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Toronto Fest's Real to Reel Reels in Doc Fans

By Patricia Aufderheide

From Jacques Perrin's 'Winged Migration'. Photo: Mathieu Simonet.

The Toronto International Film Festival has become a mighty machine, comparable to Cannes in its power to focus publicity, lend legitimacy and attract business. Its popularity has led to an umbrella strategy, in which the festival is actually a set of well-run mini-festivals, each of them attracting more interest than there are theater seats or time, and featuring press conferences, sidebars and other events for its own demographic. Documentary has become one of those niche festivals. This year the festival showcased 32 doc features and 13 shorts, with 22 of them highlighted in the Real to Reel strand.

As usual, the festival featured both public screenings, attended by sell-out audiences of avid Canadian film buffs, and industry/press screenings. This year, even some of the less popular press and industry screenings became shut-outs early, creating some grumbling among the worker bees of the festival circuit. Public doc screenings were regularly sold out, but industry screenings were usually accessible.

"This is the biggest Real to Reel ever, and the one with the largest ticket sales ever," said coordinator Sean Farnel. "There's such energy—Terry Gilliam got a standing ovation at Lost in La Mancha [the documentary about his ruinous project to film Don Quixote]. Part of our mandate is to show films that are truly independent, mostly at feature length," Farnel continued. "We're more interested in films that can demonstrate our belief that documentary has more theatrical potential than the industry is finding a way to exploit."

A new feature of the festival this year was the Doc Salon, launched with support from the National Film Board of Canada. Four mornings during the festival, a hardy bunch of doc filmmakers and allies gathered for an hour-long panel discussion. The topics ranged widely: the challenges of funding the controversial The Trials of Henry Kissinger (the BBC came in first); documentarian Nettie Wild's responsibility to the Vancouver heroin addicts featured in her poignant, disturbing film FIX: The Story of an Addicted City; and the power of representation as explored in Jennifer Baichwal's The True Meaning of Pictures: Shelby Lee Adams' Appalachia, which tackles the ethics of grotesque photography of hill people by one of their own.

"We hope to grow this [Doc Salon]feature so that it's not only a panel discussion but a place where doc filmmakers can come to meet each other and hang out," said Farnel.

Festival selections emphasized longform narrative documentary, with only occasional forays into experimental art. But there was great creative range shown. One of the most talked about docs, Steve James' Stevie, features the well-honed cinéma vérité style of Kartemquin Films (Hoop Dreams), in its compelling and disturbing story of the son of a profoundly dysfunctional family who resists well-meaning help. Suki Hawley and Michael Galinsky's Horns and Halos, which tells the story of the attempt of a punk publisher to revive the suppressed Bush biography Fortunate Son, is also a splendid platform for energetic and edgy alternative music and culture-and a fierce and funny act of resistance to commercial culture. This is the first of Hawley and Galinsky's several features to attain the stature of a top-line film festival, and it's about time.

Japan's Seiichi Motohashi's Alexei and the Spring is a stately, painterly portrait of a year in a small Belarus village where only a few decided to stay after the nearby Chernobyl disaster. The Sweatbox is a chronicle of the creative collaborations involved in producing The Emperor's New Groove, as seen in part through the experiences of composer Sting—one of the least likely musical artists to join the Disney team. Made by Sting's wife Trudie Styler, it is a paean to collaboration, and a revelation of the pain that goes with it.

Winged Migration, in which Jacques Perrin uses wizardly technology to follow birds in flight, relentlessly tracks its birds with only an occasional murmured tribute to their marathon migration habits as voiceover. It can seem as interminable as the three and a half years it took to make, but Sony Picture Classics is presumably counting on its nature appeal. Travis Wilkerson's An Injury to One, which recreates the bitter labor history of Butte, Montana, plays gracefully with the form while intelligently probing the past.

Garrett Scott's Cul de Sac: A Suburban War Story is both an insightful cultural history of a decaying industrial military complex town and a thoughtful re-purposing and reframing of sensationalist footage. It re-examines and recovers from sensationalism the bizarre moment when a drug-sodden vet stole a tank from a warehouse, smashing cars on the streets of his neighborhood before being shot to death.

For US producers, Toronto is often a door to distribution. IDA members Laurel Legler and David C. Thomas attended with a team for both North American and international sales, as many other filmmakers did. Their MC5*A True Testimonial is a scorching, hard-driving trip back to the political and economic turmoil of the late 1960s and early 1970s, complete with police raids, riots, love-ins and communes. The Detroit hard rock band MC5's short but spectacular career makes up the narrative thread. "Toronto was the number one festival for the kind of film we made," said Legler. "It's an archetypal story about doing art on the creative edge [and]coming up against consumer capitalism." 

IDA member Scott Kennedy also hoped to find a distributor for OT: Our Town at the festival. In the film, the at-risk students of a grim Compton, California high school put on a play—Thornton Wilder's Our Town—for the first time in 21 years, and discover the similarities and differences between their town and Wilder's Grovers Corners.

Spellbound, one of the most talked-about docs of the festival, was also the subject of continual distribution gossip. The film tells the story of the national spelling bee competition through the guileless voices of its wildly diverse and charming young contestants. In the process, it also tells about American dreams and cultures. The makers left the festival in the process of working out a deal that allows the film theatrical release timed to the next national spelling contest in May.

Kartemquin producers Gordon Quinn and Adam Singer, with director Steve James, left the festival in final negotiations with Lion's Gate after bidding skirmishes for Stevie. "It's been good to see the real interest from distributors," Quinn said. "The film has strong educational potential, so we need a deal that lets us pursue that market."

Michael Moore didn't need a distributor for his pro-gun control Bowling for Columbine, which already has a distributor (United Artists) and launch dates (October) after its triumph at Cannes. "But I need this festival, because in the movie I'm saying I wish we Americans were more Canadian-like, and I'd like the Canadians' stamp of approval on that," he said. "I also think this country is becoming more Americanized, so I hope this film warns them about that."

 International filmmakers came with a wide range of expectations as well. For Udi Aloni, whose Local Angel makes an impassioned Israeli argument for reconciliation with Palestinians, laced with Palestinian rapper performances and philosophical meditations, the festival provided an opportunity for "audiences to hear a totally different story about Israel and Palestine. Sure, it's about finding a distributor, but even more about having another platform for people to see this." Elizabeth Marton, whose My Name Was Sabina Spielrein challenges the "great man" history of psychoanalysis, hoped that the festival would "open a door to the North American market." For that film, she explained, making the film's presence known to the psychoanalytic community was itself a great step.

The festival also featured a retrospective of one of Canada's grandest veteran documentarians, Allan King. A relentless innovator and explorer of intimate emotional terrain from the late 1950s, King was one of the originators of what he called "actuality dramas," now devolved into reality TV. Among the films screened was the 1967 Warrendale, an empathetic portrait of a residence for emotionally disturbed youth in which the courage of both staff and children are featured, and the 1969 A Married Couple, which chronicled the crisis and collapse of a middle-class marriage. King, who has done well as a director for US television in recent years, has continued to experiment with the form, most recently in the 1999 film The Dragon's Egg, about Russians and Estonians overcoming ethnic differences.    

 Last year, the Toronto gathering was riven by the events of September 11, which occurred in the middle of the festival. This year Piers Handling, the impressive and gracious head of the festival, as ever unflappable, arranged for a set of activities that nicely addressed the many perspectives and concerns of his international guests. Festival events were cancelled between 9:00 and 11:00 a.m. this September 11. Trauma counselors were made available. Relevant programming included Jim Simpson's The Guys, about the challenge of eulogizing the lost firefighters, and 11.09.01, a European compilation of 11-minute films, several pointedly addressing the US history of international intervention.


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