Category Archives: Documentary

Letter to the Editor – Director, Alan Berliner

Well this was my last film of the festival and sadly it was the absolute worst. Avoid this film at all costs. Alan Berliner makes very personal documentaries many of which have received awards but most of which are films I would have zero interest. I really don’t need to gain insight into the personality of the film maker or his views or prejudices. This documentary was billed as being about the end of newspapers and was to focus on the New York Times (NYT) as an example. I was intrigued but as the film starts you realize this is a documentary about Berliner’s collection of photographs he has cut out of the NYT over the last 40 years. It is sort of weird that he did this and catalogued them under multiple categories but nonetheless he really could have done something better with the movie. The 1.5 hour film is almost entirely made up of these images – hundreds of them – with Berliner talking over them about almost anything that came to mind, like how he experienced tear gas exposure personally and advice on how to cope if you are, to food choices to occasionally something about the NYT. It was boring to the max. It also contained all sorts of sound bites he has also collected which were unrelated to the photographs for the most part and mostly were really irritating. For example he had several – well many pictures of people screaming. So of course, these were accompanied by the sound of people screaming. It was loud, annoying, unannounced and in some cases prolonged. It was so loud and irritating that I had to cover my ears. I hope you are getting the message – don’t watch this movie ever.

The Laundromat – Director, Steven Soderbergh

Like Jojo Rabbit this film has been somewhat polarizing in the critic world. With a 50% rating on Rottentomatoes one would think this is not worth seeing but I would beg to differ. The reviews of the critics are either very pro or very con and not much in between. I found the same to be true of the critical response to Jojo Rabbit. The division comes down to whether or not you feel satire is an okay response to events that have caused great harm or are undeniably evil. Fair comment but I think one needs to be more nuanced about the message. While the Nazis who are mocked in Jojo Rabbit might rightly be called the epitome of evil the film was intended as a warning to us all about how easily populist movements like Nazism and leaders like Hitler can rise to power.   In the case of The Laundromat Soderbergh has taken a satirical approach to the release of the Panama Papers that exposed a small part of the international financial structures that allow the very rich to hide their wealth and avoid taxes. The ease by which money laundering is done and tolerated was well known but the Panama Papers made it very transparent for a brief time and represented only a small part of the overall problem. I am not sure how else one can take on this story without being satirical. The docudrama approach is narrated by Jurgen Mossack and Ramon Fonseca of the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca and played by Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas. Meryl Streep is a recurring character who has been impacted by the international money laundering scheme after she is denied an insurance settlement after her husband is killed in a boating accident. She continues to pursue the people behind the scam.

The reality is that this scheme has had impact on ordinary people but the real crime is tax avoidance and the impact that has on the those of us who do pay our fair share. The people who fall with the release of the Panama Papers are very wealthy or well connected politically. The film uses a series of stories about individuals to highlight the nature of the financial scams but the point at the end is that despite the revelations nothing has really been done to resolve the problem and only a handful of very wealthy people were forced to resign their jobs or suffered financial ruin. Mossack and Fonseca themselves spent only 3 months in prison for their actions and continue to do the work they always did. I thought Oldman and Banderas did a great job of putting it in our faces. The scene where they are released from prison is great satire as they mock the viewer. Personally I would take issue with the critics that say the crimes were treated lightly by this film. Satire is all we have left when nothing of substance as been done to address the issues and I was definitely left angry at the lack of reform but got to at least cheer Meryl Streep at the end. I can’t tell you why I cheered or I would spoil the end but I will put myself in the positive column and urge you to see this film. It’s a Netflix production so should show up on your app soon.

The Art of Museums – Musée d’Orsay & Uffizi Gallery – Directors, Julie Kirchhoff, Sylvie Kürsten, Ralf Pleger, Kurt Mayer

Took a break from TIFF to go the Hot Docs cinema and see part of a remarkable German TV documentary series. We saw two episodes from the series which highlights some of the world’s great art museums with a focus on some selected works they exhibit. Each episode is an hour and is hosted by a really bright and funny British art historian and academic. He hosts from a darkened production room with multiple video screens that reminds you of something like the Tardis from Dr. Who. Meanwhile you are entertained with great video of the museums and the artwork they contain described by a host who is present and takes you to their favourite paintings or sculptures and give their reasons for liking them. The hosts are not artists or art experts but rather from other artistic fields. In the case of these two episodes a modern dance choreographer for the Musee d’Orsay and at The Uffizi a fashion designer. The descriptions are therefore more about how the art impacts the viewer rather than a boring art lesson. The series looks at the museums themselves and their history and design and rather than looking at all the amazing art contained within we look in detail at a handful of great works. I really enjoyed the two episodes and look forward to the whole series being more generally available on one streaming service or another. If you enjoy museums and art keep you eyes open at the Hot Docs schedule for further episodes.

Once We Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band – Director, Daniel Roher

I love The Band and have listened to their music for years. Not long before Levon Helm passed away he did a concert tour and I saw him perform at Massey Hall in one of the best concerts I have ever attended so I had to see this documentary. It is notable in that it is the first Canadian documentary to be named the opening gala at TIFF and perhaps more so because the director is a young 26-year-old Canadian. Quite an accomplishment for someone starting out on their career. All that said I must say I did not think this movie was spectacular or worthy of its place in the festival. It is a pretty ordinary documentary about a remarkable rock band. One of the weaknesses might be that it is based on Robbie Robertson’s book: Testimony so it is very much a film about his career as a member of The Band and his memories of the members and its history. It is no secret that the group broke up after 16 years together and that Helm was extremely angry with Robertson as evidenced in his book: This Wheel’s on Fire. I think I hoped for a more objective doc about The Band and its rise and fall. Instead we get a very focussed look from Robertson’s perspective.

That was my disappointment, but the film does go into depth about The Band’s origins in Canada and the role that Ronnie Hawkins played in bringing the group together. It also puts real emphasis on the initial closeness of the members – hence the title—and how that influenced the unique sound they created. I also learned more about their personal struggles than I cared to know including drug addiction, car wrecks and health issues I did not need to know. I think my favourite member of the group after Levon was Garth Hudson who was much older than the others and the quietest. I did not learn enough, and the director was asked about that in the Q and A after the film. He did interview Hudson but said that the interview was cut because of Hudson’s age, describing him as quite elderly and that the interview did not work. This I guess contributed to what I found missing from the film. Again, Roher defended this by saying that he was hired to do a film about Robertson and his career which is fair enough but if you choose to see the film be aware that you will be looking through Robertson’s eyes. On the plus side you will see some amazing classic footage from the years they all lived in Woodstock in a house that is called Big Pink, from concerts and from archival interviews with the members and others like Eric Clapton and Bruce Springsteen among others. All very interesting. So the bottom line is that if you are a fan of The Band you should likely try to see this movie but I suspect you will be left thirsting for more.

Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles – Director, Max Lewkowicz

Okay it’s the day before TIFF actually starts but I nonetheless took in a great documentary at the Hot Docs cinema. I confess that I really enjoy books and films that describe how movies or plays were created and presented. Two of my favourite books are Jaws: Memories from Martha’s Vineyard by Matt Taylor and We’ll Always Have Casablanca: The Life, Legend, and Afterlife of Hollywood’s Most Beloved Movie by Noah Isenberg. This time I saw a movie that falls into the same category as these books. I confess I am not a huge musical fan although I have developed a taste for older musicals like Oklahoma and West Side Story. I should thank the Stratford Festival for drawing me in. Fiddler on the Roof is not one that I have really liked but this documentary made me pay attention. The musical is based on Sholem Aleichem’s stories about the lives of the Jewish population in eastern Europe at the turn of the 20th century. Not a good time for the Jews who suffered poverty and persecution. To make a musical about this time and these events is likely not the first thing to come to mind but the composers, lyricists, producers and directors who have undertaken this task are portrayed and interviewed particularly those who put together the first production in the 1960’s. The people include the producer Harold Prince, the director and choreographer Jerome Robbins and the composers, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick. Happily many of the original people involved are still with us and made for great interviews. I learned a great deal about Jerome Robbins I did not know and I learned a great deal about how a Broadway Show gets put together and staged successfully.

The show has been in continuous production for over 50 years not only on Broadway but in such disparate locations as Korea and Japan. It has been cast with all black cast members, and of course in schools and festivals like Stratford. The documentary shows us that the theme of the film – Tradition – and the suffering and struggles of these Jews are universal themes that speak to all cultures and communities.  It includes film from productions all over the world but what is really cool for Canadians is that they return again and again to a classic production in Stratford.

I thoroughly enjoyed the movie and recommend it anyone with an interest in film or theatre. You will learn a lot and not be disappointed whether you like musicals or not.

RBG – Directors, Betsy West and Judy Cohen

Ruth Bader Ginsberg is an octogenarian Supreme Court Justice and is part of the diminished left-wing vote on the Court. She was appointed to the court by Bill Clinton in 1993 and has been a force for justice in the US for a quarter century and is seemingly hanging on to prevent any further appointments of ultra right-wing judges like Gorsuch and Kavanaugh. This documentary takes us through her long career as a lawyer and advocate for gender equality. She was supported by her husband as her career took off and she is highly respected even by her opponents for her intellect and strength. She has survived three battles with cancer and the passing of her husband and when she can finally retire hopefully in 2020 when Trump goes down to humiliating defeat, she will be remembered for being one of the most important Supreme Court justices ever. This documentary of her life is moving and informative at the same time. We know very little about most of the supreme court justices in the US but they carry immense power. The loss of RBG will be devastating to the politics in the US should she not survive Trump. Let’s keep our fingers crossed. While I confess that there are few documentaries I don’t like, I still recommend this film very much to everyone with an interest in American politics and in the remarkable contribution this woman has made to her country.

Anthropocene – Directors, Jennifer Baichwal, Nicholas De Pencier, Edward Burtynsky

Anthropocene is a stunningly beautiful look at how humans are destroying the environment and the planet to the point that we have established a new geological epoch  named after ourselves to follow the recent Holocene epoch that nurtured modern human evolution and civilization . Edward Burtynsky and Jennifer Baichwal are a Canadian photographer and filmmaker who have worked together on other projects including a great NFB film Watermark. Burtynsky is an excellent photographer who pushes the limits of the art and Baichwal adds to the photography with equally stunning film. The message of the film is clear. We are destroying the planet and all that lives here including ourselves. However rather than pontificate and scold or guilt trip the viewer we are shown the impact we are having in many different ways with images and verbal descriptions. The hope is that once we see what we are doing we will be motivated to act. There is no particular plot to describe or argument per se. Instead I encourage you to see this film and if you are in Toronto in the next few months go see the AGO exhibit before it closes in January. The film manages to be both scary and beautiful at the same time. You will be hypnotized by the film of burning elephant tusks, the seemingly endless coal train moving off into the distance, the trip down the longest tunnel in the world and the giant machines that seem to be literally eating the planet. The images will stay with you for a long time.

My Generation – Director, David Batty

I love my documentaries and this one I recommend to everyone who at one time thought you could not trust anyone over 30. Although it is somewhat self-indulgent, Michael Caine narrates a trip through the 60’s. I am a sucker for Caine’s accent and delivery, so I was hooked from the start. There are interviews with Roger Daltry, Paul McCartney, Marianne Faithful, Mary Quant and Twiggy among others. We don’t see them as they are today but there is all kinds of archival footage of them from the time. If you can’t guess from the list of names this movie focusses on London of the 60’s which in many ways was the centre of popular culture of the time and avoids for the most part the nasty sides of things like Vietnam, the civil rights movement, and student and youth unrest but it does have a totally awesome soundtrack and great scenes from the time including a very very young Mick Jagger and the Stones, scenes of the Beatles at the Cavern nightclub and the wonderful street scenes all accompanied by Caine’s cockney accent. We also get some great scenes from his movies of the time including Alfie, The Ipcress File, Zulu and such. I learned some very interesting things, like how Michael Caine chose his screen name (He was born Maurice Joseph Micklewhite), and that Mary Quant invented the mini-skirt.
If you are up for a nostalgia trip this is all for you and there is some coherence. As a review in Variety puts it the film has three parts: the rise of the 60’s revolt against the mores of the previous decade, its flourishing and its decline as the 70’s close in. Still this is a movie about Michael Caine’s experience of the time in which he was a player but one very much connected to times and the people. Do not look for deep insight or critical analysis but have fun.

What is Democracy – Director, Astra Taylor

This is a documentary that deals exactly with what the title says. It explores what we mean by democracy now and what it has meant in the past. It looks at how fragile democracy has been and continues to be and draws on Greek philosophy – Plato, Renaissance and Enlightenment thinkers – Rousseau and modern political thinkers – Cornell West. The director told us at the start that the film originated four years ago before Trump or Doug Ford or other more recent troubling anti-democratic leaders, but serendipitously it was released at a time when we are all thinking about the state of our democratic institutions and how they are threatened. She also told us up front that she does not have the answers to where we are headed or how to preserve our democracy, but she does want to challenge us to think about what democracy really is and not take it all for granted. The film is not perfect, but I attended with a very politically engaged friend and afterwards we had much to talk about so, despite its flaws, I would say this is a very important film that raises many questions we need to consider as we confront our current situation. I fear I might enter into a long and tedious academic paper here, so I will wind up with a brief description of the thesis of the film. What is shown clearly is that we do not all share the same idea of democracy. Some see it as justice, others as personal freedom, some as socialist or communitarian action. We don’t all agree about who gets to participate, how we should be governed, or what needs to to be done to preserve whatever democracy we decide to implement. Plato argued, and Cornell West agreed, that democracy has within it the seeds of its own downfall. The trick is to see and understand that and find ways to preserve it. How we define it and how we preserve it is up to us, but it is clearly under threat and how we respond in the next short while will be critical to whether or not we continue to see ourselves as living in democracy. The director is writing a companion book that will delve into these themes in more depth and the film will be used by her and her colleagues to continue the conversation over the next several months. On a final note the film was funded primarily by our own National Film Board and that made me proud.

What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? – Director, Roberto Minervini

I chose this film late in the process as I was free on the morning in question. I decided to take a chance as I have, in the past, stayed away from the Wavelengths program at TIFF. This category of films is described as: Daring, visionary and autonomous voices. Works that expand our notion of the moving image. I think I will continue to avoid these films. I am always cautious of film descriptions that suggest the film will be “challenging” or “daring” etc. and I should continue to follow my own advice. This film is a trip into a black community in the US that has been traumatized by a recent killing of a local by suspected KKK members but suffers from many aspects of racism and poverty. We are treated to endless talk by citizens in meetings, door to door talks and other events with absolutely no focus or perspective. I finally had to leave because the film was going no where with dealing with the issues or themes and had literally no structure. No question it was depressing and troubling, but I did not find it challenging or daring just confused. Sorry Wavelengths I will not be back.