TORONTO 2001: Carving out a Niche; Docs Strive to Steal Away Fiction Auds
by Sarah Keenlyside
(indieWIRE/ 09.10.01) — Tony Zierra‘s Toronto world premiere film “Carving Out Our Name,” featuring Wes Bentley, Greg Fawcett, Chad Lindberg, and Brad Rowe, will not get any of these young men an Oscar nomination for best actor. Or a Golden Globe, for that matter. That’s because they’re not acting in this feature-length documentary, a five-year-in-the-making account of these roommates’ efforts to break into the biz (and reach self-actualization in the process).
Zierra and three of his ‘cast’ members (Fawcett, Bentley, and Bentley’s infinitely likeable girlfriend Jenny Quanz) seemed excited and confident about Monday night’s debut screening when we met at their hotel last Saturday. “I’ve watched a lot of documentaries,” Bentley explains, “and Tony did something really, really amazing with this film. It’s very different.” Says Zierra, who has yet to sign with a distributor for the doc, “The film is about what really matters: why you get up every morning, why you have friends, what really counts.” He adds, “You’re not going to fall asleep during this film.”
In fact, I have yet to see a real snoozer in the whole 2001 Real to Reel lineup. With such a quality program, it would seem like a simple task to fill seats for doc screenings, however, the name “Toronto International Film Festival” is not exactly synonymous with “documentary” for the majority of the film-going public.
It wasn’t until 1999 that the festival asserted a real commitment to its documentary program by hiring Real to Reel’s first programmer and expanding the number of films in the program (9 docs were screened in 1998; that number grew to 18 the following year). The challenge for docmakers and for Real to Reel programmer Sean Farnel is to be heard amidst the din of the festival’s fiction-frenzied environment.
This year, Farnel says he has increased efforts towards raising community awareness about the program and its films. “We’re getting out to groups in the community,” he notes, “and saying, ‘We have this film that you might be interested in.'”
In the case of films like Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson‘s “Facing the Music,” a film that deals with funding cuts to the music program in a Sydney, Australia school, Farnel reached out to music organizations and to teachers in hopes that they would connect with the subject matter. For “How’s Your News?,” directed by Arthur Bradford, a surprisingly upbeat and engaging doc about a group of disabled individuals who voyage across America reporting their version of the ‘news,’ Farnel contacted groups that work with people living with such disabilities. After the film’s first screening on Friday (to a full house) the audience went crazy with applause — evidence that Farnel’s outreach efforts might be working.
There is also the possibility that certain documentaries will break out and gain widespread public and commercial attention at the festival. Toronto has helped launch a number of big documentaries over the years, including 1994’s “Crumb” (Terry Zwigoff) and Michael Moore‘s 1989 box office success “Roger and Me” (still one of the highest grossing docs of all time). Last year’s festival offered up such goodies as Mark Lewis‘ delectable “The Natural History of the Chicken,” and David Shapiro and Laurie Gwen Shapiro‘s “Keep the River on Your Right, A Modern Cannibal Tale.”
“Toronto really is the key kick off point for a feature documentary’s entry into the potential market for a commercial world release,” says Vikram Jayanti, producer of last year’s TIFF favorite “The Man Who Bought Mustique,” and director of this year’s “James Ellroy’s Feast of Death.” The recipe for a successful doc is not an easy or a sure thing to pinpoint and probably lies not only in the film’s ability to deliver information, but also to stimulate, engage and entertain. In “James Ellroy,” Jayanti elegantly weaves fragments of Ellroy’s writings, conversations and photographs (shot beautifully on DV and 35mm) to reveal the persona, obsessions and psyche of America’s most notorious crime writer.
Jayanti explains that he believes that entertainment is the best means to communicate a message. “Walter Benjamin, the German critic, pointed out the difference between the language of information and the language of experience,” the director says. “I think that people go into documentary expecting things to be delivered in the language of information. When you give them a film that enables them to experience something then they react to it as though it’s a good movie.” Also, like many good movies, the doc has a rich, dark and emotive musical score that sweeps throughout the film.
Star power can’t hurt a doc either, as non-fiction is a genre that is decidedly devoid of star power. “I think Ellroy has about 10 million readers,” Jayanti explains, “and he’s not just a successful writer, he’s also got a public persona that makes him really fascinating to the public. People know James Ellroy is not an ordinary writer; he’s mad. He’s a fabulous gonzo character.”
Another example from the festival is Michael Rubbo‘s “Much Ado About Something,” which takes an extraordinary approach to a very familiar household name. The film examines the mysterious lives of playwrights William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe and suggests that Marlowe faked his own death, went into exile and wrote all the plays that were attributed to Shakespeare. Examining the mystery with the help of several eccentric and amusing characters, and structuring the film around the filmmaker’s own developing opinions about the mystery, Rubbo crafts a story that is playful and entertains as well as informs.
George Ratliff‘s “Hell House,” as well, explores a bizarre, and to some, disturbing tradition at a Cedar Hills, Texas Christian School. Every year at Halloween, the school’s faculty and some of the students construct an elaborate haunted house with horrifying scenes of youth violence, drug abuse, abortion and suicide designed to curb any youngster’s interest in what these Christians believe to be the dark side. The film is cleverly structured around the pre-production of the house, which is as elaborate as a Broadway musical, and as gory as a Wes Craven slasher film. We are taken through casting calls, readings, construction and set dressing and are then finally treated to the final shocking production.
On a more somber note, Lourdes Portillo‘s “Missing Young Woman” (“Senorita Extraviada“) digs deeply into issues of corrupt government, abuse of police power, the occult, rape and murder as she recounts the gruesome history of a Mexican city where more than 400 women have been murdered since 1993. Without sensationalizing the material, or pushing it into bathos, the director crafts a fascinating history of the crimes.
But no matter what the film is like, it won’t go anywhere unless the right eyeballs see it, and Toronto is one place where that is likely to happen. “There’s that possibility to have some access to that crossover distribution,” says Farnel. “All the major companies are here. And if they hear something about a film, they do check them out. Last year we had a lot of interest from some of the key distributors and I hope this year there is going to be a few big sales among the documentaries.” “Certainly,” adds Farnel with a solid dose of optimism, “the potential is there.”
[Sarah Keenlyside is a freelance writer and documentary junkie living in Vancouver, B.C.]