TIFF 2011 Dispatch: Documentaries Bring Hope, Death, and Dance Films for Adults and Kids

TIFF 2011 Dispatch: Documentaries Bring Hope, Death, and Dance Films for Adults and Kids

Sep 21, 2011

I hear this was the “year of the doc” at the Toronto International Film Festival. As someone who regularly pays notice to nonfiction films, I’m not sure what made this time any different. Yes, TIFF opened with a doc (Davis Guggenheim’s U2 film From the Sky Down), and yes, there were a lot of promising new works from favorites of the mode (Herzog, Wiseman, Demme, Wenders, Gibney, Spurlock…) as well as a number of anticipated sequels, none so prominent as the latest in the recent headline-making Paradise Lost series. But somehow I missed the sense that many docs were getting more buzz from the mainstream than usual or that the titles were particularly any greater than works of the past.

Nevertheless, Toronto is without a doubt a smorgasbord for fans of the documentary mode. I went at it with a huge appetite and walked away more than satisfied, if also hungry for more. With so many nonfiction titles at TIFF, spread over other programs in addition to the doc-specific Real to Reel program, it’s easy for a nonfiction film fan to leave the fest feeling he or she hasn’t seen nearly enough. I tend to look for less obvious choices among the titles, avoiding most music films, sports docs and other well-covered works. So I sadly missed (for now) audience favorites like Pearl Jam Twenty (the Cadillac People’s Choice award second runner-up), The Undefeated and Urbanized.

I also avoided anything that appeared run-of-the-mill. When you see as many docs as I do on a weekly basis, you go into TIFF wanting to be wowed, whether by characters, story, cinematography or unexpected new turns from directors like Werner Herzog, who just barely ventures into issue-doc territory with Into the Abyss (see my full review here), and Morgan Spurlock, who surprised me with his non-first-person puff piece on the American (Geek) Dream with Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope (see my full review here). That film had me abandoning my trademark cynicism, even if it was unfairly balanced toward the positive, and left me seeking out more hopeful films.

I found some of this optimism from Jessica Yu, also going against expectations with a Participant Media-produced cause doc called Last Call at the Oasis. Jam-packed with information-filled narratives concerning water crises and a continuation of the Erin Brockovich story, the doc is commended for circumventing fearmongering in favor of engagement and encouragement. In my review elsewhere, I predict it will be a no-brainer for the Academy’s doc-nominating committee (for 2013, when it will be eligible). After seeing what a great cause doc looks like, it was very, very difficult to get behind Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks’ doom-and-gloom-fueled Surviving Progress, which tells us modern civilization is at least headed for a Rome-like fall, if not also dinosaur-like extinction.

Also Oscar-worthy (especially as it’s reminiscent of this year’s short doc nominee Sun Come Up) is the Cadillac People’s Choice winner The Island President, an inspiring and beautifully filmed portrait of Mohamed Nasheed. He’s leader of the now carbon-neutral Maldives (“paradise crossed with paradise”), which soon will be completely underwater if climate-change-effecting sea levels don’t stop rising. The man is the true focus, above the issue, but the former is so passionate about the latter that they just coincide. Also, the film primarily follows Nasheed’s trips to climate conferences in New York and Copenhagen and visits to parts of the Maldives suffering serious erosion damage. He already brought democracy to his island nation following a 30-year regime, but as he states in the film “there’s no point in having democracy if there is no country.”

If that doc made me optimistic for one part of the world, The Tall Man brought me disappointment with another, namely Queensland, Australia. The unknowable truth at the center of a case of possible police brutality and its cover-up makes Tony Krawitz’s film out to be a light version of The Thin Blue Line. It’s also a peek into a depressing suicide-filled society that surrounds this specific tragedy of aborigine injustice. To that extent, it’s a decent B-side to Herzog’s new doc with its attention to the psychology of an environment.

For me, documentaries are an excellent means of virtually experiencing foreign locations, so I very much appreciated that this year’s City to City program at TIFF focused on one of my favorite places, Buenos Aires. A city so rich in its cultural and environmental diversity, I’m hoping it one day gets its own entry into the Cities of Love franchise (Paris, je t’aime; New York, I Love You, etc.). For now, though, two docs in this TIFF section make do with special glimpses into distinct neighborhoods. Caprichosos de San Telmo presents the poor lives of musicians and dancers who perform in the murga competitions within Carnival-time parade festivities in San Telmo. Fatherland is like a city symphony for the enormous Recoleta Cemetary (overhead views of B.A. show its true immensity as a city-within-a-city), beautiful but a bit repetitive with its structure based around on-site readings of works by the “residents,” including Eva Peron. It’s definitely not the best cemetery doc I’ve seen this year (see my Silverdocs recap).

If those films are difficult enough for non-doc-obsessed moviegoers, The Patron Saints could be even more of a struggle. It’s oftentimes depressing and disturbing but entirely worth seeing for those who can handle the semi-verite encounter with a New Jersey nursing home. Co-directors Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatsky, who like to make films at the edge of fiction and nonfiction, combine portraits of mostly dementia-afflicted elderly with voiceover narration from a younger, more lucid and darkly amusing patient relaying his observations of his hospital-mates. If it’s hard to sit through it’s only that much more interesting to sit and talk about afterwards.

A very different film also shines light on a living yet forgotten person. Paul Williams Still Alive is a crowd-pleasing doc about the titular songwriter and actor, who you know from such works as Kermit the Frog’s “Rainbow Connection” and Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise, as he now works in addiction recovery and makes the occasional concert appearance in corners of the world aware he’s “still alive.” Director Stephen Kessler (Vegas Vacation) achieves the rare feat of making a good “stalk-umentary,” pestering his subject until they’re eventually buddies and we’re emotionally immersed in a comeback-initiating profile not that unlike Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (and not just because it also features lots of Tonight Show clips).

Less successful at the stalk-umenting is Nick Broomfield, who returns to his brand of first-person documentary for Sarah Palin: You Betcha!, with co-director Joan Churchill. I think people have the wrong idea about what to expect from this film, as is often the case with Broomfield (if you saw Kurt & Courtney in the theater with no awareness of the filmmaker’s style, you should know what I mean). It is not the political hit piece that it’s being labeled as, in part because of a few too many Michael Moore-like stunts, as Broomfield displays his usual naïvely inquisitive and dopily ambiguous attitude. He also shows genuine fascination with Palin and, more importantly, the business of talk that he must navigate through to get any insight, let alone truth, pertaining to the former vice presidential candidate. It’s not a great film, but if you’re a fan of Broomfield’s shtick (I am), it’s a welcome return to that.

If you’re a fan of Frederick Wiseman’s stick -- I know, it should not be called that, ever -- his latest, Crazy Horse, is a welcome return to the legendary filmmaker’s brand of institution portraiture. And yet it’s also a bit of a departure, partly because he’s shooting digitally for the first time and partly because he’s made a documentary that won’t be playing on PBS like his others. This time he delivers his experiential perspective on the eponymous nude cabaret in Paris, through which we see the ins and outs of the business, the music and, above all, the dance. This might be Wiseman’s biggest film in years, of course for all the wrong reasons, but he deserves the audience regardless.

Seems the adults got their own dance doc this year, and the kids got theirs too. After being so taken with the family film program selection Make Believe from last year’s fest (it hits DVD today, so rent it), I excitedly sought out First Position, this year’s obligatory competition doc entry in the TIFF Kids section. Filled with astonishingly cute and talented young ballet dancers, the Cadillac People’s Choice award runner-up is magically upbeat and exhilarating in spirit. Particularly noteworthy is the way first-time director Bess Kargman manages to address a few world issues, with great hopefulness, by way of some of the subjects she follows.

Last but nowhere near least is my favorite doc of TIFF this year, David Redmon and Ashley Sabin’s Girl Model, a film exposing the world of youth modeling in ways you both expect and can’t possibly imagine. It’s not necessarily sad in a direct way, but the circles of blame and cycle of the industry are upsetting in an overarching sense. From Siberia to Japan to Connecticut, we view the potential beginnings of one career while simultaneously following a jaded veteran of the business who now for some reason works as a scout. This ex-model, Ashley Arbaugh, is one of the year’s most intriguing doc characters, one I’d love to see get a spin-off reality series where she’s paired up with Tabloid’s Joyce McKenna. I can find reasons to recommend all the docs I list above, but Girl Model is the one I keep finding reasons to want to revisit, rewatch and implore friends to see as soon as it’s distributed. Someone pick it up, now.

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