December 1, 1998

1998 Toronto International Film Festival

<em>State of Dogs</em> is a collaboration between Mongolian TV journalist Dorjkhandyn Turmunk and Belgian anthropologist Peter Brosens.

Once a best-of-the-years's-movies event for Canadian film lovers, the Toronto International Film Festival has burgeoned into a must-attend site for new cinema. Last September, tens of thousands of people jammed screenings to sample from more than 300 films. Woven into the programming of world cinema were a score of documentaries, primarily from North America and Western Europe. The festival featured nine in a special section, Reel to Real, but also included them in other sections, including Masters (big names), Perspective Canada, and Midnight Madness (specialty films). Documentaries in the mix took on importance because the festival has become uniquely important.

Toronto has historically been a film buff's paradise. There are those who take their annual vacation in this season, in order to dedicate themselves full time to festival viewing. Industry attention had come to threaten the festival's longstanding popular appeal, though, and the solution has been elegant and effective. Films screen in different locales for the profes­sionals and the civilians; while there is no formal market, there are desks representing producers, distributors and promoters in the industry/press information center. Professionals (this year about 750 press representatives, and 500 buyers and sellers) can scurry from screening room to screening room as their attention flags and meetings impinge, while filmmakers and actors (about 800 this year) can also savor responses from some of the most engaged and informed paying viewers around. Somehow that legendary Canadian polite­ness rubs off on everybody. All the reported deals as this festival wound up, however, were of feature films.

"I have found it a good place to be, and the audience reaction is extremely gratifying. But I could have benefited more, if I had understood how much support was available here for the film­makers," said Aurelio Michiles, producer of Filmmaker of the Amazon. Michiles's film chronicles the life work of Silvino Santos. Santos's body of work, mostly made for the family enterprise that dominated regional business during the glorious-excess era of the rubber boom and declined with the times, recorded the boom-and-bust cycle of the frontier. It was nearly lost to history, before Michiles recovered it in a series of rescues that combined luck and persistence, a recovery that tells an unexpected story about the "century of cinema" that Santos lived through. The images that Santos preserved also testify, grimly, to the endangered present of the Amazon. "The hardest part of making the film," Michiles said, "was seeing the difference between what Silvino saw and what now exists. In his films there are trees that are now extinct, waterfalls now turned into open sewers, entire tribes of Indians who have been obliterated."

Documentary films ranged from the competently respectable to the calculatedly bizarre. Several mined the neighboring territories of media, celebrity and performance. Stacy Cochran and Mark Cooper's short profile of a noted trans-Atlantic film director, Richard Lester!, ran alongside Kevin McDonald and Chris Rodley's profile of the co-director of Performance, the '70s gangster-chic film—Donald Cammell: The Ultimate Performance. In this pairing, they evoked a turbulent cultural period that seems much further away than the years would suggest. In God Said, "Ha!", comic Julia Sweeney (familiar from Saturday Night Live), with Quentin Tarantino's producing help, recorded her performance of a sometimes funny and sometimes excruciatingly painful mono­logue about cancer in her family.

The subjective personal narrative, which has become something of a U.S. specialty, was represented at Toronto by Italian comic director Nanni Moretti, whose Aprile is a wry personal essay on, among other things, fatherhood at the millennium. The emerging genre was perhaps most spectacularly represented by Fragments*Jerusalem, a six-hour (with another section still planned, to take the story from 1948 to the present) meditation on history and memory by Ron Havilio, whose family has lived in Jerusalem since the 17th century. Rich in humanistic insight and grassroots perspectives, it is also a film that requires major viewer and exhibitor commitment. Lauded at festival after festival, Fragments*Jerusalem also won packed audiences and great buzz at Toronto. But Havilio left brooding about the struggle to find resources for the ongoing project. He believes that the film's debut on Israeli TV, without fanfare, crippled the film for serious critical consideration and theatrical release. However, J. Hoberman wrote a long profile in Film Comment, and festival reviewers, including Gordon Hitchens in these pages, have flagged it. Perhaps the greatest stumbling block for theatrical release is its gargantuan size, combined with a discursive and incremental approach.

At the other end of the time spectrum was the punchy, unforgettable, 30 min. film What Farocki Taught, by the always provocative Jill Godmilow. The film is a meticulous remake of a 1969 anti­ Vietnam-war film made by a German, a film that, as Godmilow notes in an epilogue, eschews shock and engages elegantly with the complicity of the average middle class viewer in the machinery of state evil. Beyond the value of the issues raised—increasingly relevant, as time and atrocities go by—the film is a deliberate interrogation of what the term "documentary" can and should mean. She points out that the film replaces "the pornography of the real" with an essay, executed mostly through re-enactment, that cuts through to the real questions about the production of the agents of destruction such as napalm. The technique of remaking the past turns out to be a powerful way to ask unsettling questions about the future.

Canadian filmmakers, always featured at Toronto, may have been at their best in documentary. Peter Lynch (Project Griuly) captured attention with The Herd, a hypnotically beautiful if overlong (at 100 min.) feature about a mad government project in 1929 to import reindeer from Alaska. The trek took years, lives, and four-fifths of the original herd. As Lynch shows in re-enactments featuring principals in the drama, the expedition enacted the dying moments of the 19th century ideology of epic exploration. Jennifer Baichwal's Let It Come Down: The Life of Paul Bowles is a loving, elegantly-executed portrait of one of the stars of the American expatriate cultural elite in Europe and North Africa, a man who humored Gertrude Stein and adored Jane Bowles and hosted II: William Burroughs. It succeeds on the basis of its access to the once-notorious. The energetic and funny Hang the DJ, another Canadian doc by Marco and Mauro Lavilla, turns disc jockeys in major cities around the world into examples of the localism of global media cultures. They are, in this film, living proof of the sometimes-weird ways in which people reclaim spontaneity and creativity in mass-marketed culture. In A Place Called Chiapas, freelance journalist Nettie Wild gets Subcomandante Marco on camera, for more than a celebrity interview, and also gets caught behind lines, documenting a terrifying right-wing persecution of the peasantry.

Two docs at the festival stood out, by contrast, for their stunting: State of Dogs and Megacities. Both are European Union projects, with multiple public service TV investments. State of Dogs was a collaboration between Mongolian TV journalist Dorjkhandyn Turmunk and Belgian anthropologist Peter Brosens. The film has been something of a festival talking dog, so to speak, because its central character is an imaginary dead dog. The filmmakers present disparate images of so-not-a­ garden-spot Ulan Bator, including unlikely and even puzzling vignettes such as a poet's recital of his work on the street, a pregnant woman bathing, a spring festival that features graveside visits, and an eclipse. Knitting it all together is the tale, in voice-over, of a dog that, once abandoned by nomadic owners, journeys into the unforgiving city and is killed by the town dog catcher (image of one of many dead dogs in Ulan Bator). But Mongolians believe, we are told, that dogs can be reborn as people, and this dog will be reborn as the pregnant woman's forthcoming baby. The narrative device is so freakish that it claims attention for novelty alone, but the charm quickly wears off. The film leaps across too many cultural borders too recklessly.

Megacities dares to go where Mondo Cane, Koyaanisquatsi, Baraka and other films that mix sensationalism, spectacle and prurience have gone before. Assuming the familiar arrogance of the omniscient camera, Austrian director Michael Glawogger and crew visit four of the world's largest cities—Mexico City, Bombay, Moscow and New York—in search of material to shock and titillate the Western audience. In Bombay, they find a sifter of dyes, whose work strikingly turns him the colors of his paints. In Mexico City, they track, at genital level, a working class, single mother who works as an erotic dancer. Moscow urchins who follow in their drunken parents' example take them on a down-and-out tour of underground Moscow. And in New York, they hook up with an African-American drug addict and hustler who sells "air pussy"—imaginary prostitutes— to suckers. The film unfailingly finds pathetic individuals who exemplify a "horrific" (Glawogger's word) panorama, whose horrifying aspects appear to be the result of adding up lots of people in one place. That calculated combination of individual and aggregate shows, by omission, the importance of finding the mediating social structures through which people make sense of life and organize the flow of power. This omission is far more important than mini-controversies that have swirled around the film. Critics have pointed to compromised documentary accuracy, for instance; the New York hustler actually sells his "air pussy" to an actor hired with orders to improvise according to the cues the hustler gave him, and other scenes are re-enacted . "No one sets the rules for what documentary can be," says Glawogger. "I hate talking heads, and I need tools to show what I want to show." And there's the question of exploitation of the subject, which Glawogger sidesteps by saying that he paid his subjects what they asked for.

All this is decoration compared to the question of what Megacities wants to do with its tools, techniques and subjects. Glawogger says the experience has shown him, an aspiring fiction filmmaker, the special wealth of documentary: "atmosphere." He says he wants to incorporate documentary techniques into his future work, because "it's much harder to make something look real than to use reality."

In fact, the rich traditions of docu­mentary were evident in a wide range of fiction work at the festival. There was, for instance, the cinema vérité-like The Celebration, in which a Danish family enacts its dysfunctionality over the course of a reunion, and the gritty neorealist take of Columbian Victor Gaviria's The Rose Seller. Iranian Mohsen Makhmalbaf and his daughter Samira both showcased works where the flatly uncommented but doggedly persistent camera catches little wonders of daily life. Both the latest film by Hirokazu Kore-Eda, After-Life, and the first fiction feature by Koji Hagiuda, Paradise Sea, bear testimony to the docu­mentary origins and the fascination with close observation of daily life of these directors, part of the same Japanese producing group. Toronto is a festival where it is possible to be re-inspired by the possibilities of cinema, and also to conduct business. "The market is not a monolith. It's always going to need stimulus from outside," says Michiles. "People don't just want to watch wild animals forever. Our imaginations are designed around the freedom to choose images. What we need to do as filmmakers," he said, "is not to make violence beautiful."

 

PAT AUFDERHEIDE is a professor in the School of Communication at American University, and a senior editor of In These Times newspaper.

Tags: