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Frame Canada! Toronto International Film Festival

By Patricia Aufderheide

Dieter Fahreer and Bernhard Nick's <em>Jour de Nuit</em>. Photo: Toronto International Film Festival

“Back in 1976, when I brought Harlan County to the first festival here, it was a very different place,” says Barbara Kopple, whose new feature documentary on three generations of Woodstock, My Generation, debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival. “It was small and informal, and every filmmaker saw everyone else’s work.

“It’s changed quite a bit,” Kopple continues, “but what was wonderful then is wonderful now—you meet extraordinary people, and you see films you wouldn’t otherwise see.”

Indeed, the 25th Toronto Festival, which ran from September 7-16, bears few overt traces of the homemade celebration of cinema that it once was. Almost three times as many films are shown now, some 350 of them on 18 screens throughout Toronto’s luxury-oriented downtown. There’s also the celebrity factor, the fierce scheming for tickets to movies and parties, and the tight security.

Toronto has always included documentaries. For the last five years, docs have had their own featured program strand, Reel to Reel, and for the last two a full-time programmer, Sean Farnel. “We’re very happy with how Reel to Reel is developing,” says Farnel. “Submissions have almost doubled, and I think we’re developing an international network to alert us.” This year Reel to Reel included 22 long-form documentaries and two shorts; six long-form documentaries and a score of shorts were placed in other program strands. Two theaters screened films in digital projection, and more capacity is planned as digital production steps up; Internet-based work is still in the future. “Format is really the last question to ask,” Farnel continues. “We’ll make it possible to see the best work the best way, as formats evolve.” Farnel believes—and many documentary producers agree—that showcasing docs in Reel to Reel gives them a higher profile.

For Farnel, documentary is a versatile category. It means a solid and scary piece of investigative reporting like Soldiers in the Army of God, Marc Levin and Daphne Pinkerson’s inside look at anti-abortion terrorists. It means sober historical work, like Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s Paragraph 175, which, in a sturdily familiar style, examines Nazi persecution of gay men during the Holocaust. It can mean a meditative essay, like venerable film-provocateur Chris Marker’s compilation film on Andrei Tarkovsky, Une journée d’Andrei Arsenevitch. This remarkable film is as much about Marker and the movies as it is about Tarkovsky’s aesthetic, and it welcomes the viewer into the process of seeing. Reel to Reel included avant-garde and experimental work like Swiss artists Dieter Fahrer and Bernhard Nick’s Jour de Nuit, a video poem on light and perception, and Chris Petit’s Asylum, an extended critique of today’s mass-mediated culture as a memory-devouring machine. “There’s a lot more going on in docs than we see on television, says Farnel, “and maybe more experimentation than in narrative fiction. Documentary is closer to poetry than the fiction feature usually is.”

Performance documentaries were by far the most common format, and they vigorously demonstrated a wide range of aesthetics. Spanish filmmaker Fernando Trueba, heralded for his fiction features, was a minimalist with Calle 54. The barest narration and sketchiest of introductions preceded spectacular jazz performances by such Latin jazz greats as Paquito D’Rivera, Michel Camilo, Tito Puente and Gato Barbieri; each long-form segment was filmed in rhythms and colors that visualized the sound. Kim Longinotto’s Gaea Girls goes vérité-style inside a Japanese school for women wrestlers, where girls dream of doing real damage to each other in the ring and, if they’re good enough, get to do it. The film is as much a group portrait of extreme-sport aspirants as it is about the sport itself. Allan Miller’s The Turandot Project ably chronicles the staging of Pucchini’s opera—which is set in China—in Beijing’s Forbidden City. Struggles between stage director Zhang Yimou, the celebrated filmmaker, and the Italian lighting designer provide some of the film’s energy, though the struggles only hint at the actual cross-cultural and political conflicts. “Usually we had someone’s hand across the lens for that stuff,” says director Allan Miller.

Other docs concerned the toll of war. The Dutch film Crazy, by Heddy Honigman, profiles UN peacekeeper veterans of Lebanon, Rwanda, Cambodia and other horror spots, asking each to recall music that sustained them. Among three Holocaust-related docs in the festival, Fighter broke the mold. Several fresh-out-of-film-schoolers hooked up with two survivors, the rigidly righteous Jan Wiener and the extravagantly life-embracing Arnost Lustig. Retracing the path of Weiner’s escape provokes an ongoing—and often acrimonious—discussion among the two septuagenarians about the meaning of memory and the lessons to be drawn from history. “It opens up the topic everywhere we go,” says director Amir Bar-Lev. “I’ve even had gay viewers tell me they see it as a sublimated love story.”

The weird and the wacky, as usual, made great doc subjects. There’s artist Tobias Scheebaum, who found kinship—and occasional cannibalism—with tribes in the Amazon and New Guinea, in Keep the River on Your Right. And there’s the screwloose English aristocrat who runs a Caribbean restaurant, and once ran a whole island, in The Man Who Bought Mustique. True to form, Mark Lewis (Cane Toads) can find the weird anywhere; The Natural History of the Chicken features, among other things, the true story of a chicken brought back from death by mouth-to-beak resuscitation.

Then there were films that defied categorization. Agnès Varda, whose aesthetic history has traversed the last half-century, presented a remarkable essay on harvest gleaning. The work creates parallels between this age-old practice, which is being transformed by commodification of agriculture, and the ageing filmmaker’s harvesting of the image. The immense pleasures of Les glaneurs et la glaneuse come from Varda’s loving eye and her delight in the people she meets. In an hour-long session—one of a dozen such meet-the-filmmaker events at the festival—Varda said, “We are all gleaners—we glean knowledge from overheard conversations, we glean inspiration from the classics, we glean lessons in life.”

Being a renowned film artist didn’t make it any easier for Varda to raise funds for the project. “We did the whole thing on spec—after a career of more than 40 years,” she said ruefully. The catch-as-catch-can quality of doc funding was fully in evidence with other films: European television funding for some, HBO backing for Soldiers in the Army of God, private backers for Keep the River on Your Right, and, for My Generation, starter backing from Polygram, which then pulled the plug when it lost faith in the 1994 concert. “They told me there would be no more money, but I said, I’ll just go on filming anyway,” recalls Kopple.

While not a market, the festival has become a major place to do business. Few documentaries had distribution in place on arrival, but most of the filmmakers were in negotiations by the end. Key to the process are public screenings, where sold-out crowds provide a test of appeal. “There is no better platform for an international film,” said Laurie Gwen Shapiro, who, with her brother David, brought Keep the River on Your Right. “It’s all about prestige and profile, and there’s so much international press.”


Pat Aufderheide, whose most recent collection of critical essays is The Daily Planet, is a professor in the School of Communication at American University.