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A Fine Year for Docs at TIFF

By Marc Glassman

From Michelle Latimer’s 'Inconvenient Indian,' which won the Documentary Award at TIFF. Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival

This year’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) was the strangest ever. There were no red carpets, no galas, no film stars. With Canadian border regulations requiring two-week quarantines for all foreign visitors, TIFF was only international by Zoom and the films selected, not by the people attending the festival. Approximately 20 percent of the films screened in a normal year—50 features and five short programs—were available for viewing, either online or in drive-ins and a limited number of cinemas attended by a few socially distant filmgoers. It’s easy to surmise that quite a number of big-budgeted films didn’t appear because distributors and producers didn’t want to risk having their film seen online before a commercial release.

Despite everything, TIFF did screen a high percentage of terrific narrative films, the most widely acclaimed being Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland, which is based on a nonfiction account of a road trip across the US. It’s not too surprising that a lot of very strong documentaries were shown at TIFF, which supplemented its programming with several important panel discussions and workshops, a number of which involved curator Thom Powers’ moderation and interviewing abilities. 

TIFF’s Documentary Award went to Inconvenient Indian, directed and written by Michelle Latimer, an Indigenous woman of Metis/Algonquin descent. Using the essay form, which is so difficult to do properly in documentaries, Latimer creatively adapted Thomas King’s book, making a clear-eyed and effective reply to the settler question, “What do Indians want?” Looking back to Custer’s Last Stand and Flaherty’s controversial Nanook of the North, Latimer shows that the dominant North American society have regarded Indigenous people as primitives, ready to slaughter whites or kill animals with old-fashioned methods. That may have changed to some extent, her film acknowledges, but when it comes to land, the settler culture today is still after the same thing. Very disturbing footage of US authorities breaking into the land of the Dakota Sioux to force the construction of a massive oil pipeline that endangers their water and the environment in that area and beyond makes that point plainly. Apart from King and the queer painter Kent Monkman, Latimer’s main storytelling cultural figures are women—Inuit filmmakers Alethea Arnaquq-Baril and Nyla Innuksuk and multi-media artist Shewannati. They’re all on hand to offer a counter-question, “What do the settlers want?”

International politics, cyber security and pedophilia battle for prominence in Enemies of the State, a complex thriller revolving around the true aims of brilliant hacker Matt DeHart. For years, he worked with the cyber activist group Anonymous, and he has claims to having worked with Wikileaks. So when the FBI targeted him, DeHart’s family, who are retired members of the military, took off with him to Canada, where he tried to claim political asylum. That didn’t work and eventually he was seized at the Canadian border, charged with being involved in child pornography and involvement with a minor. Eventually DeHart served time but he and his family still claim that he’s innocent. Sonia Kennebeck’s film, which was executive-produced by Errol Morris, involves lots of recreations. It almost feels like fiction at times and is a genuine puzzler.

From '76 Days' ( Dirs.: Hao Wu, Anonymous, Weixi Chen). Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival

We can expect to see plenty—probably too many—docs on COVID-19 over the next year, but the one shown at TIFF is one of the first and will likely have claims to be one of the best in a year’s time. 76 Days is a classic cinema verité film that effectively depicts what happened at hospitals in Wuhan, China, from February to April in the midst of the pandemic. We’re brought straight into the action at a hospital driven to the edge of its resources, attempting to deal with the onslaught of patients as COVID reaches its height. Avoiding camera tricks, the doc, created by Hao Wu (in New York, editing and handling post-production) with co-directors Anonymous and Weixi Chen and two Wuhan-based cinematographers, conveys the frenzy of February, with people dying in corridors, to the relative calm of April, when something resembling normalcy is resumed. The grace and compassion that the hospital staff extends to a dementia-driven “grandpa” and to the families of people who died convey a universal truth: humanity can be at its best when a crisis is at its worst.

The New Corporation expends considerable research and filmmaking skills to prove that it is, as they claim, “the unfortunately necessary sequel” to the famed 2003 doc The Corporation. Lacking the original’s pithy claim “the corporation is a psychopath,” the sequel, directed by Joel Bakan and Jennifer Abbott, takes a more scattershot approach to its subject. They point out that new media organizations, which still seemed vaguely progressive back then, are the Facebooks and Amazons of today. The directors also score heavily with their critique of the new “humanist” look that corporations have adopted over the past 15 years. Now claiming an interest in the environment and in the inner cities that they helped to destroy, the modern corporation looks good by splashing cash while delaying the systemic changes needed to fix the woes they helped to create. Bakan and Abbott may not have managed to create a take-down of corporations to match the original, but this is a sequel that warns us that we have traveled down a path that merges politics and the global economy in ways that are dangerous for democracy—and, far worse, our planet.

Gender is at the core of a moving, innovative documentary on jazz pianist Billy Tipton, No Ordinary Man. Aisling Chin-Yee and Chase Joynt’s film isn’t your standard jazz doc, although we do hear some of Tipton’s skillful piano stylings. The film revolves around the revelation after the musician’s death that he was transgendered. Appearing as a man during Tipton’s career, and married more than once, the piano player adopted several children and kept identity issues a secret throughout their life. Since there is no footage of the pianist in performance or in home movies, the directors rely, for biographical details, on Billy Tipton Jr.’s emotional recollections of his father along with some photos, the one record album and Diane Middlebrook’s biography Suits Me. In order to get closer to who Tipton might have been, the directors shot extensively with trans people who perform Billy in scenes for what might have been a drama and discuss their feelings about Tipton’s life. No Ordinary Man is a unique film, worthy of attention. 

From Mayye Zayed’s 'Lift Like a Girl.' Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival

TIFF’s strong slate of documentaries, mainly curated by Thom Powers but with assistance from Kiva Reardon and Cameron Bailey, included Mayye Zayed’s Lift Like a Girl, which centers on the complicated relationship between Egyptian weightlifting mentor Coach Ramadan and his best young female athlete, Zebiba. Ramadan is a foul-mouthed man with a heart of gold, whose motivation skills are unorthodox but positively affected Zebiba and her friends. MLK/FBI, from Sam Pollard, depicts the rivalry between Martin Luther King and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover’s hatred of King triggered the FBI’s harassment of the civil rights leader throughout the ’60s. Pollard has made a brilliantly researched look at an aspect of King’s life that has never been explored in depth. Tommy Oliver’s 40 Years a Prisoner is another strong piece of Black history, with the use of archival materials being the basis of Mike Africa Jr.’s fight to free his parents and other members of MOVE, a Philadelphia commune that was held responsible for the death of a police officer in 1978. 

TIFF’s panels and workshops, available to the industry and media, were well organized Zoom calls, definitely worth attending. Powers moderated a discussion on “The Past Is Present” between Pollard and Shola Lynch, a producer/director/writer who is the moving image and recording curator at the renowned Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Pollard, who directed episodes of Eyes on the Prize Two, has often worked with archives since that time; in fact, he co-edited Lynch’s 2004 film Chisholm ’72: Bought and Unbossed, another historical project. Both believe in the power of archival material to provide what Lynch calls “the nuances” needed to make past events important for modern audiences. Lynch and Pollard pointed out that one of the best ways to show systemic racism is to have old footage, which can resonate for those dealing with the crises that are occurring in 2020 (and beyond).

Powers was onboard as the moderator for an incisive dialogue between Jesse Wente, the Indigenous producer of Inconvenient Indian, and Sonya Childress, a Senior Fellow with the Perspective Fund, a philanthropic organization that supports and advises on documentaries and impact campaigns. This blockbuster of a micro-session dealt with “Steps to Creating a Better Documentary Industry.” This summer, Childress published in Medium “A Reckoning,” a tough, visionary piece on documentary practice, and it informed her discussion with Wente. In her essay, Childress establishes that the confluence of the pandemic, the killing of George Floyd and others and the sharpened focus on Black Lives Matter and BIPOC should and will create changes in the arts, including documentary. She zeroes in on the necessity of changing or at least challenging the funders, distributors and curators who are holding back too many artists from diverse backgrounds. Childress’ main points concern authorship, accountability and ownership, all of which should favor the creators, not the gatekeepers. 

Wente, the founding director of Canada’s new Indigenous Screen Office and the newly elected Chair of the Canada Council for the Arts (the leading funder of culture in the country), was in total agreement with Childress and her essay. In fact, the discussion was quite harmonious as each believes that this is the time for BIPOC producers and artists to thrive. Wente talked about creating a “fundamental shift” in documentary culture and warned that anything less would be merely “harm control.” Both he and Childress feel that now is the time to address basic flaws in modern-day capitalism, which always privilege the powers-that-be and instinctively fights against the kinds of changes needed for a BIPOC reality to emerge. When Powers asked about journalistic objectivity, Wente replied that “objectivity” only exists for the elite. Childress and Wente see a documentary future that is far more inclusive than the one that exists now. 

Powers also interviewed dream hampton, the multitalented writer, producer and showrunner of many recent projects, the most famous being Surviving R. Kelly, which finally broke wide open the rapper’s history of sexual abuse. On her first vacation in years, hampton was funny and warm, connecting with Powers over their mutual origins in Detroit. She’s a believer in doc work emerging out of communities, whether it be Detroit or New York, where she got her film education, or anywhere else, provided that the creators are actually from the locale where it’s being shot. hampton is an advocate of short videos, especially if they can have a political or social impact. Powers’ interview revealed hampton as both an artist and an activist, who loves experimental film as well as political cinema, but clearly understands that her major work remains that of someone who can bring forward the causes of sexual survivors, the trans community and BLM. 

The future of festivals is unsurprisingly a topic of keen interest to Powers. One of the strongest panels he moderated dealt with that subject and included such experts as Tine Fischer, founder and director of CPH:DOX; Orwa Nyrabia, director of the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA); and Sundance Film Festival Director Tabitha Jackson. Powers set the stage for a discussion on the changing nature of festivals with Fischer, who responded to the COVID crisis within a week, transitioning CPH:DOX into an online series of events in mid-March. Using the New Zealand tech company Shift72, she and her team embraced a completely new way of presenting films, their notable conference and other events, making it work in a way that inspired other festivals to adjust to the new reality created by the pandemic. 

Nyrabia had just attended Venice, the first European festival to attempt to bring people back to the cinemas since late February. Nyrabia reported that he loves it “when you hear people laugh and you hear them cry.” Nonetheless, most of Venice was virtual, and no one could tell what will happen to Europe if a second wave of COVID cases arrives. Like Jackson, he will prepare for both contingencies. The big issues, though, are what festival directors have learned from a year of pandemics and racial reckoning. Virtual events ensure that people outside of the festival locale can enjoy films and conferences without physically being there; Fischer, for example, noted that 35 percent of the Danish audience for the 2020 festival resided outside of Copenhagen. Jackson pointed out that festivals have to be more open to BIPOC producers and films. Nyrabia agreed but added that a festival “isn’t a broadcaster; we’re a catalyst.” The responsibility for really changing the power dynamics of documentary-making resides with those who put the money into production.

But Nyrabia, who is Syrian, and Jackson, who is British and Black, certainly have opinions about how stories should be told. Like Wente and Childress and doubtless Fischer, they want BIPOC makers to tell their own stories. Funding more radical festivals may entail difficulties, Powers pointed out. While this is less of an issue for European festivals, one can never be sanguine about the political future anywhere. Nyrabia explained that IDFA’s budget is no longer as heavily reliant on government funding as it used to be, which means that companies in the Netherlands have to back them for the festival to work. Jackson talked about “multiple acts of generosity” from private funders, which makes Sundance so successful. Fischer, Jackson and Nyrabia all agree that festivals can’t compromise their principles. The future should be inclusive, with creators embracing all kinds of “imagined possibilities.”

From Tommy Oliver’s '40 Years a Prisoner.' Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival

Finally, Black Film Now, moderated by TIFF co-director Cameron Bailey, featured a panel that included director and photographer Tommy Oliver (40 Years a Prisoner), producer and director Dawn Porter (The Way I See It), Canadian director and actor Charles Officer (Akilla’s Escape) and Congolese director Dieudo Hamadi (Downstream to Kinshasa). Due to audio difficulties encountered between Hamadi and his translator, this panel didn’t come off as well as it might have done. Still, some important issues were discussed. Both Oliver and Porter agreed that a power shift has to happen, with many more Blacks taking major roles (like Bailey does at TIFF), if the system is going to be truly inclusive. Hamadi spoke about his lack of knowledge of the previous generation of African filmmakers—Ousmane Sembene, Djibril Diop Mambety, Med Hondo and others—and how that left him without a link to the past. He added that he felt doubly responsible for his films as they have to represent his country and the continent. And Officer surprised Bailey by condemning a major Canadian broadcaster, Bell Media and its CEO, Randy Lennox, for not putting finances down for Black creators. They all congratulated Bailey on the 25th anniversary of his then-ground-breaking section at TIFF, Planet Africa, and expressed pleasure at being at the festival, if only virtually. 

What will TIFF 2021 be like? No one can predict it with any certainty, but one thing seems sure—docs will be there in plenitude. 

Marc Glassman is the editor of the Canadian documentary magazine POV and an adjunct professor in the Documentary Media program at Ryerson University. He reviews films every week for the Toronto radio station Classical 96.3FM and is the artistic director of the literary event program Pages UnBound.