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On the Eve of Toronto, Montreal Hosts a World Film Fest

By Ron Deutsch

The 38th annual Festival des Films du Monde (Montreal World Film Festival) took place this year from August 21 to September 1 in Canada's second largest city. It offers, as festival president Serge Losique writes in the catalogue, "a rich program based on cultural diversity, innovation, independence and creativity...Without the Montreal World Film Festival and its annual selection of some 400 films from 80 countries, the Montreal film landscape would be drastically reduced." There's certainly no disputing this is a problem plaguing many cities, and is why film festivals are more culturally vital today than ever. With that said, a repeated topic of conversation overheard while waiting on queues suggests the festival's programming has seen better years. But with 28 feature documentaries this year, there was a worthy handful to choose from.

For two and a half years, Iranian composer Sara Najafi had an impossible dream—to put on a concert of women singing as soloists in Tehran. What stood in her way was that since the 1979 Islamic revolution, women have not been permitted to sing on their own. In fact, for many years they couldn't sing on a stage—not even as backup singers. Nevertheless, Najafi refuses to give up. Her journey is documented in the French-German co-production No Land's Song directed by her brother, filmmaker Ayat Najafi. No stranger to such subjects, Ayat previously made Football Under Cover (2008), about the struggles of an Iranian amateur women's soccer team who have never played a match because of government restrictions on women's behavior. Sara's role as provocateur is both endearing and inspiring throughout. Meanwhile, government and religious officials lecture her about how simply hearing a woman's voice could cause men to have sexually impure thoughts. At another point Sara is told she could put on the show as long as men are on stage pretending to sing along with the women. The Kafkaesque nightmare continues when, on the eve of the show, it is called off, then permitted again. The film succeeds in keeping audiences on the edge of their seats throughout. Between her struggles, we are also treated to the soulful voices of the Iranian, Tunisian and French female singers whom Sara has enlisted for her cross-cultural concert. Following the film's premiere, Ayat revealed that he had also made the film surreptitiously; as far as the government knew, he was only filming the concert. How the Iranian government will react to the film, he doesn't know. He added that Sara's concert was still a one-time event, and women continue to be banned from singing as soloists today. No Land's Song took the Audience Award for Best Documentary.

In We Were Rebels, German documentarians Katharina von Schroeder and Florian Schewe have found a perfect subject in which to tell the story of South Sudan's dream of democratic self-rule, from its 2011 creation through its descent into civil war in 2013. Agil Ring Machar had been a child soldier but was able to escape to Australia, where he went to university and played professional basketball. He returned as the country gained independence, at first to serve as captain of the national basketball team. But as financial issues continued to plague the world's youngest nation—and one of the poorest—Agil redirects his efforts to help his country by forming an NGO to bring water to remote villages. If you ever feel hopeless about humanity, Agil should turn that around for you. He continues to believe in the ideals of democracy and freedom, while having witnessed humanity at its worst.


From Katharina von Schroeder and Florian Schewe's We Were Rebels 

While graffiti and stencil artists have been featured in several documentaries of late, Beyond the Walls takes us around the world to meet community-based mural artists. From Belfast to Bethlehem to Buenos Aires, Brooklyn and beyond, American producer/director Gayle Embrey finds commonality in both the sociopolitical ideals and in the artists' visual sense. Regardless of whether they are trained artists or village schoolchildren, the film seems to suggest there may be, innate in all of us, some kind of need—as well as an understanding as to how—to depict stories pictorially on a wall. The muralists all see their works as portraying an alternative "people's history," and believe they serve not just to remind us of where we've been, but also to help point us to where we should to be going.


From Gayle Embrey's Beyond the Walls 

Grazing the Sky also takes us around the globe to meet artists working in the same medium. In this case, we voyage to over 11 countries to witness some of today's most innovative and accomplished circus acrobats and hear their stories. Madrid-based director Horacio Alcalá studied film in Mexico, then moved to Germany, where he wound up working with Cirque du Soleil for seven years. His desire to make Grazing the Sky grew from his fascination with the circus world during his tenure there. Alcalá's passion, however, works somewhat against him as he tries to cram a bit too much in just 82 minutes. The film seems either to want to be longer, allowing the many characters' stories to have more space to breath, or to make that always-painful decision to leave one of them out. Nevertheless, what these acrobats do with their bodies is breathtaking to watch, with kudos to the exquisite cinematography by David Palacios. The film is a Spanish-Portuguese-Mexican co-production.

An utterly different type of artist is featured in Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery. Wolfgang Fischer, aka Wolfgang Beltracchi, who has been called "the greatest art forger in history," is painted here as the most roguishly charming criminal of our time. Beltracchi claims to have over 300 forgeries in museums and in private collections—but where would the fun be in telling us exactly which and where? It is estimated, before he went to jail in 2011, that he made over $22 million in profit from his forgeries of works "by" Max Ernst, Fernand Léger and George Braque, among others. German filmmaker Arne Birkenstock (who, interestingly, happens to be the son of Beltracchi's defense attorney) has the artist/forger demonstrate some of the tricks of his trade as he works away in his warehouse-sized studio/home with his partner and wife, Helene. But when their day is done, the couple get into separate cars and drive back to their prison cells for the night. This engaging film also raises questions about how ever-hungry art collectors and the bizarre industry that feeds them make easy targets for con artists such as Beltracchi. In fact, Beltracchi is hard at work creating more forgeries, only now signing them with his own name, with the hopes of selling them to art collectors in order to pay off the millions in reparations to the collectors he was caught bilking.


From Arne Birkenstock's Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery 

Two other films of note include La Trace (The Trace), in which we join Swiss artist André Sugnaux as he journeys to one of the most desolate areas along the eastern tip of Russia to collect memories of those who were sentenced to gold-mining gulags there, and also those who guarded them. Nearly a million people were sent there during the Soviet era, and the road they took to the former camp, we are told, was paved with the bones of the dead. Sugnaux visits the decaying and forgotten camps and uses these images, and the survivors' tales, to create his drawings. Directors Gabriel Tejedor and Enrico Pizzolato offer us a glimpse into a history that few, except the survivors and Sugnaux, care to document before it vanishes. Crustáceos (Crustaceans), a Medium Cool-esque blend of documentary and narrative, using footage shot during the 2010-2013 street protests in Madrid as a backdrop to tell the story of several couples' personal relationships. Presented in black and white by Spanish filmmaker Vicente Pérez Herrero, the film succeeds more as an experiment, as the mostly-improvised love stories seem to lose focus at times. But the footage of the street protests are fascinating to watch. When asked after the screening whether Medium Cool was partly the inspiration for Crustáceos, Herrero said he had never heard of the Haskell Wexler film, which was shot in Chicago during the demonstrations against the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

Ron Deutsch is a contributing editor with Documentary  Magazine. He has written for many publications including National GeographicWiredSan Francisco Weekly and The Austin American-Statesman. He is currently associate producing the documentary Record Man, about the post-war music industry.