Festival Watch: Toronto International Film Festival
By Gerald Peary
"Hey, did you hear that Martin Scorsese is making a film in Toronto?"
"No, what is it?"
"It's called Clean Streets."
That's an appropriate joke for the neatest, spiffiest, shiniest megalopolis in North America. Newcomers to the annual Toronto Festival of Festivals (renamed in 1994 as the Toronto International Film Festival) can't help but express their astonishment at the spotlessness— and law-abidingness—of this lovely Canadian city. In response, Torontonians shudder and bow their heads in shame, wishing, alas, for more grime and more crime.
In contrast, nobody shows anything but pride who is connected with the Toronto film fest, which, in its 19th smooth running incarnation last September 8 to 17, proved as fine as festivals get. Critics and filmmakers and the Toronto public all agree: it's about the sharpest and smartest in the Western hemisphere, combining the up to-the-moment hipness of Sundance and Telluride with the intellectual seriousness of the New York Film Festival.
At every hour of the day, at least five first-rate films, mostly North America premieres, are playing simultaneously, and there are midnight movies for those not dead tired of the cinema or who have decided to forsake the festival's nightly parties. Everybody who is anybody is there with his/her film, so what's not to like at Toronto?
Well, the too-ubiquitous distributors and PR companies for one (or two), who start to believe they are the true auteurs, keeping the filmmakers in their hotel rooms with back-to-back interviews, grabbing journalists by the arm and practically demanding conversations with their clients. No doubt about it: filmmakers at Toronto whose films have no distribution get the short shrift when it comes time to meet the press. The press is exhausted from PRE-scheduled interviews with films going into release. Also, their newspaper and magazine editors—an adventurous lot—will print articles only on films being released. So why waste time interviewing someone, however excellent his or her film, if afterward you can't print a story?
Needless to say, high on the list of the rarely interviewed at Toronto are a host of documentarians with often extraordinary films. And 1994 was a superb year for documentaries, with approximately 30 important nonfiction films among the more than 200 films at Toronto. This festival takes pride in its documentary selections, which have been handpicked by Toronto's expert programmers.
"We are always seeking documentaries," said fest Director Piers Handling in a private interview for ID. "That's because they get rarely shown, except on TV. But the kind we want are not TV documentaries. They're personal ones or social consciousness ones or those that use documentary in an interesting formal way, which have a feeling for the medium. The genre form is in jeopardy, I think. Fortunately, there's a long tradition of the documentary in this country, starting with Grierson and the National Film Board. Canadians are sensitive to the form, and there's an audience for them."
Handling recalled a number of well-known documentaries that were launched at the Toronto fest or made their first splash there, including Letters from Home, Hearts of Darkness, and, in 1993, The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl. And surely one of the biggest documentary moments was in 1988, when director Michael Moore, several days after a Telluride premiere, brought Roger and Me to Toronto. The audiences loved not only the film but also Moore's in-person spoofing at the Toronto screenings, precipitating Moore's unheard-of distribution deal with a Hollywood major, Warner Brothers.
Though proud of his Toronto premieres, Handling wanted it clear to ID readers that the festival is happy to consider documentaries (submitted on cassette) that have played elsewhere earlier in the year. Says Handling: "I don't care how many festivals they've been shown in, I think documentaries should be shown as often as possible."
At the 1994 fest, there was no question which documentary world premiere generated the most excitement. It was Crumb, a 119-minute portrait of the controversial San Francisco cartoonist of Mr. Natural and Fritz the Cat, made by Terry Zwigoff, Robert Crumb's friend of 25 years, who once played in Crumb's band, the Cheap Suit Serenaders. Zwigoff filmed Crumb over a six-year period with close to total access and with total trust. Rarely has an artist let himself be revealed so openly and shamelessly, neuroses and sexual obsessions and all, and with many eye popping visits with Crumb's truly bizarre family. The word dysfunctional can't even begin to explain Crumb's loony mother and two completely arrested, disturbed brothers. Yes, in this family, R. Crumb is the "normal" one. And after seeing Crumb, the artist's unique vision—Hieronymus Bosch meets Jefferson Airplane—makes lots of sense.
A second Toronto documentary hit was Jean Labib’s Montand, a 143-minute, 35mm homage to the late Yves Montand, singer, actor, and political activist, who is as much a cultural icon of post World War II France as de Beauvoir and Sartre. The film follows Montand from his early show business days, when he was Edith Piaf's lover, through his 1950s roles in such existential classics as Wages of Fear, and it stays a while with his legendary romance with and marriage to Simone Signoret. Surely they were France's Bogart and Bacall: cool, suave, sexy, savvy. Their marriage survived even Montand's famous romance with Marilyn Monroe, also in the film. Montand, who died in 1991, was a participant in this documentary. The voiceover is his, taken from his autobiography.
Toronto 1994 was the site of another documentary coup: the shared world premiere (with Venice, the same week) of Claude Lanzmann's Tsahal. It's a five hour visit with the Israeli Defense force, at work and at thought, as those in the military recall—vividly, minutely—the Yom Kippur War: What does it mean today to those who fought? In Toronto, Lanzmann spoke briefly before the screening: "Of course it is necessary to watch the film in its entirety," he told the audience. "Otherwise, you miss the whole idea. I wish you a good trip and good luck."
Most in the Toronto audience completed the "good trip," staying to the end, and they saw Lanzmann's historic connections between current Israeli history and the story of the Jews in World War II come together in the last hour. But some weary viewers felt that the issues obsessed about here were a bit more esoteric and harder to feel emotionally than those in Shoah!, Lanzmann's monumental dissection of Naziism.
Two Shoah!—influenced documentaries were shown also at Toronto, with considerable success. For Tzedek, a three hour French work, author and filmmaker Marek Halter, who is every bit as imposing an on-screen investigator as Lanzmann, seeks out 36 "Schindlers" in today's Europe, those who saved Jews from Hitler. He asks them, "Why?" And , angrily, "Why didn't other people do the same?" Halter travels Berlin to Sarajevo and finds incredibly moving stories. Why 36 of them? Because in the Talmud, Rabbi Abaye said, "The world is based upon 36 righteous people ."
For Silent Witness, Quebec-based filmmaker Harriet Wichin also finds righteous people when she travels with a movie camera (and with a sublime cinematographer, Poland's Janusz Polom) to investigate what remains today of Hitler's extermination camps. She interviews Christians and Jews who have devoted their lives to being guides for tourists, making sure that what happened at Dachau and Auschwitz will never be forgotten. Those people are heroes. But what is to be made of the Carmelite nuns who have placed nunneries on the edges of these camps? Are they creating a bridge between Catholicism and Judaism? Or are their motivations blasphemous as they nest in the place of Jewish suffering for their own Christian martyrdom reasons?
To Within's credit, she allows the audience for Silent Witness to decide for themselves about the Carmelites, who are given a chance to talk into the camera. Still, it is undeniably eerie to see the nuns singing uplifting religious songs in a room where the Nazis hanged many anti-Fascist freedom fighters.
Other Canadian documentaries shown at Toronto included Ali Nazimi’s Narmada: A Valley Rises, a stirring film about a Gandhi-influenced protest march in rural India against the building of a dam, a demonstration that brought the World Bank to back down from funding—a too-rare ecological victory; Andrew Munger's Make Some Noise, a spirited, sympathetic look at Toronto's vital, articulate rap scene; Darrel Varga's Hunters and Gatherers, a humorous collection of mini-interviews with memorabilia aficionados across North America showing off the peculiar objects they devote themselves to own; and Peter Mettler's Pictures of Light, the most accomplished—and acclaimed—of the Canadian documentaries shown at Toronto. Mettler, probably Canada's best-regarded young cinematographer, traveled with his camera to the Canadian Arctic to see the radiant Northern Lights and to meet the eccentric people who live year round below the world's greatest show in the sky. Pictures of Light is a philosophical road movie plunge into the snow, stars, and darkness, as exhilarating a nonfiction tall tale as the classic 1960s and 1970s documentaries of Werner Herzog.
Finally, two superior documentaries from England need to be mentioned.
For Tracking Down Maggie: The Unofficial Biography of Margaret Thatcher, veteran documentarian Nick Broomfield (Soldier Girls, Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer) plays supersleuth, on the trail of Britain's ex-prime minister as she goes on a book-signing tour. Although Broomfield is making this documentary for Britain's Channel Four, Thatcher keeps dodging being interviewed. She can sniff out an adversary, and so it goes: Broomfield arrives places, Thatcher flees. It's a spry, sardonic work, an object lesson in how, with relish, a documentarian throws "objectivity" to the wind.
Dream Girls, a BBC film co-directed by Kim Longinetto and Jano Williams, offers a mind-expanding visit to Japan's Takarazuka Music School. There, each year 40 out of several thousand fervent distaff applicants are picked for a rigorous training, eventually leading to appearing in the all-singing, all-dancing, all female (including the male roles) Takarazuka Revue. Those who register at the school are trained to perform as, to use Western terms, "femme" or "butch."
And here's the amazing part. The "butch" leads in the Las Vegas-like Takarazuka musicals, who swagger about the stage and boldly put their hands all over the "femme" leads, become major matinee stars in Japan. Those who swoon over them, who bring them flowers and get mad crushes and scream as if it were 1964 and they were watching the Beatles, are young, straight teenage girls. Thousands and thousands of them.
What's going on? Mass hysteria? Mass incipient lesbianism? It would take teams of anthropologists and psychologists to begin to unravel Dream Girls, this uncanny gender bender gem of a documentary.
Gerald Peary teaches film in Boston at Suffolk University and Boston University. Recently he has worked as a story editor for documentarian Errol Morris.