Toronto 2011: Docs in Brief, Part One

I returned from the Toronto International Film Festival on Wednesday after just five nights, and while I didn’t see nearly as many of the fest’s 38 feature docs as I’d hoped to, I saw enough to fill a couple of posts here. I hope to see a few films I missed at the New York Film Festival, including PARADISE LOST 3: PURGATORY (since it will feature the new ending), CRAZY HORSE (I liked the hour I managed to see, though a conflict meant I couldn’t view the whole film), PINA (which I’ve now missed at multiple fests), and THIS IS NOT A FILM. Others, I hope to catch up at other events like DOC NYC, Stranger Than Fiction, or various other fests over the next several months, especially GIRL MODEL (I’ve seen many cuts, but never the final version), LAST CALL AT THE OASIS, THE ISLAND PRESIDENT, and PINK RIBBONS INC. That said, among the docs I viewed are:

One year after CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS screened at Toronto, Werner Herzog is already back with his new doc (pictured above), a rumination on life and death centered around the story of a triple homicide in Texas. Herzog speaks to the perpetrators and survivors related to the case, apparently committed in order to steal a car and cover up the theft. Michael James Perry received a death sentence, while Jason Burkett, after a heartfelt plea from his incarcerated father, ended up with a life sentence instead. Upsetting a conventional approach to films about convicts, Herzog doesn’t dwell on their protestations of innocence to try to prove any miscarriage of justice. He simply wants to gain a sense of the men’s characters and the ways prison life, and, in Perry’s case, an impending execution date, has on them. Dealing in part with the Huntsville TX “Walls” prison unit, where executions are carried out, the film covers some of the same ground as Steve James and Peter Gilbert’s AT THE DEATH HOUSE DOOR with regard to the emotional and moral impact of witnessing capital punishment. Even without appearing on camera, however, Herzog brings his own signature to the film, asking unusual questions and making odd observations which end up providing poignancy and revelation. His best interviews arguably are not Perry and Burkett, but the latter’s repentant father and oddball wife, who met and married Burkett after his incarceration.

I previously wrote about Gary Hustwit’s third film in his design trilogy while it was in production here. Expanding the design-focused outlook of his previous films, which explored a font and everyday objects, Hustwit’s newest takes a mind-expanding macro level to consider cities through city planning and the ways individuals interact with the urban environment. Criss-crossing the globe, Hustwit provides case studies demonstrating the unique challenges that have faced a number of cities both in the past and, vitally, heading into the future, as projections indicate that the next 40 years will see a dramatic rise in urban dwellers around the world. The film is most thought-provoking when it details concrete examples of positive or negative planning, such as Bogota’s creation of a traffic congestion-reducing bus system or, Brasilia’s impractical yet aesthetically pleasing architecture. Less effective is a sequence that shows how a public street art project helped to reduce electricity usage on a single street in Brighton – despite the positive impact, this seems to broaden the film’s focus too far away from the kinds of large scale planning considered in the rest of the film.

Screening in the festival’s Canada First! section, Brian M Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky’s haunting and at times unexpectedly funny verité film sadly might have been overlooked by doc fans who are used to Thom Powers’ Real to Reel selections. Beautifully photographed and set in a stark nursing home for the elderly and disabled, the film captures snippets of the lives of various residents and caretakers. Aside from occasional, knowing commentary by a middle-aged patient named Jim, the audience is left to learn what they can through observation. Most of this is in the form of brief snapshots of daily routines – visits from family members, nurses dispensing medication, and, most affecting, patients with dementia wandering the halls, unable to understand where they are and when they’re leaving. What mitigates this from being unbearably depressing are moments of dark humor – not only in Jim’s bemused recitation of facts about fellow patients and of the institution and its surroundings (its lovely hillscape is actually transformed landfill, perhaps underscoring the ways the residents have also been tossed away?), but also absurd sequences with residents at which audiences can’t help but laugh, even if you feel guilty for doing so. One patient pleads to her roommate, “Gimme a sip of coffee” over and over. Denied, her perseveration shifts to refrains of “I hope you choke on it. Amen.” While the film will be tough-going for some, others will find much to appreciate in getting a glimpse of individuals most would rather forget, and impending mortality that most would rather ignore.

Bill Duke and D Channsin Berry take on the taboo topic of colorism – a prejudice against darker skin – within the Black community, and the consequences to self-worth and community. While they briefly address the disturbing popularity of skin-whitening creams and treatments outside of African-American communities, particularly in Asia, the film overwhelmingly focuses on Black women. The omission of a consideration of the ways colorism might affect Black men is unfortunate; while they are interviewed, they opine only on their preference for lighter- or darker-skinned women, not on how their own skin color has been perceived. Then again, the film’s title explicitly references women, so despite my curiosity about the impact on male self-esteem, this can be set aside. Overall, the film is a bit too scattered and cursory to be wholly successful, but it does offer food for thought. Personal reflections on skin-tone bias should have the most impact here for both people of color and for white audiences, and the latter should come away with another example of the damaging legacy of slavery and how it continues to create division within communities and even within families.

I’m decidedly not a fan of this pseudo-doc. I previously wrote about it out of Karlovy Vary back in July here. Avoid.


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Filed under Documentary, Film, Film Festivals, In Brief

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