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Docs Push Hot-Button Issues at Toronto Film Festival

By Tamara Krinsky

John Kerry making a speech in 1971. From George Butler's <em>Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry</em>. Courtesy of THINKFilm

Politics and activism were in the air this year at the 29th Toronto International Film Festival. Filmgoers walked around with Kerry-Edwards pins of all shapes and sizes. Volunteers trolled movie theatre lobbies trying to register to vote those with dual Canadian/US citizenship. And the issues covered in the documentary line-up read like a congressional meeting agenda: the war in Iraq, gay marriage, Kerry's participation in Vietnam, the Rwandan genocide and the effects of globalization.

At a time when many are frustrated with the glossed-over treatment that serious issues receive on cable and the networks, the power of the long-form documentary to explore and illuminate has never been more important. Says Reel to Real (the festival's documentary slate) programmer Sean Farnel of the submissions he viewed this year, "The films were responding with real immediacy and were as current as anything that we were seeing on the news on a given evening, except they gave the full story, going beyond the sound-bite approach, trying to get into the issues more deeply. In general, documentary seems to have filled a void in the current media landscape, especially the feature-length films. They're really sort of a source of news, which is incredible to me."

One of the most talked-about documentaries was George T. Butler's Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry, an in-depth look at the senator's early years, his service in Vietnam and his resulting involvement in the soldiers' peace movement, the Vietnam Veteran's Against the War (VVAW). The exploration of the broader history of the swift boat experience and the VVAW movement provided a context that clarified Kerry's decisions to oppose the war when he returned home, making the commercial spots done by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth seem both superficial and insulting. Though at times a bit heavy-handed with testaments to Kerry's leadership skills (Butler is a life-long Kerry friend, and the film doesn't even pretend to be non-partisan), Going Upriver takes a fascinating look into what happens when young men are sent to war and, upon coming home, dare to try to change things for the better based on what they've seen on the frontlines.

Going Upriver became all the more powerful when juxtaposed against the portrait of combat captured in Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein's Gunner Palace. The directors spent 60 days embedded with the 2/3 Field Artillery, aka "The Gunners," who live in Uday Hussein's Azimiya Palace in the middle of Adhamiya, the most volatile area in Baghdad. The bombed-out palace, which includes a swimming pool and putting green, makes for a surreal backdrop for the film's snapshot of life with the troops. 

Sticking close to a classic vérité model, Tucker and Epperlein avoided taking a specific point of view on the war and instead captured moments with a broad range of the Gunners, thus creating an overall portrait of life with the 2/3 FA. Scenes of conflict are intercut with moments in Iraqi orphanages, as the Gunners deal with the everyday duties of  "minor combat." As one soldier describes it, people who were trained "to blow stuff up" are now acting as policemen and social workers.

Watching Going Upriver and Gunner Palace back-to-back, one cannot help but compare the two wars and the young soldiers depicted in each. The final image in the latter film is US soldier Stuart Wilf addressing the audience: "If you see any politicians, be sure to let them know that while they're sitting around their dinner tables with their families talking about how hard the war is on them, we're here under attack nearly 24 hours a day-dodging RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] and fighting not for a better Iraq, but just to stay alive." What would the response would be at home if these soldiers returned home and decided to form their own soldiers' peace movement?

Politics turned personal in the British doc Andrew and Jeremy Get Married (Don Boyd, dir.), the charming story of two very different men who finally decide to tie the knot after five years. Farnel said that out of the current crop of powerful documentaries on the topic, Toronto chose to showcase this intimate look at gay marriage because, "It had the potential to go beyond rhetoric and humanize it for a more conservative heterosexual audience in a way that some of the more stringent advocacy docs wouldn't do." 

One of the strengths of the film was its use of specific universal moments as the couple tries to incorporate traditional wedding conventions into a ceremony not dictated by gender roles. Andrew and Jeremy wonder if they should see one another before they walk down the aisle. Neither can remember clearly who popped the question. And of course, the age-old nuptial conundrum: "What should we wear?"

The funny and poignant Three of Hearts: A Postmodern Family explored another alternative family arrangement. Sam, Samantha and Steven experiment with "trinogomy," a committed, mutual three-person relationship. Susan Kaplan (Small Wonders) followed the trio for over eight years, exploring their families, children and, of course, the sex. Enriched by the wealth of archival material, the audience-pleaser was a good example of how the patience to follow a subject for an extended period of time can pay off.

Sometimes a year is all it takes to capture a fascinating story, as in the sports doc The Year of the Yao. James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo recorded Chinese basketball star Yao Ming's first tumultuous year in the National Basketball Association. Just 21 years old when he was chosen as the first draft pick by the Houston Rockets, the 7'6" player must deal with the pressures of learning a new language, adapting to a new style of playing and being a virtual ambassador from East to West.

What made the film more than just an episode of Sports Center was the deeper look it took at the growing friendship between Yao and his translator, Colin Pine, who became his constant companion and unlikely confidant, and the examination of the differences between Chinese and American culture and customs. Although the audience never quite gets inside Yao's head, the crazy world he inhabits is all too clearly illuminated. As Pine says at the end of the films, "I feel like I don't know that much about Yao, but I feel like I understand him."

Amanda Micheli, director of Double Dare, also uses a combination of humor and sports to explore deeper issues in her documentary about stuntwomen Jeannie Epper and Zoë Bell. Said Micheli at the festival, "To me a film can be both entertaining and serious—that's how life is. What Zoë and Jeannie are doing as stuntwomen is all about that. They're doing something very physical, and they're also going through different transitions in life as far as growing up or retiring, which is something that everyone goes through."

Micheli and producer Karen Johnson felt privileged to be invited to the festival, but also felt the pressures of doing business in Toronto. At the time of publication, their film had broadcast distribution on PBS' Independent Lens, with tentative plans to air in Summer 2005, and they were in the middle of talks about theatrical and additional ancillary markets. Micheli said that while part of her wanted to go to parties and see movies, "For the most part, it's art and business colliding, and that's an odd thing."

The Toronto Fest buffered the impact of these forces through Doc Salon, which featured several panels on the art and commerce of nonfiction filmmaking. "The Sellers" panel featured sales agents who offered some practical tips to the filmmakers in the audience. Participants, who included Submarine Entertainment's Josh Braun, The Film Sales Company's Andrew Herwitz, Cinephil Distribution and Coproduction's Philippa Kowarsky and Film Transit International's Jan Rofekamp, warned not to ignore music clearances, unit photography and obtaining releases for every person seen on camera, as doing so can hurt the distribution and marketing process.

The panelists also gave filmmakers insights into what goes on in the minds of distributors. Said Braun, "You need to realize that not all documentaries play equally on each side of the ocean. Some play TV, some play theatrical. Buyers need to figure out the right amount of energy to spend on pursuing various markets." In light of this, the agents also urged filmmakers to really look at the length and story arcs of their films to determine if what they have is truly a feature-length doc or if it would be better served as a one-hour television piece.

The speakers were generally upbeat about the state of the marketplace, commenting on the growing excitement from both buyers and audiences to see docs. Said Rofekamp, "Fahrenheit 9/11 on all different levels has helped us. People are less afraid to take a chance, go in their cars, in the rain, out to the cinema to see a documentary."


Tamara Krinsky is associate editor of International Documentary.