Can You Handle the Truth: TIFF Docs Program comes back stronger than ever

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Every year, TIFF’s Documentary program surprises festivalgoers and delights doc-audiences with exciting fare from around the world. It’s getting to be old news to say that documentaries are in a golden age but that doesn’t make it any less true. TIFF’s team of doc programmers led by Thom Powers more than matches the top offerings from Hot Docs, providing hit material for a public that responds not just at the festival but throughout the year.

Highlighting TIFF Docs this year are films by and about women. This Changes Everything is the perfect film for the #MeToo movement, which has upending conventional thinking about women in film—and in other occupations in the world. Intended as a sequel of sorts to Casting By, a doc from six years ago about casting directors, which in part dealt with sexism, Tom Donahue’s new film couldn’t have been timed more perfectly. The film, which is produced by Geena Davis, boldly explores what has been happening in Hollywood for decades through candid revelations by such stars as Jessica Chastain, Meryl Streep and Sandra Oh.

You can’t talk about the changes in the Hollywood system without mentioning — and seeing — Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema, Mark Cousins’ new epic doc. The film you can see at TIFF is already four hours long but the final version is intended to be four times that length. One of film’s great historians, Cousins’ new work is a follow-up to his 15-hour The Story of Film, which was acclaimed globally. In his new doc, Cousins has used a structure where we see variants on situations—first romantic meetings, opening scenes, etc.—we’re used to viewing in most films, but in this case, all the films have women directors. For those who haven’t seen—or perhaps seen enough—of Jane Campion, Claire Denis, Ida Lupino, Agnes Varda and others, this is the film for you.

Lovers of classical music will enjoy a perceptive new bio-doc Maria by Callas. It features rarely viewed letters and diaries by the legendary soprano diva, which are read by Joyce DiDonato, offering insights into the singer’s personal life. In a remarkable interview with David Frost, Callas is candid about her relationships, personal and professional, with Aristotle Onassis, Rudolf Bing and her own mother. Above all, the film features arias from Norma, La Traviata, Carmen and Tosca, the signature works that will always keep Callas immortal.

World famous not for their voices but for their very different models of leadership are Vladimir Putin and Mikhail Gorbachev. Two TIFF docs look at these Russian politicians. In Meeting Gorbachev, the renowned director Werner Herzog accompanied by Andre Singer, use a mixture of archival material and fresh interviews with the octogenarian former leader to offer his opinions and tell his story from Chernobyl to Reagan summits to glasnost.

Putin’s Witnesses by the under-recognized auteur director Vitaly Mansky, is a revelatory piece about the current Russian oligarch. In the early days of 2000, Putin replaced Boris Yeltsin, who had been Gorbachev’s successor as Russia’s leader. Before his successful election that spring, Putin mounted a media campaign for his presidency. He hired Mansky, already a highly regarded documentarian, to present an intimate profile that would appeal to the electorate. In the event, Mansky did well—ironically, too well. Now living in exile in Latvia, Mansky has crafted a critique of his former employer, using footage that he shot nearly two decades, with personal narration that includes insights by former supporters of Putin.

American politics can never be ignored in Canada or the rest of the world. Several TIFF docs are about the divisive, populist times we live in today. Errol Morris’ American Dharma is a post-Interrotron doc in which the philosophical documentarian has a dialogue with Steve Bannon, who led Trump’s campaign, and was, for a time, the President’s chief strategist. Set partially in a Quonset hut and structured with filmic references, Morris’ film is a must-see, even it you wish that his works had a more political attitude.

Headliner Michael Moore offers his idiosyncratic look at Trump’s America in the meandering but well-meaning Fahrenheit 11/9 while Alexis Bloom gives insights into the makeup of the extremely controversial former Fox News honcho in Divide and Conquer: the Story of Roger Ailes. And Frederick Wiseman takes us to America’s heartland in his trademark verité style in Monrovia, Indiana.

As usual, TIFF Docs are a bulwark of the festival and provides some of its finest works.



Marc Glassman is the editor of POV Magazine and contributes film reviews to Classical FM. He is an adjunct professor at Toronto Metropolitan University and is the treasurer of the Toronto Film Critics Association.

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