Canadian Docs Hit It Big at TIFF
By Pat Mullen
The presence of documentaries at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival is larger than ever. The Canadian slate is no exception. Canada has ten feature documentary films, including co-productions and hybrids, with which to showcase its national art form. Docs are up by three titles on the Canadian front this year and TIFF promises to continue an impressive year for Canada after homegrown films like Angry Inuk, The Apology, Quebec My Country Mon Pays, and KONELINE: our land beautiful dominated Hot Docs this spring.
“I think we’re reflecting the quality of the work that’s out there,” remarks TIFF’s senior programmer Steve Gravestock while speaking via phone with POV. Gravestock, along with fellow programmer Magali Simard, faces the annual challenge of selecting the Festival’s Canuck contingent. “There’s a wide range of films,” he adds. “Portraits, politics, historical, basketball…” As is the case with TIFF overall, there’s something for everyone among the Canadian docs.
A strong presence for Canadian docs only feels appropriate on the heels of last year’s festival in which Alan Zweig’s Hurt won the inaugural edition of TIFF’s competitive Platform programme. It was not only the one Canadian film and sole documentary in Platform but, like Zweig himself, it was a bit of an underdog, facing impressive auteur competition from the likes of Britain’s Ben Wheatley and China’s He Ping. Canada once again has the only voice for docs in Platform with Mathieu Denis and Simon Lavoie’s docu-drama hybrid—and three-hour epic—about the Maple Spring student protests in Quebec, Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves.
“With Hurt winning Platform last year and Alan’s previous film, When Jews Were Funny, winning the Best Canadian Feature Prize two years before, I think that sparked a higher number of Canadian doc submissions,” Gravestock notes. While specific numbers for submissions have yet to come in, Gravestock suggests that this year marks a deeper pool of docs from which the programmers could choose.
“The diversity of styles and approaches helps, too,” Gravestock adds. “We wouldn’t hit as high a number if we were seeing a lot of films that were similar. I think the fact that it’s pretty wide-ranging in terms of what’s being presented agitates for more films than fewer films.” Gravestock points to the two Canadian docs that interrogate the media, Nicholas de Pencier’s Black Code and Fred Peabody’s All Governments Lie: Truth, Deception, and the Legacy of I.F. Stone as examples of this diversity by taking different approaches to similar subjects. de Pencier, who POV readers will recognise as the co-producer and cinematographer of docs such as Watermark and Manufactured Landscapes, returns to the feature director’s chair after 2007’s Four Wings and a Prayer, while Peabody, a veteran journalist, makes his feature debut. Black Code sees social media as a protest tool, while All Governments Lie delves into the history of alternative and countercultural media. Both docs will surely be trending at #TIFF16.
This year’s set of Canadian docs is about as varied as ten films can get. There’s a tough, hard-hitting verité-style look at inner city life in Hugh Gibson’s The Stairs, to which the director dedicated five years of filming. “It’s rare that people invest that kind of time in a film anymore,” remarks Gravestock on Gibson’s film. “It really shows on the screen. You really feel the investment in the subjects.” Zweig returns as an Executive Producer on the film, which portrays Toronto’s Regent Park neighbourhood. The film, like Hurt, doesn’t hold back as the characters of Gibson’s film recount their experiences as drug addicts and sex workers, and share their efforts to engage and inspire youths as part of their rehabilitation.
While The Stairs offers a portrait of Toronto that one doesn’t see in postcard-ready images of Canada, so too does Dilip Mehta’s Mostly Sunny. The film looks at the career of Canadian Sunny Leone, a former adult film actress and Penthouse cover girl who reinvented herself as a mainstream Bollywood star and personality in India. “The film upends a lot of assumptions people might have,” says Gravestock. “People have received her more warmly in India and have embraced that career change, partly because she was a big media star in a Big Brother type show in India. She’s really level-headed and she works very hard. In Sarnia, she’s a very scandalous figure. It isn’t what you normally expect. She’s quite engaging and it’s a very energetic piece.” Like The Stairs, Mostly Sunny challenges the notions that audiences might have about their country while tucking in at TIFF.
Mostly Sunny is one of two Canuck feature documentary profiles at the festival. The other, The River of My Dreams, looks at a much different kind of film star: Canadian legend Gordon Pinsent. “There’s nobody more iconic in Canadian culture than Gordon Pinsent,” observes Gravestock. “The work he did in the 1960s on television and in feature films and elsewhere can really be seen as a nationalist moment. He’s been essential in establishing a Canadian voice, a Canadian presence, and an awareness of who we are as Canadians. It’s really heartening to see that.” The film, directed by Academy Award winner Brigitte Berman, offers a portrait of Canadiana that might appeal to fans of last year’s TIFF hit Al Purdy Was Here, which affectionately recalled the legacy of poet Al Purdy and the collective identity his work inspires.
Gravestock adds that the formal sophistication of River of My Dreams also brings a unique shade to this biographical doc. “It’s not a conventional portrait because they use these VR or animated re-enactments of his experience growing up as a young man,” he says. In addition to imagining Pinsent’s dreams and thoughts through animation, Gravestock says audiences will appreciate the tender love story of Pinsent and his wife of 45 years, the late actor Charmion King.
When it comes to form and style, however, Gravestock recommends that TIFF-goers grab a ticket to Jamie Kastner’s The Skyjacker’s Tale. “It’s probably the most stylised film,” the programmer suggests as he chronicles the unbelievable-but-true story of a grisly homicide, a jailbreak, a plane hijacking that could fuel an episode of American Crime. “In the sequences in Cuba,” he adds, “you really feel the heat and atmosphere. It starts out as this pulpy thing and they take it apart analytically.” The excitement with which Gravestock describes the film hints at a wild ride for audiences.
“There’s an amazing interview on the street during the night,” Gravestock explains. “The fact that [Kastner] got his subjects to open up in a particular way is really quite astounding. It calls into question the political machinations of the justice system.”
Another standout doc that interrogates policy and justice is veteran NFB filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin’s latest We Can’t Make the Same Mistake Twice. Obomsawin chronicles a landmark case on the rights of Indigenous children throughout a lengthy legal battle. Gravestock notes that, as with Gibson’s film, Obomsawin’s commitment to her subject is remarkable as she spent ten years on the project. “The movie just blew me and Magali away,” says Gravestock. “We’ve had an opportunity to show a lot of Alanis’s work, but the scale of this project really sets it apart. The case was in the courts for almost the duration of the Harper government. It has that epic feel of The Sorrow and the Pity in some ways.” The film draws parallels between the case, the politics of the Harper era, and legacy of residential schools in Canada, but Gravestock notes that, like Obomsawin’s recent docs Hi-Ho Mistahey!_ (2013) and Trick or Treaty? (2014), We Can’t Make the Same Mistake Twice offers a more optimistic tone than audiences saw in the early days of the long and illustrious career of the 84-year-old filmmaker. “I think it’s going to be her masterpiece,” adds Gravestock. Appropriately enough, Obomsawin returns to the cover of our Fall issue in which she and POV editor Marc Glassman enjoy an in-depth conversation about her new film.
Two other filmmakers featured in the upcoming issue of POV, Hugh Gibson and Fred Peabody, echo Gravestock’s sentiment that 2016 poses a good year for docs. Both filmmakers, speaking via phone to POV in separate interviews, think Toronto audiences will have an appetite for docs during the star-studded festival. Gibson admits that The Stairs is a tough film experience, but he argues that the doc opens viewers’ eyes to elements of the city that are hidden in plain sight. “There’s a lot out there on drugs, crime, and people living on the streets, but what I think this movie does is show that world [of the tough inner city] from a different angle,” he explains. “In all the things that I’ve seen or read on that world, nothing really captured who these people are that I met in 2011. I wanted to capture that and things that surprised me that I hadn’t seen in other movies.”
The Stairs’ sting is especially strong in the raw confessions of its three subjects. “People in that community have been stigmatised and don’t necessarily have an outlet,” Gibson says. “I felt like they were bursting at the seams to express themselves. They were great characters just screaming out to be in a movie.”
Peabody’s doc, on the other hand, looks at a new dawn for media in an era when anyone can break a headline. All Governments Lie uses the legacy of veteran journalist I.F. Stone and his influence on today’s independent, adversarial investigative journalism. “As a teenager, I subscribed to I.F. Stone’s Weekly,” says Peabody, who adds that a friend tipped him off to Stone’s publication and goes on to explain the process of newsletters that existed long before everyone went bananas for Mail Chimp.
All Governments Lie is especially topical in the digital age, as it shows how the spirit of Stone’s writing endures in people like Cenk Uygur, Amy Goodman, and Jeremy Scahill. “With the Internet,” Peabody explains, “it’s much easier to do what I.F. Stone did. I.F. Stone basically published a four-page weekly newsletter out of his house. Today, almost anybody can start what I.F. Stone was doing by getting a Twitter account or, most notably, by blogging.” The timing of the doc is especially fortuitous given the star-studded world premiere of Oliver Stone’s Snowden, which debuts the same night as Peabody’s film and also features journalist Glenn Greenwald. There are even plans for a media panel with which to engage Torontonians. (Stay tuned for further details.)
Whatever one sees in the line-up of Canadian docs at TIFF, one is bound to be engaged. There are new voices and masters, stories both local and global, and reflections on the nation during Canada’s largest international festival. “I’d have to characterise it as a standout year for docs,” concludes Gravestock.
Canadian docs playing at TIFF are:
All Governments Lie: Truth, Deception, and The Spirit of I.F. Stone
Fred Peabody | Canada | World Premiere
Programme: TIFF Docs
Investigative journalists Amy Goodman, Glenn Greenwald, Jeremy Scahill, Matt Taibbi, and others are changing the face of journalism, no longer tied to mainstream media, choosing independent alternatives. Cameras follow as they uncover government and corporate secrets, just as ground-breaking and influential American journalist I.F. Stone did decades ago.
Nicholas de Pencier | Canada | World Premiere
Programme: TIFF Docs
Based on the book by Professor Ron Deibert, Black Code is the story of how the internet is being controlled and manipulated by governments in order to censor and monitor their citizens. As they battle for control of cyberspace, ideas of citizenship, privacy, and democracy are challenged to the core.
Giants of Africa
Hubert Davis | Canada | World Premiere
Programme: TIFF Docs
On a continent where dreams are often displaced for necessity and survival, the game of basketball brings hope to many young men in Africa. Masai Ujiri, president and general manager of the Toronto Raptors, returns to Africa each summer to stage basketball development camps. Young men from across the continent overcome staggering odds, with an unwavering spirit, to attend these camps that are held in Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana and Rwanda. As Masai and his team of coaches work to train and inspire the raw talent that they encounter, Giants of Africa captures the amazing physical and emotional journey that these young African men pass through.
Erin Heidenreich | Pakistan/Canada/Hong Kong/South Korea | World Premiere
Programme: TIFF Docs
Maria Toorpakai Wazir has spent her young life defying expectations. At age 25, she is an internationally competitive squash player. But in her family’s region of Waziristan, Pakistan, the Taliban forbid women from playing sports. This film follows Maria over several months as she represents Pakistan on the national team and carves her own identity, despite threats to her family.
Dilip Mehta | Canada | World Premiere
Programme: TIFF Docs
Growing up in small-town Sarnia as the daughter of strict Sikh parents, no one anticipated Sunny Leone’s remarkable transformation into an adult film star and Penthouse cover girl—not even Sunny herself. More astonishing still, she has reinvented herself in India as a mainstream reality TV star and Bollywood actress, beloved by millions despite widespread awareness of her spicy past. Mostly Sunny asks what makes Sunny tick, and explores the birthplace of the Kama Sutra’s paradoxical relationship with sex.
The River of My Dreams
Brigitte Berman | Canada | World Premiere
Programme: TIFF Docs
Actor-writer-director Gordon Pinsent is one of Canada’s most beloved artists. Filled with humour, passion, and complexity, this film by Academy Award–winning filmmaker Brigitte Berman tells Gordon Pinsent’s story, as well as a universal story about the human condition, while making creative use of state-of-the art digital technology.
The Skyjacker’s Tale
Jamie Kastner | Canada | World Premiere
Programme: TIFF Docs
The Skyjacker’s Tale is a documentary thriller about Ishmael Muslim Ali (né Labeet), one of the most wanted U.S. fugitives ever, who successfully hijacked a plane to Cuba after being convicted of murdering eight people on a golf course owned by the Rockefellers.
Hugh Gibson | Canada | World Premiere
Programme: TIFF Docs
The Stairs tells the story of Marty, Greg, and Roxanne, each of whom survived decades of street involvement in Toronto. Using that experience, each works in public health to help their old neighbourhood, while struggling to maintain their newly-found stability. Told over five years, The Stairs defies stereotypes about drug use, sex work, and homelessness through an intimate portrait that is by turns funny, surprising, and moving.
Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves
(Ceux qui font les revolutions à moitié n’ont fait que se creuser un tombeau)
Mathieu Denis, Simon Lavoie | Canada | World Premiere
Inspired by Quebec’s massive 2012 student demonstrations against a proposed increase in tuition fees, Ceux qui font les revolutions à moitié n’ont fait que se creuser un tombeau winds documentary footage into its fictional tale of a terrorist group determined to create mayhem in Montreal. The film bursts at the seams with visual exuberance — employing varying aspect ratios, a hypnotic music track, on-screen texts, and radical political rhetoric. At the same time, it subjects the members of the political cell to microscopic analysis as they bicker and fight, all the while grappling with what it means to attempt an overthrow of the government.
We Can’t Make the Same Mistake Twice
Alanis Obomsawin | Canada | World Premiere
In 2007, the Child and Family Caring Society of Canada and the Assembly of First Nations filed a landmark discrimination complaint against Indian Affairs and Northern Development Canada. They argued that child and family welfare services provided to First Nations children on reserves and in the Yukon were underfunded and far inferior to services offered to other Canadian children. Veteran director Alanis Obomsawin’s documentary We Can’t Make the Same Mistake Twice documents this epic court challenge, giving voice to Cindy Blackstock and the tenacious childcare workers at its epicentre.
TIFF runs Sept. 8-18. Please visit tiff.net for more information.
And stay tuned to POV for more coverage throughout the festival!