Toronto 2012: Documentary Overview

In one week, the 37th edition of the Toronto International Film Festival begins, drawing hundreds of thousands of attendees to what is, for many, the true start of awards season. Annually screening close to 300 features, the majority world or international premieres, TIFF provides attendees with an advance look at some of the most eagerly-anticipated titles of the Fall.

I’ll be at the festival for its first half, hoping to see some of the buzzed about fiction offerings, but TIFF’s bounty of non-fiction programming will no doubt dominate my schedule. There are significantly more feature-length docs in the program this year – last year saw just under 40, while this year’s count is closer to 50, not including a few hybrids and retro screenings. Of these, more than half are part of the fest’s dedicated non-fiction section, TIFF Docs (formerly Real to Reel), programmed by Thom Powers, with the remainder represented across a variety of other fest sections.

TIFF Docs includes quite a few new films from established filmmakers, as well as projects focusing on very recognizable subjects. Among these, I’m most interested in Ken Burns’ THE CENTRAL PARK FIVE, about the infamous “Central Park Jogger” rape case; MEA MAXIMA CULPA: SILENCE IN THE HOUSE OF GOD (pictured), Alex Gibney’s tackling of the cover up of pedophilia in the Catholic Church; the Adrien Grenier-produced HOW TO MAKE MONEY SELLING DRUGS, by Matthew Cooke, a satirical look at the failings of America’s drug policies; and Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, and Anonymous’ THE ACT OF KILLING, executive produced by Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, in which former death squad leaders re-enact their murders a la Hollywood. Two other notable documentarians present work-in-progress clips as part of the TIFF Docs Conference: Yung Chang (UP THE YANGTZE) previews THE FRUIT HUNTERS, on people obsessed with exotic fruits; and Patrick Reed (TRIAGE) offers a sneak peek at FIGHT LIKE SOLDIERS, DIE LIKE CHILDREN, on Roméo Dallaire’s exploration of the practice of recruiting child soldiers in parts of Africa.

Famous subjects abound in TIFF Docs’ ARTIFACT, directed by “Bartholomew Cubbins” aka Jared Leto, following his band’s battle with their record label; Snoop Dogg’s spiritual transformation into Snoop Lion is the subject of Andy Capper’s REINCARNATED; Marina Zenovich follows up on her previous subject in ROMAN POLANSKI: ODD MAN OUT; and Treva Wurmfeld explores male friendship in her portrait of Sam Shepard and Johnny Dark in SHEPARD & DARK (pictured).

Other titles in Powers’ section that I’m looking forward to seeing include the already buzzed about THE GATEKEEPERS, acquired by Sony Pictures Classics, Dror Moreh’s interviews with the former heads of Israel’s intelligence agency; Marc Wiese’s CAMP 14: TOTAL CONTROL ZONE, about a man who spent the first twenty years of his life in a North Korean labor camp; José Luis García’s THE GIRL FROM THE SOUTH, a search for a peace activist who set out to cross from North Korea to South Korea in hopes of reunifying the country; Janet Tobias’ NO PLACE ON EARTH, the untold story of Ukrainian Jews who escaped certain death by living in caves during WWII; Dan Setton’s STATE 194, following Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayaad’s efforts to gain UN recognition for his nation; THE LAST WHITE KNIGHT, in which director Paul Saltzman confronts the KKK member who once assaulted him during his days as a Civil Rights activist; Sean O Cualain’s MEN AT LUNCH (pictured), the behind-the-scenes look at an iconic 1932 photograph; and THE SECRET DISCO REVOLUTION, Jamie Kastner’s history and appreciation for the ’70s music genre.

Outside of TIFF Docs, the highest profile section of the fest, Gala Presentations, includes two non-fiction films from familiar filmmakers: LOVE, MARILYN, Oscar-nominated director Liz Garbus’ exhumation of Marilyn Monroe’s never-before seen personal writings; and FREE ANGELA & ALL POLITICAL PRISONERS (pictured), Shola Lynch’s profile of the iconic Angela Davis. Of the three documentaries appearing in the festival’s Special Presentations, Spike Lee’s paean to Michael Jackson, BAD 25; Maiken Baird and Michelle Major’s VENUS AND SERENA, which follows the tennis legends over a tumultuous year; and Sarah Polley’s STORIES WE TELL, I’m most interested in the latter, the actress/writer/director’s first doc, which explores a family’s shared but contradictory memories.

The Masters section offers just one documentary, by Canadian Peter Mettler, THE END OF TIME (pictured), presenting a globe-spanning series of varying perspectives on the concept of time, while Mavericks offers five docs, accompanied by extended post-screening conversations with filmmakers and their subjects. I’d like to check out Sophie Fiennes’ follow up to THE PERVERT’S GUIDE TO CINEMA, THE PERVERT’S GUIDE TO IDEOLOGY, also focused on the inimitable Slavoj Žižek. Also included in this section are Sundance alum WEST OF MEMPHIS and the premiere of the newest AMERICAN MASTERS bio, INVENTING DAVID GEFFEN.

The festival’s semi-experimental section, Wavelengths, also includes five non-fiction pieces – six if you count Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s hybrid featurette MEKONG HOTEL – including Sundance alum BESTIAIRE. Of these, I’m especially eager to see Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s LEVIATHAN (pictured), a mindblowing view of commercial fishing by one of the directors of the stunning SWEETGRASS. Also high on my list are Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s THE LEBANESE ROCKET SOCIETY, on the long-forgotten efforts of a group of Beirut academics to bring Lebanon into the space race; and THREE SISTERS, Wang Bing’s observational portrait of a modest rural family living in the mountains of a remote Chinese province.

Tucked away in the TIFF Cinematheque section as part of a program featuring the restored version of Roberto Rossellini’s STROMBOLI is Francesco Patierno’s doc featurette THE WAR OF THE VOLCANOES: BERGMAN AND MAGNANI, in which Rossellini’s jilted ex, Anna Magnani, and his new love, Ingrid Bergman, star in separate films, both shooting on the Aeolian Islands. Finally, the Vanguard section – screening “what’s next” – features just one doc, but it’s one of my favorites of the year, Sundance alum ROOM 237, which has had high profile festival berths since Park City, including Cannes, Karlovy Vary, and the upcoming New York Film Festival.

1 Comment

Filed under Documentary, Film, Film Festivals, Overviews

One response to “Toronto 2012: Documentary Overview

  1. christine davila

    Act of Killing sounds soooo intriguing! If you get a chance to watch would love to hear your thoughts!

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