TIFF 2014: Report on Docs

National Gallery

by Marc Glassman

Toronto audiences who love documentaries are just about the luckiest in the world. In the spring, there’s Hot Docs, which offers a plethora of non-fiction films from around the world. Less than six months later comes TIFF with a highly curated international selection of features, culled by Thom Powers.

This year, as always, Powers’ selections are the kinds of films that will play in theatres, not television, after their run of the festival circuit. They have higher production values and are generally made by directors with distinctly solid reputations.

Master documentarian Frederick Wiseman is back at TIFF Docs, for instance, with an impressively detailed look at how London’s acclaimed National Gallery runs, what the audiences are like, and what sort of art is on display (lead photo).

Nick Broomfield is also returning to the festival after a relatively long absence, with a film about serial killer Lonnie Franklin, who may have killed over 100 people since the late ‘90s. Tales of a Grim Reaper is a natural follow-up to Broomfield’s profiles of Aileen Wuornos, which he turned into two notorious feature docs in 1993 and 2002.

Tales of a Grim Reaper

And Michael Moore will be seen in Toronto, too, giving a keynote speech at TIFF’s Doc Conference and at the 25th anniversary public screenings of his breakout doc classic Roger and Me (pardon my Zoomer moment—migod! A quarter of a century?).

There’s much more: Ethan Hawke with a feature on pianist-teacher Seymour Bernstein, the infamous Yes Men with a doc about climate change, and a film heaven-sent for many Canucks on the great Red Army hockey teams of the ‘80s.

Of particular interest are new films from Lixin Fan and Robert Kenner. Lixin Fan is a Chinese-born filmmaker who has a long association with Montreal’s EyeSteelFilms. They produced his first feature doc, the poignant Last Train Home, about how the children left behind were affected by the migration of their parents from the country to the city, where industry jobs are plentiful. Lixin’s point was that the situation he depicted was typical of many, many contemporary Chinese families.

I Am Here

His new film I Am Here is financed and shot in China but Lixin will be back in Canada for its TIFF premiere. Once again, he has zeroed in on a cultural phenomenon. This time, it’s a “Chinese Idol” reality show called “Super Boy,” which pits ten young men against each other to deliver the greatest performance of the TV season. Millions watch “Super Boy” and the contestants are hounded like true celebrities—at least for a while.

Lixin gets to spend time with the young men, who are an appealing, almost naïve group. Contrasting up beat high tempo songs with amazing production values to the quietly intense life that the boys spend training for their TV appearances, Lixin Fan is able to convey a sense of the unreality of the situation—and its potential for triumph or heartbreak.

In Merchants of Doubt, Robert Kenner follows up his controversial and very well reviewed feature doc Food, Inc. with an unsparing attack on those in the US who oppose legislation to stop climate change. Kenner is adept at structuring arguments in ways that are witty and devastating; he is a fine essayist and propagandist. Like Food, Inc., Merchants of Doubt is based on a book, this time by Naomi Oreskes and Eric M. Conway.

Merchants of Doubt

Kenner foregrounds Merchants of Doubt with repeated appearances of a magician, Jamy Ian Swiss, who demonstrates how tricks are created by misdirection. Kenner shows how tobacco companies used the same technique for decades to “blow smoke” over correct allegations that cigarettes are harmful to people’s health.

Now that same use of misdirection is being applied to climate change. Kenner points out that the vast majority of scientists believe that climate change is happening but certain figures in US politics, bolstered by oil and gas money, are causing enough doubt in the public’s mind to prevent legislation from occurring. What’s happening in the States is taking place here, too.

TIFF Docs is consistently one of the finest sections in the Festival. With docs, what’s said in film catalogues is true; you know what you’re going to see. You can see some notable docs in the next ten days.

Please visit our TIFF Docs Hub for more reviews and features.