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Rocked by Terrorist Attacks in the US, Toronto Film Festival Proceeds amid Unease

By Patricia Aufderheide

Lourdes Portillo's <em>Missing Young Woman</em>

Terrorism ripped apart the two halves of the Toronto International Film Festival, leaving filmmakers who had banked on a showcase moment at this most prestigious of all North American festivals slackjawed. “I feel like a ghost,” said German director Monika Treut, showing Warrior of Light, about a wealthy benefactress of Rio de Janeiro’s poor. “I have no wish to conduct business.” Nonetheless the festival limped to its end with dignity.

It started out to be the usual well-oiled machine of pleasurable business, with festival head Piers Handling’s seasoned staff poised at every juncture to assist guests. This year the festival featured 326 films from 54 countries, including some 31 documentaries and several docudramas. The festival serves makers, industry representatives, programmers, and press with equal grace. It even offers the industry separate screenings, so that the thousands of dedicated public ticketholders, who cue on streets starting at 7:30 am, can savor films unmolested by cellphones and dealmaking. (Industry people also treasure the quality of honest audience reaction that can be harvested at the public screenings.)

After September 11’s terrible events—viewed with horror on screens in the pressroom, the industry social room, and the many hotel rooms occupied by New York-based public relations firms--the festival canceled the remainder of the day’s screenings. Screenings resumed the next day, but all festival-sponsored social events were canceled.

Several years ago, the festival gave documentaries their own category, Real to Reel. This year the category is bigger than ever before, with 17 features and four shorts. The category does not ghettoize docs; they showed up in other series, including the Perspective Canada, Planet Africa, and Nordic Visions. Kay Armatage, who programs international films at the festival, always finds four or five docs among her 20 selections. She is primarily interested in docs that “put the hard questions around truth, history and representation at the heart of the film.” She pointed to It’s about Time, a wry Israeli essay on the meaning of time, as a “marvelous example of play with formal elements.” ADD: The film played well with Nazareth 2000, a pleasantly rambling portrait of two men approaching middle age in the Palestinian city of Nablus.

“We want to show that documentaries can have a theatrical life,” said programmer Sean Farnel. “We found that the most successful films were the ones with a powerful emotional connection.” He found filmmakers less interested than in recent years in a personal approach, even with highly personal material. For instance, Arthur Bradford made How’s Your News? about mentally disabled children he works with, but chose not to make himself a character, any more than did B.Z. Goldberg in Promises, about Goldberg’s year-long chronicle of Palestinian and Jewish kids in Jerusalem. Farnel received about 400 submissions this year, and welcomes more next year, if they are designed as theatrical features.

Toronto cinemas impressively framed viewing of international festival documentaries with widely differing subjects and approaches. The year-in-the-life doc Facing the Music, by Robin Anderson and Bob Connelly, powerfully drew viewers into the desperate choices of its central character, Ann Boyd. A leading Australian composer and the chair of University of Sydney’s music department, she faces a season of savage budget cuts, faculty revolts, and student crises, all of which forces her (and us) to confront her most basic assumptions about her mission. The human drama raises questions too infrequently raised about the nurturing and transmission of culture. Chilean exile documentarian Patricio Guzman returned for the fourth time to Toronto, with The Pinochet Case. Recounting the arrest and trial of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, the longtime Chilean dictator, the film burnishes the mature style of this renowned filmmaker. The film establishes a solemn tone, a gliding editing style and an elegant pace well matched to the emotional heft of the material from the outset. Strategies including ironic visual punctuation, slow pans of the worn faces of victims, silence, and the odd bit of humor make this an extraordinarily powerful example of social documentary. Canadian Paul Cowan’s Westray investigates a tragic mining disaster, using videotapes from official hearings, interviews with widows and survivors, and images from the mine. Perhaps the most striking feature of the film is its soundtrack, which is linked with savage jingles modeled on nursery rhymes. The rhymes, like their original models, have a political function. They point blame at the powerful whose greed and careless led to dozens of deaths.

Show business provided the subject for documentaries that often departed from expectation in their treatment of it. Gillian Grisman’s Grateful Dawg, a fall release from Sony Classics, tells the story of her father David Grisman’s and Jerry Garcia’s long relationship playing American folk music on acoustic instruments. The two men recorded their evolving relationship in media ranging from audiotape to 16mm film. “It’s a patchwork quilt, with all the stitching shown, of their friendship and their music,” said Grisman. Lynne Stopkewich’s Lilith on Top follows Sarah McLaghlan and the Lilith Fair, which showcases women’s music, on its last tour. Effervescent and sexy, it takes the earnestness right out of women’s music. In Carving Out Our Name, Tony Zierra tells a cautionary tale about film celebrity. He follows four aspiring actor roommates, including Wes Bentley, as their careers take radically different courses. Beyond the aw-shucks grunge look lies savvy storytelling. Vikram Jayanti, in James Ellroy’s Feast of Death, follows celebrity crime novelist James Ellroy around as he and allies sleuth decades-old murders of women, including Ellroy’s own mother. If you can stand the repeated close-ups of gory crime photos, you will be rewarded by watching a crime solved onscreen. Fashion photographer Bruce Weber offers up ecstatic and nostalgic voyeurism with his Chop Suey.

“The documentarian is like a literary essayist or an analytical journalist,” said Patricio Guzmán at the festival. “Documentary is an intelligent voice within media. It fights stupidity, and it fights against factory media.” Festival entries staked such a claim in many ways. Geoff Bowie’s harsh critique of corporate media, Universal Clock—The Resistance of Peter Watkins chronicled the making of Peter Watkins’ six hour re-enactment of the Paris Commune, La Commune (also shown at the festival). His interviews with Discovery Channel executives at MIP make hilarious counterpoint to Watkins’ project. The Frank Truth, by IDA member Rick Caine and Debbie, puts a spotlight on Michael Bate, a journalist of sorts who runs a scandal sheet that horrifies Canadian elites. Deliciously, the film turns into an exposé of the scandalmonger himself. The supremely multicultural Heddy Honigmann (a Jewish Peruvian turned Dutch) creates a funny meditation on property and theft in P®ive. Peter Lynch’s Cyberman follows a self-styled cyborg around, uncomplainingly and uncommenting, but raising a raft of alarming questions.

Filmmakers found the festival useful as well as enjoyable, particularly before the Tuesday of terrorism. ADD TWO SENTENCES: Vikram Jayanti had counted on following his film’s Toronto debut with Sundance, but bidding wars during the festival made that unnecessary. “Business is taking place here all over,” he said. Thomas Harris’ É Minha Cara/That’s My Face follows his journey to Brazil to reunite different aspects of his African and American experiences. He wanted his film to be seen within the context of the Planet Africa series at the festival, to attract international viewers and to spotlight his search for spiritual roots across cultures. “My work has been embraced outside the U.S.,” he said. For Rick Caine, having The Frank Truth in a film festival gives it the kind of cachet that could keep television programmers from cutting it down to an hour-long, TV size, and might even convince the Canadian National Film Board to fund his next venture. “They told us this time that they only fund film festival films,” he said wryly. “This festival is better than a market,” said Lourdes Portillo, who screened her investigation of Mexican border murders, Missing Young Woman. “There’s a personal connection with the people interested in the film. Here and Sundance are where I don’t feel like I’m the bastard child of Hollywood. I feel a part of everything.”


Pat Aufderheide is professor and director of the Center for Social Media, School of Communication, American University in Washington, D.C.