Skip to main content

TIFF 2016 Showcases a Record Number of Docs

By Marc Glassman

From Tin Win Naing’s 'In Exile'.

Docs are getting better than ketchup. The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) showed 57 documentaries - the full Heinz variety pack - premiering films in Canada by such auteurs as Steve James, Morgan Spurlock, Raoul Peck, Werner Herzog and Jonathan Demme. That's by far the largest number of docs ever screened at TIFF, a festival that has rarely highlighted documentaries despite Canada's international reputation for excellent nonfiction films.

While the majority of TIFF 2016's documentaries were screened in programmer Thom Powers' TIFF Docs section, nonfiction features appeared in wildly different categories including TIFF Kids, the avant-garde Wavelength program and the cult-oriented Midnight Madness series, as well as Galas and Special Presentations. It was fascinating to see docs spread out across the festival, attracting audiences that might not go to a special documentary category. It can only increase interest in docs to have Morgan Spurlock's Rats appear with horror films in Midnight Madness or to see artist Douglas Gordon documenting avant-garde legend Jonas Mekas in Wavelengths with I Had Nowhere to Go. TIFF Kids featured The Eagle Huntress, which will be released by Sony Pictures Classics this fall while Terence Malick's Voyage of Time (in Special Presentations) will screen in IMAX theaters - at least in its shorter Brad Pitt-narrated version. (And shorter is far better in the case of Malick's first doc.)

As always with docs these days, the good news that festivals are embracing them more widely must be measured against the bad news: not many are being picked up for distribution. While it's great that Netflix funded Amanda Knox, The Ivory Game and Into the Inferno, the National Geographic Channel produced the Leonardo DiCaprio-narrated eco-film Before the Flood and Showtime got behind the slightly scary Gringo: The Dangerous Life of John McAfee, the majority of docs at TIFF came to Toronto looking for broadcasters and distributors. Many departed with loads of kudos from audiences, but without firm commitments for distribution in major territories around the world.

TIFF, like all great festivals, is about the discourse of filmmaking as well as commercial concerns. The chat among film cognoscenti centered around a number of issues: gender equity for filmmakers, ecological concerns and the representation of diverse artists as the controlling voices in the making of features - documentary and fiction. The festival responded well, especially to gender equity. Women directed seven of the Galas, and nearly 30 percent of the films at the festival had female directors, up from 20 percent just two years ago.

While that progress is laudable, diversity - racial equity - is just as important an issue, especially in a time when violence is an ongoing threat throughout the world. TIFF programmed a number of docs that dealt with this concern. Among them were I Am Not Your Negro, In Exile, The Ivory Game, Giants of Africa and Mali Blues and a couple of jazz docs, I Called Him Morgan and Chasing Trane, which are far more about the fresh quality of trumpeter Lee Morgan and the spiritual and musical genius of John Coltrane than about politics.

From Raoul Peck’s 'I Am Not Your Negro', which won the Grolsch People’s Choice Documentary Award at the Toronto International Film Festival.

The winner of the Grolsch People's Choice Documentary Award was Raoul Peck for his nuanced, wonderfully intelligent essay on the author James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro. Peck was the keynote speaker at the Doc Conference, which was helmed by Thom Powers in collaboration with Dorota Lech. In an in-depth interview with Powers, Peck talked about his lifelong passion for the great African-American writer, who was one of the reigning public thinkers of the 1960s and '70s, when the American population was still fascinated by such cultural figures. Like Gore Vidal, Susan Sontag and Norman Mailer, Baldwin was featured on major TV programs and got to speak his piece about politics, racism and the power structure in the US during the civil rights and black power movements.

In his talk with Powers, Peck spoke movingly about his youth, which he spent in Kinshasa (Congo), Paris and Brooklyn after his parents were forced to leave his native Haiti. Only three writers spoke to him in a way that made him feel that he could "decipher the world": the fiery theorist Frantz Fanon, the great poet Aimé Cesaire and Baldwin. Fanon and Cesaire were from Martinique and wrote in French, so they didn't have the impact of Baldwin in the '60s. He was, as Peck says, "the poster boy - the only black intellectual."

I Am Not Your Negro is a riveting film, constructed by Peck around two interviews that Baldwin gave in 1968, one with the distinguished African-American psychologist Dr. Kenneth Clark and the other with the ABC-TV late night talk show hipster of the period, Dick Cavett. In both, Baldwin is eloquent about the racism that was (and Peck would argue, still is) plaguing the country. It's impossible not to see his pain at the situation that is still tormenting African-Americans despite the "progress" of the civil rights movement.

Peck decided that Baldwin would script every word in his documentary; there would be "no taking heads" explaining the man and his time. Baldwin was a great essayist as well as a novelist and Peck was able to use his critique of Hollywood, The Devil Makes Work, to show images (mainly of Sidney Poitier) from such films as No Way Out (1950) and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967), as the liberal system of the '50s and '60s gradually began to accept the notion that African-Americans could be considered mature human beings.

For the film, Peck decided to concentrate on Baldwin's last book proposal, which was to write about his friends Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Medgar Evers, all of whom were assassinated before the age of 40. Here is where Peck's documentary takes flight. While reviving the career of James Baldwin is surely worthwhile, it's the violence against black men, more extant today than ever, that is at the root of Peck's film.

As he explained to Powers and the Doc Conference audience, Peck changed contemporary footage of Trayvon Martin from color to black and white while reversing the process with classic civil rights footage. "They've lost their power," Peck said of the vintage material - and the same may be said of the new footage, too. Through artistry and great thought, Peck has made his best film ever - better than both his Lumumba drama and doc from 16 years ago.

From Lutz Gregor's 'Mali Blues'.

Contrasting views of Africa were on display in two TIFF docs, Mali Blues and Giants of Africa. In Lutz Gregor's Mali Blues, the fight between fundamentalist and liberal Islam is at the forefront of a film that is also a celebration of the great music of a country bisected by a desert region ruled by traditionalists and a liberal southern area with fertile soil that only ceases when it reaches the Atlantic Ocean. The film stars the multi-talented Fatoumata "Fatou" Diawara, whose glorious, near-ecstatic celebration of music masks a woman of great critical and emotional power. In the film's key scene, she sings about female genital mutilation to an all-woman group, who respond viscerally to her work.

Fatou enlists the support of griot Bassekou Kouyaté, Tuareg instrumentalist Ahmed Ag Kaedi and rapper Master Soumy as well as a great band to support a Niger festival, with the intent of taking back their country from fundamentalists who want to destroy culture, including music, in their single-minded determination to follow a strict interpretation of the Koran. Mali Blues is an intense, inherently political film - but it is filled with an enormous amount of superb Afro-blues music.

In African-Canadian Hubert Davis' Giants of Africa, liberalism is the key for Nigerian Masai Ujiri - who is general manager of the NBA's Toronto Raptors - and his approach to helping the continent. He works with youth in Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya and Rwanda to train them to become basketball players - a way out of the poverty in their countries. But in the one discordant scene in the film, Ujiri blasts a group of teenaged Nigerians after he has to pay graft to open up a stadium he has already rented. Suddenly distraught, he lectures them about corruption and its deleterious effect on democracy. For a moment, Ujiri, a truly admirable man, realizes that basketball will not be enough to change Africa.

Moving to Asia, the help of Perennial Films producers Yasmin C. Rams and Rodney Charles and the presence of the Yangon Film School have already empowered a young Myanmar filmmaker Tin Win Naing to direct an effective new doc, In Exile. Focusing on poor Myanmar refugees living in Thailand, Tin made his doc while he was in exile after filming controversial scenes during the final years of the totalitarian regime that controlled his country for too many years. Thanks to Rams' belief in Tin's talents as a cinematographer and director, she was able to finance this doc, which concentrates on the trials and tribulations of Myanmar farmers, who are forced to work in slave-like conditions for plantation bosses in Thailand. Tin Win and Yasmin were effective in telling their stories at TIFF's Doc Conference.

The Conference also featured a look into the digital future of doc production, at least of the mini-variety. Great Big Story (GBS) was launched last than a year ago by CNN with a mandate to create human-interest documentary content. Jody Sugrue, the head of TIFF's Digital Studio, interviewed Executive Producer Courtney Coupe, Creative Director Ben Whitla and Director of Content/Development Matt Drake of the GBS team. Since TIFF is actually partnering with GBS on eight shorts that focus on how film has changed people's lives, it's safe to say that no challenging questions were asked of the GBS trio.

The doc audience found out that 500 stories from 50 countries, created in the main by GBS' 12 in-house producers, have already been broadcast through Facebook, YouTube and other social media outlets since last November. The pieces tend to be two to four minutes in length and are intended to feel cinematic, "upping the bar on video," according to Ms. Coupe. She outlined GBS' three goals: storytelling, curiosity and being digitally focused. Coupe also presented their "north stars" (a nice term that I hadn't heard before): to be surprising, character-focused and optimistically evocative.

The trio invited indie producers who want to create short, optimistic stories - well shot, in gorgeous settings - about unique characters to submit their proposals. When asked by an audience member - presumably one of the doc cohort that GBS is seeking - about how revenue generation worked, the team grew charmingly vague. There are no ads on GBS, but they do like to brand some of their content with big companies, presumably. Indie producers can also broadcast their work on personal sites - although one assumes that GBS is paying for their product.

At any rate, GBS hosted (i.e. paid for) the Doc Conference's closing party, so perhaps it would be churlish to ask any further questions. And kudos must be given to Thom Powers, Dorota Lech and the TIFF team for 2016's "year of the doc."

Marc Glassman edits the Canadian documentary magazine POV and the Directors Guild of Canada's publication, Montage. He teaches media history in Ryerson University's Masters in Documentary Media program.