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Docs Run Long in Toronto

By Patricia Aufderheide

The festival scheduled 33 feature documentaries among its total 254 features. With the exception of the beloved and powerful Brazilian documentary, from Eduardo Coutinho's (photo above) <em> Twenty Years Later </em>(about the long-term human cost of Brazil's dictatorship), all were new.

The Toronto International Film Festival, which has grown to become a central industry meeting place as well as prime showcase for new international cinema, has developed a niche for documentaries without freezing them out of its other strands. This year, intriguing documentaries and fertile business opportunities were woven into the schedule.

The festival scheduled 33 feature documentaries among its total 254 features. With the exception of the beloved and powerful Brazilian documentary, Eduardo Coutinho's Twenty Years Later (about the long-term human cost of Brazil's dictatorship), all were new. Only nine of the Real to Reel documentary strand, however, were world or North American premieres, and some (such as Nick Broomfield's Aileen: Portrait of a Serial Killer and Mark Moorman's Tom Dowd & The Language of Music) were completing a year on the festival circuit.

Three of the premieres suggest the range of offerings. In Game Over: Kasparov and the Machine, consummate professional Vikram Jayanti (James Ellroy's Feast of Death) rivetingly revisits chess master Garry Kasparov's face off with Deep Blue; the film's hints at IBM foul play may bring back a controversy, and its character portrait of Kasparov is masterful. Longtime, award-winning Canadian Ann Marie Fleming's personal doc, The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam, delights and amazes audiences just as her grandfather, a vaudeville magician, once did around the globe. She uses her grandfather's life story to explore identity in a global economy, without any of the whining that has come to plague the film memoir. Another hot ticket was for The Story of the Weeping Camel, a German film school thesis project by Mongolian Byambasuren Davaa and Italian Luigi Falorni. A self-proclaimed descendant of Nanook of the North, the film retells a sentimental Mongolian fable using the cheerful services of a rural Mongolian family, and leaves audiences smiling shyly along with the scene-stealing eight-year-old.

Real to Reel has only one criterion: theatrical quality. "The festival showcases the diversity of current production—there's political work, character profiles, music and the uncategorizable," said Sean Farnel, Real to Reel programmer. Faced with an abundance of creative product, Farnel selected for a representative sample. "It was the year of the long doc, though," he added with a grin. Indeed.

The longest film in the festival, by far, was Chinese Wang Bing's West of the Tracks. Working independently, Wang Bing spent two years making a three-part, nine-hour portrait of a demoralized working class neighborhood caught between oppressive regimes. Sometimes as dispirited and languid as its poisoned workers waiting for their smelting plant to close, sometimes as hectic and restless as the kids hustling on the streets as their parents negotiate a forced removal from their dilapidated housing project, the film offers an unblinking view of a China normally cut off from public view.

Other work dared far beyond the accepted television hour for documentary, making use in very different ways of extended length. Film professor Thom Andersen (Red Hollywood) produced  the compilation film Los Angeles Plays Itself (169 minutes), a quirky and thought-provoking essay on the relationship between Los Angeles and the movies that is composed entirely of clips from commercial films. Clip quality varied, he explained, with the quality he could get; in most cases, he simply used consumer copies, and may use the film as a test case in copyright law.

Dying at Grace (148 minutes) continues Canadian cinéma verité grandmaster Allan King's opus. He follows five people in their last days on earth, in the sober, humanist style that has marked almost five decades of work. King's noted ability to render intimacy without seeming intrusive is hard at work here. A pioneer of the aesthetic, King was honored with a retrospective last year at Toronto. 

The Corporation (165 minutes), by Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott, continues the fierce critique of capitalist institutions that Achbar launched as co-director of Manufacturing Consent. The film is structured as a fast-paced, hard-hitting argument, with plenty of dark comedy to underscore its points. With lawyer Joel Bakan (who also wrote a book with the same title), Achbar and Abbott consider the consequences of letting US corporations be persons before the law. A grab bag of recent scandals forms the body of evidence for the argument that as persons, corporations are psychopaths. While the filmmakers draw on some expectable voices—Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, Michael Moore—the real clincher is the CEO of a carpet factory, who has transformed his business practices. He explains that he came to believe, after looking at the environmental consequences of his business, that pushing all the social consequences of profit-making into "externalities" added up to immorality.    

Bright Leaves, another wry and winsome chapter in Ross McElwee's ongoing film-memoir, is actually only 107 minutes long. But they are languid ones, as McElwee meanders between reflections on his family's broken connection to tobacco wealth (the Dukes beat them to the business) and on the ethics of tobacco growing. In his trademark style, McElwee never lectures, but the film, with its interviews with victims of tobacco-related diseases, their doctors and relatives (including his old teacher and friend Charleen, about whom he made his first film), damns Big Tobacco nonetheless. Imitations of Life, by Canadian Mike Hoolboom, the one incontrovertibly experimental feature in the festival, is also a film that feels longer than it is. In 75 minutes, Hoolboom uses found footage and home movies to meditate on life and cinema.

The festival documentaries had a decidedly engaged cast this year. The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, by Irish filmmakers Kim Bartley and Donnacha O'Briain, started out as a profile of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez. The filmmakers themselves were caught up in the tumultuous four days during which Chávez was deposed and then reinstated. The filmmakers not only caught the scenes inside the palace during the coup (thanks to connections with an official videographer) and frontline tape of a pro-Chávez demonstration attacked by anti-Chávez snipers and mobs, but also captured the Venezuelan elite's TV coverage. Flagrant lying, misrepresentation and finally open discussion of coup tactics all parade across the screen; these were the images that US television and politicians represented to US audiences as reality, and the ones the Bush Administration used to support the overthrow of an elected president. Edited by a feature-film professional, the film tells a gripping story, and one with sobering implications for television generally. Co-director Bartley said that the producers had been approached by US public television's international series Wide Angle, but that the series wanted more "balance" in the story. The film was in negotiation during the festival.

International films prodding the political pickle included Tom Zubrycki's thoughtful and timely cinéma verité doc Molly and Mobarak, about one Afghan refugee's voyage into the Australian heartland; Mercedes Moncada Rodríguez's elegantly constructed The Passion of María Elena, about cross-cultural justice and injustice in rural Mexico, when an indigenous woman's son is killed by a mestiza; Rithy Panh's S21, The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, which remarkably tracks down and interviews former Cambodian torturers and their victims; and Dan Ollman, Sarah Price, and Chris Smith's The Yes Men (Price and Smith made Ameican Movie), about the culture jamming pranksters of the same name.

Also attracting attention were films that bordered on documentary. Michael Winterbottom's In This World charts an Afghan refugee's perilous and illegal journey to London using non-professional actors. Kevin Macdonald's Touching the Void retells a 1985 terrifying mountain-climbing disaster in Peru. The Story of the Weeping Camel, slated in documentaries, could also have been placed in a feature fiction slot. 

For the second year, the festival hosted four Doc Salons, morning panel discussions about business. At one of them, distributors talked about making festivals work for distribution. Thinkfilm's Mark Urman said that Bowling for Columbine had forced him to break a vow not to see any more documentaries at festivals, "because they would always break my heart"—meaning that they wouldn't make any money, after he had fallen in love with them.

Filmmakers found the atmosphere at Toronto exhilarating. Tom Peosay (Tibet: Cry of the Snow Lion) said, "Toronto gives the film a world platform, a stamp of approval. And this is a fantastic way to see other people's work." Mark Achbar noted, "What a great network this is. And it's very reinforcing to connect with other people trying to do significant work, and to see it celebrated in a prestigious environment." "I feel like Alice in Wonderland," The Story of the Weeping Camel's Luigi Falorni said about sudden distributor interest. "It's like a crash course in real life-or at least life beyond film school."   

Audiences at Toronto, famous for their informed passion for film, received the entire documentary lineup with enthusiasm; nearly every venue was sold out. Two runners-up for the three AGF audience awards went to documentaries: Canadian Ron Mann's Go Further, a road trip with the simple-living activist actor Woody Harrelson, and The Corporation, also Canadian.


Pat Aufderheide is professor and director of the Center for Social Media at American University in Washington, DC.