TIFF Shuts Out Feature Docs in Canada’s Top Ten

Carol Nguyen’s short No Crying at the Dinner Table represents documentary at TIFF’s Canada’s Top Ten


By Pat Mullen

With the close of virtually every documentary festival in Canada, it seemed as if we were congratulating Tasha Hubbard on another win for her film nîpawistamâsowin: We Will Stand Up. Apparently the Toronto International Film Festival didn’t get the memo. Hubbard’s film, which uses the murder of 22-year-old Cree man Colten Boushie as a starting point to explore the deeper roots of colonial violence in Canada, won the best Canadian feature prizes at both Hot Docs and DOXA this spring, plus a slew of awards at RIDM and imagineNATIVE, and other events. And yet, the film isn’t on the Canada’s Top Ten list, which was released this morning by TIFF. There is not a single feature documentary on the list.

The omission of nîpawistamâsowin from Canada’s Top Ten is, frankly, bizarre. TIFF goes to great lengths to promote itself as a platform for Indigenous voices and a booster for female filmmakers. To the credit of the embattled festival, which recently axed 15 employees across multiple departments, there are four Indigenous filmmakers on the feature film list, which is complete with gender parity. Perhaps the hands behind the highly subjective curation felt that Zacharias Kunuk’s One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk or Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers and Kathleen Hepburn’s excellent The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open have those bases covered.

But the absence of Hubbard’s film is significant in terms of the work that still needs to be done to highlight talents outside feature narrative filmmaking. In this year of all years, after all the conversations about representation and reconciliation, how can a widely praised film that directly tackles the ongoing legacy of systemic violence and racism against Indigenous persons in Canada not find a spot on this list? The features tapped for Canada’s Top Ten are, admittedly, mostly good, some of them are even great, but the feature film list is not as representative of the work being done in Canada as TIFF says it is.

TIFF does offer Murmur, Heather Young’s hybrid fiction, on this list. Murmur perhaps offers something for filmgoers looking to catch a film that falls somewhere on the non-fiction spectrum. But while it’s a good film that explores new terrain, non-fiction work isn’t adequately represented by one title that fits the bill with a fair amount of fudging. (And one cannot deny that Kazik Radwanski’s Anne at 13000 ft and Louise Archambault’s And the Birds Rained Down are outstanding dramatic films that both deserve the recognition.) Murmur is the lone film from Atlantic Canada. while no film represents the prairie provinces, as Hubbard’s film could have done.

Besides nîpawistamâsowin, TIFF could have easily found a slot for Yung Chang’s brilliant This Is Not a Movie, which offers a powerful essay on journalism in the age of #FakeNews. Phyllis Ellis’s Toxic Beauty and Alanis Obomsawin’s Jordan River Anderson, The Messenger could have also brought timely exposés and engaging film experiences to Canada’s Top Ten. Ditto Brett Story’s form-pushing essay The Hottest August, which has already been named one of the best films of 2019 by Variety, Vanity Fair, _Indiewire, Vox, and Vulture with more lists presumably to come. Coppers by Toronto’s Alan Zweig is a penetrating look at trauma through the eyes of the city’s police officers that highlights a doc master in top form. Jamie Kastner’s wild-but-true There Are No Fakes could have had CTT audiences chattering as passionately as they were at Hot Docs. Daniel Roher’s Once Were Brothers, which opened TIFF this fall, could have added a toe-tapping and crowd-pleasing celebration of a Canadian icon to the festival. Even if one considers 2019 a relatively weaker year for documentary, there are several films that could and should have been selected to represent a sizable potion of Canada’s filmmakers.

So where are the documentaries? The crew making the shorts list clearly did its homework. Witness the inclusion of Throat Singing in Kangirsuk (Katatjatuuk Kangirsumi) by Eva Kaukai and Manon Chamberland, No Crying at the Dinner Table by Carol Nguyen, Michael Snow’s Cityscape, and Docking by Trevor Anderson. These films highlight a wide range of approaches to documentary form and encapsulate the spectrum of voices behind Canadian cameras. A special shout-out also goes to the inclusion of Theodore Ushev’s deeply personal essay The Physics of Sorrow, which might be the must-see film on either list.

TIFF celebrates the selected titles later today with screenings in the new year. There’s lots of time to watch the above mentioned documentaries in between.

The full lists of Canada’s Top Ten are as follows:

Features

And the Birds Rained Down (Il pleuvait des oiseaux) – Louise Archambault | Quebec
Anne at 13,000 ft – Kazik Radwanski | Ontario
Antigone – Sophie Deraspe | Quebec
Black Conflux – Nicole Dorsey | Newfoundland/Quebec
The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open – Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, Kathleen Hepburn | British Columbia
Matthias & Maxime – Xavier Dolan | Quebec
Murmur – Heather Young | Nova Scotia
One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk – Zacharias Kunuk | Nunavut
The Twentieth Century – Matthew Rankin | Quebec
White Lie – Calvin Thomas, Yonah Lewis | Ontario

Shorts

Acadiana – Guillaume Fournier, Samuel Matteau, Yannick Nolin | Quebec
Cityscape – Michael Snow | Ontario
Delphine – Chloé Robichaud | Quebec
Docking – Trevor Anderson | Alberta
I Am in the World as Free and Slender as a Deer on a Plain – Sofia Banzhaf | Ontario
Jarvik – Emilie Mannering | Quebec
No Crying At The Dinner Table – Carol Nguyen | Ontario
The Physics of Sorrow (Physique de la tristesse) – Theodore Ushev | Quebec
Please Speak Continuously And Describe Your Experiences As They Come To You – Brandon Cronenberg | Ontario
Throat Singing in Kangirsuk (Katatjatuuk Kangirsumi) – Eva Kaukai, Manon Chamberland | Quebec