Larger Than Life: TIFF 2010

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As a documentary filmmaker, attending the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) can be an overwhelming experience. Here’s why. Essentially, it’s two events: a showcase for some of the most intriguing current films and a key market for their producers. Either on its own would be enough to make your head spin, so the two together are a diabolical opportunity. This year I was invited to cover TIFF for POV, so I decided to see what it’s like from another side: as a journalist.

The first film I saw, during the pre-screenings, was Jody Shapiro’s How to Start Your Own Country at the NFB’s John Spotton theatre. As the lights went down, I was overcome with a very new feeling. I knew nothing about this film. Zip. No one I knew had seen it. Quite a freefall. The next two were Linda Hoaglund’s ANPO, about Japanese popular resistance to American naval bases on their soil, and Lynn Hershman Leeson’s !Women Art Revolution—A Secret History. By then I was wondering if there’s a theme about questioning entitlement running through the Real to Reel (RTR) programme. William MacGillivray’s intimate Man of a Thousand Songs, about iconic East Coast musician Ron Hynes, put that theory to bed.

In the week before opening night I was fortunate enough to grab time with Thom Powers, lead programmer for the RTR programme. I could tell that he was nervous. “It does feel a little scary. I try not to second-guess my own reactions to films. I watch a few hundred documentaries every year and it’s remarkable which ones pop out. Every year I find some themes cluster together by coincidence or there’s just something in the zeitgeist.”

The resounding stature of TIFF is unquestionable, but talking with Powers had me wonder what makes the RTR programme distinct from the other big doc festivals like IDFA (International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam) and Toronto’s Hot Docs. “One thing that’s special about TIFF as an environment to show a documentary is that your film is playing against the best [mainstream/drama] filmmakers of the world: [people] like Woody Allen and Clint Eastwood. So it really raises the bar for a film to deliver on a theatrical experience.”

The excitement around TIFF was heightened this year because of its relocation to a new home, the TIFF Bell Lightbox, in the Entertainment District. The complex includes five theatres, a restaurant, a bar, a high-rise condo development, a shop and other year-round goodies associated with the art of film. On the eve of opening night, workers pulled the paper off the glass. It looked like they were unwrapping a big present.

The Waiting for Superman press conference was my first. I arrived early to get a seat in the front row. Jeffery Canada, the main subject of the film, made an impassioned speech about the perilous situation the U.S. primary education system is in, but Bill Gates’s presence overshadowed even director Davis Guggenheim (Oscar winner, An Inconvenient Truth). Despite a serious discussion, the event felt reduced to a photo op for Gates. When asked how relevant a film on the American education system would be to Canadian audiences, the response was that we should be watching the U.S. to see what trends will hit Canada next. Without specific examples, this argument didn’t seem to resonate with the…oh, look, Bill Gates!

At the film’s screening that night, the theatre was two-thirds full. During the Q&A, the families of the children were paraded out for a brief curtain call, but weren’t included in the discussion. Although disillusioned by the manufactured feel of these events, I was left thinking that it’s a very important subject to be tackling. Frederick Wiseman’s contribution to TIFF this year was Boxing Gym, an exploration of the rituals and beauty of violence, shown at a Texas boxing club. The slow pace and lack of a central character make it hard watching, but only because the visual language is so different from the mainstream. Wiseman stuck to his guns and turned out a wonderful observational documentary. I was left pondering the film and its meaning long afterwards.

I interviewed Wiseman on the foyer balcony of the plush Fairmont Royal York hotel. He was a very keen listener and increasingly leaned forward in his chair during the discussion. I shared my belief that the true value of his work will be realized after a hundred years or so because it is essentially anthropological in nature. Smiling, he responded, “I would be interested to look at movies about a police station in 1812 in the same way I hope people would be interested in 2110, to have a look at the way we live now.” In the same breath he followed with this thought, “And not only my films. All documentary films of this period are gonna cause even greater confusion for future historians because there’ll be even more material to sift through.”

Wiseman’s establishing scenes have a special life about them. There’s nothing frivolous or canned about them. They invariably inform viewers about something key to the film, whether in terms of subject or character.

Given his 47-plus-year career, I figured he would be a good one to ask about current funding paradigms and the Internet. “I work very hard to make a movie, as someone who works very hard to compose or play a song. I think that should be protected. I don’t see what is so unique about movies or music that wouldn’t be equally true of a car. I’d love to be able to download a Maserati.”

Until very recently Wiseman cut all his films on a Steenbeck. He takes about eight months to edit each film, using a very methodical process. Once a film is cut, he goes back to the source footage and reviews all of it. Often, he said, footage not included in the first cut takes on a new meaning because of the edit and therefore demands to be included.

The half-hour went very quickly. He leaned back into the big wings of his chair as I packed my audio recorder. His eyes sparkle in the subdued light as he watches me. I do wish I’d thought to ask if I could take his portrait.

For every missed chance, I was blessed with multiple opportunities. While heading home one afternoon, I noticed a small film crew holding up traffic in front of the Lightbox (in rush hour) to get a walk-and-talk. I dismissed this as pompous and kept going, but something had me turn back for a second look. It was Morgan Spurlock, of Supersize Me fame. Seizing the moment, I squeezed off a series of shots.

In a quiet moment, I passed my info to Spurlock. After they wrapped and I waited a beat too long to request an interview. Spurlock countered with “Email me” as he left in a cab. I excitedly reviewed the shots on the subway home, but felt I’d missed the real opportunity. Arriving home I discovered that Spurlock had emailed me from the cab to request the shots. Several days later I was lucky enough to encounter his crew again, shooting at the Filmmakers Lounge. This time I nailed the interview too.

“We’re here doing a film where we follow four filmmakers into the festival. I got the idea for this when Supersize Me first got into Sundance. As we were preparing, I thought how exciting it would be to document it and to find other filmmakers who were doing the same thing, as we were all converging onto Sundance. We tried to get a network to buy it and nobody wanted it. And so we sat on it. This year we met with AMC, one of the sponsors here, and they loved it.”

Another happy accident happened when, in a doorway, I met Paul Clarke, director of Lillian Roxon: Mother of Rock. “She was an Australian who went to New York and got a front-row seat at this musical revolution that changed America.” Clarke credits her with innovating rock journalism in the late ’60s. An introductory line, “She looked like a Botticelli angel who had just given King Kong a blowjob,” sets the tone. On the responsibility of representing a figure from the past, Clarke said, “There was a lot of pressure. I felt like I knew Lillian. I would think, ‘I wonder what Lillian would think of me? Would she like me?’ You really begin to commune with the subject. Dangerously so.”

Another filmmaker I bumped into is one of my heroes, Kim Longinotto. Her offering this year was Pink Saris, a film about a group of women in India asserting their rights despite the caste system which categorically places them at a disadvantage. Longinotto’s films have consistently addressed the assertion of women’s rights in places where the odds are against them.

One of the big ethical challenges is whether or not to shoot when things get really sensitive. During a master class hosted by DOC, Longinotto lamented, “You’re wrong both ways,” elaborating that it’s better to shoot everything because you can’t ever have that moment back. She believes that if you’ve crossed an ethical line during filming, then don’t include it in the edit. Longinotto bravely shared that her sound recordist disagreed over such a moment during the filming of Rough Aunties, when one of the subjects learned of the death of her child. Longinotto persisted in filming, against the protestations of her longtime collaborator. “We’ve actually split up over it.”

Linda Hershman Leeson tells the 42-year history of U.S. feminist art in !Women Art Revolution—A Secret History. While the male-dominated art scene flourished between 1968 and 2010, Hershman Leeson was interviewing women artists, equally accomplished but ignored by the big galleries and essentially cut out from the mainstream. Since it was so difficult to pare down who was in and who was out of the final edit, Hershman Leeson came up with a better solution: all the footage is online. Over 1,200 hours of it.

“This film is really groundbreaking and I don’t think people realize that,” she says. “In a few years I think they’ll see how important these extensions are. I think people can be influenced by the film, but they’re still thinking in a linear pattern. But I think there’s a new generation coming up that [understands how to use] social networks and how one gathers information and mutates it and ‘viralizes’ it. It’s a different way of thinking.”

The film was challenging to watch at times because it’s clearly “video,” and not in the best sense of the word. Despite the lack of production values, the spirit and purpose of it transcends the form. Hershman Leeson has poured her life’s work—both in art and filmmaking—into it. The very accomplished women artists who have struggled in relative obscurity now have a collective voice through this project. And, in time, perhaps the record will be set straight.

Inspiration for Tears of Gaza director Vibeke Løkkeberg came in the form of a fleeting image of a young boy on Norwegian television. “I saw his face and his tears and I said, ‘Oh my god, you can’t leave children like that. You have to comfort them by doing something for them.’ Tell them, ‘We’re not forgetting you. We want to know you.’ So I said to myself, ‘I want to know his whole family, how they live in these ruins.’ All the journalists were not allowed to go in[side the wall], to be witness or take any images of the war. So I felt suppressed myself. The people of Gaza are locked in and we are locked out.” One of the significant events captured for this film is the white phosphorus bombing of a UN school. Had Løkkeberg not taken the initiative, this event might not have been documented as vividly.

Løkkeberg had no other real connection or history with the subject matter or the region: she just knew it was the right thing to do. And so she did. After unsuccessful attempts to enter Gaza and the West Bank, she resorted to directing the film remotely. Committed to telling the world about the civilian price paid in Gaza, she arranged for tapes to be smuggled in and out, so that a local cameraman could do the filming.

Imagine you are watching a film in which you are witnessing civilians during a bombing raid. You feel as if you’re on a street lined with medium-height apartment buildings. A shell hits a building a quarter mile in front of you and it crumbles in a cloud of smoke and dust. A woman runs past you, away from it, yelling for help, but you keep going.

And then you pull back into the role of viewer again. You are in a theatre with other viewers, watching this film, and you realize that everyone is running to the building, but something feels wrong with the picture. And then you realize what is wrong is the way people are running. Everyone is rushing to the bombed building, not away from it. Tears of Gaza is filled with many such surprising moments.

One of the things Canadians are not largely aware of is what it’s been like for our troops fighting in Afghanistan. The mainstream media has not given us enough information and we are left largely ignorant of the soldiers’ reality. Janus Metz’s Armadillo helps answer some of these questions, but not from our perspective. It chronicles a six-month military mission to Afghanistan of another NATO country: Denmark.

Beginning with the soldiers’ goodbye party, which bears an eerie similarity to the Canadian tradition of the stag party, you are taken into the world of the young, uninitiated soldiers. The party scene set the tone for what I perceived to be one of the main themes of the film: war and porn aren’t too different.

Taking the viewer onto the front lines of Afghan villages and fields, Armadillo is a stunning accomplishment in cinematography, editing and music with a score played by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. It shows the children of Afghanistan badgering the troops for candies and then goading them: “Go home. You can’t win.” We go with the troops into villages where they have no way of telling who the enemy is and is not.

The biggest moment in Armadillo was when the Danes came across a trench full of Afghans, who, moments before, had been shooting at them. What follows is a scene not too different from that of Canadian soldier Robert Semrau, who has been charged with murdering an Afghan militant. What is even more surprising is the footage of the debriefing session the next morning, when the soldiers were groomed on how to report on the incident, so as to avoid media scrutiny. That this footage was somehow not confiscated amazes me. This is a film not to be missed.

TIFF was as fleeting as it was intense. My last interview was with Sarah McCarthy, who went way out on the skinny branches to make The Sound of Mumbai: a Musical. Quitting a steady job in development (against the protestations of her boss), McCarthy chose to put everything into this story about slum kids preparing to perform The Sound of Music at Mumbai’s premier venue.

The moment that most stuck with me is when the desperately poor children enter the main foyer of the theatre for the first time. Seeing the wonder in their eyes as they explore the marble steps and play amongst the facades is an incredible moment of discovery.

Larger than life? You bet.

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