Documentaries Are Stronger Than Ever at TIFF

An introduction to TIFF’s doc line-up

Wall Street horror stories, artist Jean-Michel Basquiat’s early New York years, cocaine prisons, Jim Carrey’s absolutely mad interpretation of Andy Kaufman’s crazy life, the true tale of a woman who wanted kids, a monkey and a castle and the unvarnished truth of a man who caused some of Hollywood’s biggest scandals back in the Fifties. Sound intriguing? Those are just some of the documentaries that will be shown at TIFF in the next week.

Everyone knows that docs are hotter than ever. In a world of alt-facts and a reality TV star as the U.S. President, truth is clearly stranger than fiction. Others may love the glitz and glamour of TIFF’s Galas and Special Presentations. My preference—and those of many others –is towards TIFF’s Documentary programme.

So what can be seen at TIFF Docs? I spoke to the programme’s curator Thom Powers, who talked about a number of the docs at TIFF. A film that some might have missed, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s One of Us, about three people who try to escape New York’s Hasidic community is actually a must-see, according to Powers. “It’s a thriller,” Powers told POV, and a very powerful film about religion and close-knit societies.

An obvious winner in the strange-but-true category is Jim & Andy: the Great Beyond – the story of Jim Carrey & Andy Kaufman with a very special, contractually obligated mention of Tony Clifton, which takes us behind the scenes during the shooting of Milos Forman’s wonderfully strange Man in the Moon, a bio-pic of the amazing Kaufman. Zoomers will remember the TV show Taxi, where Kaufman rose to fame playing the manic immigrant mechanic Latka. A unique individual, Kaufman was more of a performance artist than a stand-up comedian. Just as Latka was a Kaufman persona, so was Tony Clifton, a very rude singer. Kaufman’s career reached a divide when he began to play a wrestler, who verbally abused women and then fought them in the ring. Was it comedy or misogyny?

Director Chris Smith found behind-the-scenes videos of Carrey playing the very controversial Kaufman not only on set but, indeed, all of the time during the shoot. The doc explores the cutting edge of comedy, where people like Kaufman and Carrey dwell.

Two bio-pics are fascinating since their directors are great film stylists, who always make interesting material. Don’t expect normal docs from Sophie Fiennes (Ralph and Joseph’s sister), and Brett Morgen even if they’re on Grace Jones (Fiennes) and Jane Goodall (Morgen). Fiennes, who has worked with Peter Greenaway and made docs about the philosopher Slavoj Zizek, has know Grace Jones and her brother for more than a decade. Her doc Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami gets far closer to the real iconic vocalist than one would imagine. Morgen, whose last film Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck was a masterpiece of filmmaking technique has made a film about animal rights advocate Jane Goodall when she was young. Jane uses archival footage to recreate the sense of romance between the jungle, its animals and the young Goodall, which sparked controversy and admiration decades ago. The film sports a magnificent score by Philip Glass, only adding to the filmmaking style of Morgen and his team.

Documentary master Frederick Wiseman is back with a wonderful new film on the NY Public Library. For bibliophiles, Ex Libris is a stunner—a true inside look into a great institution. By contrast, Sara Driver’s Boom for Real: the late teenage years of Jean-Michel Basquiat, gives a very different New York, one that drove art and music and fashion in the rebellious Seventies. And in The China Hustle, Jed Rothstein takes us to Wall Street where Chinese companies may be creating another financial melt down for the U.S. to endure. New York, New York—it’s a town always worth documenting.

There’s more—much more—at TIFF docs. POV will cover the program in more detail in the week ahead.

Visit the POV TIFF Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival!