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Festival Focus: Toronto International Film Festival

By Tamara Krinsky

From Robin Neinstein's Souvenir of Canada

Last year's Toronto International Film Festival took place one month before the US presidential election, and the tone was immediate, energized and intense. This rippled through the documentary programming, which featured many films that seemed to be direct, rapid responses to current events.

One year later, the flavor at the 2005 TIFF was noticeably more reflective, with a number of documentaries dealing with issues of spirituality, identity and globalization. It was as though filmmakers were going beyond reporting just what was happening around the world to questioning why.

"Last year, there was such a sense of urgency, and I think that was very specific to an election year," says Sean Farnel, Toronto's Real to Reel programmer. "This year is more of an essay approach, rather than an exposé approach." Farnel adds that 2005 seemed to be a particularly strong year for European art documentaries. "It's really great to see audiences engaging with these more challenging forms. You worry that those films won't captivate audiences as much, but films like Christian Frei's The Giant Buddhas, Gary Tarn's Black Sun and Philip Groening's Die Große Stille (Into Great Silence) have all been playing very well and moving audiences emotionally."

The Giant Buddhas tells the story of the Taliban's destruction of the two famous Buddha statues in the Bamiyan valley in Afghanistan in 2001, prior to the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, DC. Frei skillfully weaves together strands both ancient and modern, including the story of a determined Al Jazeera reporter; the imagined journey of Xuanzang, the seventh century Chinese monk famed for his 16-year spiritual quest along the Silk Road to India, who made a pit-stop in Bamiyan; interviews with one of the few eyewitnesses to the attacks; and French archaeologist Zémaryalaï's quest for a rumored legendary third  "sleeping Buddha."

The film constantly touches on the relationship between East and West, and whether understanding is truly possible, and Frei makes impressive use of the visual palette to craft quiet yet intense moments.

Another documentary that dealt with the larger global picture was the dense Austrian film We Feed the World, by Erwin Wagenhofer, which poses a series of questions about paradoxes that currently exist in the global food supply chain. For example, why is it that 4/5 of the grain in Switzerland, the second richest country in the world, is imported from India, where over 200 million people are suffering from permanent malnutrition?

Wagenhofer breaks down the intangible concept of a globalized food supply, presenting personal stories of fishermen, farmers, truck drivers and corporate executives, among others. Without making anyone into a villain, he effectively explores the issues surrounding scarcity amidst plenty.

For All About Darfur, Taghreed Elsanhouri, a British woman of Sudanese origin, returned to Sudan to explore the genocide there. A minority in the UK, she was perceived as part of the Northern majority in Sudan, which often put her into conflict with those she was interviewing. The film is comprised of a series of conversations, climaxing in a visit to a refugee camp, in which the refugees speak of the difficulty of queuing up for bread after having thrived as self-sufficient farmers.

TIFF also presented a number of documentary films about the arts. "Contact with the other arts provides a different frame for the festival," Farnel notes. "And documentaries can provide that little extra kind of window and then bring those audiences, like the ballet audience or the photography audience, down into the cinema."

Lian Lunson's Leonard Cohen I'm Your Man, an homage to the Canadian musical genius, is comprised of performances from a tribute concert in Sydney interwoven with a rare interview with the reclusive performer. My curiosity was piqued by the die-hard fans that packed the screening; when U2's Bono showed up to introduce the film, I knew I was in for something special.

Cohen's music is deep, beautiful and spiritual, and he has influenced a number of the musicians who appeared in the film, including Nick Cave, Rufus Wainright, Beth Orton and U2. The concert footage is fabulous, and the interspersed interview with Cohen creates a collage that provides more of a sensory impression of the man than a direct picture.

Halfway around the world from Sydney, comedian Dave Chappelle hosted his own musical celebration at a block party in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, after landing a $50 million deal at Comedy Central. Friends like Erykah Badu, Jill Scott and the Roots performed, and Chappelle bussed in residents and a marching band from his neighborhood in Cleveland, Ohio, to join the local Brooklyn audience. And, lucky for us, he also invited Academy Award-winning filmmaker Michel Gondry along to document the whole thing.

Dave Chappelle's Block Party, which screened as a work-in-progress, threads together footage from behind-the-scenes concert preparation, rehearsals, interviews with performers and audience members and the block party performances. Energetic, exciting, ridiculously funny and at times even moving, the film is an unusual yet effective showcase for Chapelle's brilliance at mining the comic possibilities from whatever is happening directly in front of him.

If Block Party was a quintessentially American event, Robin Neinstein's Souvenir of Canada, based on Douglas Coupland's book of the same name, attempted to define authentic "fragments of Canada." Coupland, known to most as the author of Generation X, is a hoot to watch while on his search for a national Canadian identity. What keeps the film from being just an amusing exercise in kitsch, however, is his sincere quest to finally connect with his outdoorsman father, whom he calls the most Canadian man he knows.

Themes of identity and father-son relationships were also found in Doug Block's 51 Birch Street, a moving portrait of the filmmaker's attempt to piece together the true story of his parent's marriage. Block's parents had been married for 54 years when his mother unexpectedly passed away. Within several months, his father had moved in with his secretary from 40 years prior, re-married and decided to sell the Block family home. While cleaning out the house, Block found journals his mother had written detailing a very different marriage than the one he remembered.

The film brought up the universal question: How much do we really want to know about our parents? Though at one point in the film Block suggests, "When it comes to your parents, ultimately maybe ignorance really is bliss," in the end, Block's search for the truth about the past brings him and his father much closer together.

One last mandatory stop on the TIFF documentary docket was Josh Gilbert's a/k/a Tommy Chong, a portrait of the legendary counterculture comedian. The film tells the absurd tale of Chong as he travels down the rabbit hole of America's war on drugs and the federal prison system after becoming the prime target in a government sting, code-named "Operation Pipe Dreams."

In February 2003, US Attorney General John Ashcroft and attorney Mary Beth Buchanan spent $12 million to take down Chong for selling art glass water pipes over the Internet. The story of the arrest reads like a surreal plot from a Cheech and Chong flick, but the consequences are very real.

The film weaves together archival footage of Chong's films and performances with the story of his arrest and incarceration. Though the film is in need of some structuring, the content is entertaining for fans and non-fans alike. Without getting too heavy, the film uses Chong's unique comic perspective to examine civil liberties in post-9/11 America, thus allowing audiences to think and laugh at the same time--and providing a high note on which to end the festival.


Tamara Krinsky is associate editor of Documentary.