Toronto 2012: Docs in Brief, Part One

Though the Toronto International Film Festival won’t wrap up until Sunday, I’m already back in NYC – and fairly exhausted from the five nights spent at one of the largest film events in the world. Still, it’s time to share my thoughts on the documentaries I managed to see – not quite half of the nearly fifty on offer. Sadly, scheduling didn’t permit me to see a number of titles that I was eagerly anticipating, such as Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s LEVIATHAN, Seán Ó Cualáin’s MEN AT LUNCH, Dror Moreh’s THE GATEKEEPERS, and Sarah Polley’s STORIES WE TELL, but I’m sure I’ll have opportunities to catch up with these in the coming months.

Yesterday, Movieline published my article looking at various uses of re-enactments in a number of TIFF docs, including ones I also include below. Here at w(n)td, this post, and one on Monday, offer more general reactions, covering both the films in that article and others viewed during TIFF.

If there was one film at Toronto that I found myself referring to in almost every conversation, it was Joshua Oppenheimer’s unsettling exploration of Indonesia’s bloody past (pictured above). Working with co-director Christine Cynn and other collaborators (anonymous for fear of reprisal, given the subject matter), Oppenheimer befriended former paramilitary leaders, who boast about being “gangsters” – though they often refer to the term’s Indonesian meaning of “free men,” so there may be a sociolinguist subtlety that’s lost here. What’s not subtle is that these men, led by Anwar Congo, killed more than a million people beginning in 1965, and they’re more than happy to re-enact some of these executions for the camera, having long idolized images of cinematic villains. While this forthrightness may seem surprising, it’s made clear that individuals like Anwar are heroes in Indonesia, having saved the country from supposed Communist infiltration, still guarded against a half century later by ardent young paramilitaries they’ve inspired. What is perhaps more shocking is that it appears the cumulative effect of re-engaging so directly with their past deeds results in some soul-searching, at least for some of the participants. The deliberately provocative film, executive produced by Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, has proven divisive, with serious questions of documentary ethics posed by the traumatic nature of its re-enactments. As I noted to colleagues, it’s not a film that I could describe as “liking,” exactly, but it’s one that absolutely should be seen.

If Oppenheimer’s film is a portrait of the perpetrators of violence and oppression, Marc Wiese’s hones in their victims. Shin Dong-huyk’s birthplace was in North Korea – which one would think is punishment enough, subject to the whims of a brutal dictatorship – but he had the additional misfortune of being born in a labor camp. For the first two decades of his life, all he knew of the world was the titular location, and its harsh rules and punishments. After meeting a fellow prisoner who had experienced the outside world, he begins to dream of a life outside of the confines of the prison camp – though when he manages to escape, the act doesn’t come without a tragic price. Shin relates his own story, with former camp guards revealing further details, effectively incorporating animation to provide audiences with an immersive experience of the walking death experienced by the protagonist for so long. While the film is a bit slow at times, it retains its power in showing the resilience of the human spirit despite the lasting scars of Shin’s horrific upbringing.

North Korea is also the setting of José Luis García’s personal portrait. Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Argentine director found himself attending a communist youth festival in North Korea, in his brother’s place. An outsider to both the country and the cause, he recorded the various activities with curiosity, especially the unlikely emergence of a young South Korean university student. Lim Su-kyung, nicknamed “The Flower of Reunification,” became a darling of the festival, and promised to cross the border at Pyongyang as a political statement to bring the split nation back together again. More than two decades later, García travels to South Korea, having tracked down Lim, now a university professor, to get the rest of her story begun in his 1989 footage – but she may not be that interested in sharing it. I’ve often criticized docs in which the filmmaker becomes a character, and some of my concerns hold true with this project. The early North Korean section could work without knowing much, if anything, about García, offering a privileged glimpse at propaganda and youthful idealism. The present-day section, however, moves beyond biography – if it were a simple recounting of Lim’s life, there honestly wouldn’t be much there, given her resistance. But for me, the interest doesn’t come from the meta-question of whether or not García will get what he wants so he can finish his film – instead it comes from cultural misunderstandings, the import García attaches to Lim, and her ambivalence in dealing with the curious foreigner. While I still feel the balance between Lim and García isn’t quite right, the project as a whole succeeds.

Another TIFF film explores a more well-known revolutionary symbol embroiled in controversy. Shola Lynch’s potent exploration of Angela Davis focuses on the radical activist’s time as a fugitive from so-called justice, in hiding in 1970 to escape trumped-up charges stemming from her affiliation with the Communist Party and the Black Panthers. Perhaps the most satisfying doc at the festival, the film works as both a biography as well as an indictment of the institutionalized racism that served to silence political debate and undercut the transformative potential of the Black Power movement and other similar minority-led initiatives. New interviews with Davis, family, and associates, provide space for contemporary reflection on the pivotal moment in Davis’ life – one that captured international attention – but the immediacy of the archival footage demonstrates the real power here, tapping into the societal upheaval of the time. Although Davis’ fate in many ways seems to have hinged on good timing – the unrelated abolishment of the death penalty while Davis waited for her trial opened the door for her to be released on bail, galvanizing support and imparting on her an air of freedom and innocence – the audience feels a palpable, invigorating sense of justice being served when she is ultimately exonerated, making this carefully constructed film an immensely satisfying viewing experience.

A legal case is also at the heart of this film, director Marina Zenovich’s follow up to her acclaimed 2008 doc, ROMAN POLANSKI: WANTED AND DESIRED. Like other recent docs BIG BOYS GONE BANANAS*! and GRANITO, Zenovich’s new film investigates the unexpected real world impact of her previous film, which offered a provocative re-examination of the infamous 1977 statutory rape case against the acclaimed director, and, surprisingly, spurred on the authorities to arrest Polanski a year after the film’s debut. Documenting both the implication of her film in the case, and the new developments which found Polanski threatened with extradition from Switzerland to the US, Zenovich investigates how this unexpected turn of events was ultimately orchestrated – following a trail that involves not only her film, but secret Swiss banking, of all things. A situation where self-referential filmmaking is decidedly warranted, Zenovich’s film furthers the conversation around an already complex and contentious case, offering new insight into the ways celebrity, media, and politics continue to intersect to seemingly no one’s ultimate benefit.

The criminal justice system is also found wanting in Ken Burns, David McMahon, and Sarah Burns documentary, based on the latter’s book investigating the media firestorm around the so-called Central Park jogger rape that took place in 1989. Within days of the brutal attack on a white woman, Antron McCray, Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Korey Wise, and Yusef Salaam – five black and Latino teens – were already arrested and charged. At their trials, the only real evidence against them were their own confessions – yet, in 2002, the confession of an unrelated man ultimately exonerated all five – to relatively little media attention. Interviews with the defendants reveal the role police interrogation played in garnering their false confessions, while archival footage and other commentators note how the police, and, in fact, virtually the entire city of New York, quickly turned on the innocent young men despite no other evidence linking them to the crime. A sobering indictment of racism and classism, one hopes this compelling film generates even a fraction of the outrage leveled against the defendants which resulted in the loss of their freedom.

This film about a Klansman and the civil rights era, is, of course, also about race. Screening once as part of Toronto’s Docs Conference, Paul Saltzman’s revisits themes from his previous film, PROM NIGHT IN MISSISSIPPI, returning to the same state to confront Byron “Delay” De La Beckwith – a man who once assaulted Saltzman when the latter was organizing black voter registration in the early 1960s, and the son of convicted killer of civil rights activist Medgar Evers. The majority of the film consists of technically basic, sit down interviews between the two men – at times, Saltzman employs a split screen, providing the viewer with both men’s reactions – though animated sequences occasionally serve to illustrate past episodes related by both Saltzman and other civil rights activists like Harry Belafonte. Given the set up, the most astonishing aspect to the interaction between Saltzman and Beckwith is its warmth – despite holding on to his beliefs, the Southerner seems tickled to have a chance to chat with the filmmaker. While one might think Southern hospitality could only go so far, it never feels that Beckwith is playing to the camera to project some sanitized version of himself. The viewer doesn’t want to like him – and, in fact, questions whether finding him affable somehow tacitly forgives his ignorant and harmful stance – yet you almost can’t help finding the interplay between the two men charming, and, in the case of Beckwith, strangely refreshing – willing to speak openly about his prejudices rather than insidiously hide them behind political correctness.

Treva Wurmfeld trains her camera on another pair of men in this engaging portrait of Sam Shepard and his best friend Johnny Dark. Meeting in Greenwich Village in the 1960s, they eventually became family – Shepard marrying the daughter of Dark’s wife – and lived together communally for years until the playwright/actor left to begin his relationship with Jessica Lange – essentially abandoning his son to be raised by Dark. Over the course of more than forty years, the two men have kept in close contact, and the film begins as they attempt to sort through their copious correspondence for a book. The process naturally lends itself to a reflection on the past, but one filtered through this intimate relationship – oddly notable in that it’s simply a story of male friendship, a topic that rarely receives this kind of treatment. Refreshingly, there’s no rivalry for the same love interest or career, or a clandestine homosexual relationship – nothing like that. They experience conflict, of course, but at the heart of the film is the undeniable affection each has for one another.

If Wurmfield adroitly captures male friendship, Nina Davenport manages to do the same for its female equivalent in this personal chronicle of single motherhood. The New Yorker has crossed into her forties and decides to pay heed to her biological clock before it winds down for good – that she doesn’t have a partner offers a few complications, but they’re not insurmountable. Sperm comes from her gay best friend, Eric, who insists he’s not interested in being “daddy” to her offspring – so Nina finds a surrogate birth partner in best friend Amy. While Nina deals with a lot through the course of the film – NYC dating (including an extended on-screen relationship with film critic John Anderson), the death of her mother, and her father’s disapproval – perhaps the biggest draw is the complex rapport between Nina and Amy. It may not be the exclusive focus of the doc, but their friendship – and Amy’s embracing of the birth partner role – is fascinating to watch. Coming close behind is Nina’s at times heartbreaking interactions with her father, who semi-jokingly screams “Call the abortionist!” when she reveals she’s pregnant, and seems to take pleasure in pointing out how Nina’s career path pales in comparison to her brothers’ more economically lucrative professions.


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Filed under Documentary, Film, Film Festivals, In Brief, Recommendations

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