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Toronto International Film Festival: Pop Culture, Politics and Preservation Predominant Among the Docs

By Justin Ridgeway

After ten days of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), the world takes on a somewhat surreal hue. It is a sensory overload, a state of constant motion, shuttling between the Scotiabank and Bell Light Box theaters, the media lounge, slivers of fresh outside air in between. It is exhausting and exhilarating.

TIFF's 2012 documentary film lineup was eagerly anticipated. Hip-hop luminaries, A-list actors and superstar intellectuals were in town to promote films to which they were attached. From Sarah Polley's buzzed-about, secretive Stories We Tell to Peter Mettler's profound and meditative The End of Time, the thematic range of this year's docs demonstrated film's capacity to explore the depths of humanity.

The Films

Jorge Hinojosa's Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp and Andy Capper's Reincarnated examine the lives of two pop culture icons—poet Iceberg Slim and rapper Snoop Dogg (now Snoop Lion), respectively—who pursue personal change and redemption. Iceberg Slim was an infamous Chicago pimp who, after numerous stints in prison, turned his back on the life and wrote it all down in an effort to show the errors of his ways. "This is a story about a man who did things earlier in his life, had tremendous regrets and did everything he could to redeem himself when he left that life behind." says Hinojosa, longtime manager of rap legend Ice-T, who produced the film. When asked by a skeptical press about his re-birth as Snoop Lion, Dogg stated that the spirit called him on his journey to Jamaica and his subsequent immersion into Rastafarian culture. "This is just another page in my book. So please enjoy," said the Lion.


Iceberg Slim, subject of Jorge Hinojosa's Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp.


"How did she become this icon? What are the choices she made along the way?" asks  Shola Lynch, director of Free Angela and All Political Prisoners. The film's subject, political and intellectual activist Angela Davis, was formed within the narrative of historical and cultural context, her trajectory situated against the backdrop of segregation in southern US states and the civil rights movement in the 1960s and early '70s. As a philosophy student of the Frankfurt School of neo-Marxist interdisciplinary social theory,  Davis found herself at the center of controversy and goes underground after the FBI links her to a kidnapping and murder. Lynch deftly weaves the courtroom drama that follows through archival footage and montages of still images, somewhat stylistically reminiscent of Chris Marker. "La Jetée was absolutely something that I was thinking about, particularly around the crime," says Lynch. The film speaks of the elusiveness of truth and history's susceptibility to revision and vulnerability to political agenda. "There are so many questions that can't be answered," says Lynch. "People are gone or unwilling to talk."


Angela Davis, subject of Shola Lynch's Free Angela and All Political Prisoners


Janet Tobias' No Place On Earth partially re-enacts the story of a few Jewish families who literally went underground—into a large cave network rediscovered by a spelunker—to evade an almost certain fate in the death camps near the end of World War Two as the Nazis invaded Ukraine.

Joshua Oppenheimer and Marc Weise examine the complex psychology of atrocity and the relationship between victim and persecutor in their respective films, The Act of Killing and Camp 14. The Act of Killing follows Anwar Congo and his "gangster" associates as they make an American-style movie, reenacting their torture and murder of thousands of alleged Communists in Indonesia in 1965 and 1966. The film is visually, narratively and formally fantastical, bringing the audience into a world both familiar and strange. It is an Indonesia of heavily saturated colors (corrected, for example, to render a AstroTurf blue), retail malls of blaring neon and magnificent waterfalls that form, along with a giant copper fish, the centerpiece for a musical sequence. "Anwar's vision of paradise is seductive," Oppenheimer observes. "The viewer enters their world willingly, at first. The viewer's position as someone else outside is reassured, reinforced."


From Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing.


Perhaps both The Act of Killing and Camp 14 were received as devastating at TIFF because of the expectations that the films would explicitly condemn the murderers. However, as Oppenheimer suggests, we, who live outside these ground zeros of torture, genocide and exploitation, are complicit: "We are guests at a cannibalistic feast. We are not as close to the slaughter as Anwar, but we are at the same table. Part of us dies by living in societies that are based on killing."

In stark contrast to the surface normalcy of Anwar's contemporary Indonesia, Shin Dong-huyk, having been born in North Korea's Camp 14, cannot even assimilate in the world outside the camps, the Platonic cave from which he escaped. Weise describes Shin's struggle to integrate and function: "[Shin] said, 'I knew there was a world behind the fence, but I always thought it was the same as the camps.' He was convinced of it. That the whole world is a concentration camp, that his reality has been a normal reality." Chillingly, several times Shin asked to go back to the camps.

By giving their subjects a voice, these films present a complex perspective of people who have committed horrific acts with impunity. Alongside Shin's interview footage, two Camp 14 guards expressionlessly detail their duties. "It's a film about three human beings and human values," explains Weise. "How a system is able to dominate their lives. How a system is able to destroy human value."

 "I'm not a court, I'm not the Hague; I'm a filmmaker," Oppenheimer maintains. "These men have escaped justice, but they have not escaped punishment. I think by the end of the film Anwar is not just haunted, he is spectral. The demons are trying to leave him but they are attached to his flesh; he is almost beyond hope."

Human capacity for destruction extends beyond the scope of genocide to include the depletion of all life on earth. Rob Stewart's latest film, Revolution, transitions from micro to macro, from an ocean of crumbling reefs and acidifying water to Alberta's oil sands in an attempt to raise awareness of the causes behind a potential sixth major extinction. Environmental degradation is not the disease; it is the symptom. "The problem is too many people consuming too much," explains Stewart. "Consumption is destroying our life-support system. If everyone knew what is happening, we could let our morals guide us."

The extinction of bees has long been a canary-in-the-coal-mine. With cinematic beauty, Markus Imhoof's More Than Honey realizes the poetic potential of this symbol. Sweeping aerials of almond plantations, Swiss Alps and Chinese valleys reveal the changing realities of beekeeping and the challenges facing the symbiotic relationship between bees and humans. "It is a question of whether human beings are part of nature or not," says Imhoof. "Just a manager of nature, or in the worst case, the parasite of nature."


From Markus Imhoof's More Than Honey.


The Documentary Conference

Over the course of two days, the TIFF Docs conference provided a unique opportunity to engage with the industry, discussing topics around production, distribution and marketing, and, perhaps most significantly, the ideas behind compelling documentaries, through a series of moderated talks and presentations of works-in-progress.

Retired Lieutenant-General and author (Shake Hands with the Devil) Roméo Dallaire, director Patrick Reed and producer Peter Raymont took to the stage after a screening of clips from the upcoming Fight Like Soldiers, Die Like Children, based on Dallaire's latest book on the child soldier epidemic. Dallaire sees the current generation of youth as being the most effective means of positive change, utilizing social media to create awareness to call upon those on the ground—NGOs, the military and the police--to work at undermining the hopeless and traumatic conditions that create a cycle of child soldiers.

In discussing "Making Historical Documentaries," directors Ken Burns and Shola Lynch examined the role media plays in determining historical recollection and the potential for film to provide a counterpoint and voice to those who have been victimized by injustice.

Burns' Central Park Five is the story of five African-American, project-raised kids falsely accused of the brutal rape of a white woman. His intention for the film: "I want them [the five] to find some closure."

To achieve their objectives, narratives need to be compelling. Said Burns, "The same laws of storytelling apply to us as to Steven Spielberg. But we have to use facts to be authentic. You can make a point of view, but you have to make it right."

Other industry-insider discussions included "Maximizing the Education Market," speaking of the changes and challenges of distribution within academic institutions, and "New Trends in Broadcast," a conversation among executives from A&E, CNN and ESPN on the increasing value of documentaries to their brands and the ability of features to investigate stories beyond the constraints of their regular programming.

Near the end of the conference, a table of fruit greeted journalists. The occasion? Footage from Yung Chan's (Up the Yangtzee, China Heavyweight) new feature, Fruit Hunters. A departure from his previous work, the film, an adaptation of Adam Gollner's book, looks into the lives of obsessive collectors of rare fruit varieties. Seductive sensual close-ups show the wonder of a world comprised of cultural diversity, bound by community.

Justin Ridgeway is a Toronto-based writer and art consultant.