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Festival Focus: Toronto International Film Festival 2007

By Tamara Krinsky

Nathan and Tomas Young, subjects of Body of War. Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival

Big directors. Famous comedians. Award-winning stars. World-class politicians. The Toronto International Film Festival is known for its glitzy Red Carpet premiers, but usually the headlines belong to the narrative features debuting at the fest. Not so at the 2007 festival!

This year’s documentary line-up featured a slew of high-profile personalities both in front of and behind the camera. Jonathan Demme’s Jimmy Carter Man from Plains follows the former US President during the book tour of his controversial Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. Werner Herzog explores the beauty of the Antarctic in the lyrical and sometimes absurd Encounters at the End of the World, produced by Discovery Films. Academy Award-nominated writer/director Scott Hicks (Shine) offered his portrait of composer Philip Glass, GLASS: a portrait of Philip in twelve parts. Comedians Bill Maher and Larry Charles participated in the Mavericks strand with a conversation about and preview of their feature-length doc Religulous, a satirical look at religion.

Reel to Reel and Mavericks programmer Thom Powers attributes the involvement of so many heavyweight artists and personalities in documentaries this year partially to An Inconvenient Truth. “A lot more high-profile people are recognizing the power of documentaries as a way to communicate a message,” he notes. “So you have a musician like Eddie Vedder lending tremendous songs to the film Body of War, you have a high-profile politician like Jimmy Carter consenting to be filmed for Man from Plains, and celebrity activists like Don Cheadle agreeing to be followed around as one of the six people profiled in Darfur Now.”

Talk show host Phil Donohue committed himself to telling the story of former soldier Tomas Young. He teamed up with Ellen Spiro to co-direct the powerful, heartbreaking Body of War. Inspired by the events of September 11, 2001, Young enlisted with the goal of going to Afghanistan to search for terrorists. Instead, he was sent to Iraq, where he was shot through the collarbone and paralyzed. When he returned home, he joined the growing movement of veterans who oppose the war.

Young bares all for viewers, including his sex life, or lack thereof; an unflinching look at his injuries and how he deals with them; and his frustration with the current administration and his learning curve as an activist. He is courageous and funny, furious and honest.

Powers purposely programmed the premiere on September 11. The emotional evening was brought to a climax by the attendance of Young and his family, and a live post-screening performance by Vedder.

Body of War is an example of another trend at the festival this year. The war in Iraq has now been going on long enough for filmmakers to follow a subject for several years, taking the conversation one step further than the five minutes allotted on the evening newscast. Several films at the festival this year provided the means for audiences to think about Iraq with a sense of humor and real complexity, rather than an excess of combat footage.

Eddy Moretti and Suroosh Alvi’s Heavy Metal in Baghdad chronicles the tale of Acrassicauda, the only heavy metal band in Iraq. The film offers a glimpse of an Iraq not seen very often, as it follows the band’s attempts to put together a demo and how the chaos of their country affects their musical aspirations. The documentary is a hybrid of two classic stories: the harrowing tale of people displaced by a war and the adventure of a bunch of dudes who want to be rock stars. The result is a gritty, edgy documentary filled with universal moments that resonate no matter where you are from: the joy in jamming to music you truly love, the agony of having to sell one’s instruments to pay the rent and the sadness of missing one’s family and one’s home.     

During the Q&A after the screening, the directors said that making the film has changed their lives in that they are committed to helping the band survive. At press time, the filmmakers had helped raise $12,000, which had aided the band in leaving Syria for safety in Turkey. Updates can be found on

Nina Davenport, director of the tragicomic Operation Filmmaker, had a vastly different experience when she tried to help aspiring filmmaker Muthana Mohed. After his film school was bombed during Operation Iraqi Freedom, Mohed was featured on an MTV documentary. Actor Liev Schreiber, who was prepping his directorial debut Everything Is Illuminated, invited Mohed to intern on his film shooting in the Czech, Republic, thinking it would be a great opportunity for the 25-year-old Baghdad student. Davenport was hired to film his story.

When Mohed shows up, he is arrogant and lazy. This becomes a source of tension in the film. “He’s very obsessed with pride and I think that is a much bigger issue in the Middle East than it is here,” says Davenport. “There are cultural things that I don’t understand and can’t judge because we all have a point of view on life based on the culture that we grew up in. So there was a lot of confusion about that for me. How much do I make allowances for the culture he comes from, the background he has, and how much do I treat him like I would anyone his age in my own country?”

Ultimately, the month-long project stretches into two years of filming, with Davenport becoming more and more personally involved with her subject. Mohed asks her for money, advice, visa help and more money. Even though she knows it would probably be best to walk away from Mohed, Davenport’s own sense of guilt about the war, along with her desire to find an ending for her film, won’t allow her to abandon him.

Heavy Metal in Baghdad and Operation Filmmaker are just two of the films at the festival that deal with the arts. A well-made film about the arts can be enjoyed even if an audience member knows nothing about the subject. Rather, the film can act as an appetizer, whetting the viewer’s taste buds for further exploration of the artist’s work.

Arthur Dong’s rich Hollywood Chinese is a thorough, often humorous ride through Chinese-American film history. The film features an impressive array of archival clips that supports the interviews with top talent ranging from Joan Chen to Ang Lee to B.D. Wong. As Dong travels through the last century of film history, he explores the pros, cons and origins of such stereotypes as the mysterious, sexy “Suzie Wong,” the desexualized Asian male and the Kung Fu Master.

Dong, who jokes that he has been “researching this film all my life,” had his own experience with cultural barriers when he graduated from the American Film Institute in 1987. The school set him up with meetings, during which he constantly received the same reaction to his student short: “Your film is beautiful! But it only has Chinese characters, and you’re Chinese, so we don’t really know what to do with you!” Over and over, execs suggested that he do a feature based on his short, “but with Caucasian leads.”

Dong believes that today, Hollywood has broadened and that current graduates do not face the same kind of obstacles. He credits this in part to the combination of the artistic integrity of directors like Ang Lee and the financial success of directors such as Justin Lin and Wayne Wang.

Peter Askin shines the spotlight on American screenwriter Dalton Trumbo in his documentary Trumbo, which is based on the play of the same name. Blacklisted and imprisoned after testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), Trumbo is known for both his screenplays (Kitty Foyle, Roman Holiday, Spartacus) and his spirited letter-writing. The film features archival interviews, footage from the HUAC hearings and performances of Trumbo’s letters by a variety of actors, including Donald Sutherland, Nathan Lane and Brian Dennehy, among others.

Trumbo is funny and touching, allowing those not familiar with the writer’s work to get to know his unique point of view. The film is also unintentionally frightening for anyone who cares about free speech. Says Askin, “I was introduced to the letters before 9/11. I was directing Hedwig and the Angry Inch in London and I loved the letters, but it didn’t resonate for me the way it did after 9/11, with Afghanistan and John Ashcroft’s list and the Freedom Act. I had actors coming in to do the play; Tim Robbins came in the day Bull Durham was pulled from a screening because of his politics. I never imagined four years ago that it would still be so relevant today.”


Tamara Krinsky is the associate editor of Documentary and a correspondent for that indie film show and WIRED Science.