Despite spending the majority of my time taking in fiction films at this year’s Toronto Film Festival, I did make plenty of time to see some of the good work that Thom Powers assembled in the festival’s non-fiction program. This year’s crop of docs (at least the ones I saw) was remarkably consistent, featuring relatively conventional storytelling but some amazing stories. In that respect, I was a little disappointed that, after a year which saw the visual storytelling in documentaries achieve new heights (and I am thinking here of films like About A Son, Zoo, The Unforeseen and Into Great Silence etc., all of which were visually stunning), most of the non-fiction films I did see at Toronto seemed more interested in telling their stories in a palatable way than re-imagining the form. If Errol Morris’ influence is the reigning sensibility in the best new documentary features (again, a film like Manda Bala seems a direct descendant of Morris’ style), his influence was nearly-absent from the films I saw in Toronto. Which is not to say that “direct cinema” ruled the roost either; Most of the films I saw followed a tried and true formula and, while their stories delivered the goods (for the most part), many films’ formal limitations prevented them from becoming something greater. I have already talked about Callas Assoluta, which allowed Callas’ gifts to triumph over some of the movie’s limitations, and that dichotomy seemed to me to be at the heart of most of the non-fiction films I saw.
I don’t mean to protest too much, as the movies were very good in and of themselves, but didn’t 2007 to this point feel like we were on the verge of a non-fiction sea change, where documentaries were giving us more poetry than most of the fiction films we saw? Take a movie like Neil Ortenberg and Daniel O’Connor’s Obscene, which tells the story of Barney Rosset, who bought a small publishing company called Grove Press and turned it into a champion of modernism in literature. The story is fascinating, full of the greatest literary characters of the second half of the twentieth century (Samuel Beckett, Henry Miller, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsburg, etc.) while simultaneously a riches to rags story that refuses to be played as a cautionary tale. Ortenberg and O’Connor were given access to great material, including the 8mm and 16mm footage that Rosset has been shooting since his childhood and the pair tell the story well. Visually, however, the film never treads into the territory of he innovation and modernism that embody Rosset’s life’s work, instead limiting the story to an orthodox, chronological summary of what happened. I liked this movie a lot, especially because I believe so strongly in Rosset’s principled stance that adults should be able to make up their own minds about what books they read and images they care to take in. I also enjoyed seeing the period footage of some of my favorite writers and I think the directors did an admirable job of capturing the spirit of the times; It’s a movie I would be proud to show to an audience. The film’s highlight (and anchor) is an interview on Screw Magazine founder Al Goldstein’s Midnight Blue public access TV show, and while this footage is perfectly integrated into the movie, I felt it could use an extra “oomph” that more concern about the visual strategy (and the better integration of some of the film’s talking heads in to the movie’s storyline) might have delivered.
Howling: Grove Press Author Allen Ginsberg Gives A Reading
Doug Pray’s Surfwise is a sun-drenched portrait of the nine children (eight boys and one girl) and two parents that make up the Paskowitz family. Living in an RV on the beach and surfing their the days away in the golden sun of the 1970’s, the family ends up fractured and scarred by their collective experience. Keeping track of the myriad of characters is well handled, and their story, much like that of Barney Rosset’s, is a phenomenal tale of living an unconventional life for all of the right reasons (and with the best of intentions). Pray had access to some great archival footage as well (the family competed in several surfing competitions, winning seemingly at will) and the film is a moving story of time conspiring with action to heal old wounds. Living outside “the system” includes never going to school, sleeping like “puppies” in a cramped RV while mom and dad work on their reproductive prowess in the bed above, eating healthy all the time and working out family problems in a manner that has more in common with Lord Of The Flies than The Brady Bunch. Pray interviews the adult children and their parents and their romantic understanding of their collective childhood experience is conveyed with the same conviction as their resentments and frustrations. In that way, the Paskowitz family is pretty much like any other in the world. But the film stood out as one of the best in the festival, a sort of Crazy Love as a family’s social experiment gone awry.
In terms of political documentaries, I did see five films that I found to be provocative. I don’t have time to talk about all of them, but I did want to discuss Kevin Macdonald’s My Enemy’s Enemy, which is the story of how the CIA and the US government worked with the Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie in post-war Europe and Bolivia to destabilize leftist movements throughout the world. An unrepentant Nazi who advised the Bolivian government on the torture of union organizers, leftist political figures and unsympathetic journalists, Barbie’s post-war crimes were as audacious as his wartime reputation as The Butcher of Lyon would suggest. Of the four political films, this was my favorite because of its clarity of purpose and the clear-eyed interviews with former CIA agents (whose nonchalant attitudes about Barbie are deeply disturbing) and those who knew and worked with (and against) Barbie. The movie’s sense of outrage is muted a little by Barbie’s story, which is so insidious and shadowy that the movie raises more goosebumps than eyebrows. The cowering, blank-eyed elderly man who is finally tried in France for his vicious repression of the Resistance is proof that terror is often embodied in the most benign-looking among us.
I also saw Barbet Schroeder’s Terror’s Advocate which I found to be absolutely infuriating, not because of the film making, but because of the subject (and isn’t that the point?). Jacques Vergès is not so much a civil libertarian in his approach as he is a moral apologist for his incredibly unpopular clients (who included Klaus Barbie, another cinematic rhyme at the festival). His arguments do not seek to propose the innocence of his clients but rather to equivocate his client’s actions with those of the deeply hypocritical institutions that are trying a the cases. So, instead of showing how, say, an Algerian who bombed a civilian nightclub as an act of revolution against the French state is not guilty of her crimes, Vergès argues that blowing up a civilian nightclub is an equivalent and therefore justifiable response to the colonial situation. While he may be right in principle, his approach to these cases comes off (to my mind) as childish gamesmanship instead of a principled, engaging stance against a corrupt system, and that approach was both fascinating and infuriating. It also feels deeply dismissive of the victims of his client’s actions, relegating their suffering to the status of collateral damage in the war of ideas. But can two wrongs ever make a right? Schroeder for his part only covers the biographical highlights, forsaking an in depth look at Vergès’ cases in favor of his personality and history. So, we never see him defending the butchering dictators of Africa or Slobodan Milosevic or even discussing their cases. Instead, Schroeder literally flies through Vergès’ life, using shorthand (A man named ‘Carlos’ in passing ends up being noted terrorist Carlos The Jackal, etc) to describe the biggest moments in the man’s career. Pay attention, or you’ll miss something, and you won’t want to miss anything.
The lawyer Jacques Vergès
Two of the five films focused on Africa; Darfur Now which, despite its best intentions, plays more like an activist recruitment tape that one would show to wealthy potential donors than a detailed telling of the story of Darfur, and The Dictator Hunter which focuses on a human rights lawyer seeking to bring the Chadian dictator Hissène Habré to justice after his exile in Senegal. While an impassioned look at the almost hopeless process of trying to bring a former head of state to justice, the film also focuses rather narrowly on the personal life and dilemmas of its subject, the human rights lawyer Reed Brody. While his drive, dedication and passion to see justice done are a powerful statement about what is required to even have a chance at seeing the dictator forced to answer for his crimes, the film also spends a little too much time on Brody’s personal life, from his separation from his family to his decision to either join the U.N. as an attorney or stay put with Human Rights Watch and see the case against Habré through. We hear far too little from the victims of Habré’s regime (one subject, who works on the case and lives in New York is someone of whom I would have liked to have seen more) or from Chadians living under the cloud Habré’s regime left behind. Instead, Brody’s constant proclamations that the case against Habré “would be impossible without me” and scenes of his dogged determination (which equates to little more than showing up at the appointed times to make pronouncements) are the only frame of reference we’re given; We only get one glimpse at the actual process for hearing Habré’s case, and that moment leads to a differed decision, leaving the quest for justice (and the film) in an unresolved limbo. Again, a good movie, but it feels like there is so much more to say.
Finally, I would be remiss without commenting on the delightful Herzog-lite of Encounters At The End Of The World, which features beautiful cinematography and one of the great voice-over narrations in recent documentary film. Herzog is utterly hilarious in his questioning of the inhabitants of Antarctica, and his impressions of the footage that he assembled has the benefit of being simultaneously haunting and funny; A stand-out moment features a lone penguin, racing inland toward the continent’s mountains with his wings spread as if he were embracing some invisible force, as he is headed for a certain death. Herzog interprets the act as one of “madness”, as if the penguin were consciously rejecting the monotony and conformity of life among the penguin colony. Brilliant. That said, some of the grand themes and formal conceits that made films like Fata Morgana and Lessons Of Darkness so beautiful and so haunting are absent here, replaced by a pithy, humorous narration that feels more like the travelogue of a curious and cranky uncle than a profound statement on the human condition. Which is fine; Not every film needs to be equally profound. Instead, Herzog puts on his entertainer’s cap once again; With Grizzly Man, Rescue Dawn and now Encounters At The End Of The World (I’ll keep The Wild Blue Yonder out of this generalization), Herzog is moving closer and closer to becoming a populist of the highest order. I think his career is entering a new phase, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him produce a big box-office hit sometime soon.
Antarctic Tale: Werner Herzog’s Encounters At The End Of The World
I’m home in Brooklyn finally, and Toronto was a terrific kick-off to the year. Congratulations to the Programmers, staff and volunteers for once again making the festival a very special event. I’m taking a couple of days off, and then I’m headed to the IFP Market and the New York Film Festival’s Press screenings, which begin in earnest on Monday with The Diving Bell And The Butterfly. No rest for the wicked, I guess. Here’s to the continuation of a great season.