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Toronto International Film Festival: Big, Shiny Docs and More

By Patricia Aufderheide

The Toronto International Film Festival is a place to watch big, shiny films that often are on their way already to a theatrical release. The advent of Thom Powers as programmer of the Real to Reel strand brought documentaries under the big-and-shiny banner; with his excellent connections, he has been able to ensure that big documentary releases are showcased and sometimes debuted at TIFF. This year, mostly under the aegis of Powers, the festival presented the latest work of American documentary luminaries such as Fred Wiseman (Boxing Ring), Errol Morris (Tabloid), Alex Gibney (Client-9) and Davis Guggenheim (Waiting for Superman), as well as international figures such as (the American-based) Werner Herzog (Cave of Forgotten Dreams), UK director Kim Longinotto (Pink Saris) and Chilean Patricio Guzman (Nostalgia for the Light). 

Perhaps the most buzz was generated about Morris' and Herzog's films. In Tabloid, Morris focuses on a brilliant woman who, after winning a beauty pageant in her youth, falls into ever stranger, more obsessive and more isolated ways. Herzog's film, shot in 3-D, takes viewers inside the little-seen French cave that houses the earliest known Paleolithic artwork. The day-long documentary conference, oriented to filmmakers, culminated with a conversation between the two documentary big dogs, who happen to be fast friends. (See sidebar.)

Charles Ferguson's Inside Job drew huge applause from audiences who were properly outraged by his exposé of the financial fecklessness that created the financial crisis. The essay film, which depends on a powerful music track to hold together its sequences of high-profile interviews interlaced with helicopter views of urban landscapes, follows Ferguson's 2007 documentary No End in Sight; Inside Job is even more grim. His gotcha interviews, revealing bankers' cupidity and stupidity, provide laughs, but they don't last.

Another hot ticket was Gibney's Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer. In the tradition of Gibney's high-quality, theatrical investigative documentaries, this is a detective story that goes behind the headlines. The film poses two questions: Why did squeaky-clean Spitzer hire prostitutes? Why did his outing result in his resignation, when few other politicians resign after similar embarrassments? Gibney gets a scoop by discovering who the prostitute Spitzer became obsessed with was and getting an interview. But much more than that, he provides a devastating answer to the second question, an answer that intertwines financial and political corruption at a national level. While the film may not revive Spitzer's political career (he appears committed to a political style guaranteed to alienate even his friends), it certainly lays bare the corroded political and economic structures he was trying to reform.


From Alex Gibney's Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer. Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival.


The documentary conference opened with an interview with Gibney, which I conducted. He called himself an "agent provocateur" of better conversations on fundamentally moral issues. "All my films address moral problems, and I want to get people angry about immorality," he said. Unlike many producers of public affairs documentaries, he always structures his films as mystery or detective stories:  "Why did a taxi driver get beaten to death by American soldiers? That was Taxi to the Dark Side. Why did one of the most successful energy companies in America go belly-up almost overnight? That was Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room." Gibney noted that the detective format allows him to address formidably difficult subjects. "You can introduce a great deal of complexity if you tell a simple story," he maintained. In response to a question, he explained his success at gaining access to subjects by persistence. "It can take a long time to get people to talk to you; I'm releasing five films this year because it took so long to get some people to talk." Also, he noted, the good faith representation of figures in earlier films helps to convince people to talk. Explaining his prolific résumé, he said that he depends upon a small but energetic staff, which primarily does journalistic research--all his films are meticulously researched--and on trusted freelancers.  

Along with a couple of business panels that offered no surprises, the documentary conference also featured a spotlight on a forthcoming HBO project, War Torn, a historical look at post-traumatic stress disorder. Veteran indie maker Jon Alpert talked about the devastating cost of war to the soldiers, and a little about the price of chronicling it for journalists.

It is also possible at TIFF to uncover talent, showing work that they desperately hope will attract buyers. Veteran editor Laura Israel's Windfall was one such, and so was veteran cinematographer Risteard Ό Domnhnaill's The Pipe. They both take on the hard challenge of chronicling community conflict. Both films are compelling narratives, beautifully produced, elegantly structured, authoritatively edited, with unforgettable characters. They both present a persuasive and powerful point of view, without slighting hard realities.

Windfall recounts what happened when wind-generating companies in her upstate New York town began to bargain with local farmers to install giant, 400-foot-high windmills. Initial enthusiasm by some in the collection of dairymen, organic farmers and weekend professionals soon led to dissension and then acrimony. Without federal regulation--and indeed against government support for poorly planned projects--the townspeople are left to investigate complex issues on their own. Researchers, including the town planning commission, discovered that the windmills not only make a constant and loud whop-whop sound but also create "shadow flicker," an irritating and unremitting shadow-show from the rotating blades. They found out that no one knows how to put out fires at the top of a windmill, and that companies had no plans for fluid spills or for deconstruction of aged windmills. And then the residents found out that wind energy, always intermittent, lacks a distribution grid to get energy out of local areas, and that the only business model yet found depends on continuous and high-level taxpayer subsidy.


From Laura Israel's Windfall. Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival.


The Pipe tells, partly in Gaelic, the story of what happened when a Shell natural gas project blessed by the Irish government schedules a pipeline to rip through a rural Irish fishing and farming village, where the director lives. The townsfolk, spurned by their own government and rejected by Shell when they offer alternatives, begin civil disobedience, a move that starts to tear the town apart.

In both cases, victory comes with scars to community culture so deep that the principals cannot imagine healing. The cost of exercising democratic rights at the grassroots level, when government and regulators have been bought and corporations respond to nothing but the bottom line, is prohibitively high. Windfall and The Pipe make, separately and together, a powerful case for pro-conservation energy policies and regulations to match. That way, local residents wouldn't be left alone on the front lines.

Neither film featured representatives from government or the offending energy companies. Israel noted that the energy companies largely worked in secret, signing locals to confidential agreements. Ό Domnhnaill, who had filmed the conflicts over the 10 years of struggle as a news cameraman, said, "I made the documentary because I had seen in covering the news that Shell could manipulate the media, burying these people's stories and portraying them as lunatics and anti-development. I wanted their voices to be heard." In any case, neither Shell nor the government would participate, since they had signed an agreement previous to the conflict. Interestingly, the film was funded in part by the Irish Film Board, a government agency. Ό Domnhnaill attributed some of the reason for the support to the Green Party, but noted that once in power, the Green Party did not come to the village's aid. He also praised the IRB's integrity.



From Risteard O Domnhnaill's The Pipe. Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival.

Fair and balanced? I think so. These are both stories propelled by the conflicts within the community. Both directors reside, some of the time, in these communities, and the effort to deal scrupulously with the different characters and to represent their points of view with respect was palpable. The core balance in the story is maintained, as viewers are able to understand the different perspectives, how passionately they are held, and to see the consequences of conflict.

International documentaries were strikingly diverse at the festival. Patricio Guzman's Nostalgia for the Light is an elegiac tribute to the women who continue to search the Atacama desert for remains of their loved ones, disappeared during Chile's brutal dictatorship. The parallels he draws between the searches of astronomers for the secrets of the skies in the desert observatory and the women's searches for secrets in the ground is arch and forced, but the film's production values are as elegant and graceful, as always in a Guzman film. Kim Longinotto's Pink Saris is a vivid but ultimately unsatisfying film about a low-caste Indian vigilante for justice for women. The central character is unbearably grandiose and blustering; her abuse of her higher-caste, common-law husband becomes so painful to watch that not even his confrontation in concluding moments of the film rescues the film. The Danish doc Armadillo, by Janus Metz, echoes other season-with-the troops films: Callow young men go to war hoping for glory; fight with frustrating, invisible enemies; discover that the local population is more afraid of the Taliban than them; go home wounded and confused, without other recourse than to head back for another tour of duty. Tears of Gaza, by Norwegian Vibeke Løkkeberg, is more document than documentary, but it is quite a document--a brutal, graphic, on-the-ground record of the 2008-2009 Israeli siege of Gaza. It features close-ups of body parts, a dusty human torso on a bombed balcony, confused children and dazed women. 

Along with music docs, a lighter doc moment was provided with Australian Mark Hartley's Machete Maidens Unleashed! It is a fascinating film history of 1970s US B movies made in the Philippines, exploitation films in every sense (of Filipinos, the young women who played bimbos, and the audiences who watched the same film again and again in slightly different form). The film reinforces H.L. Mencken's acerbic comment, "No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people."

Whether fresh out of the box or on their way to a 20-city launch, the films all stood to benefit from their prestigious platform. One of the beneficiaries of the platform was Davis Guggenheim, who brought billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates to a press conference for the education-reform film Waiting for Superman. Powers never missed a chance to urge people to use their social media tools to spread the word of their enthusiasm for the films they loved.

Pat Aufderheide is director of the Center for Social Media at American University.

Herzog and Morris Explain It All to You

By Pat Aufderheide

An hour-long conversation, moderated by Thom Powers, between the two legendary filmmakers capped the TIFF documentary conference. Here are excerpts, as best real-time transcription could capture the back-and-forth:

Errol Morris: Werner is a neorealist...there is a hybrid world between fiction and nonfiction, perhaps the most interesting place in film to inhabit. From these first films [Morris saw of Herzog's], it gave me a different idea of what is possible in filmmaking. For that I will always be indebted to this man.

Werner Herzog: Errol stuck out like someone who immediately caught my attention, because I had the feeling you had to be taken seriously. There was this wildness of ideas floating around and it just needed to take shape, and needed a certain amount of discipline--which you still do not have in post-production, where you waste too much money. You have to expect films to become profitable fairly early on and when you spend too much money in post-production, it is hard to get into that terrain. But I do not really mind because it is the way you function. You have to wrestle like Laocoön with the snake. The end result is always disciplined, but the way into it, I have my doubts.

EM: I share those doubts.


Thom Powers: What do people need to become a filmmaker?

EM: The main ingredients are rage and a desire to get even with others.

WH: A more prosaic answer, [because] you are aiming at the obvious and we are not into the obvious. You have to understand music, and Errol does because he's a cello player, and you have to read, that's what I tell students in the Rogue Film School [that he runs]. Read, read, read, read, read, or you will never become a filmmaker. Errol Morris, he reads everything, like the autobiography of a failed lion tamer, but you can discuss Hölderlin with him. In the application for the Rogue Film School, you have to follow instructions for a mandatory reading list. It starts with Virgil, The Georgics, if possible in Latin. It includes the Icelandic Poetic Edda. A short story by Hemingway, and the Warren Commission Report.

EM:  It is great reading [aside to audience: It's unreadable.].  I've been planning to do a version of Tales from the Crypt, only it's Tales from the Warren Report.

WH: Everyone denounces it, including you, apparently, but it is an incredible, conclusive report. It's a wonderful crime story.

EM: it is one of the great crime stories. I would define my reading as compulsive, unremitting, obsessive, often counter-productive reading. ..Years ago I had this fantasy of creating my own version of Harvard Great Books, 100 great books no one had ever heard of. I found this book by Frank Weatherwax, on training Lassie, which is a masterpiece of its kind. Another book, which at one time I wanted to turn into a movie, Letters to Strongheart. Strongheart was the first of the great dog movie stars, pre- Rin Tin Tin. Legendary because he cried in a close-up on film...This man J. Allen Boone fell in love with Srongheart, and never had a chance to meet him, and after Strongheart died he started writing letters to Strongheart. This is a collection of 80 letters to a dead dog.


WH: How do you get people to read?

EM: Maybe it's good they don't. The power of my recent protagonist, of Tabloid, told me a story about how she as a young girl in high school had read a short story by Theodore Dreiser. I compulsively read through Dreiser, and read a short story called "The Second Choice." As a connoisseur of despair, [I find] this is one of the most despairing things ever written. A woman unable to marry the man she loves settles for the second choice. You see her entering into a life of utter barrenness. Joyce [the protagonist in Tabloid] read this and decided that she would not go there.

WH: An admirable and costly decision. How many years did she live in seclusion?

EM: Still, if she had not read this book she would be in such better shape.

WH: No, there are decisions about your life, and she has great dignity, great depth. She is extremely articulate, she is not mad, she made choices, sometimes strange but not indefensible. When you read her favorite books, you see her whole life unfolding in front of you.



From Errol Morris' Tabloid. Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival.



EM: I often think I am the exact opposite of Werner Herzog. We had dinner in LA recently, and Werner was talking about how he'd gone into a cave where no men had been for tens of thousands of years, and making a film in Siberian wilds, and there was a laundry list of these incredible adventures. I said to Werner, It's interesting you should mention this. My last film was made in one of the most desperate, depraved places on the face of the earth--Van Nuys, California. Both of us--and I hope I'm correct; it's certainly true about Werner--we're both involved in a certain kind of risk-taking. What I took away from [Herzog's documentary] Gesualdo: Death for Five Voices was that art was somehow about risk-taking. I think that's actually more than anything in the movie moved me, because I think it is true. It's doing something that is ill-advised. I remember saying to you once there was nothing more depraved, debased than filmmaking, and you looked at me appalled and said, "You must never talk that way!" But it is doing something that shouldn't be done.



Werner Herzog, on location for his film Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival


WH: I always come back to the conclusion that there is a certain nobility in it as well.

EM: The fact it has no nobility gives it a certain nobility.

WH: That is too dialectical for me. But it does give meaning. You can wrestle some meaning even from Van Nuys. Even Van Nuys is inhabited by humans.

EM: Don't go too far here. There's another line, I believe it comes from you, 30-plus years ago, that part of art is extending sympathy where it's never been extended before. Part of the job of an artist is to look in places where people would not normally look. To examine people who normally would be passed over or ignored. I agree with that. If anything gives it a kind of nobility, this tawdry enterprise, it could be that.