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The Female Gaze at TIFF

By Marc Glassman

From Laurie Anderson's 'Heart of the Dog'

While the percentage of documentaries by women that were screened at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) fell short of 50 percent this year, the numbers are getting closer. Perhaps the outcries from Manohla Dargis in The New York Times and many others are paying off. TIFF Docs showed a number of extraordinary films directed by or starring women—or both.

The most remarkable film in the TIFF Docs section was, in this writer's opinion, by performance artist/composer Laurie Anderson. TIFF's estimable doc programmer Thom Powers compares Anderson's film to Chris Marker's Sans Soleil—high praise indeed, but it's justified. The essay form is perhaps the most difficult to achieve properly in film because it's so abstract and generally lacks the emotional resonance that one expects in cinema, whether fictional or based in reality. But when it's done well by filmmakers like Errol Morris (The Fog of War), Thom Andersen (Los Angeles Plays Itself) or Peter Mettler (Gambling, Gods and LSD), it can upend conventional thinking and offer a different set of aesthetics to the viewer.

Anderson's greatest coup may be that her film, Heart of a Dog, is emotional in its roots. At its heart, it is a meditation on mortality. In recent years, the famed performance artist's mother; her dog, Lolabelle; and her husband, Lou Reed have all died. Anderson is an essayist, not a gushing memoirist, so she locates her focus on Lolabelle, her beloved rat terrier. Like all great essay films, Heart of a Dog is propelled by a displaced narrative voice that is offering stories from her past, accompanied by bits of humor, autobiographical details, philosophical digressions and odd facts—in this case, about dogs and Buddhism.

Anderson fills the screen with her own drawings of Lolabelle, herself and others; moody photography of landscapes; old super-8 footage; and a wealth of other visual material. Most are rendered in brown and gold, giving a burnished look to the film. It grounds the film by offering optical correlations to Anderson's occasional flights of fancy. Ultimately, Heart of a Dog is about the acceptance of self, which allows one to give love to others. It sounds treacly, but it's not, thanks to Anderson’s mature voice, which guides us to her philosophical understanding of the world.

Another terrific doc, though hardly genre-shattering, is Miss Sharon Jones!, Barbara Kopple's new film. Despite being told by a Sony executive that she was "too short, too dark skinned and too fat," soul singer Sharon Jones has been having a fine career since she hooked up with her back-up band, the Dap-Kings, in the mid-'90s. But in 2013, she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and she had to shelve her singing career in order to fight for her life. Kopple's camera captures Jones' feisty sensibility as she endures chemo and the loss of her hair while maintaining her dignity and will to endure. Footage of Jones and the Dap-Kings is mixed judiciously into the film, ramping up the levels of enjoyment for viewers even while they remain engaged in the singer's dramatic battle. As always, Kopple's empathy with Jones is evident throughout her doc. This film is a crowd-pleaser.

25 April, about the ill-fated Battle of Gallipoli, is a bit of a rarity: an animation documentary, from New Zealander-Canadian director Leanne Pooley, who won TIFF’s Audience Award for her earlier doc The Topp Twins. This year marks the 100th anniversary of one of the great military calamities of World War One, the disastrous attempt by the British Empire to capture the Gallipoli peninsula in what is now Turkey. Despite the heavy loss of life during the eight-month campaign, New Zealanders and Australians view it as their coming-of-age as nations, since they fought as equals with their former British masters during the armed struggle.

Pooley has done her research, and the film is dramatically constructed around the diaries and letters of several soldiers and one nurse, who participated bravely throughout the campaign. The award-winning team at Flux Animation Studio did an outstanding job of recreating the look and feel of battle scenes—peopled with recognizable characters—in the film. 25 April is a unique documentary, and one hopes that it will draw a global audience, at least through festivals, limited platform releases and niche broadcasts.

This is just a sampling of TIFF docs by women. Other notables include Amy Berg's well researched biopic of rock legend Janis Joplin, Janis: Little Girl Blue; Danae Elon’s incisive look at life in Israel, P.S Jerusalem; Pietra Brettkelly’s unique look at film archiving in Afghanistan, A Flickering Truth; Mina Shum’s cleverly paranoid evocation of 1960s racial conflict at a Montreal university, Ninth Floor; Nasser, a dramatic look at the influential Egyptian leader of the 1950s and '60s by Jihan El-Tahri; and Women He's Undressed, a clever profile of costume designer Orry-Kelly (An American in Paris, Some Like it Hot) by veteran Australian director Gillian Armstrong.


Marc Glassman edits the Canadian documentary magazine POV and the Directors Guild of Canada's publication, Montage. He teaches media history in Ryerson University's Masters in Documentary Media program.