TIFF 2015 Docs Report: A Tale of Underdogs and Masters

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[The documentaries of the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival offer a story of underdogs and masters. Over 30 documentary features screened at this year’s Festival, with TIFF Docs programmer Thom Powers and his team once again delivering a strong line-up. The non-fiction front of TIFF 2015 began with the buzzy World Premiere of Michael Moore’s Where to Invade Next. The film arguably eclipsed TIFF’s official opener, Jean-Marc Vallée’s powerful Demolition, and signalled a fine year for TIFF docs.

Moore unveiled his film for the public, press, and buyers to great success. The film drew applause throughout the screening and received a sustained standing ovation—a reception akin to the energetic Gala of Precious at TIFF 2009. Moore’s film deconstructs the U.S.’s ideology by visiting other countries that provide services that many Americans deem unrealistic. While how representative Moore’s European interviewees are might be debatable, the film nevertheless captures differing realities than those taking place in America. Education, the penal system, gun control and paid vacation time are just four of the subjects tackled in the film, which Moore passionately suggests are done better in Europe than the U.S. The enthusiasm of the TIFF audience suggests that the film might play better internationally than with Americans (the U.S. media was comparatively less excited about the film than other journalists), which inadvertently proves Moore’s thesis that Americans hold different values from their international peers.

A question of values infuses Alan Zweig’s HURT, which won TIFF’s inaugural Platform competition that aims to encourage filmmakers into becoming auteurs. (For Zweig, that transformation had taken place years ago.) Despite entering the competition as a previous TIFF champ (his When Jews Were Funny won Best Canadian Feature in 2013), Zweig was Platform’s underdog since HURT was the only documentary and the only North American film selected for the twelve-film competition. Platform’s tight spotlight increases visibility, which makes everyone selected a winner even if they don’t get the prize. “That’s what I feel,” said Zweig when POV posed the question of exposure. “People are very impressed when you get into TIFF, but when TIFF itself identifies you as in another category, it’s amazing.” The director added that even with his previous success, his films were largely restricted to Toronto audiences before being part of Platform. Read the full POV interview with Alan Zweig here.

HURT rejects inspirational catharsis with its unflinching portrait of fallen Canadian hero Steve Fonyo (an underdog himself ) that builds on Zweig’s confident skill to inject his voice seamlessly into a film (something with which other filmmakers often struggle). In an intense scene in the film, Zweig relies on the trust he’s built up with Fonyo to convince him to seek treatment. HURT gives a sobering and realistic challenge to the way we perceive our heroes.

Skype session with Malala! #henamedmemalala #tiff15

A photo posted by Pat Mullen (@mullenpat) on

The spirit of heroism endures in Davis Guggenheim’s He Named Me Malala, which tells the story of young Noble Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai. Malala treated TIFF goers to a surprise appearance via Skype with her father Ziauddin and joined Guggenheim (there in person) for a Q&A at Ryerson Theatre. Guggenheim and Malala championed the film’s hope to be “not a movie, but a movement” as it reaches students worldwide. Guggenheim, speaking in an interview with the author at TIFF, elucidated that the Yousafzais’ ordinariness struck him most while making the film. “I’m half-Jewish, half-Episcopalian,” he explained on relating to the Yousafzais, “and here I am knocking on the door of this Muslim family…[which] has a kitchen table just like my kitchen table. (It’s a little rowdy.)” Read Marc Glassman’s pre-TIFF interview with Davis Guggenheim here.

Shared experiences and cultural crossroads figure prominently in the new Frederick Wiseman doc In Jackson Heights, which tours the titular New York neighbourhood. Wiseman’s latest three-hour opus challenges viewers with its immersive, if exhausting, glimpse into a multicultural microcosm. Less is more, even for mavericks, a point proven by Wiseman’s debut two-hour ’60s doc Titicut Follies, a highlight of the Cinematheque’s TIFF sidebar.

Similarly, Barbara Kopple celebrated a milestone with TIFF’s fortieth anniversary as one of three filmmakers at TIFF 2015 who premiered a film at 1976’s Festival of Festivals. Kopple brought her 1976 selection, the Oscar-winning documentary landmark Harlan County, USA and unveiled her newest film, Miss Sharon Jones! at an enthusiastic World Premiere. Kopple’s film joins the impressive list of 2015 documentaries about musicians as her verité-style follows underdog Sharon Jones as she undergoes treatment for cancer, which is the latest obstacle that Jones encounters en route to success. Jones brings the same spunk one sees in Kopple’s film to her onstage appearances. She sang beautifully at the premiere before revealing that her illness had returned and that she was “ready to kick cancer in the ass.”

Other music docs keep TIFF in tune with currents in non-fiction films this year. Amy Berg’s Janis: Little Girl Blue invokes Janis Joplin through the late singer’s own writings and reflections to inject her voice into a chorus of interviewees. Janis, while conventional compared to 2015 rock docs like Amy or Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, showcases a fierce talent lost too soon. Interestingly, Janis, like Amy and Montage of Heck, eulogizes a member of the notorious “27 Club,” as Joplin, like Amy Winehouse and Kurt Cobain, died at the peak of fame at age 27.

Keith Richards pursued the same hedonistic lifestyle as Cobain, Joplin and Winehouse but avoided paying the price as a young, hot guitarist for the Rolling Stones. Richards made one of TIFF’s wildest celebrity appearances for the doc about his excessive life, Under the Influence. The film doesn’t confront substance abuse as deeply as Janis does, but it acknowledges its effect on Richards’ persona within an intimate portrait of the man and musician. Director Morgan Neville (Best of Enemies, 20 Feet from Stardom) captures Richards’ love for blues in candid performances and interviews. This enjoyable riff, which streams on Netflix and was the centrepiece of TIFF’s new TV-focused Primetime sidebar, is just one of two music films unveiled by the director at TIFF, the other being The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble.

The Music of Strangers proves that Neville is a master of films about arts and culture. The film is a symphonic tapestry, showing music’s ability to transcend cultures. It connects international voices harmoniously as cellist Yo-Yo Ma dissolves borders with the Silk Road Ensemble. Ma awed the audience at the film’s world premiere with a cello solo, which hushed the Elgin Theatre following the film’s rapturous standing ovation.

The artistic stream of TIFF Docs featured two movies about movies, Hitchcock/Truffaut and Women He’s Undressed. Kent Jones’ Hitchcock/Truffaut is a cinephile’s dream as archival interviews with Alfred Hitchcock and François Truffaut invite audiences to explore Hitchcock’s legacy. Similarly, Gillian Armstrong’s eccentric Women He’s Undressed chronicles the career of three-time Oscar-winning costume designer Orry-Kelly. The film showed numerous Tinsletown fashionistas from designers Colleen Atwood and Catherine Martin to actresses Jane Fonda and Angela Lansbury. The film reveals Orry- Kelly’s ability to transform stars, but it excels as Armstrong unbuttons Hollywood homophobia by cutting Kelly’s troubled relationship with Cary Grant into the fabric. The film is less successful in its hybrid form as Armstrong devises dramatic asides featuring Darren Gilshenan, who narrates the film as Orry-Kelly. The campy interpretations clash with the interviews since Orry-Kelly didn’t live a double life, unlike the closeted Grant the film contends existed. The classically-composed threads of the film, however, do Orry-Kelly justice.

Armstrong signals the noteworthy representation of female non-fiction filmmakers, including Geneviève Dulude-De Celles, whose feature debut Welcome to F.L. (Bienvenue à F.L.) observes life in small-town Quebec. It was one of few Québécois films selected for TIFF 2015, and the director showed genuine pride when POV asked about regional representation at TIFF. “We’re not used to seeing outside Montreal,” the filmmaker said. “I think this town [Sorel-Tracey] is really cinematic and beautiful,” she added while noting the visual power of the verité style that follows students around the woods and by the river. [Read the full POV interview with Geneviève Dulude-De Celles here.]

Another highlight of TIFF’s Canadian contingent was Brian D. Johnson’s feature debut Al Purdy Was Here. Johnson invited poet Al Purdy’s contemporaries to share stories on the writer’s work and iconic character, while evoking an ethos of Canadiana. The film furthers Purdy’s legacy by inviting musicians such as Sarah Harmer and Tanya Tagaq to perform new songs inspired by his poetry

While Johnson’s film feels at home in the Canadian canon, Laurie Anderson defies categorisation with her shape-shifter Heart of a Dog. Anderson does for dogs what Chris Marker does for cats with this poetic essay. Heart of a Dog evokes Marker’s Sans Soleil with its playful layering and philosophical musings as Anderson eulogizes her late terrier Lolabelle. Anderson draws on home movies, surveillance videos, archives, and poetry to bid adieu to her canine companion in a humorous send-off that meditates on collective loss in a post-9/11 world. This intimate rumination ranks among the most powerful and ambitious docs of the year.

Similarly, cinematographer Christopher Doyle’s first documentary feature as a director, Hong Kong Trilogy: Preschooled Preoccupied Preposterous, is formally audacious. The film fuses documentary and drama by inviting three groups of Hong Kong residents—children, young adults, and seniors—to share stories via audio. Doyle then interprets these stories using the subjects as actors in dramatic vignettes. The film creates life, or something like it, as Doyle reframes Hong Kong, rejects touristic snapshots, and flows between fiction and non-fiction. The film’s second chapter, “Preoccupied,” reveals Doyle’s particular interest with the Umbrella Movement (a pro-democracy protest comparable to the Occupy Movement) as subjects/characters recall how youth mobilisation froze the city. The film uses the generational triptych to convey a collective awakening to ideological barriers. It is a powerful and, naturally, gorgeous doc thanks to Doyle’s lensing.

Occupy spirit resonates strongly in Avi Lewis’s inspiring This Changes Everything, which fuses art and activism in a cinematic companion to the book by Naomi Klein. The pair headlined a discussion during the Doc Conference titled “Do Docs Change Things?” in which they spoke about inspiring audiences to act. The talk followed the release of the LEAP Manifesto, pioneered by Klein and other like-minded activists, which offers a mandate for Canadians to realign the nation. Klein added that events like TIFF are ideal opportunities for audiences to connect the dots collectively, noting that the film’s sold-out premiere, which Klein and Lewis attended with co-executive producer Pamela Anderson, engaged 1,200 festivalgoers in topical issues. “At what other point does this happen?” Klein asked the audience. Read Marc Glassman and Judy Wolfe’s interview with Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis here.

Another TIFF doc highlight was Jennifer Peedom’s outstanding Sherpa. It takes audiences to Everest for an eye-opening tale of sherpas confronting the disastrously high number of climbers descending upon Everest each year. The film gives voice to sherpas young and old who risk their lives for thrill-seeking tourists while receiving meagre payouts. Nail-biting drama is achieved as Peedom captures an avalanche that kills sixteen sherpas—a record fatality on Everest—and then turns the camera towards the ideological clashes that precipitate such tragedies. Sherpa proves that Western ignorance is the deadliest mountain of all.

Sherpa, exhilaratingly shot and disarmingly effective, will surely climb high come award season, while another contender lies in Anthony Wonke’s Being AP, which chronicles the career of jockey A.P. McCoy as he faces retirement. McCoy grants Wonke impressive access as he attempts to raise his record total of horse-racing wins in Great Britain beyond the reach of any future contender. Wonke zooms in on McCoy’s near-fanatical drive for glory as he perseveres after numerous injuries, much to the concern of his wife Chanelle. The film conveys the adrenaline rush that propels McCoy as white-knuckle horse races invest the audience in his drive to win. Cinematographers Thomas Elliot and Andrew Thompson shoot the races breathtakingly as Being AP outpaces the likes of Seabiscuit in drama and intensity. This film belongs in the winners’ circle.

Among all the winners and masters, though, TIFF’s hidden gem is the underdog tale Thru You Princess. This music doc by Ido Haar skips the icons in favour of a wannabe. The film follows YouTube diva Princess Shaw, who sings original songs to a meagre list of subscribers. Haar avoids condescension as he documents Shaw’s desire for stardom. This red-haired African-American singer has the passion, talent, and personality for modest success, yet fame eludes her until Israeli mash-up artist Kutiman repurposes her work for the song “Thru You.” The mash-up enlivens Princess Shaw’s acapella vocals with snippets of random YouTubers playing instruments; when it goes viral, Shaw has her fifteen minutes of fame. This triumphant character study shows the subjectivity of fame, as it takes only one person to highlight Princess Shaw’s talents and give her unprecedented reach. Thru You Princess offers a definitive portrait of contemporary selfie culture as Princess Shaw strives for fame in the cyclical narcissism and ephemeral celebrity of the Internet. Films like Thru You Princess afford the sense of discovery that TIFF is all about. In a programme filled with films of icons and masters, this underdog tale makes one want to sing.


Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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