One of the more purely entertaining docs at TIFF this year was “Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films,” partly because it featured nudity, sex and break-dancing. But among the points it makes is that the shameless cheese factory that was Cannon consistently made movies that were shadows of other movies. Chuck Norris’ “Missing in Action” recalled Sylvester Stallone’s “Rambo”; “King Solomon’s Mines” wanted to be “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” “Death Wish II” and III, and IV, were dying to be “Death Wish,” etc., etc.
The 2014 TIFF documentaries, for all their socially progressive virtues and occasionally virtuosic flourishes, echoed other movies, too – unavoidably, in some instances. There are only so many ways you can go with a certain topic; and if you’re selling ideas, style often gets in the way.
While all docs are, with any luck, about ideas, some require a filmmaker to create a movie out of whole cloth. Robbie Kenner’s (“Food Inc.”) “Merchants of Doubt,” for instance, is not about a race-car driver or high-wire walker, but rather the selling to Americans, by the filthy rich, on the belief that global warming is a myth, or a theory, or a leftist conspiracy. Since it’s impossible to take a camera inside the fetid minds of the Koch brothers, Kenner has to create a visual world of deception through oblique representation. This he did wonderfully well, through animation, testimony, archival footage and catalogue’s worth of professional liars.
Conversely, Marah Strauch, director of the audience-ready “Sunshine Superman,” was given something as close to a key to her subject’s mind as a director could possibly hope for. Pioneering BASE jumper and bona-fide film nut Carl Boenish shot everything he ever did, it seems, and the footage is exhilarating, perhaps stomach-churning, but is the kind of thing that could not and should not be recreated, any more than one could clone the race scenes in “Senna” (the closest example to what Strauch had at her disposal). Virtually anything can be done on a computer, of course, but “Sunshine Superman” is not just a period piece, but an anti-computer, anti-FX, anti-recreation movie (even though Strauch recreates a few moments herself). It reflects Boenish’s ethics as a cameraman, and a documentarian, and as such is about getting to the visual truth — the best route to which is usually the simplest.
Few docs were more simply constructed than Ethan Hawke’s “Seymour: An Introduction,” which has nothing to do with the Salinger novella from which it steals its title and everything to do with film portraiture of the purest sort. The Seymour in question is Seymour Bernstein, a pianist and, more importantly, a piano teacher, who among the New York musical cognoscenti enjoys a lama-like stature and mythic reputation at the keyboard. If there was anything Hawke’s movie needed it was less Hawke: His two appearances feel like intrusions and are, as such, a contradiction of the very message of the film: That even as retiring and unassuming a character as Bernstein is worthy of a film, if one knows enough about one’s subject, values it, and can capture it honestly.
“Seymour” is a one-off, of course: Few filmmakers have the kind of personal relationship with their subject that Hawke has with Bernstein. An anomaly of a different sort is Lixin Fan’s “I Am Here,” which provides not just insight into the ravenous hunger for celebrity that infects every culture, but the CHINESE hunger for celebrity, which – given the numbers – has to be of proportionately greater intensity than anywhere on earth.
At the center of the film is the competition to appear on “Super Boy,” China’s “American Idol,” to which tens of thousands apply, and on which 10 contestants actually appear. Fan, director of the monumental “Last Train Home” and a producer of Yung Chang’s “Up the Yangtze,” creates a problem for his viewer: You’re so distracted wondering how he got what he got, you’re not paying attention to what he got, which is naked ambition, cruelty, and a westernized Hollywood ethos with Chinese accents, which are always a highly unusual hybrid of the militarized and the whiny.
TIFF programs very few docs relatively speaking, and is not averse to programming the obvious (and, in this case, worthy): Martin Scorsese, Frederick Wiseman and Joshua Oppenheimer — who may not rank as an old master yet, but is on his way – were all at TIFF, with “The 50-Year Argument,” “National Gallery” and “The Look of Silence,” respectively.
But they will all be in the New York Film Festival, which is where they will be seen by us. In New York, we won’t see — but are glad we caught here — “Red Army,” about the colossal Russian hockey team of the ‘70s and ‘80s and one of the more enjoyable docs at TIFF; “This Is My Land,” an important, topical and dispiriting look at what young Israelis and Palestinians are being taught about each other; and Jonathan Nossiter’s “Natural Resistance,” which picks up where the ex-pat director and wine expert left off with “Mondovino” (2004), this time using Italy as a platform to not just applaud the upholding of critical traditions in winemaking, but to decry the world’s passive acceptance of the mediocre. Conformity is the enemy, Nossiter states, which is a message that can applied to various aspects of modern life, including documentaries.