a unique, disturbing and, fittingly, sensorially overwhelming look at a person most would prefer not to think about.

Claustrophobia is the dark side of intimacy; on the light side was the expansive, full-hearted reciprocity of Agnès Varda and JR's delightful Faces Places. It's not just a charming film, but one that seems to make a case for an ethos of charm: Varda, 88, and JR, 33 (and the spitting image of a young Jean-Luc Godard), travel all around France looking, basically, to be charmed—by people and landscapes and towns and their own memories. When, near the end, Godard's callous, pretentious antics (he is an off-camera presence throughout the film) occasion a melancholy note, the situation is, of course, remedied with openness and charm.

Faces Places seemed to be a bit of a motif for the docs I saw at TIFF this year. Wang Bing's Mrs. Fang may not be as extreme as Caniba, but it too lingers on faces—in this case, that of its titular subject, which is made sadly vacant by advanced Alzheimer's. Wang juxtaposes these close-ups with wide shots of the family standing around the bed and the men going out fishing in a polluted river. It's a tough film that patiently reveals, through nothing but extreme attention, ineluctable family dynamics, destroyed landscapes and the brutal finality of death.

Still more attentive to faces—well, one face in particular—was Brett Morgen's elegiac Jane. It was sold in the program notes as a romantic epic about Jane Goodall, constructed from never-before-seen footage from the 1950s and '60s; in fact, the film cleverly slips in two love stories: the first, with the very cameraman, Hugo von Lawick, who shot the unique (and beautiful) footage; the second, with the chimpanzees of Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania. Morgen was given the footage by National Geographic, and he cut it into shape before speaking to Goodall, giving the film a visual momentum independent of its voiceover—helped along by Philip Glass' propulsive score.

More formal is Ben Russell's Good Luck, an overtly structural look at two very different mines, one in Serbia and the other in the director's old stomping grounds of Suriname. Good Luck is a complex film, building on the director's oeuvre and theory of "psychedelic ethnography," which might be more effective in a gallery setting for an art-world crowd—in fact, it was shown as a 4-channel installation at documenta 14 in Kassel—than in a cinema playing to documentary audiences who, like me, might find certain aesthetic decisions heavy-handed. Nevertheless, the film is full of indelible images and offers plenty of intellectual rewards for those given to deep analysis.

If Good Luck’s artiness rankled, then so did Jane's narrative focus for some audience members. By the end of the festival, I was wondering whether I would see any film at TIFF that found a balance between the serious artist's and the conventional documentarian's practices. Happily, there was one: the quietly brilliant Makala, by Emmanuel Gras.

The film follows a man, Kabwita Kasongo, in the remote southeast of the Democratic Republic of Congo, eking out a living by producing and selling charcoal. From its remarkable opening scene, in which Kasongo cuts down a massive tree piece by little piece and burns it for charcoal, through the quiet desperation with which he transports his charcoal—hundreds of pounds of it loaded onto a rickety bicycle that he walks along a bleak dusty road—to the nearest town 50 kilometres away, the sensation is almost that of watching Kasongo in real time.

The sheer physical exertion that the film documents is rare to see, especially so in a time when even agricultural and industrial work doesn't often entail real effort—contrast Kasongo with the farmers and unionized dockworkers in Faces Places—and the unblinkered candidness with which it does so is unique.

One could easily imagine the film veering off into exploitative ogling; another film would let the awkwardness of Kasongo's bicycle, the grotesquerie of his family eating a grilled rat for dinner, and the strange syncretic ritual at the end of the film make their impressions and leave it at that. It is to the film's immense credit that it does not do this; the way that Gras finesses the movement from absurdity to pathos is remarkable and worthy of a closer look.

In the first act of the film, we only really see Kasongo and his family; we might think that his labor-intensive charcoal hustle is just something he came up with. But then comes Gras' coup. Midway through Kasongo's journey, the filmmaker abruptly shows him on that dusty road—not alone, but alongside two other people who appear to be exact copies of him: desperately thin men pushing absurd amounts of coal on little bicycles that they guide with sticks tied with rope to their bikes' handlebars. Kasongo isn't just one weird guy; he's a laborer following established patterns of work and travel. Our interest in him is suddenly expanded: the film leaps from the personal register to the societal—not by way of any clever cinematic technique, but just by paying attention.

That description might signal, to some, an avant-garde film. Yet what emerges in Makala is not really the kind of abstraction that one might expect from that kind of film—a study in Labour or Physicality or Bricolage or the Problematics of Gazing at the Unknowable Other. Which isn’t to say that those things aren't in there. It's to say that they are subsumed into an empathetic interest in people and the systems that oppress them and liberate them, and the systems that give them meaning and take it away.

Though Makala is in many ways a small film about just one man, his work and his family, its quiet complexity, derived from the productive reciprocity between its formal assuredness and the events it documents, makes it the one film that I find myself lingering on weeks after the end of TIFF.

Marc Glassman is a veteran writer and editor of the Canadian documentary magazine POV. He teaches media history at Ryerson University's Master in Documentary program. Daniel Glassman writes about film and music. He lives in Toronto.

 

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