Skip to main content

TIFF Docs 2019 Shine On Brightly

By Marc Glassman

From Feras Fayyad's 'The Cave," which won the Audience Award at TIFF. Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival

The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) has completed its transitional year quite well, with the expected kudos abounding from international critics and professionals. The co-head duo of Artistic Director Cameron Bailey and Executive Director Joanna Vicente is functioning well. A main goal of the festival was to increase representation by women directors, and this was achieved spectacularly. Fifty percent of the gala screenings were directed by women, and 114 films were directed or co-directed by female filmmakers.

TIFF Docs, curated in the main by Thom Powers, came in for its fair share of praise, but sadly didn’t reach gender parity with his team's selections. This report will do so, with its coverage of eight docs, as well as the Doc Conference.

Love Child is the kind of vérité process film that can be an utter failure or a revelation, depending upon what happens to the filmmaker's subjects. In this case, Danish director Eva Mulvad turns a stalemate into a commentary on how exiles are treated in this crisis-ridden period for refugees. She follows Leila and Sahand for six years, beginning with their escape from Iran, accompanied by their titular love child, Mani, to a time of relative acceptance and stasis in Turkey. Mulvad's sympathies are clearly with her protagonists as they negotiate personal and bureaucratic issues, often successfully, but are never allowed to move to North America. This is a quiet film that conceals its punches, allowing the audience to understand what is happening to even middle-class people—in this case, school teachers in love—who are stateless in a difficult world.

Another film that combines politics and the family is Lina Al Abed's Ibrahim: A Fate to Define, her investigation into the disappearance of her titular father, who was also known as Rashid when working with the terrorist Abu Nidal Organization. To Al Abed's mother and siblings, Ibrahim was a quiet, hard-working family man, living with them in Damascus, away from his beloved Palestine. It was only when he vanished that they found out about his secret identity as a member of a group that despised Yasser Arafat’s PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) as too moderate, and caused the deaths or wounding of over 1,600 people in the late 1980s. In the film, Lina Al Abed finds out more about her father and why the Abu Nidal Organization likely executed him. But the true film lies elsewhere, in the slowly evolving relationships of Lina with her family, and their gradual acceptance of Ibrahim, who was too naïve to deal with the pressure-filled situation that existed during his lifetime.

Paris Stalingrad shows us the terrifying reality of what life is like for refugees who have no money or status. Hind Meddeb's film was shot in the summer of 2016, mainly in Paris, where the French government, under the guise of being helpful to exiled Africans and Afghanis, showed extreme cruelty through its bureaucratic indifference and absolute desire to maintain public order. Meddeb shows the endless lineups as the desperate refugees queue up to meet with officials who can give them legal status. The French government appointed very few officials to work with them, slowing the process down, while the police started seizing the tents and blankets where the Africans and Afghanis were sleeping, just as winter approached. Meddeb’s film shows the appalling injustice of the situation while allowing us one happy story. The young and gifted Darfur exile Soulemayne succeeds in getting French status and is working in a car shop while still composing poetry as this activist documentary concludes.

From Hind Meddeb's 'Paris Stailingrad.' Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival

Highway to Heaven uses juxtaposition and a laconic narrative style to reveal the unique claim to fame of the blandly named Number Five road in Richmond, British Columbia. This suburb of Vancouver, on the Canadian west coast, is the home for places of worship for Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Sunnis, Shiites, Jews and Christians, all on Number Five. Sandra Ignagni's observational approach allows the viewer to achieve a clear-eyed understanding of what occurs in each religious dwelling. Without making a declarative statement, she shows that each institution is dedicated to the same thing: giving a feeling of transcendence to its followers. Canadians are proud of their evolving multi-ethnic society, and there’s no doubt that the United States is the home of many cultures and religions, too. Ignagni’s doc is a positive film that can be embraced throughout a rapidly changing North America.

The opening gala for TIFF Docs proved to be the winning feature documentary at the festival. The Cave was made by a man, Feras Fayyad, but it stars a real-life heroine, Dr. Amani, who, as the film starts, is running a subterranean hospital in the war-torn Syrian city of Ghouta, close to Damascus. Fayyad's film immerses us in the fear, anxiety, action and sheer horror of war as Dr. Amani and her staff treat a seemingly endless round of patients, many dying from wounds inflicted by the ceaseless bombings taking place. With death staring them in their faces, Amani, her colleagues, Dr. Salim, nurse Samaher, and other extraordinary medical professionals attempt to maintain discipline in the midst of chaos until they’re confronted by chemical warfare, which is nearly impossible to treat, given their circumstances. Fayyad’s film feels relentless, which is fully in keeping with what Syria—and Dr. Amani—faced during that intense and demoralizing war. The Cave is a brilliant film that should be seen by anyone interested in what has happened to Syria.

I Am Not Alone has the fast-paced quality of The Cave, though the films are significantly different in terms of tone and narrative. Armenian Garin Hovannisian’s film briskly moves forward, but unlike Fayyad's doc, I Am Not Alone gives us an upbeat story. In the spring of 2018, Nikol Pashinyan, a former journalist and one of the few liberal members of parliament, embarked on a protest campaign against the repressive regime of Serzh Sargsyan, whose strong-armed tactics had decisively diminished democracy in Armenia. Using social media and his impressive rhetorical skills, Pashinyan embarked on a protest march against Sargsyan's soon-to-be-accomplished move to become prime minister, having already served two terms as a president with near-dictatorial power. In one of the most stirring tales of recent times, within a month, Pashinyan went from being a one-man "movement" to becoming the leader of hundreds of thousands protestors, all demanding the return of genuine democracy to Armenia. Not only did they succeed, Sargsyan was made to resign on April 24, the sacred day dedicated to remembering the Armenian Genocide, which took place during World War One. What's astonishing is how few people in the West even knew this populist revolution was taking place. If you google April 24, 2018, the Wikipedia Portal will remind you that Trump was meeting with French President Macron, that two alleged terrorists were arrested by Israel’s law enforcement near the Gaza Strip, and that 18 people were killed in a karaoke lounge by an arsonist in Qingyuan, China. The Armenian revolution doesn't rate a mention. Even in our age of social media, it shows that documentaries like Hovannisian's latest must be made.

Patricio Guzman's The Cordillera of Dreams concludes the legendary Chilean director’s trilogy, which began with a masterpiece, Nostalgia for the Light (2010), and continued with The Pearl Button (2015). The three films equate the memories of the coup d’etat, which overthrew Allende's socialist democracy and killed thousands of progressive Chileans, with famous, and gorgeous, areas in their country. In Nostalgia for the Light, the setting was the Atacama Desert, one of the best places for astronomers to see the stars; for The Pearl Button, it was the Patagonian waterways and in the new film, it’s the immense cordillera of the Andes, which creates a natural border of mountain ranges in the east of Chile. The difference here is that while bodies of Allende’s supporters killed by the soldiers were buried in the Atacama and murdered in Patagonia, the Andes' cordillera is a silent witness to the atrocities of the past. The point is less telling in this film, but Guzman does evoke his own past—he was born next to the cordillera—and reminds us that past horrors of war should always be remembered and honored.

From Patricio Guzman's 'The Cordillera of Dreams.' Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival

Another memory piece, but based on a less bloody obsession, is Alan Berliner's Letter to the Editor, which documents his 40-year affair with The New York Times. Like many New Yorkers—and many others, including this Toronto-based correspondent—the Times is still the newspaper of record and has a huge meaning today, in an age of rapidly declining interest in print media, whether it be newspapers, books or magazines. The difference between Berliner and the average New York Times aficionado is that he has spent hours every day cutting out and cataloguing the best photos from the Times, as a record of our collective past. A true cinema essayist, Berliner has constructed a feature that only shows visuals from the Times, while he narrates thoughts and impressions on everything from Fake News to 9/11.

It’s a remarkable achievement, one which made the casting of Alan Berliner as the first interview subject for Thom Powers during the Doc Conference absolutely appropriate. Berliner was all sagacity and charm as he explained to Powers how much he enjoyed creating systems to archive and catalogue not just the pictures from the Times and his own films, but also recorded sounds going back to his first job at ABC Sports decades ago, to home movie footage he’s collected over the years. He has well over a thousand categories and can quickly match images to sounds when the thought strikes him. For Berliner, personal filmmaking can be political, if the director making the work has something to say. Which in Berliner's case is self-evident.

The beauty of Powers' conference is his fusion of the artistic visions of critically acclaimed filmmakers with the practical considerations of attendees, who want to find out how they can make work that will sell in documentary's rapidly changing marketplace. A pragmatic follow-up to Berliner’s archival film was offered by Kathleen Lingo, the editorial director of the Times' film and television unit. Print might be collapsing but the Times is still producing investigative journalism, brilliant profiles, and travel and culinary pieces in a different audio-visual format. Having moved on from the Times' successful Op-Docs program in November 2018, Lingo said that the Times is open to new projects and has money and resources, which include the photos recently used for Letter to the Editor.

How can funders work with underrepresented communities? This politically charged topic was raised by a panel, which included the IDA’s Claire Aguilar, Heidi Tao Yang from Toronto’s Hot Docs organization and Jesse Wente, a veteran of TIFF and the Canadian national broadcaster the CBC, who runs the newly-formed Indigenous Screen Office. Almost inevitably, the panel debated how Indigenous subjects could appear on film and who should make the work. Wente compared the discussion to "who should push the canoe"; the whole area, he suggested, should be addressed at the next conference—and, likely, for many years forward.

Not so many years ago, the idea of finding out the issues that were plaguing film curators would have seemed strange to documentary filmmakers. That’s not the case now, when getting into major festivals has become a goal for many documentarians. A panel dealing with curation was enthusiastically received by the Doc Conference audience, who heard a lively and informed exchange by Ashley Clark, senior programmer at the Brooklyn Academy of Music; international curator Abby Sun; and TIFF Conference programmer Danae Peters. They all agreed that "festivals are not egalitarian," offering stories—without naming names—in which established directors and producers had guaranteed spots for their films. The fees charged by festivals in order to accept and process submissions was criticized, since so few films without pedigree get chosen for major festivals. Much of the discussion was concerned with innovative tactics for programming politically charged films from diverse communities in a properly inclusive manner. One suggestion that was particularly interesting to me was scheduling the same potentially controversial film with a totally different doc for a week. How would audiences react to the juxtapositions?

As always, Thom Powers' conference and curation has proven to be a successful part of TIFF. It’s exciting to realize that DOC NYC will provide another platform for him very soon.


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.