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Docs Rule at The Toronto International Film Festival

By Patricia Aufderheide

Klaus Kinski in Aguirre, Wrath of God, from My Best Fiend.

The Toronto International Film Festival, held Sept. 9-18, has grown by its 24th year to become the most important North American film festival. It is really two festivals, both of them superbly run. The business side includes separate press/industry screenings, a business center that provides space and mailboxes for industry, a video screening room and business meeting rooms. On the civilian side, Canadian cinefiles line up as early as 9:00 a.m. and as late as midnight for films that range from star vehicles to no-budget indies. This year they packed houses for, among other things, Michael Apted's intimate profile of seven scientists, Me & Isaac Newton; an investigative documentary—Nonny de la Peña's The Jaundiced Eye, about a father falsely accused of molesting his son; for an epic drama made in the spirit of Robert Flaherty in Tibet—Eric Valli's Caravan; and for American Movie, Chris Smith's creepy chronicle of a loser's attempt to make a horror film in Milwaukee, and perhaps inadvertantly a comment on the dark side of the American dream for working-class kids.

Documentaries make up about a tenth of the 300 offerings, and like the fiction features, include premieres. Two-thirds of them are showcased in the Real to Reel section, coordinated by Sean Farnel. Until four years ago, he explains, documentary was included in other sections. But the festival wanted to highlight its interest in documentary as a form. This year's Real to Reel is the biggest so far, although Farnel says he still was having trouble tapping into doc networks.

The festival also placed 12 documentaries within other sections, striving for the best connection to audience. For instance, Yvonne Welbon's Living with Pride: Ruth Ellis @ 100, a heartfelt, no surprises biography of an African-American, lesbian centenarian; and Andrew Donsunmu's Hot Irons, a Detroit-based, energized and affectionate profile of hair culture among African-Americans, were part of "Planet Africa." TOPS & bottoms, Christine Richey's rather portentous documentary on the history and practice of sado-masochism, and Cass Paley's WADD: The Life and Times of John C. Holmes, about a porn star, were included in "Midnight Madness."

The festival strives for geographical diversity, and documentaries came from China, Japan, Cuba, Mexico and Cameroon, among other places. This makes for some jaw-dropping vicarious travel. The Making of a New Empire, a feature by Dutch investigative journalist Jos de Putter, takes us into the blasted-out heart of Chechnya. Putter won access to Chechnya's strongman, Khozh-Ahmed Noukhaev, and used it to capture the daily life of the man who is proud to stake his claim to creating the Chechen Mafia. The result mixes the horrifying and the banal, in a landscape of social devastation and spectacular geography. The powerful material overcomes the weaknesses of a flaccid structure.

Another feature, the Austrian Nickolaus Geyrhalter's low-key Pripyat, transports viewers inside "the Zone"—the forbidden area 30 kilometers around Pripyat, home to Chernobyl, the site of the world's worst nuclear reactor accident. If it comes as a surprise that some 700 people not only live there but chose to move back, it may come as an even greater surprise that some 15,000 people go there to work every day, many at the damaged reactor's viable sister unit. Zhang Yuan's Crazy English at 90 minutes is easily twice as long as it needs to be, but provides a fascinating profile of a hustler-entrepreneur who promotes English learning as a nationalist strategy.

The "making of" doc genre was well represented. Werner Herzog's portrait of his longtime partner in art, the manic actor Klaus Kinski, was appropriately titled My Best Fiend. It cannily recycled some of the most spectacular scenes from Herzog's films, including Burden of Dreams the making-of-Fitzcarraldo film by documentarian Les Blank (who is barely credited). Danish Jesper Jargil's The Humiliated, featured "Dogma 95" filmmaker Lars von Trier, and Makoto Shinozaki's Jam Session followed hot Japanese director Takeshi Kitano on set.

The festival's concern with showcasing the diversity of documentary form was most obvious at the more experimental end. Berlin-Cinema: Titre Provisoire, by Samira Gloor Fadel, is a feature-length visual poem at sidewalk-crack level in Berlin, accompanied by a grab-bag of comments on cinema by Wim Wenders and with occasional voiceover comment by Jean-Luc Godard. The film polarized viewers, exasperating some and stimulating others. Like many other documentaries in the festival, it mixed black-and-white and color stock.

Chantal Akerman's 70-minute Sud, a video-exploration of the American South through a visit to the town where James Byrd Jr. died at the hands of white racists, was eagerly anticipated and widely disliked. Juan, I Forgot I Don't Remember, made by the son of legendary Mexican author Juan Rulfo, was a challenging, but rewarding, essay on memory and place. Rulfo returned to his father's home town, making an essay out of the scraps of remembrance, the gestures of place and the sparks of life and humor in the people who knew him, including his wife. The film makes richer connections, however, for those familiar with Rulfo's work, the camerawork of the great cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, and the same-name film made from Rulfo's great novel Pedro Paramo.

Along with experiment, the festival showcased superior quality in more familiar documentary forms. Just Watch Me is a relentlessly close-up, talking-heads film that never loses audience attention, even for those who drift in without context. Filmmaker Catherine Annau, at 33, is a product of a massive social experiment. Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau, under threat of Quebec separatism, had jump-started a bilingual policy, with the federal government funding an entire generation to travel to other parts of Canada and live in another language area. Her eight subjects are part of her cohort; the film shows how their lives and dreams have changed..

Shadow Boxers, by Katya Bankowsky, is another example of excellence within the boundaries of the form. The 72-minute film, a first-time effort, follows the rise of women's boxing (Bankowsky herself is an amateur enthusiast), and then tracks today's world champion, Lucia Rijker. Rijker heralds an effectively new sport; watching her meditate and chant before a fight certainly changes expectations.

Makers and promoters found the festival rewarding. "Toronto is really important for us because it's such a strong documentary section," says Claudia Landsberger, president of the European Union's European Film Promotion. (EU countries pool funds to cover the costs of festivalizing the films.) "And we all know Toronto is the most important North American festival."

This was Errol Morris' fourth visit to the festival, this time with Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr., about an engineer fascinated with execution and convinced there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz. As with other visits, the film was already sold, so the goal was visibility and buzz. "The publicity that a film gets here is extremely helpful in international sales," he said. In particular, he would like this film, given its subject matter, to show in Berlin.

Rolando Diaz, a veteran Cuban filmmaker now living in the Canary Islands, was showing a poignant, carefully crafted portrait of Cuba today, If You Only Understood. The film, funded in Spain, had already won an award in Havana at its annual international film festival, but the award had not been publicly announced, nor is the film shown there. It now has a U.S. distributor. "This festival is very important to us for the North American market, because of the publicity it can generate," Diaz says.

Along with a nonstop round of press conferences and interview options, those interested in documentary could also attend a symposium on documentary today. There, Rudy Buttingnol, a Canadian public TV executive, said,"The big threat to documentary used to be its marginalization. Now it's the popularization of the form, with shows like When Good Pets Go Bad being treated as point-of-view documentary." Not at Toronto, though, where documentary is part of the festival community, as a cinematic art.


Pat Aufderheide is a professor in the School of Communication at American University in Washington, DC, and a senior editor of In These Times newspaper.