Did the Year's Best Documentaries Premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival?

Did the Year's Best Documentaries Premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival?

Sep 19, 2012

Doc Talk is a biweekly column devoted to documentary cinema, typically featuring an essay concentrated on a currently relevant topic for discussion followed by critic picks for new theatrical and home video releases. This week’s focus is on some of the films that screened at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival.

The Toronto International Film Festival seems to have had an exceptional documentary program this year. I couldn’t make it up there this time, but I monitored the buzz from afar, and I can’t recall seeing a single negative word said about any nonfiction titles. Maybe not all the films were exceptional, but nothing seems to have been bad (though there are some I haven’t seen any reactions for), and the outpouring of praise I witnessed for Stories We Tell, The Act of Killing, Leviathan, More Than Honey, Venus and Serena, The Gatekeepers, Reincarnated and Love, Marilyn has given me a lot to look forward to. And, of course, I’m very curious about the Jared Leto-directed doc Artifact, which won the People’s Choice Award.

Despite my absence, I managed to see seven of the documentaries screening at TIFF this year, a few I found to be extraordinary and others I at least like a lot. Here are some short reviews of each of these titles:

Camp 14 - Total Control Zone (Marc Wiese)

This partially animated documentary is the slowest film ever to have me completely on the edge of my seat. The pace isn’t so much lagging as unhurried, since it shares the unbelievable and chilling story of Shin Dong-huyk, a young man who was born into a North Korean prison camp. It’s a great struggle for him to tell of what went on there, as well as how he miraculously escaped and how difficult it is to live in the “real” and “free” world, which is anything but to him. Wiese leaves in lengthy pauses and silent moments that are incredibly intense and allow both the subject and the viewer to think deeply about what’s been said and what’s coming next. It may in fact top Werner Herzog’s Little Dieter Needs to Fly as the most riveting and astonishing documentary involving a POW escape.

While critics and fest-goers were raving about The Act of Killing, that Herzog and Errol Morris-presented film centered on the proudly guiltless Indonesian death-squad leaders, I didn’t hear enough about Camp 14, possibly because it’s a smaller, less-provocative movie. I can’t compare them just yet, but I was plenty bowled over by the remorseless figures appearing here, namely two former prison-camp guards who talk matter-of-factly about water torture, executions, rape and the beating to death of prisoners they impregnated. It's heavy stuff, but in the end you’ll be utterly amazed by the perspectives you’ve heard and also with where some of the film’s testimonials wind up.

The Central Park Five (Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon)

A different kind of break from prison is the focus of this film, which is also very different from the documentary works we expect out of Ken Burns (The Civil War). Here he works with his daughter, Sarah, an expert on the infamous 1989 case of a white woman brutally raped in Central Park and the five teens from Harlem who wrongly went to jail for the crime. Their “break” is not really an escape but an eventual exoneration, yet given the lack of attention on their liberation compared with their trial and conviction, it may as well have been as elusive and unrecognized as Shin’s POW flight in Camp 14.

The central story of the doc is well told but not too remarkable next to better films such as Murder on a Sunday Morning, Scenes of a Crime and the Paradise Lost trilogy. What I found more interesting than the coerced testimonies and other familiar flaws of our judicial system is where this is a civil rights doc with its racial components compared to Southern Jim Crow-era stories such as Emmett Till’s, and where it’s like an appendix to Ric Burns’s New York doc series (complete with historian Craig Steven Wilder on screen), and where it turns attention on the issue with mainstream media narratives and public prejudices of alleged criminals, even when they’re acquitted or later absolved. The real story is about how terrible our society is in relation to the terrible problems of the judicial system, not the latter in and of itself.

Free Angela & All Political Prisoners (Shola Lynch)

I mostly love this film for Lynch’s own term for its style: “historical verite.” Totally antithetical to The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, this film is not concerned as much with historical insight or various outside viewpoints on the story of iconic Black Panther leader Angela Davis’ alleged connection to the violent 1970 Marin County courthouse incident. Instead, while including Davis herself speaking on the case for the first time ever, Lynch focuses on firsthand accounts, mostly in an oral history fashion of what, when, where and how yet not so much a retrospective why. It plays very much in the then, which is where the verite consideration comes in. Some parts are a bit too conventionally structured given that there are very fresh and interesting stylistic choices with other parts, but overall it’s a nicely balanced film that surprisingly doesn’t aim to lionize Davis nor to vilify Ronald Reagan and the FBI.

First Comes Love (Nina Davenport)

With the path that first-person documentaries have taken in recent years to focus on experimental lifestyle changes, Davenport’s latest, about her own pregnancy, could seem like it was born out of an idea worthy of the title "Super Size Me." Of course, the filmmaker’s decision to have a baby on her own in her 40s is not a temporary scenario to illustrate a point, nor is it one that was done solely for the purpose of pitching this situation as a film. With the level of honesty and personal transparency she displays in the film, you’d know, even as horribly reasoned as that would be. Appearing on-screen more than most first-person directors, Davenport exposes herself physically and emotionally, revealing the most harsh and humorous realities of life, while also crafting a doc that plays more like a narrative, complete with plenty of colorful supporting characters -- one of whom is outrageously unlikable. 

Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story (Brad Bernstein)

Come for the appearance of late children’s book author Maurice Sendak and you’ll be pulled in by Ungerer, a reluctant yet uncontained subject who is easily the most wildly fascinating artist profiled in a documentary since Crumb. Like his friend Sendak, he’s a legend of picture books, though he became blacklisted and banned after he started also producing works of erotica. Born in Strasbourg in 1931, he experienced life’s darkest absurdities early on and has continued to adapt and be a wise witness of man’s constant cycles of fear, hypocrisy, contradiction and revolution while latching onto a philosophy of “coping, not hoping." Filled with raunchy humor (“a behind is like a smile you can hold in your hands”), sheer bursts of humanity and the wonderful drawings, both G- and X-rated, of a deeply imaginative and insightful soul.

Room 237 (Rodney Ascher)

An obvious favorite among movie geeks since its debut at Sundance in January, this clever and crazy look at analyses of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining isn’t quite the revelation some people are making it out to be. I found it to be less about the specific interpretations and ideas spouted in voiceover on top of scenes from that 1980 film (and other works by Kubrick and of the era) than a loving mockery of how obsessive, overthinking scholars are hardly any different than conspiracy theorists. It’s the best jab at academia since Jose Padilha’s Secrets of the Tribe and nevertheless still a fun film that’s like Slacker mixed with any DVD commentary by a film critic. I think it’s totally ridiculous, but then I’ve often thought my academic and professional field is totally ridiculous. And the film, like my career, is all the more enjoyable as a result.

London - The Modern Babylon (Julien Temple)

You’ve no doubt seen and heard a lot about London this year, but with this archive-dependent compilation documentary you get a distinct sort of time travelogue of the city’s rougher patches in history (since the invention of cinema, that is) through the eyes and memory and imagination of the musically minded director of such films as The Filth and the Fury and Earth Girls Are Easy. It’s the kind of doc that scores the suffragette movement to “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” by X-Ray Spex and uses just as much fiction film material as newsreel footage as historical record. And, as it feels like a modern take on the city symphony genre, I’ve labeled it a "city mixtape" film. It feels a bit raw and muddled at times, however, and probably plays better for people who already know the city and its past well.



In Theaters

How to Survive a Plague (David France) - I previously praised this film, which chronicles the advances in AIDS research and treatment that led to lifesaving antiviral therapy, in a True/False dispatch. Then, I highlighted its hopefulness and the inspiration it offers a new generation of people looking to make a difference in any aspect of life, via the successful activism of organizations Act Up and TAG. I watched it again recently and cried again at multiple parts. It’s probably the most moving doc of the year, both devastating and uplifting at the same time, and I can’t recommend it enough. Opens Friday in NYC, L.A., San Francisco and Chicago with other major cities to follow through October. Also, the film will be released on VOD next week. 

Home Video

My Trip to Al-Qaeda (Alex Gibney) - This overlooked doc from 2010 seems to have slipped away from me during Gibney’s too-prolific years post-Oscar win (for Taxi to the Dark Side), but fortunately following a run on HBO it was released on DVD last week, rather appropriately on September 11. It’s primarily just a filmed production of the nonfiction stage play of the same name by Lawrence Wright, a journalist who also wrote the 1998 movie The Siege, which is actually a jumping-off point for this one-man show. Kind of like An Inconvenient Truth but about the infamous terrorist group and Islamic fundamentalists in general, Wright’s play is a sort of revival of the pre-documentary “illustrated lecture” concept of the late 19th century. I wish I had gotten to see it live, but I’m grateful to have this slightly supplemented recording of the event and its singular yet very informed report on a complicated subject.


I'll be back with another Doc Talk column in two weeks. Until then you can follow me on Twitter @thefilmcynic and at the DOC Channel Blog

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