Movie lovers looking for a little bit of everything will want to take note of the Windsor International Film Festival this weekend. Having attended a whirlwind of festivals this last year, WIFF arguably offers dollar for dollar the best experience that film buffs will find. It has many of the top award season contenders, along with several titles that bypassed a certain international film festival in Toronto, like this year’s opening night film The Taste of Things / The Pot-au-feu, France’s submission for Best International Feature that promises a food-on-film delight starring Juliette Binoche. Moreover, there’s a great Canadian spotlight with the WIFF Prize in Canadian Film offering a cash purse of $25,000 to one of ten Canadian films. Contenders this year include Solo, Blackberry, and One Summer.
There’s also a strong crop of documentaries thanks to a partnership with Hot Docs that creates a special programming stream for documentaries. WIFF offers a hefty range of doc highlights from the circuit, with Sundance favourites like The Eternal Memory, Twice Colonized, and Smoke Sauna Sisterhood in the line-up, along with recent standouts like KOKOMO CITY, A Compassionate Spy, and The Last Rider, to name a few.
To help readers plan ahead for WIFF, here are 10 documentary highlights at this year’s festival.
Mon, Oct. 30 @ 12:30 pm
Personal connections with characters can be tricky to navigate, but director Stephen Hosier makes a poignant story that only a friend could tell with Attila. This tough but vital portrait of mental health anf addiction sees the director look back at his longtime relationship with his childhood friends, twin brothers Attila and Richard. The three of them used to do everything together, including early filmmaking, but tragedy hit the friends when Attila died at age of 28 after overdosing on drugs laced with fentanyl. Hosier and Richard investigate the circumstances that led one twin to an early death while the other took a different path. By revisiting the past, retracing their journeys to adulthood, and identifying turning points in their lives, the friends uncover systemic issues that precipitate mental health crises, homelessness, and addictions. Told with sensitivity and sobriety, Attila is a stirring celebration of life. Read more in Courtney Small’s review of the film.
Thurs, Nov. 2 @ 10:20pm
Director Madeleine Gavin won the Audience Award for U.S. documentary at Sundance earlier this year and there’s a very good chance she could win the Oscar for Beyond Utopia. The film has arguably gone from dark horse to likely frontrunner as one of few American docs from Sundance in the running this year. It’s also just an exceptionally well made and courageous film that’s gaining traction as more people see it. Beyond Utopia is a gripping docu-thriller that puts audiences right beside several North Koreans as they make the run for their lives towards freedom. Told without any re-enactments, the film captures the treacherous escape from North Korea and then the equally feat of navigating the security risks in China. Equally nerve-wracking are the scenes with family members of the defectors who communicate with the guides, getting real time updates via phone and worrying about the consequences that may befall their loved ones if they’re caught. It’s truly a feat of filmmaking. Read more in POV’s review of the film.
Mon, Oct. 30 @ 3:50pm
Doc audiences in Toronto might want to hop a train to Windsor, since WIFF remains the closest thing to a GTA screening that we’re getting for Gumbo Coalition. Yes, even two-time Academy Award winner Barbara Kopple (Harlan County, USA; American Dream) strangely has yet to debut her latest film on a Toronto screen after premiering the film at DOC NYC last November. The film chronicles the efforts of civil rights activists Marc Morial and Janet Murguía who use their experience and political savvy to mobilize minority groups to become engaged in the USA’s democratic process. The film sees the activists empower African American and Latino-American communities specifically leading up to the historic (and notorious) 2020 election. Morial, the former mayor of New Orleans, and Marguía, a former staffer for the Clinton administration, become key players behind the scenes in the Democratic primaries, too, taking calls with candidates like Joe Biden and Kamala Harris to offer advice. When the pandemic changes the world, though, and the murder of George Floyd awakens America, Kopple inevitably shifts the focus without losing sight of the story.
Lac-Mégantique: This Is Not an Accident
Parts 1 & 2: Sat, Oct. 28 @ 5:30 pm | Parts 3 & 4: Sun, Oct. 29 @ 8:20pm
WIFF thankfully has Lac-Mégantique screening in two parts. You’ll need to see both, but you’ll appreciate the breathing space between episodes. This emotional rollercoaster of a documentary from director Philippe Falardeau chronicles the factors that collided for an inevitable tragedy. The documentary assembles numerous players—residents, families of victims, railworkers, the former mayor, and the former chairman of the rail line responsible for the crash—to learn how elements of negligence, relaxed safety standards, and corporate corner-cutting created a domino effect that led to the 2013 rail disaster. But especially poignant are the stories about what happened in the aftermath of the tragedy as the town of Lac-Mégantique faced further losses when developers swooped in to exploit a terrible situation. The series also looks at history’s habit of repeating itself as the failures to investigate the systemic roots of the tragedy make further “accidents” almost certain events. Read more about Lac-Mégantique in our interview with Philippe Falardeau and writer Nancy Guerin.
Fri, Oct. 27 @ 1:05 pm
Winner for Best International Feature at Hot Docs this year, The Mountains is deeply moving despite some heavy subject matter. Danish director Christian Einshøj looks at how the death of his baby brother transformed his family and how his parents coped (or failed to) amid their grief. Einshøj peppers the film with home videos that his father shot of the kids in order to preserve the image of the family and capture any images of his son that he can. But The Mountains also deconstructs masculinity as Einshøj consider how his father wouldn’t show his truly feelings, and the family essentially remained frozen in time, leading to a more figurative death of the family unit. The Mountains takes audiences along the family’s healing journey as they confront their grief together and try to recapture the magic they once had. Read more about The Mountains in Barbara Goslawski’s review of the film.
Name Me Lawand
Thurs, Oct. 26 @ 9:15 am; Thurs, Nov. 2 @ 11:10 am
Remember the name Lawand. The film, which screens as part of WIFF’s Hot Docs showcase, brings the touching story of an Iraqi family living in the UK. Their refugee status is at risk, which brings the threat of deportation. This threat poses grave consequences for their child, Lawand, who is deaf and learning British Sign Language thanks to social services that address his needs. Significantly, director Edward Lovelace respects Lawand’s reality and creates a truly innovative soundscape to convey sonically how the young boy experiences the world. Name Me Lawand feels like a documentary that moves the medium forward. It’s a dextrously assembled work that carefully calibrates the journey for everyone in the theatre. Detailed captioning and Lawand’s animated narration evoke the artistic atmosphere, while a layered sound mix by Ed Downham and virtuoso score by Tom Hodge evoke a sense of deafness for hearing audiences. Muffled sounds and reverb force active engagement with the sights and signs on screen. Read more about in POV’s review of the film.
Tues, Oct. 31 @ 1:50pm; Fri, Nov. 3 @ 1:20pm
Catch Canada’s Oscar submission for Best International Feature as Rojek burns up the screen at WIFF. Director Zaynê Akyol (Gulîstan, Land of Roses) offers a potent feat of auteur filmmaking as she examines the consequences of war and fundamentalism in Syrian Kurdistan. Akyol, who was born in Turkey to Kurdish parents and is now based in Montreal, gains extraordinary access to members of ISIS. She looks them in the eye and asks them why they fight, what motivates them, and where they believe their cause will go. The film also takes audiences to refugee camps and tours the countryside to observe how everyday people survive amid conflict in a land that is literally and figuratively on fire. Rojek, one of POV’s top 10 docs of 2022, deftly navigates questions of ethics and point of view while tackling a volatile topic. Read more about Rojek in POV’s review of the film.
Someone Lives Here
Sat, Nov. 4 at 3:30pm; Sun, Nov. 5 at 1:15pm
Winner of the Rogers Audience Award for Canadian Feature at Hot Docs this year, Someone Lives Here is a notable portrait of Toronto’s housing crisis. Director Zack Russell makes a striking feature debut by approaching the story from two angles. The bulk of the action follows Toronto carpenter Khaleel Seivwright who builds “tiny houses” to provide shelter for the city’s homeless. Seivwright understands that these small homes aren’t permanent solutions, but his devotion to helping Torontonians one by one admirably draws attention to a broken system. Russell observes as Seivwright encounters indifference from city hall as bureaucrats work to shut down his mission, rather than aid him. In the thread, Russell gains perspectives from Taka, an offscreen narrator who shares her perspective about daily life on the city’s streets. It’s a notably empathetic work and a call for action in a city that’s failing more of its own people with each passing day. Read more about the film in Audrey Chan’s interview with Russell.
Mon, Oct. 30 at 6:00 pm; Sat, Nov. 4 @ 3:30pm
A highlight from this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, Swan Song is an easy contender for the best Canadian documentary of 2023. This gorgeously shot documentary directed by Chelsea McMullan (Ever Deadly) chronicles ballerina and artistic director Karen Kain’s farewell to the National Ballet of Canada. Everything is on the line here for Kain after five decades with the company as she decides to bid adieu by making her feature directorial debut with a production of Swan Lake. It’s a bit of a bumpy ride for Kain, but any backstage drama simply provides thrilling fuel for Swan Song as McMullan and company get all eyes on the production, offering a truly immersive portrait of the sheer scale entailed within mounting a ballet. Everything hinges on Kain’s lifetime of experience: Can she pull it off? Read more about Swan Song in our cover story and review of the film.
299 Queen Street West
Sunday, Nov. 5 @ 6:00pm
WIFF invites audiences to celebrate the closing night of the festival with the nostalgic documentary 299 Queen Street West. The film takes audiences back to the Toronto landmark and breakthrough TV station that revolutionized popular CanCon. A who’s who of MuchMusic VJs join the party and look back on the days when the biggest names in pop music, ranging from Mariah Carey to Garth Brooks, would sit down in the studio for an interview while fans gawked from the street. The doc features an extensive range of archival footage to show how this innovative approach to television democratized storytelling by making the audience part of the process, but also remains a time capsule for a golden moment in Canadian television that quickly vanished as more stations dispensed with local flavours and virtually abandoned arts coverage altogether.