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TORONTO ’99 ON THE SCENE: Nothing Personal: Toronto’s Diverse Documentaries

TORONTO '99 ON THE SCENE: Nothing Personal: Toronto's Diverse Documentaries

TORONTO '99 ON THE SCENE: Nothing Personal: Toronto's Diverse Documentaries

by Patricia Thomson

Maybe it’s because the Canadians have lost patience with American
navel-gazing. Whatever the reason, the genre of personal diary film, so
popular below the border in recent years, is conspicuously absent here
in Toronto — and it’s been that way for some time. So just what kind of
documentaries do the Canuck festival programmers favor? There’s no
simple answer, for the line-up is a wildly assorted lot. But the
following gives an idea of the various stylistic approaches on view.

The End Run

About as close as one gets to a personal doc is “Juan, I Forgot I Don’t
,” by Mexican director Juan Carlos Rulfo. But this film is done
with a clear difference. As the director pursues memories of his father,
an acclaimed Mexican writer and poet, he keeps himself out of the
picture entirely. There’s no chronicle of the process, no personal
voiceover, no shots of Rulfo heading to the southern state of Jalisco
and interviewing wizened old friends about his father.

There are only answers — in a sense. The twist is, many of these
sun-weathered oldsters just don’t remember much anymore. They do,
however, come out with all other kinds of recollections and songs, both
bawdy and sentimental, on love and life in the old days. It gradually
becomes clear that these village elders are the focus of Rulfo’s poetic,
elliptical film, which slowly weaves an enchanting tapestry of
landscape, lyrics, and elusive memory.

The Illustrated Lecture

It’s still around — that old way of getting your point across by
coupling visuals with an authoritative baritone voiceover. “Homo Sapiens
” takes this approach to the nth degree; there is, in fact, no voice
but that of the narrator. No doubt that made it easier on the producers,
who created both a French and an English version. But it makes it sheer
drudgery for the audience, despite the inherently interesting topic:
eugenics, or “race hygiene.” For those who think the Nazis dreamed up
this idea, Peter Cohen‘s film neatly dispels this illusion, tracing
eugenics back to turn-of-the-century scientists in Germany, Sweden, and
the good ol’ USA. (Long Island housed an institute supporting eugenics
research, and compulsory sterilization laws were enacted in 20 states by
the jazz age.) Factually, “Homo Sapiens 1900” is an eye-opener, but
stylistically, it’s a snooze.

The Oral History Today

Those (like me) who walked into the screening of “Just Watch Me: Trudeau
and the ’70s Generation
” thinking this doc would be about Gary Trudeau,
creator of Doonesbury, were way off track. This Trudeau was Pierre,
prime minister of Canada from the time LBJ stepped into office ’til
Reagan’s second term. I’m glad I stayed, for this film was one of the
best of the fest.

Making her directorial debut, Catherine Annau takes a complicated
political topic — Trudeau’s effort to stave off Quebec’s secessionist
movement by turning Canada into a bilingual country — then immediately
personalizes it by thrusting us deep into the lives of eight people who
were affected by Trudeau’s social programs. (“Smoke Signals” actor and
medical student Evan Adams is one of them.) Now in their 30’s, each was
irrevocably altered by the language exchange program created for French
and Anglo teens — meeting lovers and spouses, choosing careers and
places to call home. Through their voices, Annau effectively shows how
national and personal identity commingle. Her subjects’ humor and
passion, as well as the film’s great visual flair and energy, add up to
a surprisingly universal and entertaining doc.

Rock Doc Lives

Is Jason Priestly a groupie? Giddy with laughter during his press
conference with “Barenaked Ladies,” he certainly seemed their most
appreciative audience. Turns out the “Beverly Hills 90210” alum and the boys in the band
are long-time buddies from Canada. When hanging out on their tour
bus, Priestly hit on the idea of documenting the group’s antics. While
he’d already taken several spins behind the camera for TV series and
music videos, this time he had visions of the silver screen dancing in
his head and employed six cameras, a crane, a steadicam, and super 16
stock for the concert footage. “I wanted to shoot a film,” he says,
caressing the word. While traditional in every way and none too deep,
this rock doc fortunately has as its subjects a group that’s funny,
ironic, and engaging, both on stage and off. If the 3.5 million fans who
bought their latest CD line up for tickets, “Barenaked in America
should do just fine in theaters.

Being There

A number of other films also enter the world of their subjects, but only
go so far. Katya Bankowsky‘s look at women boxers, “Shadow Boxing,”
shows what it takes to become a world champ as it trails Lucia Rijker on
her way to the top, but it rarely strays outside the ring to other
aspects of her life. Jesper Jargil‘s “The Humiliated” is a fascinating
verité portrait of Lars von Trier as he shoots “The Idiots” and is
nicely fleshed out by von Trier’s audio diary, but it, too, draws its
boundaries narrowly. Likewise Zhang Yuan‘s “Crazy English” effectively
captures the exuberance and unorthodox ideas of its subject, English
teacher Li Yang, but confines itself to his public
performances-cum-classes and interviews with the press.

One film that still manages to go beyond the single dimension is Chris
‘s “American Movie,” a portrait of Mark Borchardt. A long-haired,
loquacious, working-class dude from Milwaukee who makes cheesy horror
films, Borchardt is an easy target. But Smith takes us into all the
nooks and crannies of his life, and in so doing shows a fully-rounded
character who ultimately earns our respect as he pursues his dream with
humor, unflagging energy, and a minimum of hysterics. In both respects,
“American Movie” provides a lesson for every filmmaker.

[Patricia Thomson is Editor in Chief of The Independent Film & Video

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