Category Archives: Documentary

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.

The Truth about Killer Robots – Director, Maxim Pozdorovkin

Unfortunately, this was likely the poorest film of the week so far. While I love documentaries, I have to admit this one seemed to get lost in its topic. There is no question that robotics poses many problems for us. Not only are militaries looking at actual killer robots to use in combat, we are faced with robots killing jobs and even killing human to human contact. Even the robots that are designed to help may kill us through poor design or malfunction. The movie tries to address all these themes but really offers no coherent approach or offer any kind of solution. Going in I was aware of the military threat, the end of jobs for taxi drivers, truck drivers, and many service and manufacturing jobs. I was hoping to see some direction forward. None is really offered, and the film also does a mediocre job of describing the problem. If you have concerns in regard to the whole area of robots and robotics I would suggest you turn to some recent alternatives. I can recommend the following as a start: Terminator, Alien, Aliens, Minority Report, Ex Machina, and of course 2001 – “I’m afraid I can’t do that Dave….”

American Dharma – Director, Errol Morris

Errol Morris has made some amazing and important documentaries that have focussed on some of the most evil people in American government. Two of my favourites are The Fog of War which is an interview with Robert McNamara and The Known Unknowns, an interview with Donald Rumsfeld. In both these films Morris does not directly confront the subjects about their crimes but rather let the men hang themselves with their own words. He tries the same tactic with Bannon but perhaps to a somewhat less successful outcome. While all these men are very smart and defend their actions with smooth words and eloquence, Bannon is perhaps the most devious and satanic of the three. Some of those who saw the film with me were disappointed that Morris was not more confrontational, but I am not so sure that would have worked and Bannon would likely not have made the film. We do however get great insight to a man who sought to twist the American electorate and successfully steered Trump to victory in 2016. He manages in the film to hide the reality of his far-right agenda while arguing he is for the little guy, the traditional American middle-class worker but I think the film does expose him as the evil that he is. The two earlier films were done as straightforward interviews but his one plays with Bannon’s love of classic war films including Gregory Peck in Twelve O’Clock High and Alec Guinness in The Bridge over the River Kwai. In fact the setting for the interview is a Quonset Hut like the ones in Twelve O’Clock High. We also learn that Bannon is very well educated and quotes Lucifer from Paradise Lost, and Falstaff from Henry V. He does however misinterpret their roles and speeches to justify his own worldview. He is clearly very intelligent and I think believes he has turned the film into a tribute to himself. It is not however and while you do want to jump up and punch him in the face, I think Morris has given us an important portrait of a man who has hurt American badly and who is now trying to do the same to Europe. His impact is not over and maybe this film was made a bit too early to sum up his career as did Morris’s earlier portraits of McNamara and Rumsfeld, but things move more quickly these days and it good to know your enemy. Worth a look this one.

Fahrenheit 11/9 – Director, Michael Moore

My second day at TIFF ended with Michael Moore’s latest film which I think may well be his best yet (although Roger and Me remains a classic). The title if it is not obvious is a play on the title of his previous film Fahrenheit 9/11 and instead of referring to a terrorist attack it refers to the day after Trump was elected president in 2016. It is a long movie but you will not be bored. He starts with what got Trump into the presidential race mostly by accident and not to win but soon saw how he could actually become “King of the world”. The opening sequence ends with Trump’s inauguration and Moore’s narration:

“How the Fuck did we get here?”

Moore was one of the few to predict Trump could win the election in 2016 and he is also the one who called out the lie about weapons of mass destruction that got the US into unending war in the Middle East. For all of this he was dismissed as alarmist… but he was right. In this film he points out that Trump can easily win the mid-terms and win the presidency in 2020. We need to pay attention. But the film is not just about Donald Trump and his insane antics. Moore sees Trump as a symptom of a much deeper and far more dangerous trend in American politics and society. He returns to Flint, Michigan this time to address the lead poisoning crisis and the role of the Republican Governor in making the changes that resulted in poisoning thousands, mostly black and poor citizens in Flint. The decision was made to support the Governor’s business partners taking over the water supply as well as privatizing other municipal services. Moore goes on to show that the problem in Flint is still not resolved and was in fact allowed to continue even by President Obama who came to help but simply confirmed the Governor in his cover-up and lies. It was shocking, and many black voters were disappointed and abandoned the electoral system, the Democrats and Hillary Clinton in 2016. Moore does not pull any punches and points to how from Reagan to Obama the trend to Trump was clear and that Americans should not be surprised. It has been a trend to compromise, relying on old time political machines that rely on capitalist right wing funders and less and less on ordinary citizens. Democrats are just Republicans with a different name. He points to the withdrawal of nearly half of eligible voters in the US to even become engaged in elections or political discourse. (see Monrovia, Indiana).

While Moore does point to some hopeful signs in the recent primaries leading to this year’s mid-term elections, he is not hopeful. The film ends with Moore drawing a clear connection between Trump’s rise to power and Adolf Hitler. This is a comparison that many have dismissed or called over the top, but it is a trend I completely agree with and Moore is very convincing. There is literally no difference between Trump or other populist politicians and Hitler’s own rise to power in the 1930’s. Moore’s call is for people to become engaged in political discourse and elections. He is very worried that his call to arms will be ignored or countered by the incumbents who have their hands on the levers of power. The film is major warning to us all, not only Americans, and sadly it is not a hopeful film. This is Moore’s best movie yet and very important for everyone to see. Oscar is in his future I hope.

To demonstrate that America is not the only democracy at threat I will return to one story in Moore’s film. The Flint water crisis started with a decision to declare a false emergency and fire the elected municipal governments in Michigan’s five largest cities and replace them with unelected administrators giving Governor Snyder the means to implement privatization of services. This led in turn to the decision to change Flint’s water supply and the resulting poisoning. My reaction was to look to our own Doug Ford and his interference in Toronto’s civic election. I worry that if Toronto elects the wrong mayor or too many left-wing councillors Ford will decide to do the same here. Given Ford’s recent behaviour this is not beyond thinking and is certainly within his power to do. As Moore notes let us not be distracted by Trump and impeachment but understand that Trump reflects a systematic threat to our democracies that must be addressed.

Monrovia, Indiana – Director, Frederick Wiseman


Monrovia, Indiana is a 2 ½ hour trip to small town rural middle America. You spend your time looking in on high school classes, local bars and eateries, the veterinarian, tattoo shop, hair dresser, local town council meetings and farm work listening to the people and what is top of mind for them on any given day or moment. All these scenes are interspersed with absolutely beautiful images of the countryside, the endless horizon and the clouds in the sky.  There is absolutely no political talk at all despite this film being shot in 2016-17. I am not sure how many readers are fans of Frederick Wiseman documentaries. They can be challenging to watch but worth the effort as he has documented aspects of our culture and society in great detail while letting them speak for themselves. The films are long and there is no narration but only the voices and images of the people and things he is observing. Of course, how he edits and structures the films also sends a message. We were lucky to have him present for a Q and A after this showing and it added a lot to understanding the film and his glimpse into the daily lives of people living in Monrovia. While Indiana voted Trump and Monrovia is as white a community as one could find anywhere, I went expecting to hear the voices of outrage and to understand who people could vote the way they did. Instead I got a look into a community completely preoccupied with their daily lives, people discussing their health or lack thereof, local sports, getting their hair done, very local community issues like where the fire hydrants are and are they working, and… nothing more. The major political statement if there was one to be found was that no one even thinks about national politics or really about very much beyond the town borders. One of the longer and more revealing scenes was a tour of the local high school looking at pictures of football and basketball teams from decades past and graduating classes from the 1920’s and 30’s. We then listen in to a teacher giving a lecture to a class about the proud tradition of sports in the community including former Monrovians who made it to the NBA, state championships etc. During the Q and A Wiseman was asked to tell us what subject the class portrayed in the segment were studying. He responded, “Well that was a history class. Couldn’t you tell?” Enough said.

Wiseman spent 10 weeks in the town filming and he told us politics never came up. And that sums up Monrovia and maybe sadly much of US society in a nutshell. I would guess most of the people we saw know nothing about what is going on Washington and the world and could care less. Given the state of US politics today one can see that there is no way to explain what is happening without including the lives and actions of the people in towns like Monrovia all over the US. It was an revealing introduction to middle America which was then to be followed by going off to see Michael Moore’s latest film Fahrenheit 11/9 and the different message he had for his audience. My guess however is that Michael Moore documentaries do not play in Monrovia.

Sharkwater Extinction – Director, Rob Stewart

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After seeing Fall of the American Empire this documentary was an entirely different experience. I confess that I have not see Rob Stewart’s other films of which Sharkwater, released in 2006, is the most well known. The latter film was instrumental in an international banning of hunting sharks for Shark Fin Soup – a Chinese delicacy — which was resulting in the mass slaughter of sharks worldwide. While the original film had an enormous impact, the killing of sharks continues today not only for soup but for a variety of other uses including shark meat sold as other fish products like tuna and swordfish, pet food, and even cosmetics. 150 million sharks are killed each year illegally and sharks are facing extinction. While Stewart focussed his films on shark hunting he had a much larger agenda. Driving animals to extinction, he points out, destroys the environment and sharks are not the only victims of human destructiveness. The problem is that humans also depend on a stable and balanced environment and our actions are leading to our own demise. The film is powerful statement, but the emotional impact of the film is tied also the director who died during the filming, suffocating while diving to shoot scenes. Rob Stewart is a Toronto native and his parents undertook to complete this film as a tribute to their son and his work. They were present at the premiere and gave a powerful introduction. One can only imagine how difficult this project was for them since Rob, their son, appears in nearly every scene of the documentary. I would recommend this film to everyone and Stewart’s other films which I will be seeking out shortly. The message is critical.

On a political note, the film was funded in part by an Ontario government grant through an agency called Ontario Creates. The current minister in charge was asked to address the audience even though the Ford government had nothing to do with the film or the grant or the agency. She brought greetings from the government and particularly Doug Ford. When Ford’s name was mentioned there were some groans and boos from the audience although muted in respect for Rob Stewart’s parents I suspect. I really wondered at the lack of thought that went into inviting the minister to speak. Here was a film about the damage we are doing to the environment, the need to change our ways and greetings are invited from a government that totally denies there is any problem and who are doing all they can to move in the direct opposite direction from Rob Stewart. Also given the record of this government one wonders how long Ontario Creates will have any money to support any films or other cultural activities other than labels for Buck-a-Beer cans.

Strong Island – Director, Yance Ford

An very unsettling documentary about racism in the US. The documentary revolves around the murder of a young black man, a murder that is never prosecuted as Grand Jury determined no crime had been committed. It was reminiscent of the Colton Bushie trial here recently. The story is however more complex. It is narrated by the young man’s sister who is trying to figure out why there was never any prosecution but in the course of the telling we are taken deeply into the place of blacks in contemporary US society. Set in New York City we learn that segregation and hatred are still rampant and barely concealed. We also learn about the impact of the murder on the man’s family; the personal impact that would be true of any family to which a similar event occurred. It is hard not to identify with the narrator, her mother and the other family members. It is powerfully filmed putting the narrators and other members telling the story in the centre of the screen and close up. The images of the site of the killing, the home of the family are filmed in the same manner as if standing witness themselves. While this is an important film, the style is such that after a while one becomes beaten down by the story and its unrelenting tragedy. I am not sure this is a good way to address this important issue but one cannot avoid the impact and sadly what seems the hopelessness of this family’s situation and by extension the situation of many black Americans. A good chance this wins the Oscar.